The Pittsburgh Steelers will return to Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday for the Wild Card round of the playoffs — just three weeks after suffering a thorough 36-10 defeat to a shorthanded Kansas City Chiefs team.
The Steelers entered the last weekend of the NFL season with only a slim chance of making the playoffs — that is, until they defeated the Baltimore Ravens, there was an unfathomable Jacksonville Jaguars upset of the Indianapolis Colts and an end-of-overtime Las Vegas Raiders field goal that prevented a tie with the Los Angeles Chargers. All of those things combined to give them the AFC’s No. 7 postseason seed.
Few analysts expect this week’s matchup to go differently, evidenced by the Steelers entering the week as a 13-point underdog. Curiously, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did little to counter that narrative, portraying a carefree week of preparation going into what may be the last game of his Hall of Fame career.
“We probably are not a very good football team,” Roethlisberger acknowledged to reporters on Wednesday. “Out of 14 teams I think are in, we’re probably No. 14. We’re double-digit underdogs in the playoffs. So, let’s just go play, have fun, and see what happens.
“I know they’re [the Chiefs] not the No. 1 seed, obviously, but they’re the No. 1 team that has won the AFC the last two years — arguably the best team in football. We don’t have a chance, so let’s just go play and have fun.”
Against Kansas City three weeks ago, Roethlisberger passed for only 159 yards before being pulled so Mason Rudolph could finish the game. His third pass attempt of the contest was intercepted by Chiefs cornerback Charvarius Ward — setting up a Patrick Mahomes touchdown pass that made the score 14-0. And prior to leaving the game, he lost a fumble on a strip-sack by Chiefs defensive tackle Tershawn Wharton.
While Roethlisberger’s defeatist tone can probably be chalked up to gamesmanship, it’s hard to find an example of this tactic in sports history. His head coach and teammates displayed a more traditional spin in their pregame comments.
“We laid an egg,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said of his team’s Week 16 loss when he talked with Kansas City media. “We laid an egg from a planning standpoint; we laid an egg from a playing standpoint. We own that.”
In his weekly press conference with the Pittsburgh media, Tomlin showed a hopeful tone about the rematch.
“They handled us and handled us definitively,” Tomlin admitted. “We understand that. At the same time, we’re not paralyzed by that. We accept that we didn’t play well enough, we accept that we didn’t plan well enough.
“We’ve got to be better this time than the last time we saw them.”
While Roethlisberger and Tomlin were subdued in their remarks, wide receiver Diontae Johnson held nothing back about his enthusiasm for Sunday. Johnson — who fumbled on the Steelers’ first second-half possession to set up Mahomes’ third touchdown pass that made the score 30-0 — had a bold message for doubting fans and media.
“People are expecting us to go out there and have another tough loss like that,” Johnson claimed. “That’s what they expect; they don’t expect us to come back with a better plan.
“I like being in this situation because — once we win — don’t try to hop back on the bandwagon. Remember all that stuff you’re saying now. I’m just going to leave it like that.”