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The Chiefs’ turnaround against the Steelers was built on third-down plays

The offense started slow during Sunday’s Wild Card game — but success on third down turned the game into a rout.

NFL: AFC Wild Card Playoffs-Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Chiefs know that they will go as deeply into the postseason as their offense will take them. Going into each game, having quarterback Patrick Mahomes lead an offense with a stable offensive line — and Pro Bowl playmakers like Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill — is a distinct advantage.

That’s what made the first 20 minutes of Kansas City’s 42-21 Wild Card victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night so frustrating. Three of the team’s first five drives ended in punts — and the other two ended in turnovers.

“I think we were all pissed off at ourselves,” confessed Mahomes after the game. “We felt like we weren’t playing with enough energy. We felt like we weren’t executing at a high-enough level — and not playing with enough urgency.”

Even though the Chiefs lead the league in third-down efficiency, they have been near the bottom of the league in converting third-and-long situations — exactly how those three drives ending in punts came to a close; Kansas City failed on third downs with eight, six and eight yards to go.

“We’ve got to start faster. We’ve got to be able to move the ball early on,” said Kelce, who couldn’t bring in either of his two targets during those failed drives. “It’s just as an offense, we got to be able to capitalize and make sure that we’re putting up points early — to just make sure that we give ourselves a chance at the end.”

After a Darrell Williams fumble that Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt scooped up and scored, the offense had to turn it on. And when they need to do that, the Chiefs lean on Mahomes.

“When somebody is hanging their head or moping around, that’s never a positive thing — especially if you’re in a leadership position,” said head coach Andy Reid. “[Mahomes] never goes that direction. So the thing that’s so great about him is that he doesn’t let things get to him. He just keeps firing when needed, keeps leading all the time — even when things aren’t working well for him or for somebody else. He’s got an innate ability to lead other guys — and they’re willing to listen to him.”

NFL: AFC Wild Card Playoffs-Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

After the turnover, that leadership was just what was needed. Mahomes led a nine-play, 76-yard drive that ended with a four-yard inside screen to running back Jerick McKinnon for a touchdown. After the slow start, it looked like the Chiefs’ offense had finally identified how the Pittsburgh defense wanted to attack.

“We saw the different coverages that they were playing,” recalled Mahomes. “We kind of settled into how we are going to attack it. They were rolling different coverages, trying to change up the looks [on] a lot of zone pressures and then dropping back into either man or zone places. And so we did a great job of figuring that out — and then executing the rest of the game.”

On their next drive, the Chiefs drove the length of the field — only to get to another third-and-long at the Steelers’ 12-yard line. But after Mahomes executed a highlight-worthy pump fake, wide receiver Byron Pringle was open on the double move to the corner of the end zone. The Chiefs took a 14-7 lead — and never looked back.

On the next Chiefs possession, they had only a minute to get into scoring position before the half. After a couple of chunk plays, the Chiefs found themselves in another third-and-long situation. This time, Mahomes created a better throwing angle to hit Kelce, who scored on a 48-yard reception right before halftime.

“It’s pretty cool when you have guys that are just making plays — and your a little checkdown route to Kelce runs for like 40 yards,” said Mahomes. “Then you kind of get the momentum going — and you’ve got guys that when they get one-on-one, they’re scoring touchdowns. It’s a great feeling as a quarterback, because when you look at the guys that you kind of want to throw it to — and they’re wide open — all you do is make the throw and let him make the catch.”

Five different Kansas City players scored on Sunday night. The touchdowns came on all kinds of plays, including designed plays from McKinnon, Mahomes and Kelce creating out of structure to score on a deep shot and Reid just letting the team be creative — which resulted in a touchdown reception to offensive lineman Nick Allegretti and a Pringle touchdown pass thrown by Kelce.

But the Chiefs’ ability to convert third-and-long situations that extended drives leading to touchdowns is a major reason the game was well in hand by the third quarter. Despite the slow start, the Kansas City offense ended the game converting eight of 12 third-down situations — including seven straight in the middle of that run. They didn’t have to settle for field goals — and they didn’t need to convert any fourth downs, either.

It was a great start for the Chiefs’ postseason run.