Ben Roethlisberger is ending his career the way he started it, leading a team that few expected to be very good for the playoffs. It wasn’t always pretty, but Roethlisberger was able to deliver in several critical situations to clinch his 12th playoff ticket, while extending his final season as a Steelers quarterback.
Roethlisberger has a chance to cap his career by helping the Steelers record the franchise’s biggest upset in the playoffs. The Steelers are 12.5-point underdogs entering Sunday night’s playoff game against the Chiefs, who beat Pittsburgh by 26 points in Week 16. The Steelers are 1-2 in playoff games where they are double-digit underdogs, with their only win coming against John Elway’s Broncos in the 1984 Divisional Round.
Despite the odds, the Steelers are more than capable of upsetting the Chiefs, who are vying to become the fourth team in NFL history to make three consecutive trips to the Super Bowl. Here’s how the Steelers can do it while adding another feather to Roethlisberger’s Hall of Fame cap.
It’s the word Bill Cowher has used the most to explain why he thinks this game will be “much closer” than the first meeting between the two teams. Cowher would know because his 2005 Steelers team upset the top-seeded Colts after losing to them in a lopsided game during the regular season.
“We were embarrassed by a ‘Monday Night Football’ game,” Cowher said of the Steelers’ 2005 loss to the Colts. “We had been a team that was known for running the game. We came out and kicked early and started running the ball later in the game. It served us well in this game because it went against the grain. .
“You play a team a second time, there’s a bit of familiarity with that. I think the familiarity really benefits the losing team.”
Speaking of familiarity, Steelers kicker Chris Boswell has previous playoff success at Arrowhead. Boswell set an NFL playoff record by starting five pitches in Pittsburgh’s 18-16 win over the Chiefs in the 2016 Divisional Round. The former Pro Bowl kicker was specifically mentioned by Cowher when he explained why he thinks this game will be closer than the teams previous game.
Led by TJ Watt’s 22.5 sacks, the Steelers led the NFL in quarterback eliminations for the fifth straight year. Pittsburgh had 55 sacks in 17 games, with Watt, Cameron Heyward, Alex Highsmith and Chris Wormley accounting for 45.5 of those sacks. As the Chiefs’ Super Bowl LV loss showed, putting pressure on Patrick Mahomes is key to stopping the Chiefs’ fast-paced offense. The Chiefs will get their share of plays, but the Steelers’ passing rush should minimize those plays, while helping the Pittsburgh defense earn its share of possession.
The pass rush is key, but the Steelers will need a full effort on defense. At its best, the Steelers defense is capable of winning a game on its own. The unit did just that by forcing turnovers in Pittsburgh’s upset win over the top-seeded Titans in Week 15. The Steelers defense has elite talent at every level led by Heyward, Watt , cornerback Joe Haden and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Pittsburgh’s inside linebacker play has been spotty, but Joe Schobert has had his share of splash plays this season, none more than his forced fumble late in Pittsburgh’s Week 8 win at Cleveland.
Pittsburgh’s high school has improved dramatically since the start of the year. Haden’s return from injury was a big reason, along with regular play from Cam Sutton and reserves Ahkello Witherspoon and Arthur Maulet. The unit will have the opportunity to show how much they have improved against the Chiefs’ talented receiving corps of Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman, Byron Pringle and Demarcus Robinson.
In addition to minimizing big plays, winning possessions and putting pressure on Mahomes, the Steelers will have to hold their own against the run, which has been their biggest Achilles’ heel this season. But if Heyward, Wormley, Henry Mondeaux and the rest of Pittsburgh’s first seven can contain the Chiefs’ rushing offense, an upset is certainly possible.
As a kid growing up in the 1990s, one of Roethlisberger’s favorite players to watch was quarterback John Elway. In his 15th season, Elway finally won his first Super Bowl despite Denver being a heavy underdog against Brett Favre and defending champion Packers. Before the game, all Elway asked was that the game be close enough that he could win it in the fourth quarter. Roethlisberger is surely hoping for the same on Sunday night.
Elway was helped in that game by running back Terrell Davis, who earned MVP honors after rushing for 157 yards and three touchdowns. Roethlisberger will need similar support from Najee Harris, who rushed for 93 yards against the Chiefs in their opener. Harris’ impact may hinge on the health of his injured elbow that kept him out of much of last week’s win in Baltimore.
Even though Harris is somewhat compromised, Roethlisberger is able to keep the Steelers in the game. He was a part of Pittsburgh’s regular season victories over Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago and Baltimore. And while his return offers to Los Angeles and Minnesota fell through, Roethlisberger’s right-hand man and quick decision-making gave the Steelers a chance late in both games.
Roethlisberger has terrific teammates in skill positions in Harris, Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth. Pittsburgh’s young offensive line — a group whose struggles this season have been well documented — has shown signs of growth in recent weeks, especially with the arrival of JC Hassenauer in the starting lineup at center.
The Chiefs are double-digit favorites for a reason. They have arguably the best player in the NFL in Mahomes, a dangerous receiving corps and an opportunistic defense, led by Tyrann Mathieu, Nick Bolton, Chris Jones and Frank Clark. But the Steelers also have talent on defense, terrific players on offense and one of the best kickers in the NFL in Boswell. Above all, they have a future Hall of Fame quarterback who would love nothing more than to end the Chiefs’ reign atop the AFC before he leaves at sunset.