After Further Review: Rematch provides clarity

After further review …

At least they'll head into the offseason with a clear understanding of where they are at present relative to where they intend to be eventually.

"If we want to carve out a niche in this thing, a push through the AFC, we've got to deal with the likes of that bunch," head coach Mike Tomlin acknowledged after the Chiefs exploded on the Steelers, 42-21, on Sunday night at Arrowhead Stadium.

It was the second time in less than a month the Steelers had ventured into Arrowhead, one of the NFL's most daunting road venues, and failed to be competitive.

During the 26:22 span that began at the 10:35 mark of the second quarter and ended 47 seconds into the fourth, the gap between the two teams appeared as vast as Arrowhead is loud.

Kansas City scored touchdowns on six consecutive possessions.

The Steelers scored one TD, turned the ball over once and managed four first downs.

It was as ugly a stretch as the Steelers experienced all season.

But it wasn't necessarily defining in terms of what the Steelers have to work with moving forward.

They weren't good enough in Round Two against Kansas City, as they hadn't been in Round One, a 36-10 shellacking absorbed on Dec. 26 at Arrowhead.

But the Steelers have young, developing players on the roster, particularly at the skill positions, from which much will be expected next season and beyond.

Such expectations aren't necessarily misplaced.

The Chiefs have Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill in the prime of their careers. They're among the best if not the best in the NFL at their respective positions, and they've been the driving force on a team that has reached three consecutive AFC Championship Games, the last two Super Bowls, won one of those and appears to have serious designs on more of the same.

There are other differences between the Chiefs and the Steelers.

Game action photos from the Steelers' Wild Card Round playoff game against the Kansas City Chiefs at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium

And clearly, other areas for the Steelers to address.

But that combustibility on offense is what stands out as the NFL continues to trend towards a game that's played by mobile quarterbacks capable of breaking down defenses by incorporating their legs, as well as by throwing to their play-makers.

It doesn't have to be done that way (defending-champion Tampa Bay has Tom Brady and an outstanding offensive line) but its the way the Chiefs, Bills, Titans and Bengals, this year's Final Four in the AFC, are playing the game.

So the Steelers have options as they transition at the most important position on the field.

That gap between the Steelers and the conference's upper echelon isn't necessarily as profound as it appeared on Sunday night.

But closing it will nonetheless be challenging.

For now, there's a certain satisfaction to be gleaned from the 9-7-1 regular season that earned the Steelers their rematch against Kansas City.

They have their "warts," as Tomlin observed following the regular-season finale at Baltimore, to be certain.

And there were challenges and adversities along the way that no one saw coming.

In persevering through all of that a certain character was established, an intangible dynamic most recently personified by JuJu Smith-Schuster making it back from shoulder surgery in October to compete one final time, as it turned out, in Kansas City.

"I'm very proud to be a part of this team and the resiliency and the grittiness we've been able to show," T.J. Watt maintained.

If they also emerge with perspective, even Sunday night's disappointment will have been well worth the effort.

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