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Labriola On

Labriola on the loss to the Chiefs

That's what it's supposed to look like. Not the Steelers. The Chiefs.

There were two teams inside Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday matched in a game with playoff implications, but it didn't take long after the opening kickoff to see clearly those were teams going in opposite directions.

The hosts, the Kansas City Chiefs, arrived riding a seven-game winning streak, and with a defense that improved from a unit allowing an average of 29 points per game through the first seven games to 16.6 points per game over the past eight. The visitors, the Pittsburgh Steelers, have spent their time hovering around .500, never being better than two games over .500 or worse than two games under .500 for the entirety of this regular season. The Chiefs are peaking as the playoffs draw near, while the Steelers are trying to squeeze into the tournament before the doors close with them on the outside looking in.

When Sunday began, the Chiefs were a Sunday victory away from clinching the AFC West Division title and moving within one more victory of earning themselves the No. 1 seed in the AFC and the first-round bye that comes as a perk of such an accomplishment. A win by the Steelers would have clinched them nothing but still put them in a prime position to qualify for the playoffs either as the AFC North Division champion or as one of the three Wild Card teams from their conference.

When the afternoon's festivities at Arrowhead Stadium had concluded, the Chiefs were the champions of the AFC West and the Steelers were back at .500 with their playoff hopes hanging by a thread, all as a result of Kansas City's 36-10 victory.

The recipe for a Steelers victory, or maybe more realistically, the recipe for the Steelers to keep the game from becoming the blowout it turned out to be was specific and contained little wiggle room. Even though three-time first-team All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce was sidelined by COVID, and three-time first-team All-Pro receiver Tyreek Hill only cleared the protocol late in the week leading up to the game, it figured the Steelers would have to be able to match the Chiefs' scoring early to keep things close enough that quarterback Patrick Mahomes might be enticed into some of the same kinds of mistakes he had committed in already throwing a career-high 14 interceptions, including four multiple-interception games, to this point in the season.

The other way for the Steelers to keep the game close through the early going would involve protecting the football to avoid handing the Chiefs the kind of scoring opportunities that come from turnovers creating a short field, and then coupling that with some solid red zone defense to force Kansas City to settle for some field goals instead of scoring touchdowns.

The Steelers failed in every area of that multi-pronged "plan." They failed to score a touchdown in the first half for the fifth straight game, which hadn't happened to the franchise since 1940, according to a statistic used by CBS during its telecast of the game; the Chiefs led, 23-0, at halftime, and then 30-0 midway through the third period; the Steelers were minus-3 in turnover ratio; the Chiefs converted their three takeaways into 17 points; and Kansas City converted 4-of-6 red zone opportunities into touchdowns.

"Disappointing. We did not do enough in any of the three phases to give ourselves a chance," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "On offense, we turned the ball over. We had our struggles on offense. When we take care of the ball, we give ourselves a chance. We had three of those (turnovers) tonight. That was catastrophic. We did not get necessary stops on defense when we were put on a short field and largely, we didn't win enough of the weighty downs, possession downs, red zone, etc."

In a lot of other categories, the Steelers actually didn't fare all that badly.

As mentioned previously, Kelce didn't play, and Hill finished with two catches for 19 yards. The Steelers finished the game with more rushing yards than they allowed, 130-127; and a better third-down conversion percentage than they allowed: 5-for-13 (38.5 percent) to 4-for-11 (36.4 percent).

But in the areas considered somewhat critical to having the game unfold in a way that would allow them to have a chance to win it in the latter stages, they failed, and in some cases, they failed rather spectacularly.

The Steelers first seven offensive possessions ended: punt, interception, punt, missed field goal, turnover on downs, end of the first half, fumble. None of those possessions produced points; combined the Steelers ran 29 plays and netted six first downs. On the fourth-and-1 that resulted in the turnover on downs, the play-call was a pitch to Najee Harris, who had no chance and was dropped for a 3-yard loss.

While the Steelers were floundering offensively, the Chiefs were getting the job done without Kelce and with Hill a bit player in the drama that had Kansas City's corresponding seven offensive possessions end: touchdown, touchdown, field goal, touchdown, missed field goal, punt, touchdown. Mahomes distributed his 23 completions among nine players, with Byron Pringle catching two touchdown passes and Mecole Hardman catching the third.

"It's getting repetitive for us trying to answer it and trying to come up with an answer," said Ben Roethlisberger about the slow starts. "I don't know. If I had an answer, I would've done everything we could've to get it fixed. We've got two games left, but none are more important than the next one. We're going to do what we can to try and get it fixed."

But where to start? Play-calls? Personnel usage? A popular notion among fans is to have the offense in full-blown no-huddle from the first snap, but in an environment like the one in Arrowhead where the noise level is similar to playing inside a jet engine getting all 11 players lined up and off on the snap count might be asking too much of a group still quite green around the gills.

Still, so much of what's going on makes little sense. In the first half, Ray-Ray McCloud (with five) was targeted as many times as Diontae Johnson (three) and Chase Claypool combined (two), and while Johnson caught two of the targets for 27 yards and Claypool caught two for 34 yards, McCloud caught two for no yards. Roethlisberger indicated that McCloud was targeted so much partly because the Chiefs were double-covering Johnson and Claypool, but even if the strategy of taking what the defense gives makes sense in theory the player wasn't taking advantage of the opportunities and the unit suffered the consequences.

Along the lines of "in theory," the Steelers still are alive with two regular season games remaining and those two games are against division foes Cleveland at Heinz Field on Monday, Jan. 3 and at Baltimore on Jan. 9. But of all the permutations that have to happen to allow the Steelers into the postseason, what feels most unlikely right now is them winning two games in a row.

"We have a lot of football left to play," said Cam Heyward. "A lot will be said about the last two games. I know we let our fans down and our team down. I'm not ready to throw in no damn towel. We got a lot of football left to play. Two games left. I think expecting something different and not doing anything different, that's shame on us. We got to play a lot better. We don't execute at a high level, (then) you get a shellacking like we did today."

Lately, though, there have been too many shellackings and too few executing at high levels, and that's not what it's supposed to look like at this time of the year.