KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The book is titled, "How to Lie with Statistics," and if author Darrell Huff was writing about yesterday's AFC Divisional Round Game here matching the Steelers and the Kansas City Chiefs, he likely would be choosing from these statistics:
Zero-for-4 in the red zone, and 0-for-1 in goal-to-go situations. One completion in seven attempts for 1 yard, with one sack and one interception in those red zone possessions. Two running plays gained 7 yards total. In nine snaps inside the red zone, the Steelers offense managed 8 yards, allowed a sack, and turned the ball over once. All that should be left to do is fill out the numbers on the scoreboard detailing the margin of defeat, and the job would be finished. As would the Steelers' season.
But as Huff wrote in his book, statistics can lie, and in this particular case, they tell a whopper. All of those statistics in the above paragraph detail the Steelers offense's performance in the red zone yesterday at Arrowhead Stadium, and yet the team defeated the Chiefs, 18-16, and will advance to the AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots at 6:40 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 22 at Gillette Stadium. And they won and advanced because of their offense.
Well, not solely because of their offense, because the Steelers special teams came through in a big way against the most dangerous kick returner in the NFL this season while their own placekicker was on the way to setting an NFL postseason record with six field goals and was 6-for-6 doing that, and the defense held the Chiefs to 227 total yards and came up with two takeaways to allow the team to finish the game at plus-1 in turnover ratio.
Before getting to the offense and how it came through in the game's most critical situation after slogging through almost 58 full minutes of squandered opportunities, let's take a moment to appreciate what the special teams did here.
Tyreek Hill came into this game with two touchdowns on punt returns and another touchdown on kickoff returns, but in this game he was a non-factor. A non-factor to the degree that four different players from both teams had kickoff returns, including Hill, and all three of the other guys – Sammie Coates and Justin Gilbert for the Steelers and Demetrius Harris for the Chiefs – had a longer return than Hill's longest. Vince Williams, Tyler Matakevich, Ryan Shazier, and Jordan Dangerfield were the guys credited with making the tackles for the kickoff coverage unit. And the Chiefs had no punt returns during the game because Jordan Berry's only punt traveled 35 yards and sailed out of bounds.
Keeping the ball out of Hill's hands was Berry's primary concern, but Chris Boswell had to worry about keeping his kickoffs away from Hill and also about shouldering the burden of scoring all of the Steelers points in the game. Boswell was 6-for-6 to set an NFL postseason record for most field goals in a game, and as it turned out the Steelers would need every one of them.
Game action from the AFC Divisional Playoff game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
The defense, as already noted, came up with two takeaways – another interception by Ryan Shazier and a fumble recovery by Artie Burns – and that allowed the Steelers to finish plus-1 in turnover ratio against the team that led the NFL in that category during the regular season. William Gay had another sack, and he drew a holding penalty that forced the Chiefs into an unsuccessful do-over on their attempt at tying the game with a two-point conversion.
But it was after that failed two-point conversion attempt by Kansas City, with the Steelers' lead trimmed to 18-16 and two-plus minutes remaining in the game when the offense delivered in a way that rendered all of those red zone failures moot.
The Steelers had to be ready for an onside kick attempt, but Cairo Santos' kickoff went deep, and Justin Gilbert fielded it and lost 2 yards trying to return it without blocking, which meant the Steelers offense took the field looking at a first-and-10 from the 5-yard line. There was 2:38 to play. The Chiefs had one timeout, and the two-minute warning would stop the clock a second time. The Steelers needed a first down. They definitely needed a first down, because punting to Hill from their own end zone to a team whose kicker had made a 53-yard field goal this season – when three points ends your playoffs and sends you home – is not the high percentage move.
A run on first down gained minimal yardage but it did force the Chiefs to spend their final timeout. But it was second-and-8 with 2:32 left, and the two-minute warning would stop the clock one more time. Again, the Steelers needed a first down, and Mike Tomlin went about the work of getting one aggressively. Even if the Steelers were able to bleed 90 seconds off the clock with a couple of running plays, that still would leave Tyreek Hill and Alex Smith and Travis Kelce and Cairo Santos a little more than one minute to get into position for an attempt at a game-winning field goal. Tomlin's preference in these situations always is to put the outcome on the shoulders of his own players.
Ben Roethlisberger to that point had completed 18-of-29, and it hadn't been his best day by a lot of different measurements, but Tomlin didn't blink in terms of the strategy he would employ. He needed his quarterback to make good decisions and be accurate with the ball, and his receivers to be where they were supposed to be and make the catches.
On second-and-8, Eli Rogers caught a pass for 5 yards, which set up a third-and-3 from the 12-yard line at the two-minute warning. An incomplete pass here would have set up the Chiefs beautifully for a come-from-behind victory. A completed pass for a first down would have set up the Steelers in victory formation.
The coach was aggressive in his approach, and the quarterback held onto the ball to extend the play before making the perfect throw to his first-team All-Pro receiver. All of the elements that infuriated Steelers Nation last week late in the victory over the Dolphins in the Wild Card Game came together to deliver a victory in this Divisional Round Game.
"We called a play to get some crossing stuff, and they did a good job getting me out of the pocket, so I just try to keep the play alive," said Roethlisberger. "I knew [Antonio Brown] was coming across the field and I think [Justin] Houston dropped underneath him and AB went behind him. Really it was about letting him clear and just putting the ball on him and just let him make the play. I am sure that play will not make SportsCenter or make all of the highlights, but talk to the guys in that locker room and that was probably one of the biggest plays of the game."
One of the biggest, or the biggest. That can be argued. But it was the play that stamped their ticket to next Sunday's AFC Championship Game in Foxborough.