The Kansas City Chiefs’ loss in last season’s Super Bowl remains a source of motivation for the defending AFC champions, but it’s also a loss the team is content to leave in the past.
After all, a lot of work still needs to be done before the Chiefs can book a third straight Super Bowl appearance next month. The road begins when the Chiefs host the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wild-card round on Sunday.
“It’s in the back of my mind, but for the most part it’s a new year,” Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce said about the NFL’s ultimate prize. “You’ve got to focus on things that have happened this year. We’re on a goal to prove to ourselves who we think we are, and we know we are, and that’s Super Bowl champions.”
The matchup between the Chiefs and Steelers is a rematch of a Dec. 26 clash Kansas City dominated on the way to a 36-10 win, despite Kelce being in COVID-19 protocol. The Chiefs went on to go 12-5 — winning nine of their last 10 games — and claim their sixth consecutive AFC West title.
Kansas City has reached the AFC championship game in each of the four seasons QB Patrick Mahomes was the primary signal caller.
“When you get to that playoff gameday, you have a little bit different intensity knowing that every play is critical and it could really end your season by making a mistake,” Mahomes said. “At the same time, you want to be loose, you want to have fun and you want to enjoy it.”
Mahomes passed for 258 yards and three touchdowns in the first meeting with the Steelers. The Chiefs also forced three turnovers and limited Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger to 159 yards passing.
The Chiefs’ defensive intensity that day followed a trend that began after they acquired longtime Steeler, Melvin Ingram.
Ingram was instrumental a week ago, when he crashed into the backfield to generate a bone-jarring hit and a fumble the Chiefs converted into a late touchdown return in a 28-24 win at Denver.
“He’s the swag champ,” Kelce said, adding that “you saw how much more fun people were having” after Ingram joined the defensive front.
Mahomes has struggled with his accuracy at times, but overcame an early rash of mistakes as the Chiefs finished with the league’s third-best offense with an average 396.8 yards per game.
He passed for 4,839 yards while relying on Kelce and Tyreek Hill, who each finished with over 1,000 yards receiving. The committee approach to the backfield could continue with Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Darrel Williams coming off injuries.
Second-seeded Kansas City, a two-time Super Bowl champion, will make its seventh consecutive postseason appearance.
The Steelers earned an 18-16 win in the previous playoff meeting between the teams.
Roethlisberger, whose career could end with the Steelers’ next loss as he considers retirement, lamented the long odds his team faces after going 9-7-1 and drawing the No. 7 seed.
“I would assume, as a group, you understand that we probably aren’t supposed to be here,” said Roethlisberger, who is dealing with a strained pectoral and shoulder.
“We probably are not a very good football team. Out of 14 teams I think are in, we’re probably number 14. We’re double-digit underdogs in the playoffs. So, let’s just go play, have fun and see what happens.”
Tongue in cheek? Probably. A dose of realism? Yes, that too.
Still, Pittsburgh got in by defeating Baltimore in the season finale and getting help from Jacksonville beating Indianapolis and Las Vegas beating the Los Angeles Chargers in overtime.
Pittsburgh, a six-time Super Bowl champion, is in the playoffs for the second straight season, but its last playoff win came in 2016.
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