Kovacevic: Steelers don't have to be pretty
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Only John Harbaugh could take a Gatorade bath after this one.
The Steelers stumbled, stutter-stepped and struggled to put away an eminently willing Kansas City victim Sunday night at Arrowhead Stadium. It was awful to watch on every level. But we also know by now how it turns out: Ben Roethlisberger keeps plugging away, the backups admirably step up for injured starters, the defense makes the big stop, and everyone exhales.
Steelers 13, Chiefs 9.
Come on, tell me you weren't nervous that Tyler Palko would go 70 yards there at the end.
Hey, feel free to mail any complaints to the winners, care of "Best Team in the AFC."
In general, sure, the Steelers were lousy. Roethlisberger and his receivers had little chemistry from long range. Rashard Mendenhall found few holes against the NFL's No. 27-ranked defense. Mewelde Moore fumbled near the goal line. The offense never made it past the Chiefs' 39-yard line in the second half, for crying out loud. And the defense should have absolutely overwhelmed Palko, the former Pitt quarterback who upchucked passes that one of his old WPIAL opponents would have picked off. Not even the Steelers' three interceptions, including Keenan Lewis' leaping stab that killed the final Kansas City drive, felt like enough.
But debate style vs. substance all you want. Bottom line is that the Steelers' 8-3 record is tied for best in the conference with Baltimore, Houston and New England. And their destiny remains in their control, with their five remaining games including two against Cleveland, one against St. Louis.
Rather than agonizing over Sunday night, maybe it's more appropriate to ask this: Why shouldn't the Steelers return to the Super Bowl?
Remember, the three opponents before this were New England, Baltimore and Cincinnati, the class of the rest of the conference, and the Steelers would have swept all three but for that 92-yard drive by Joe Flacco. They solved Tom Brady, outgained the Ravens and turned in a rare 60-minute showing in Cincinnati.
What happened last night doesn't get excused by the rust of a bye week, but neither do the three games before it get erased.
The Steelers aren't where they should be. That's painfully clear yet again. But sitting atop the conference with less than their best should speak volumes about this team's potential.
Listen to how safety Ryan Clark summed this up afterward in a largely satisfied locker room.
"It's just good to keep winning," Clark said. "We put ourselves in a lot of bad situations a lot of weeks, but we keep coming out on top. It's better to make corrections when you have Ws and not Ls. But we also know we have to play better. It seems like, no matter who we play, we're going to make it a close game. I don't know if that's playing down to the competition or what."
He grinned and added, "But I know I like being 8-3."
Sounded like they all did.
"Look, man, we're just trying to knock 'em out any way we can," nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "You know, when we get it all together, it's going to be scary."
Look at the resiliency the Steelers continue to show, and it's easy to believe him.
Did you see Roethlisberger flipping Kansas City linebacker Jovan Belcher with that block?
How about Ryan Mundy's first career interception after Troy Polamalu went down with concussion symptoms?
Or Weslye Saunders' first career touchdown that belied the usual elegance of a tight end?
Or Jason Worilds continuing to be a force in LaMarr Woodley's absence?
Or, best of all, Lewis' climactic pick?
"I knew with the way they lined up, the ball was going to be coming my way," Lewis said. "I just had to make a play."
And he did. That's what winning teams do even when they stink up the joint.
Still not enough?
OK, check out the rest of the AFC: Houston lost quarterback Matt Schaub for the season, then lost replacement Matt Leinart yesterday. New England continues to look very un-genius-like in pass coverage. The Bengals, for all their promise, still have a rookie quarterback in Andy Dalton. That leaves Baltimore, but you know that adage about how it's tough to beat the same team three times.
I'll take these Steelers and Hampton's "scary" prediction by January, thanks.
Steelers vs. Kansas City Chiefs November 27, 2011
The Steelers defeat the Chiefs, 13-9, at Arrowhead Stadium.