Steelers hold on vs. Chiefs, advance to face Patriots for berth in Super Bowl
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In three trips to the Super Bowl this century, the Steelers never had to go through the New England Patriots in the postseason.
If the Steelers are to make it to Super Bowl LI in Houston next month, they won't be afforded that luxury.
Not that the Steelers are complaining. Not after escaping Arrowhead Stadium with an 18-16 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in a divisional playoff game Sunday night, setting up a date in the AFC championship game next week with the Patriots.
The Patriots, of course, ruined Steelers trips to the Super Bowl after the 2001 and '04 seasons, when both games were contested at Heinz Field. This matchup will take place at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., against the conference's No. 1 seed.
The Patriots also defeated the Steelers earlier this season in the midst of that long-forgotten four-game losing streak.
"It's going to be a great challenge," said running back Le'Veon Bell, who broke his week-old franchise single-game postseason rushing record by getting 170 yards against the Chiefs. "When they came to our house, they beat us ,so we have a little chip on our shoulder. We feel like we owe those guys one."
It will be the first championship game appearance for the Steelers since after the 2010 season.
To get to the conference title game, the Steelers had to win without scoring a touchdown while giving up two.
Chris Boswell kicked an NFL postseason record six field goals, and the Steelers survived a late 2-point conversion attempt to win their ninth game in a row, the latest coming in a game that was delayed seven hours because of forecasts of an ice storm.
Boswell was 6 of 6 on field-goal attempts, making kicks from 22, 38, 36, 45 yards and a pair of 43-yarders.
"Luckily, we made enough to win the game or we had enough chances to win the game," Boswell said.
One week after breaking Franco Harris' 42-year-old franchise record for rushing yards in a game (167), Bell carried 30 times for 170 yards.
Ben Roethlisberger was 20 of 31 for 224 yards, no touchdowns, one interception and a meager 72.5 passer rating. Antonio Brown had six catches for 108 yards.
Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith was 20 of 34 for 172 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a 69.7 rating.
Boswell kicked a 43-yard field goal on the Steelers' first drive of the second half for a 15-7 lead. It came after Bell ran 38 yards on the first play of the drive, putting the ball at the Kansas City 36.
Cairo Santos' 48-yard field goal with 10 seconds left in the third quarter cut the Steelers' lead to 15-10. It came after Smith converted a third-and-20 with a 20-yard pass to Jeremy Maclin.
Boswell kicked another 43-yard field goal with 9:49 left in the game to push the Steelers' lead back to 18-10.
The Chiefs drove 75 yards in 13 plays and scored a touchdown with 2:43 left on Spencer Ware's 1-yard run. Smith converted a fourth-and-8 and a fourth-and-2 on the drive. An unnecessary roughness call on Sean Davis also extended the series.
The Chiefs appeared to tie the score on the ensuing 2-point conversion when tight end Demetrius Harris caught a pass in the back of the end zone. But tackle Eric Fisher was flagged for holding James Harrison, bringing the ball back to the 12.
Smith's next attempt, intended for Maclin, was broken up by Davis, and the Steelers clung to an 18-16 lead.
Was it a case of redemption for Davis?
"I believe so," he said. "My team had my back. We responded, and plays came my way."
The Steelers took possession at their 5-yard line with 2:38 left after Justin Gilbert fielded the kickoff at the 7 but lost 2 yards.
On third-and-three, Roethlisberger completed a 7-yard pass on a crossing pattern to Brown.
From there, the Steelers were able to run out the clock on kneeldowns.
"It was about letting him get clear and just putting the ball on him and letting him make the play," Roethlisberger said about Brown. "I'm sure the play won't make SportsCenter and won't make all the highlights, but talk to guys in that locker room and it's probably one of the biggest plays of the game."
Aside from Brown, tight end Jesse James was Roethlisberger's go-to target. He had five receptions for 83 yards, outgaining Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, who had five receptions for 77 yards.
"I couldn't be happier being able to play another week," James said. "We're just fighting for the next game. That's what we're doing. It was a good win."
The Steelers dominated the first half from a statistical standpoint. They scored on four of their first five drives. Bell rushed for 101 yards. The Steelers outgained the Chiefs, 275-106, and possessed the ball for more than 20 minutes.
That domination, however, didn't extend to the scoreboard.
Those four scoring drives ended with Boswell field goals, and the Steelers took a 12-7 lead into intermission.
Another first-half possession resulted in the Steelers driving to the Chiefs 5 before Roethlisberger threw an interception on first down on a tipped pass.
Armed with a 9-7 lead, the Steelers seemed ready to tack on more points after Bud Dupree's hit on Smith forced a flutter pass that Ryan Shazier intercepted at the Kansas City 45. A 26-yard completion to James set up the Steelers at the 5.
Roethlisberger attempted a pass on first down. Frank Zombo deflected the ball, and Eric Berry intercepted just inside the goal line. It was Roethlisberger's first interception thrown inside an opponent's 5 since 2007 and just the second such pick of his carrer.
The Steelers took a 3-0 lead with 9:38 left in the first quarter on Boswell's 22-yard field goal.
Coach Mike Tomlin originally had the offense on the field with the Steelers facing a fourth-and-1 from the Kansas City 4. After the Chiefs burned a timeout, Tomlin sent in the field-goal team.
Roethlisberger opened the game with five consecutive pass attempts, completing the last four to put the Steelers at the Chiefs 30. Bell carried three times for 25 yards.
The Chiefs, who didn't score until the fourth quarter in the Week 4 matchup at Heinz Field, went 55 yards on their first drive to take a 7-3 lead and became the first opponent to score an opening-drive TD against the Steelers this season.
The Chiefs had great field position for their first drive after a squib kick was returned 25 yards to the Kansas City 45. Smith led a touchdown drive, completing 4 of 4 passes for 41 yards. The final one was a 5-yard touchdown pass to Albert Wilson after Smith faked a handoff and then rolled out left.
A 38-yard field goal by Boswell pulled the Steelers within 7-6. Roethlisberger found Brown in single coverage with linebacker Justin Houston, and they hooked up on a 52-yard completion on third-and-10. But Roethlisberger couldn't connect with Brown on a third-and-7, and the Steelers had to settle for another field goal.
The Steelers forced a punt and responded with a 14-play drive that again stalled and resulted in Boswell's third field goal, a 36-yarder, for a 9-7 lead with 9:18 left until halftime.
Boswell has never missed a field goal in his postseason career.
"He's the same guy every day, really, regardless of circumstance," Tomlin said. "He's been that way since we acquired him. We're not surprised when he performs well."
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.