This year was supposed to be different.
Showing signs of newfound versatility and explosion on offense down the stretch, the Chiefs would have licked their chops knowing ahead of time that Pittsburgh would have been held to just field goals on Sunday.
Instead, Kansas City’s offense couldn’t hold up its end of the bargain in an 18-16 loss at Arrowhead Stadium, a result that sends the resilient Steelers on to New England for next week’s AFC Championship Game.
So many of the emergent luminaries who lit Kansas City’s phenomenal romp through the regular season operated as nothing more than blips on the radar in the biggest spot possible:
1. Tight end Travis Kelce, who exploded for 100-plus receiving yards in five of his past seven games, amassed just 34 yards over the first 50 minutes against Pittsburgh. While finishing with 77 yards off five grabs, Kelce will be better remembered for the dumbest penalty of the weekend, as the hot-headed pass-catcher drew a killer unnecessary roughness flag for flagrantly shoving Steelers cornerback Ross Cockrell to the ground after an Alex Smith scramble. Check out this tomfoolery below:
2. Despite his off night, Kelce still wound up leading the Chiefs in receiving yards as starting wideout Jeremy Maclin managed just 28 yards off two catches — making him the team’s second-leading target. Credit the creative blitzes and coverage alignments deployed by Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler, who deserves consideration for potential Assistant Coach of the Year honors after morphing Pittsburgh into a beast on this side of the ball.
3. Sensational rookie Tyreek Hill was a revelation over the second half of the season, but he also operated as a phantom on Sunday. Coming into the game with a whopping 12 touchdowns — second among all first-year players behind Ezekiel Elliott — Hill managed just 45 total yards and spent much of the game doubling as a decoy. His longest gain of the night went for just nine yards, a painful symbol of Kansas City’s epic flop.
4. It’s ponderous to pile on Alex Smith, but the Chiefs signal-caller — who came in ranking fourth among active quarterbacks in playoff passer rating — threw for just 172 yards while leading an attack that carved out an opening touchdown drive before producing a punt, interception, punt, fumble and two more punts before finally punching in a third-quarter field goal. The Chiefs never found their rhythm, running for a measly 61 yards and operating at just 4.6 yards per play.
We could go on, but everyone in Kansas City knows the score. After making tangible strides on offense in 2016, the Chiefs laid an all-too familiar egg in a game that saw Pittsburgh fail to produce a touchdown.
It’s the kind of result that should raise questions about what this team must do in the offseason to graduate from their role as an AFC supporting character to a club we can take seriously as a threat to the conference’s elite teams.
Today’s NFL is dictated by offense. It’s not impossible to envision an Alex Smith-led team making the Super Bowl, but it requires everyone around him to function at full power — at home — with the season on the line.
Kansas City, on Sunday, didn’t come close.