I think it’s safe to say most Steelers fans viewed Sunday night’s Wild Card matchup against the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium as a bit of a bonus game.
With Pittsburgh surprisingly in the playoffs thanks to a Week 18 meltdown by the Colts, and with the Chiefs going into Sunday’s game as nearly two-touchdown favorites, and with the Steelers performing the way they did in the 17 games prior to this ‘bonus’ round, you went into Sunday’s matchup expecting the worst and hoping for the best.
At least I hope you had that mindset because that’s exactly how things played out in a 42-21 loss that, much like the 36-10 rout to the same team and at the same venue just a few weeks earlier, didn’t even seem that close.
The defense hung in there for a while and even gave the good guys a 7-0 lead thanks to a Cam Heyward forced fumble and a T.J. Watt scoop and score, but it eventually crumbled under the weight of that Chiefs offense led by Patrick Mahomes, a quarterback equipped otherworldly physical gifts that are still in prime working order and someone who is surrounded by the best offensive weapons in the NFL.
Would things have been different for the defense had the Steelers offense, led by Ben Roethlisberger, a 39-year old quarterback whose own otherworldly physical gifts seemingly left him many years ago, been able to do anything other than pick up a few first downs over the first two-plus quarters of game action?
I doubt it. A better offensive showing may have made things easier for the defense, but it’s hard to believe the defense’s biggest problem on Sunday night was its own offense’s inability to move the ball. No, the defense’s biggest problem on Sunday night was Kansas City’s ability to move the ball, and once it started doing that, it wasn’t going to stop until it had enough points to assure a victory.
That occurred about midway through the third quarter, thanks to a Tyreek Hill 31-yard touchdown catch that came on the heels of a fumble by rookie running back Najee Harris, his first as a professional.
That made it 35-7.
Even if Pittsburgh’s offense was capable of more—and all it could muster on Sunday night was 257 yards (and many of those yards came in garbage time)—the Chiefs’ offense probably would have done just enough to win.
That’s how good the Chiefs' offense is.
But the Steelers offense, one that didn’t surround Roethlisberger with the best weapons in the NFL in 2021, was never going to be effective on Sunday night.
As for the defense, as good as it often was in 2021, it was never as good as it was the previous two seasons when it was one of the best and most elite units in football.
You can blame injuries (Tyson Alualu and Stephon Tuitt). You can blame free agent defections (Mike Hilton and Bud Dupree). You can blame a slow recovery from a torn ACL (Devin Bush), but the Steelers 2021 defense was just never going to be up to the challenge of stopping Mahomes and Co.
But that’s okay, right? After all, Sunday night’s game was just a bonus. It was Roethlisberger’s last one as a pro. It was his swan song, and even though I’m sure his teammates wanted to send him off like Jerome Bettis’ mates sent him into retirement in 2005, it was never going to be that way.
That 2005 edition was Season 2 of Big Ben. The writing was fresh. The creativity was evident. The energy was on point. As far as bonus features go, Season 2 of Big Ben was pretty sweet.
But every show eventually jumps the shark, and it was clear that Big Ben had done the same by Season 16 or 17. You remember DVDs and the bonus features that accompanied most seasons of shows, right? They were usually very interesting over the first few years—bloopers, interviews, etc. But by the time you got to the final seasons, you were lucky if you had any bonus features, and even if you did, it was something bland like a roll call of the cast and crew—and the cast was usually missing several of the stars that once made it a great show.
That sums up the Steelers ‘bonus’ playoff game against the Chiefs in the Wild Card round on Sunday Night Football. When people talked about a bonus game for Roethlisberger and Co., I think they were hoping for something different, a return to his old, magical ways of earlier seasons.
But you just got a little more of what he and they gave you during the 2021 regular season.
That’s okay, though, because that’s all they were ever capable of anyway.
Bonus game or not.