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Steelers use stout defense and limit mistakes to move on to the AFC title game

On a night when their offense failed to crack the end zone, the Pittsburgh Steelers notched their ninth consecutive win with tough defense, a strong ground game and solid special teams.

NFL: AFC Divisional-Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

If someone had told you before the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs squared off at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday night that Le’Veon Bell would rush for 170 yards, Antonio Brown would catch six passes for 108 yards and the Chiefs would turn the ball over twice, you’d probably have expected a convincing victory by the Black-and-Gold. But as things turned out, Steelers fans were kept on the edges of their seats throughout the entire 60 minutes of football, as Pittsburgh managed to pull out a narrow 18-16 win and a trip to Gillette Stadium to face the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game next Sunday.

Despite dominating the Chiefs throughout most of the game, the Steelers’ inability to score a touchdown on any of four red-zone opportunities forced them to rely on a stout defense, flawless placekicking and, for the most part, error-free football to earn their next trip to BradyLand. At the outset of the 2016 regular season, many in Steelers Nation were openly joking about the Pittsburgh defense and its inability to stop even semi-competent, NFL offenses. But don’t try to tell that to the Dolphins or the Chiefs.

For the second week in a row, Pittsburgh’s defense stuffed their opponent’s running game while limiting their best receivers. Spencer Ware, the Chiefs leading runner during the regular season, gained only 35 yards on eight carries. The fleet-footed Tyreek Hill, who has been a catalyst in the Kansas City offense all season, gained only 18 yards on three carries and only 27 yards on four receptions. Hill also was neutralized as a kick returner by the excellent play of the Steelers’ kicking-team. Jeremy Maclin, also considered a potential thorn in the Steelers’ sides prior to the game, had only two catches for 28 yards. In fact, the only Chiefs receiver who had any degree of production was tight end Travis Kelce (five catches for 77 yards).

But in addition to excellent defense, the 6-for-6 bullseye performance by Steelers kicker Chris Boswell, hitting field goals from 22, 38, 36, 45 and 43 yards (twice) provided all the points that Pittsburgh needed to advance in the playoffs. In a game where the offense largely failed to pull its own weight, it nevertheless was nearly perfect in protecting the football. The only turnover by the Steelers was an ill-advised pass into the end zone by Ben Roethlisberger after the Black-and-Gold was set up with a 1st-and-goal on KC’s 5-yard line. In the process, a great defensive effort by Bud Dupree was wasted. Dupree hit Alex Smith just as he released the football, causing a wounded-duck pass which was intercepted by Ryan Shazier at the Chiefs’ 44-yard line. While the Steelers’ lone turnover didn’t lead to any points for Kansas City, it did cost the Steelers some points that would have been extremely valuable later in the game.

Other than Big Ben’s singular snafu, the Steelers didn’t cough up the football in 60 minutes of hard-fought play in a game where even one additional turnover might have spelled the difference between going to play New England next weekend and going home in defeat. So even though this game was frustrating and nerve-wracking for fans to watch, the Steelers came home with a win mainly because they ran the ball effectively, thwarted the Chiefs’ key offensive weapons, played solid special-teams football and largely eliminated turnovers. By so doing, Pittsburgh put the Chiefs in the difficult position of playing from behind throughout the majority of the game. Bell’s monster rushing performance translated to a 34:13 to 25:47 time-of-possession advantage in favor of the Black-and-Gold.

There’s plenty of time to analyze the challenge awaiting in Foxborough next Sunday, particularly in light of this week’s underwhelming performance by Ben and the red-zone offense. But on the positive side, what stands out in the Steelers’ ninth consecutive win is a never-say-die attitude on this team which has carried them from a dismal, 4-5 record at mid-season to a reasonable shot at the AFC Championship. It’s this uncanny ability to continue winning in a variety of ways—and via an evolving range of team capabilities—which already has made the Steelers’ 2016-17 season an unexpected success, regardless of what lies ahead.