KANSAS CITY, Mo. – It was in the second half Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium when déjà vu showed up on the Chiefs sideline.
With less than two minutes to play in the third quarter, the Chiefs led the Pittsburgh Steelers by 13 points. There were 17 minutes left in the game. All looked good for the Chiefs to end their five-game losing streak.
But they had been in similar positions in two other home games in the 2015 season; holding leads late in games against Denver and Chicago. They lost both times, as the Broncos and Bears came back to win.
This time, the Chiefs banished déjà vu, made big plays when they had to be made and beat the Steelers 23-13 to end their losing streak.
“It was not much different than the other two games,” said quarterback Alex Smith. “It was us making the plays down the stretch. I think that was the bottom line, us staying aggressive in all facets of the game. There were plays made there at the end of the fourth quarter that won us the game.”
Against Denver, the Chiefs led 24-17 with 2 minutes, 27 second to play. They lost 31-24. The Chicago game saw the Chiefs holding a 17-3 lead at halftime. They lost 18-17.
But this time they made the plays, on both offense and defense, something that Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin acknowledged after the game.
“They made the dynamic plays on both sides of the ball and that’s usually how you determine who wins and losses in these tight contests that go back and forth,” said Tomlin. “We didn’t make the necessary plays. They did.”
The Chiefs relied on a duo of new offensive faces with running back Jamaal Charles (knee) and wide receiver Jeremy Maclin (concussion) out. Charcandrick West and Chris Conley stepped into the void and each scored their first NFL touchdowns. West scored on a 1-yard run, with Conley scoring on a 6-yard touchdown pass from Smith in the fourth quarter.
But it was a trio of old familiar faces on the Kansas City defense that stepped forward and helped end the losing streak. Linebackers Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson, along with safety Eric Berry hammered a Pittsburgh offense led by the Steelers No. 3 quarterback Landry Jones.
Pittsburgh had only one touchdown while Hali had a pair of sacks, forcing a fumble the second time he took down Jones, that was recovered by the Chiefs. Johnson and Berry had interceptions.
The three Pro Bowl defenders all made big plays to lead the Chiefs to the victory.
“That’s what we have to do; we make plays,” said Berry, who had his first interception of the season. “When we are in position, we’ve got to make them. We feed off each other … we emphasize it in practice. This didn’t just happen.”
Overall, it was the most solid four quarters of football the Chiefs have played this season and it brought an end to what had been 42 days of football hell as they lost five straight and pretty much crushed any hopes they held of making the AFC playoffs. Before Sunday, their last victory was in the season opener back on September 13 against the Houston Texans. They are now 2-5 on the season.
“It’s the high of highs right there,” said Smith, who threw for 251 yards without an interception. “It was nice to get rewarded. A good week of preparation – I think that’s what starts it – and today making the plays.”
Pittsburgh was without starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (knee) and backup Michael Vick (hamstring). Jones made his first NFL start, but the now 4-3 Steelers still had weapons like running back Le’Veon Bell (17 carries, 121 yards) and wide receiver Antonio Brown (6 catches for 124 yards).
Pittsburgh had two plays of more than 40 yards, but had only the single touchdown in their 10 offensive possessions.
“I don’t think I played very well; I’ve got to make more plays out there,” said Jones. “I can’t turn the ball over and there were so many opportunities to go out there and win that game. You can’t win when you play like that.”
The Chiefs had limited offensive weapons without Charles, who underwent surgery on the torn ACL in his right knee last week and Maclin, who did not play after suffering a concussion in last Sunday’s game in Minnesota. That’s where West and Conley got their opportunities. West ended up running for 110 yards on 22 carries, including a 36-yard run. Conley caught six passes for 63 yards.
The busiest players in the first half were the kickers, as the halftime score of 9-3 was established with field goals. Kansas City’s Cairo Santos hit from 22, 27 and 30 yards, but missed a 54-yard attempt. Pittsburgh’s Chris Boswell made a 24-yarder.
The successful field goals all came because neither offense was productive inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. The Steelers had a first-and-10 at the Chiefs 14-yard line and couldn’t get near the end zone. Kansas City’s offense had possessions on first down at Pittsburgh’s 13-, 19- and 9-yard lines and settled for three pointers on all three opportunities.
“That was frustrating because we had the opportunities,” said Smith. “We did what we had to do there and kept pushing it, and then at the end we were able to get the two touchdowns.”
It was late in the third quarter before a touchdown was added to the scoreboard, as West dove over the pile on a third-and-goal snap just inches off the goal line. Santos’ PAT kick gave the Chiefs a 16-3 lead.
But Landry moved Pittsburgh in for a touchdown just before the end of the period, connecting with wide receiver Martavis Bryant on a 19-yard scoring pass. Bryant made an ankle-buckling double move on Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith, who fell down and allowed Bryant wide open access to the end zone. That cut the deficit to 16-10. Pittsburgh later added another field goal from Boswell, this one from 36 yards, and the Steelers pulled within three points.
But the Chiefs’ offense put together one of its best drives of the last month, as Smith took the team 84 yards on eight plays before he connected with a Conley on the TD pass. The PAT kick gave the Chiefs a 10-point lead with just over five minutes to play.
Tomlin indicated he feels good about Roethlisberger returning to the field for the Steelers when they face the AFC North leading Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field next Sunday.
After losing five straight, the Chiefs were feeling good again as they get ready for a busy week where they will head to London where they will play the Detroit Lions next Sunday.
“Being 1-5 isn’t an easy thing in the National Football League,” said Chiefs head coach Andy Reid. “But these guys kept battling. They did it in practice and they did it today. You saw the results of how they went about their business. Guys made plays.
“It’s important that we keep building on that. We’re not there yet. We are going to have a few distractions with the London trip and we’ve got to eliminate those and stay focused on the Lions.”