KANSAS CITY, Mo. – He darted through the middle, waited a moment and made his choice. Le’Veon Bell, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ dazzling running back, went left and confused a defender, upfield as two Kansas City Chiefs chased him.
Thirty-eight yards he went, Bell’s longest run of his second consecutive outstanding playoff performance, and as much as anything it was an exercise in speed and patience and, for the Chiefs, exhaustion.
Bell had done this through Sunday evening’s AFC semifinal, and by the time he chugged those 38 yards Kansas City was tired and befuddled. Defenders knew what was coming – how could they not, considering Bell’s 101 rushing yards on 18 carries in the first half – but there wasn’t much they could do. They kept watching Bell run, 30 times for 170 yards, in Pittsburgh’s sloppy 18-16 victory at Arrowhead Stadium.
The Steelers will face the top-seeded New England Patriots next Sunday in Foxborough, Mass., the NFL’s toughest team in one of its most unforgiving venues, and the reason Pittsburgh’s best chance is its 225-pound running back.
He is smart and methodical, a slow killer of playoff hopes, and again and again on Sunday the Chiefs tried to stop him and just couldn’t. Again and again he would take the ball and wait, hiding almost behind a blocker, and pick his lane. It’s what he does, and what his team does – and did Sunday in a contest whose kickoff was pushed back more than seven hours to avoid an ice storm that never arrived – is wear down defenses and punish them for trying.
A week earlier, he demoralized the Miami Dolphins with 167 yards, a franchise playoff record that lasted a cool seven days, and the Steelers and offensive coordinator Todd Haley, a former Chiefs head coach, made it clear early that Bell would be Pittsburgh’s best weapon.
It wasn’t the team’s other stars, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who entered Sunday with a bad ankle, and wide receiver Antonio Brown (though Brown helped seal the win with a third-down catch late in the fourth quarter). It wasn’t even Chris Boswell, the Steelers’ reliable kicker who, on a foggy and chilly night, broke an NFL playoff record with six field goals.
It was a painful way for Kansas City’s season to end, and though the Chiefs were the AFC’s No. 2 seed and had beaten Pittsburgh during the regular season, history is unkind in these parts. The Chiefs hadn’t won a home playoff game since 1994, Joe Montana and Marcus Allen leading a team from the heartland into the AFC championship game, and now they still haven’t. They will be talking about missed opportunities for a long time here, most specifically the surgical drive quarterback Alex Smith led in the fourth quarter.
They will talk about how tight end Travis Kelce, one of the team’s most talented players, dropped a pass and a few minutes later shoved a Pittsburgh defensive back, drawing a 15-yard penalty. They will talk about Coach Andy Reid, who has taken a disorganized franchise and made it a playoff regular, spent two of his timeouts before the two-minute warning.
And they will talk about that holding call that effectively ended Kansas City’s dream season. Smith kept spinning magic on that late possession, converting a pair of fourth downs and handing off to Spencer Ware for a two-yard touchdown. Needing two points to tie, Reid called a quick pass for Smith, who found Demetrius Harris in the end zone.
Eric Fisher, the offensive tackle and former No. 1 overall pick, was called for holding, making things more difficult for Reid and Smith, who on his second try forced a pass toward Jeremy Maclin, but two Pittsburgh defenders knocked it away.
It was that kind of night, and the next few months will pass slowly here. They’ll have plenty to talk about, but the thing they will remember most is how Bell kept torturing the Chiefs, kept waiting and choosing, kept finding an opening to crush a stadium full of hopes a little bit at a time.