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Though the Steelers' 13-9 win at Kansas City lacked style points on Sunday night, it beat the alternative for a club that has endured some head-scratching losses in recent years.
Two seasons ago, Pittsburgh lost five games in a row, including a 27-24 defeat at Kansas City, an 11-point home underdog. Other shocking setbacks for the Steelers during that streak: a 27-24 home loss to Oakland as 15-point favorites, and a 13-6 loss at Cleveland as 10-point favorites.
The Steelers have ground out some narrow wins against foes not expected to give them much fuss. Exhibit A: The Colts have lost all 11 games in 2011, but just one by a field goal or less — and that was vs. Pittsburgh in Week Three. The Steelers held on to win 23-20.
Exhibit B: The Jaguars, with rookie QB Blaine Gabbert making just his second road start, fell 17-13 at Heinz Field. Only one of the Jaguars' other eight losses this season was that narrow.
Exhibit C was Sunday against a Chiefs club starting backup QB Tyler Palko and significantly compromised by injuries to several key players all season. Nevertheless, the Chiefs, who rebounded after a turnover-filled first half from Palko, held the Steelers scoreless in the final two quarters and had the ball with a chance to take the lead in the final minute. Only when a Palko pass for WR Dwayne Bowe was intercepted by Steelers CB Keenan Lewis on the Kansas City 14 and Lewis slid safely after a short return could Pittsburgh feel relief.
"Tonight we're excited about winning and winning on the road and making the necessary plays, particularly defensively down the stretch, the signature plays," head coach Mike Tomlin said afterward. "We produced turnovers tonight, which was big for us."
The PFW Spin
The takeaways were one of the major positives for Pittsburgh on Sunday night. The Steelers, who had forced six turnovers in their previous 10 games, intercepted Palko three times and forced him to lose a fumble.
Another reason why the Steelers should feel good: QB Ben Roethlisberger's broken right thumb didn't appear to hamper his passing. He completed 21-of-31 passes for 193 yards with one TD and one interception. He was sacked twice, though one was nullified by a Chiefs penalty.
The Steelers' defense played a sound game. Kansas City didn't score a touchdown and gained just 4.0 yards per play. The Chiefs didn't have a pass longer than 25 yards or a rush longer than nine yards. Also, the Steelers' special-teams play was solid. A Chiefs fake punt resulted in a first down but only a five-yard gain. PK Shaun Suisham hit both field-goal attempts, including a 49-yarder at the end of the first half.
While the Steelers did enough to win on Sunday, their performance, especially on offense, left something to be desired. A Mewelde Moore fumble into the endzone ended Pittsburgh's first scoring chance in the first quarter. The Steelers, so solid on third downs this season, converted just 3-of-11 on Sunday night. The running game was reasonably productive (108 yards on 28 carries) but lead back Rashard Mendenhall was held to 70 yards or less for the ninth time in his 10 games this season, gaining 57 yards on 17 carries. Also, the Steelers lost SS Troy Polamalu after he experienced "concussion-like symptoms," Tomlin said, though he said it's unclear whether Polamalu indeed had a concussion.
In the end, the Steelers got the win, and with three of their final games against Cleveland (twice) and St. Louis, they seem likely to stack the requisite victories for a playoff spot. It hasn't always been pretty for the Steelers, but they are in fine shape as November winds down.