Dec 12, 2021; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (87) warms up against the Las Vegas Raiders before the game at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

COVID absences affect Chiefs-Steelers matchup

Kansas City players forced to go through COVID-19 protocols this week gave the list a Pro Bowl feel.

At least that’s the impression made when a pair of 1,000-yard receivers, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, are among the players the Chiefs (10-4) hope to reinstate in time for a clash against the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-6-1).

The game is still scheduled for Sunday at Kansas City, Mo.

“It’s a crazy thing, in motion, fluid,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said of a list that grew to 13. Just one player in the group, Harrison Butker, got ruled out early in the week, leaving Kansas City to find Elliott Fry to replace Butker as kicker.

Of greater concern is the status of Kelce and Hill, go-to receivers who are adept at finding openings on both conventional routes and when Mahomes must improvise while dodging pass rushers.

Practice has not been altogether different with Mahomes throwing to less heralded receivers such as Mecole Hardman, Demarcus Robinson, Byron Pringle and Josh Gordon. Willie Gay and Gordon each got removed Wednesday from the COVID list.

“It wasn’t too different. Throughout practices, we try to let other guys get some reps in,” Mahomes said. “We let those guys rest their legs because with Travis and Tyreek, they run so many routes on game days.”

Still, Mahomes is realistic about the threats posed by each of his go-to receivers as Kansas City attempts to maintain its positioning for the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs and pad its seven-game winning streak.

“There’s obviously some routes that Tyreek and Travis can run that nobody else in this world really can,” Mahomes said. Just last week, each had 100-yard performances and combined for three touchdowns, including a 34-yard game-winning grab by Travis Kelce in overtime, as the Chiefs nipped the Chargers, 34-28.

Reid’s game plan against the Steelers will have to contain some contingencies due to not having key players available. Chris Jones, Lucas Niang, Nick Bolton, Rashad Fenton and Charvarius Ward were among other starters on the COVID list when practices began leading into the Pittsburgh matchup.

“We’re OK. We’ve got plenty of bodies and guys who want to play,” Reid said. “So that’s how nothing has really changed. We plug the next person in and here we go. That’s how we’re rolling now.”

The Steelers are coming off a 19-13 win over Tennessee that kept them in a bunched playoff chase, although their tie with Detroit keeps Pittsburgh a game behind five teams with 8-6 marks, including AFC North co-leaders Cincinnati and Baltimore.

“I’m not saying we’re peaking, or close to it, but we’re winning the close games, or we’re coming back or fighting. We know that there’s a little bit of life,” said Ben Roethlisberger, who has passed for 3,214 yards while also relying on the legs of rookie Najee Harris, who has 891 yards rushing.

T.J. Watt, who has recorded a club-record 17.5 sacks, leads a defensive effort that would focus on Mahomes despite the availability of other Chiefs threats.

“His arm talent, he can extend plays. He’s very elusive,” said the Steelers’ Taco Charlton, who played for Kansas City last season. “People try to say he’s not athletic, but he can turn it on when he wants to. The offense goes as he goes.”

Pat Freiermuth (concussion) and Chris Wormley (groin) did not practice for the Steelers when they began in-week preparations for the Chiefs. Starter Devin Bush began the week on the COVID-19 list with Zach Banner and Marcus Allen.

–Field Level Media

Dec 12, 2021; Nashville, Tennessee, USA;  Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) hands the ball off against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the second half at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

Titans keep targeting AFC’s top seed against Steelers

When the Tennessee Titans visit the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, the teams will be eyeing a win for very different reasons.

The Titans (9-4) sit in a three-way tie atop the AFC standings with four games remaining and have a chance to fend off the New England Patriots (9-4) and Kansas City Chiefs (9-4) for the conference’s top seed and only postseason bye.

Pittsburgh (6-6-1), meanwhile, needs every win it can get in order to squeeze into the postseason.

Tennessee, which snapped a two-game losing streak last weekend with a 20-0 blanking of the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars, possesses very little margin for error.

“I think we’ve kind of got back to our brand of football a little bit,” quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. “Defense did a great job of making plays on the ball, and obviously (pitched a) shutout. They did everything good. Offensively we did some good things. Obviously have some things to clean up, but excited to get a win and get rolling in that right direction.”

The Titans can clinch the AFC South with a win and an Indianapolis Colts loss to the Patriots on Saturday.

The Steelers have only one victory in their past five games — a run that began with an embarrassing home tie against the Detroit Lions and continued Sunday with a 36-28 road defeat to the Minnesota Vikings.

The Steelers stormed back in that one, nearly erasing a 29-0, third-quarter deficit, but they ultimately fell short on the final play. Now they find themselves 11th in the AFC standings, although they are a mere half-game behind a pack of five teams that sit at 7-6.

Veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger remains focused on making a playoff push in what may be his final season with the team.

“I’m living right here, right now and we’ve got to make a run,” Roethlisberger said. “We’ve got to play good football. We’ve got play great football, and that starts with me. I can’t get caught looking at the end because I need to focus on right here and this week.”

Roethlisberger has multiple TD passes in four of the last five games, and he threw for 308 yards last week — his second-highest total of the season. However, the 39-year-old veteran also took five sacks against Minnesota and acknowledged Wednesday that he was sorer than usual following the contest.

Tennessee had enough offense to get past Jacksonville last week, but it likely will need to be sharper against Pittsburgh. Tannehill has thrown multiple TD passes only once since late September, and the running game, without star tailback Derrick Henry, has hit a bit of a wall.

D’Onta Foreman has been held below 50 rushing yards in four of his five games this season. Perhaps he can get going against a Steelers run defense that allows 139.5 yards per game — third worst in the NFL.

Roethlisberger (pectoral/shoulder) did not practice Wednesday but should be good to go for Sunday. Cornerback Joe Haden (foot), who also sat out Wednesday’s practice, is in danger of missing his fifth straight game. Star linebacker T.J. Watt (groin) practiced on a limited basis Wednesday and will have his status determined closer to game day.

For the Titans, seven players sat out practice Wednesday, including cornerback Janoris Jenkins (ankle) and guard Rodger Saffold III (shoulder). Linebacker Harold Landry III, who leads the team with 11 sacks, was limited due to a hamstring injury.

The Steelers have won three straight in the series, including a 27-24 victory last season as Roethlisberger and Diontae Johnson hooked up for a pair of scores.

–Field Level Media

Nov 14, 2021; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA;  Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker Robert Spillane (41) takes the field to warm up before he game against the Detroit Lions at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Steelers add LB Robert Spillane to COVID list

Steelers linebacker Robert Spillane on Thursday became the third Pittsburgh player placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list this week.

Fellow linebacker T.J. Watt landed on the list Monday and offensive lineman Joe Haeg was added Wednesday.

Winless since Nov. 8, the Steelers (5-5-1) host the AFC North rival Baltimore Ravens (8-3) on Sunday afternoon.

Spillane, 25, has 26 tackles in 10 games (one start) this season.

Spillane has tallied 82 tackles, two sacks and one interception in 32 games (eight starts) with the Tennessee Titans (2018) and Steelers.

–Field Level Media