The Super Bowl defeat suffered by the Kansas City Chiefs last season provides motivation entering the playoffs but remains a setback that can be compartmentalized.
After all, considerable work remains for the two-time reigning AFC champion before booking a Super Bowl appearance in mid-February. The path begins to unravel Sunday when the Chiefs host the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wild-card round at Kansas City, Mo.
The Chiefs are easily the biggest favorites of Wildcard Weekend, with the line at 12.5 points at BetMGM and FanDuel. That has led to split action, with Pittsburgh backed by 55 percent of the bets and 50 percent of the spread-line money at BetMGM while Kansas City has been supported by 55 percent of both markets at FanDuel.
"It's in the back of my mind but for the most part it's a new year," Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce said about the NFL's ultimate prize. "You've got to focus on things that have happened this year. We're on a goal to prove to ourselves who we think we are, and we know we are, and that's Super Bowl champions."
The Pittsburgh matchup will be a rematch of a Dec. 26 clash Kansas City dominated 36-10 with Kelce sidelined in COVID-19 protocol. The Chiefs went on to go 12-5 while winning nine of their final 10 games and claiming their sixth consecutive AFC West title.
Kansas City has reached the AFC championship game in each of the previous three seasons, primarily engineered by stalwart quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
"When you get to that playoff game day, you have a little bit different intensity knowing that every play is critical and it could really end your season by making a mistake," Mahomes said. "At the same time, you want to be loose, you want to have fun and you want to enjoy it."
Mahomes passed for 258 yards and three touchdowns in the first meeting with the Steelers. The Chiefs also forced three turnovers and limited Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to 159 yards passing.
The Chiefs' defensive intensity that day followed a trend that began after acquiring a longtime Steeler, Melvin Ingram. Ingram proved instrumental a week ago when he crashed into the backfield to generate a bone-jarring strip the Chiefs converted into a late touchdown return in a 28-24 win at Denver.
"He's the swag champ," Kelce said, adding that "you saw how much more fun people were having" after Ingram joined the defensive front.
At times, Mahomes has struggled with his accuracy, but he overcame an early-season rash of mistakes to lead the Chiefs to the league's third-best production, 396.8 yards on average.
He passed for 4,839 yards while counting on Kelce and Tyreek Hill as 1,000-yard receivers. The committee approach to the backfield could continue with Clyde Edwards-Helaire (shoulder) ruled out and Darrel Williams (toe) listed as questionable.
Second-seeded Kansas City, a two-time Super Bowl champion, will make its seventh consecutive postseason appearance and last faced Pittsburgh in the playoffs in 2016. The Steelers won 18-16. Pittsburgh, a six-time Super Bowl champion, reached the playoffs for the second straight season but last won a postseason game in 2016.
Roethlisberger, whose career could end with the Steelers' next loss as he considers retiring from football, lamented the long odds his team faces after going 9-7-1 and drawing the No. 7 seed.
"I would assume, as a group, you understand that we probably aren't supposed to be here," said Roethlisberger, who is dealing with a strained pectoral and shoulder.
"We probably are not a very good football team. Out of 14 teams I think are in, we're probably number 14. We're double-digit underdogs in the playoffs. So, let's just go play, have fun and see what happens."
Tongue in cheek? Probably. A dose of realism? Yes, that too.
Still, Pittsburgh got in by defeating Baltimore in the season finale and getting help from Jacksonville beating Indianapolis and Las Vegas beating the Los Angeles Chargers in overtime.
Running back Najee Harris (elbow) was deemed good to go on Saturday. Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster also is expected to be activated from injured reserve, where he's been since sustaining a shoulder injury in October. Cornerback Arthur Maulet (concussion) also has been cleared to play against the Chiefs.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin gained some satisfaction getting to restrict the all-out aggression of Harris, a 1,200-yard rusher as a rookie.
"It's a good issue and problem to have," Tomlin said, "when you have a guy that's wired the way that he's wired."
--Field Level Media