Fortunately for the Chiefs, at least one of their pair of 1,000-yard receivers added to the list this week, Tyreek Hill, has been cleared to play. Tight end Travis Kelce, the other one, failed to clear protocols Sunday and will not suit up when the Chiefs (10-4) host the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-6-1).
The Chiefs are listed as 10-point favorites in an important game for AFC playoff positioning.
“It’s a crazy thing, in motion, fluid,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said of a list that grew to 13 earlier in the week. Starting linebacker Nick Bolton and starting offensive lineman Lucas Niang had been listed along with Kelce as being questionable, but all three were ruled out for Sunday along with three assistant coaches.
Kicker Harrison Butker was ruled out early in the week, leaving Kansas City to find Elliott Fry as a replacement.
Practice has not been altogether different than normal 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 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, Niang, 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) have been ruled out for the Steelers. Starter Devin Bush began the week on the COVID-19 list with Zach Banner and Marcus Allen.
–Field Level Media