PITTSBURGH - The Pittsburgh Steelers remain in the thick of the AFC playoff race.
They know, however, they're not exactly playing playoff-caliber football.
The latest stumble came in an ugly 13-9 victory over Kansas City on Sunday night as the defending AFC champions let the undermanned and offensively challenged Chiefs stay in the game until the final minute.
Sure, Pittsburgh improved to 8-3 and remained in a tie with Baltimore atop the AFC North. Sure, the Steelers won for the sixth time in seven games on the strength of four turnovers. Sure, they made enough plays to avoid an embarrassing collapse against an overmatched opponent.
Yet it wasn't exactly 60 minutes of crisp football. The offense managed just 13 points and 290 yards while turning it over twice. The defense let former Pitt quarterback Tyler Palko come within a minute of pulling off one of the biggest upsets of the season.
"You're happy to get the win, but also disappointed with how the offense played," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "I think that's what team is all about. The defense stepped up huge for us today and they carried us."
It really didn't have a choice after the Steelers fumbled away a scoring opportunity on Mewelde Moore's fumble near the Kansas City goal line in the first quarter and couldn't take advantage of prime field position on several occasions.
Roethlisberger passed for a season-low 193 yards, though that number would have been much higher if not for a pair of costly drops by normally sure-handed speedster Mike Wallace. The offensive line let the Chiefs get into the backfield with regularity and the running game continued to operate in fits and starts.
Rashard Mendenhall needed 17 carries to muster 57 yards and while Moore provided a spark, he also fumbled at the Kansas City 2.
"Tonight, I think we had our first setback," Roethlisberger said. "I don't think it's anything to panic over. It's one game against a good defense in a hostile environment."
One that seemed to rattle the Steelers, who haven't exactly lit it up on the road this year. Pittsburgh is 4-2 away from Heinz Field but only looked sharp in small patches even against mediocre teams like the Chiefs.
It makes getting homefield advantage throughout the playoffs a priority, though the Steelers need some help to make sure they don't have to hop on a plane if they make the postseason. Pittsburgh needs the Ravens to finish a game behind in the standings to win the division. Baltimore holds the tiebreaker after sweeping the Steelers this season.
The playoffs, however, remain six weeks away. Though the schedule is friendly - two games against woeful Cleveland along with home dates against the Bengals and Rams - Pittsburgh has made a habit of playing to the level of the competition.
Against the Chiefs, it was finding ways to let Kansas City hang around for far too long. Pittsburgh committed six penalties and couldn't convert turnovers into touchdowns.
"[It was] Steelers versus Steelers," coach Mike Tomlin said. "Beating yourself is going to put you in position to have to make plays at the end, like we did."
Yet Pittsburgh hung around despite missing All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu for almost the entire game after being diagnosed with concussion-like symptoms following a low tackle on 6-foot-6, 290-pound Kansas City tackle Steve Maneri .
Tomlin said the team held Polamalu out as a precaution. It's the second time this season Polamalu has left a game early following a blow to the head. He missed the final few snaps of a win over Jacksonville last month but played the following week against the Cardinals.
"I don't know at this juncture if it was a concussion, I want to be clear," Tomlin said.
Polamalu will be re-evaluated during the week as the Steelers go for a sweep of surprising Cincinnati.