KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The most interesting thing Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell said after another record-setting playoff performance had nothing to do with his numbers. He didn't want to celebrate his 170 yards or the way his team rode his back for 30 carries in an 18-16 AFC Divisional win over Kansas City. Instead, Bell set the tone with one quick comment about Pittsburgh's next opponent, the New England Patriots.
"We have a little chip on our shoulders," Bell said of next Sunday's AFC Championship Game matchup. "We feel like we owe those guys one."
Bell was referring to the Steelers' 27-16 loss to New England on Oct. 23, but he might as well have been talking about the mindset Pittsburgh needs to avenge that defeat. The Steelers aren't winning that road game without the same tenacity they displayed against Kansas City or the dominant running of Bell. He once again was Pittsburgh's best player for the second straight playoff game. If he holds that title for a third straight week, the Steelers may very well be advancing to the ninth Super Bowl in franchise history.
That's how prolific Bell has become for this team. He broke the team playoff record by rushing for 167 yards in a 30-12 AFC Wild Card win over Miami last weekend. He then set a new mark against the Chiefs with the same patient darting and dancing style that has made him the most unique runner in the NFL. Even though the Steelers only managed six field goals in this victory, they controlled the tempo of the game simply by handing the ball to their Pro Bowl back continually.
"I had no idea where I was at [statistically]," Bell said. "When I heard I broke the record, I thought, That's crazy. I had just broken it a week ago. But I have to give a lot of credit to the offensive line. Those guys did a great job. There were a lot of times where I wasn't even touched until I was six yards downfield."
It is right to praise the Steelers' offensive line, both for the job it's done for Bell and the way it's protected quarterback Ben Roethlisberger all season. It's also important to recognize the run Bell has enjoyed over the last couple months. As much as people have talked about the dominance Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has sustained during his team's eight-game winning streak, Bell has been just as stunning in helping Pittsburgh to nine straight victories. The only difference is that Bell's team wasn't tanking when he exploded, and he didn't have to utter any postseason guarantees.
Bell has rushed for 1,172 yards over his last eight games (he didn't play in Pittsburgh's season-ending win over Cleveland). He's also added 34 receptions and scored nine total touchdowns. The only reason we're not talking about him more is that he shares his notoriety in an offense that features Roethlisberger and All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown as well. But this is quickly turning into the postseason when Bell -- and that offensive line -- decides how far the Steelers ultimately go.
"They're playing on rhythm," said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. "They're getting hats on hats and Le'Veon is doing a wonderful job. They need no endorsement from me. They've been balling at a high level."
The only thing Bell couldn't do against Kansas City was punch the ball into the end zone. Even though he gained 101 yards on 18 carries in the first half, the Steelers settled for four field goals by kicker Chris Boswell to build a 12-7 lead after two quarters. Pittsburgh faced the same problem in the red zone in the second half. They finished with no touchdowns despite four trips inside the 20-yard line for the entire game.
Bell understood that it would take more than field goals to beat New England. The entire Steelers team also sensed that they'd just produced the type of performance that increases a squad's confidence as it moves forward. The Steelers weren't scoring touchdowns because they had to fight for everything they ultimately got against the Chiefs. They'll face the same type of obstacles next Sunday night in Foxborough, Mass.
The good news for them is that they're poised to unleash Bell at a time when he's ready to take the next pivotal step in his four-year career. He's always been a dynamic talent, but it's his reliability that's often been the question. This season he missed Pittsburgh's first three games for violating the league's banned substances policy. Another drug suspension cost him two more games in 2015, while a knee injury sidelined him for eight other contests that season.
Even when Bell enjoyed his best year as a pro -- when he generated 1,361 rushing yards and another 854 receiving in 2014 -- he had no impact in that year's postseason. A hyperextended knee sustained in a season-ending win over Cincinnati kept him out of that year's AFC wild card loss to Baltimore. So this is finally Bell's time to prove what he can do in the playoffs. As he said, "I always feel like I can play better. There are always runs that, when I look back on it, I think I could've had more, but I think I've been playing pretty well. And we got the win, so that's the biggest thing for me."
That's the right attitude for any player to have at this time of year, especially now that the NFL has whittled the postseason field down to the final four. There's far less room for error and plenty more needs for superstars to shine brightest. The Steelers have had more than enough opportunities to see what life is like without Bell on this stage. If he keeps going the way he has, they'll be even happier to see where he ultimately might lead them.