Palko somehow kept Chiefs in game until the very end


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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- When highly paid analysts trot out the term "matchup nightmare," they are generally praising an offensive player who stalks the uncomfortable dreams of defensive coordinators league-wide.

"He's a matchup nightmare," is an insider compliment generally directed at a tight end or a wideout who requires more potent antidotes than the defense often has in its bag. But the matchup nightmare at work in this little slice of Missouri prime time was too obvious to dwell on, it being nothing more or less than what was reflected in the won-loss records of the starting quarterbacks.

It hardly seemed worth pointing out that Ben Roethlisberger was 76-32 as an NFL starter, and that Tyler Palko was 0-1.

That would be like listing the drastically different body mass indexes of an elephant and a mouse. So how come the mouse was still darting about late Sunday night, still torturing the elephant, still nearly bringing the offensively challenged Kansas City Chiefs within 40 yards of an inexcusable upset of Mike Tomlin's team?

No good reason, other than Palko's long-admired heart, which is still just about the totality of what he brought to Sunday Night Football, not that it should ever be underestimated.

More than 70,000 mid-American voices had booed him heartily, called for his backup, the suddenly-preferrable Ricky Stanzi, whose only qualification was that he was even more inexperienced than Palko.

But with four minutes remaining, Palko drove the Chiefs from their 30 to the Steelers 32, converting a third-and-4 to fellow Pitt standout Jonathan Baldwin, finding Dwayne Bowe for 10 yards on fourth-and-8, hitting Steve Breaston for 8 yards on third-and-4 to put the Chiefs face-to-face with a miracle.

But after a false-start penalty pushed him back to the 37, Palko looked for Bowe again in front of Keenan Lewis and threw high. Lewis snatched the game's third Steelers interception and a 13-9 Steelers victory was delivered.

"Obviously not the outcome we wanted, three interceptions and one fumble," Tyler said. "It hurts; it stings a lot. We were in the game late. It stings a lot when you're responsible for four turnovers and it has to end like that. All the interceptions were on me and the fumble was on me. Any time the ball leaves your hands you're responsible for it.

"No excuses."

Palko, a former West Allegheny and Pitt star, had taken the long and rutted back roads to his first NFL start only six days earlier against Tom Brady (a 34-3 thumping) and now here was Roethlisberger on the stage of Palko's first home start, barely a more favorable arrangement.

Palko's still got Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers on his December appointment calendar, and in his own dreams is probably scheduled for head-to-head meetings with Joe Montana, John Elway, Dan Marino, Otto Graham and Slingin' Sammy Baugh.

Given his mammoth disadvantage in experience, the Palko Meets Big Ben show Sunday night might not have been irredeemably atrocious, but it was plenty bad.

Palko presented the Steelers with three turnovers before halftime, or half as many takeaways as they had managed all season.

That the Steelers somehow managed to duct tape together nothing more impressive than a 13-6 lead after having taken possession at the Kansas City 38, the Kansas City 7 and the Kansas City 24, was the small miracle that gave the Chiefs hope for some extended drama whether they deserved it or not.

One possession after he fumbled the snap away to Brett Keisel, Palko misfired up the left sideline and had the sharp misfortune of having Ike Taylor actually catch the football -- that's how you know you're having a bad game -- and Ike returned it the Chiefs 7 to set up the field goal that erased the only Kansas City lead and made it 3-3.

One possession after that, Palko threw a truly awful pass in the general direction of wide receiver Bowe, the problem being that it was in the precise direction of Steelers safety Ryan Mundy, who caught it at the Kansas City 24.

Roethlisberger floated a pretty pass to the back line of the end zone five plays later, just over the hands of nickel back Sabby Piscitelli and onto the fingertips of tight end Weslye Saunders for a 2-yard touchdown and a 10-3 lead.

It was on those two throws that the difference in the quarterbacks was most evident, and it's a great credit to Palko that he kept his team so very much in the football game. By halftime his passer rating had dropped to 43.6 and by the end of a scoreless third quarter, it resembled the speed limit of some rutted back road -- 30.

"At times he did a lot of good things," Chiefs coach Todd Haley said.

And at times Roethlisberger did not.

But the gap was too wide, mismatch-wise and nightmare-wise.


Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com .


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