KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Sometimes, Super Bowl hangovers do not occur at the start of the season. They sneak up on a champion and clamp it upside the head when it least expects it.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger left the game yesterday with a slight concussion, and his team departed Arrowhead Stadium with one giant headache after it dribbled away a 27-24 loss in overtime to the Kansas City Chiefs.
The high wire the champs have been straddling this season finally gave way. They fell and they fell hard to a Kansas City team that had won only four of its previous 34 games after rookie Ryan Succop kicked a 22-yard field goal with 8:28 left in overtime.
The Steelers' second consecutive loss dropped them to 6-4 and left them wondering about themselves for the first time in a long while.
"Each person has to look at themselves," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "We're all into it, coaches included; they're just as much involved as we are."
Indeed, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin took the blame for what he called a team not prepared.
"I take responsibility for that performance," Tomlin said. "I have to have this football team better prepared to play."
The Steelers outgained the Chiefs (3-7), 515 yards to 282, but the Steelers were done in again by turnovers, squandered chances in the red zone and what has become high comedy, another kickoff return for a touchdown against them. It was the fourth in five games, tying an NFL record for a full season.
Kansas City's Jamaal Charles returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a score. Those changes the Steelers made a week ago to their kickoff team? It looked as though they inserted Moe, Larry and Curly -- the Three Stooges.
"Man, special teams haven't helped us very much lately," linebacker James Harrison said.
Help never arrived for the Steelers yesterday in many forms.
Roethlisberger, who threw for a season-high 398 yards (32 of 42), tossed three touchdown passes, to Ward for 8 yards, Heath Miller for 10 and to Rashard Mendenhall for 8. But the normally sure-handed Miller also let one pass go through his hands as the Steelers seemed ready to put the game out of reach in the third quarter.
Leading 17-7 at halftime, the Steelers were poised to stretch their lead with a first down at their 48 on the opening drive of the second half.
Roethlisberger threw a perfect pass to Miller over the middle but the ball went through his hands at the 36 and popped up into the hands of Chiefs linebacker Andy Studebaker, making his first pro start because Mike Vrabel was hurt. The Chiefs' drive after the interception ended with Matt Cassel (15 of 30, 248 yards) throwing a 21-yard touchdown to Leonard Pope and the game was on at 17-14.
A distressed Miller -- who otherwise had a big game with seven catches for 95 yards and his touchdown -- took the blame for letting the ball and the game get away.
"I thought we ended the first half well," Miller said quietly. "We're driving down the field and I don't make the play and practically handed the ball to the other team. I felt it was a battle from there on in."
He had more company than the Steelers would have preferred. The Steelers drove again to a first down at the Chiefs' 10 in the third quarter. But Roethlisberger was hit when he tried to pass to an open Ward in the left corner of the end zone, and the ball fluttered into Studebaker's hands again 2 yards deep. He returned it 94 yards before Mendenhall made a saving tackle at the eight.
Succop tied the score with a 27-yard field goal at 17-17 and this most unusual contest entered the fourth quarter.
"Those first three or four drives in the third quarter left that team back in the game and gave them a chance to stick around," Ward said.
The Steelers' defense, though, finally forced a big play when Lawrence Timmons sacked Cassel, who fumbled. James Harrison recovered at the Kansas City 27, and five plays later Mendenhall caught a touchdown pass that gave them a 24-17 lead with 8:35 to go.
Just as quickly, the Chiefs struck back and shocked the NFL's second-ranked defense in doing so. The defense that prides itself on not allowing big plays gave up two of them on that drive -- consecutive passes by Cassel of 30 yards to Lance Long and 47 to Chris Chambers. Charles then caught a 2-yard touchdown pass to tie it at 4:54.
It seemed this growing nightmare might end when Ward called tails correctly on the coin flip and the Steelers began the first drive of sudden-death at their 20. They reached their 49 when, on second-and-3, Roethlisberger was sacked and injured and center Justin Hartwig also was called for holding.
Charlie Batch, though, came on to play for the first time since the 2007 season and rifled a pass to Santonio Holmes of 17 yards to give the Steelers a first down at the Kansas City 43. That became a third-and-2 at the 35 and Mewelde Moore ran a sweep toward the right end that lost 3 yards.
Tomlin elected to punt rather than try what would have been a 56-yard field goal.
Four plays later it was over, on the play after cornerback Ike Taylor dropped what would have been an interception at the 23.
The Chiefs had a third-and-5 at their 35 and Steelers defensive backs later said they did not get the play call before the snap. Cassel threw a short pass over the middle to Chambers, who ran toward the right sideline. Clark had a shot at him near the 30 and missed and Chambers made it to the 4 for a 61-yard gain.
Chiefs coach Todd Haley did not hesitate. He sent Succop, the last player drafted this year, onto the field and he kicked the ball and the Steelers home.
"We play like we played today, you deserve to lose," said nose tackle Casey Hampton, who had one of his team's five sacks.
"You play like that, that's the outcome."
For more on the Steelers, read the new blog, Ed Bouchette On the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Ed Bouchette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published November 23, 2009 5:00 AM