Happiness this week is being a TV repairman in Cleveland. Can you imagine? Just think how many shoes, bricks, bottles, remote-control clickers and clam dip bowls went through Cleveland picture tubes on Sunday.
When NBC delivered proof that the Denver Broncos had used luck, pluck and a seeing-eye extra point to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, it meant that for the third year in the last four, the Cleveland Browns would have to change planes in Hell to get to Heaven. It meant that for the poor Browns to win the AFC title, they must go to Chez Elway—Mile High Stadium—and beat the dreaded Broncos, the team that put the cleave in Cleveland's dreams in both 1987 (The Drive) and '88 (The Fumble). What can Browns fans expect from Denver this Sunday, The Trap Door?
And to think that Cleveland was within one point of staying home and hosting upstart Pittsburgh, which outplayed Denver left, right, up, down and everywhere but on the scoreboard. "The best team did not win today," said the Steelers' 230-pound running back, Merril (as in barrel) Hoge, and he might be right. Using Hoge's impossibly gritty performance and the shoot-me-because-I'm-not-gonna-die will of quarterback Bubby Brister, the slower, younger, talent-poorer Steelers came thisclose to pulling off the upset of the year.
Browns fans could barely stand to look. One field goal banked in off an upright. A key dropped pass went unseen by the officials. A blocked extra-point attempt from the toe of Denver kicker David Treadwell somehow wobbled across the bar by the hair of his chinny-chin chin strap. And when Brister fumbled an ankle-high shotgun snap with two minutes left, the end came to the best game Pittsburgh had played all season—make that in many seasons.
January 15, 1990
The Steelers arrived in Colorado as 10-point underdogs, wearing their 9-7 regular-season record—worst among the playoff teams—like a tattoo. They were outscored by 61 points during the year and outgained in every game but three. This team was Cinderella, working the ballroom in a burlap strapless.
And here was Denver, 11-5, the first team in the NFL to clinch a division crown and an odds-on favorite to spend the last week in January eating jambalaya in New Orleans. "It's going to come down to you and Bubby," Bronco coach Dan Reeves told quarterback John Elway before the game. Wait a minute. John Elway versus Bubby Brister? Beef Wellington versus Spam?
But Reeves was right. Denver had a Bubby blister right from the coin flip. Before the Broncos could clear their throat, Brister had staked the Iron City to a 10-0 lead after a seven-yard touchdown run by Hoge (as in dodge). Hoge not only became the first anybody to run 'for 100 yards against Denver this season, but he also did it in the first half. How can a slow-footed fullback from Pocatello, Idaho, go for two straight 100-yard games in the first two playoff games of his life? Maybe the secret is in his locker back at Three Rivers Stadium—it's Franco Harris's old one.
The Broncos finally got in the game midway through the second quarter with six points from Melvin Bratton's one-yard back dive, but Treadwell's PAT attempt was blocked by Aaron Jones. Well, kind of blocked. "All I heard was two thumps, my foot kicking it and somebody blocking it," said Treadwell.
Said Jones, "It hit my hand. I thought I had it blocked." But the ball belly flopped a foot over the crossbar and died happily on the other side. Jones had a gnawing in his stomach. "I had that feeling that we might need that," he said.
Brister came back with a little buttonhook TD pass to Louis Lipps six minutes later, and the worms were eating the fish 17-7, with 26 seconds to go before half-time. But before the gun could sound, Denver got back in it on two bits of pure Rocky Mountain mother-lode luck. Elway hooked up with Ricky Nattiel for 15 yards, even though replays showed that the ball took a little hop off Nattiel's chest, onto the grass and back into his arms. What about it, Ricky? "Replays lie," said Nattiel with a straight face.
That's when Treadwell ricocheted one in off the left upright to make it 17-10. "Ugly but effective," he said.
Until then, the Steelers had stopped Elway the only way anybody knows how: They kept him standing on the sideline with his helmet off. He only had the ball on four possessions. Sooner or later, however, Elway will throw a spiral through your heart, and he did it not two minutes into the second half with a 37-yard vector to Vance Johnson that tied the game 17-17.
Brister answered that tit with two tats, driving for two consecutive field goals to put Pittsburgh in front 23-17. Along the way, he threw to guys nobody had ever heard of—Mark Stock, for instance—and let Hoge make like Red Grange (final numbers: 120 yards running, 60 catching). The Steelers seemed bulletproof. At one point, Bronco linebacker Karl Mecklenburg nearly put a forearm through Brister's forehead, but Bayou Bubby wouldn't leave the game. He was so woozy that in one huddle his outlandish play call prompted his teammates to stand up, look questioningly at the sideline and call timeout. Whaddaya mean, run to the Buick and I'll fake it to you?
Hoge was so drop-dead tired in the fourth quarter that on one occasion Brister literally picked him up and dragged him back to the huddle. Pittsburgh was playing on nothing but guts and memory. And it was working. Still, there was an itchy feeling on the Steeler sideline. "When we were getting our threes, we should've been getting sixes," said Hoge.
And now Pittsburgh had left a window for Elway: 7:06 and 71 yards to go. "With the game on the line," said Mecklenburg, "there's nobody in the league I'd rather have than John Elway."
Done. Elway found regular-season MIA Mark Jackson on an 18-yard sideline pattern. Then, with a second-and-inches, he handed off to running back Bobby Humphrey, who pitched the ball back to Elway, who immediately said to himself, This is a bad play.
Everybody was covered. But Johnson broke toward the sideline, Elway launched the ball "into rightfield" (he's a former Yankee, remember) and Johnson's diving catch gave Denver a first down on the Steeler 26. From there, Reeves called Humphrey's number four straight times and Bratton's twice. Bratton's one-yard dive and Treadwell's one-thump extra point put the home team ahead by one.
Uh-oh, still 2:20 to play. Brister, for one, liked the look of things. "All we needed was a field goal," he said, "and we got the best field goal kicker in the league."
But Gary Anderson—already 6 for 6 in three-pointers in these playoffs—never jogged onto the field again. Stock dropped a cinch 20-yard gain on first down, and Brister had to throw the ball away on second. That left third-and-desperate. By now, the 75,868 fans were making a din you could hear in the back bowls at Vail. Worse, Brister was working with a new center—exhausted starter Dermontti Dawson had left the game on account of not getting enough air into his lungs—the 45-second clock was down to :01 and as hard as Brister stamped his foot for the snap, it wouldn't come. When he turned his head away for just a moment to look at the clock, the ball arrived, bounced off his ankle, through Hoge's fingers and into the welcoming embrace of Denver safety Randy Robbins. Cleveland Suicide Prevention Line. Can you hold?
Pittsburgh's locker room felt like anything but a loser's. "I think America woke up today," said Hoge. "Nobody gave us much respect. Ten-point underdog? That's ridiculous. We showed we're a good team."
Brister was slightly less diplomatic. "The guys on HBO said we didn't have a chance in hell to win," he said. "That Nick Buoniconti, I'd like to tell him where to go."
Meanwhile, safety Dennis Smith approached Elway in the Bronco locker room with his own message. "You're still the man around here," Smith told him. "I don't care what anybody says. You're the man, and you always will be the man."
For Elway, who has suffered a season of controversy and booing—it was his worst statistical campaign since his rookie year—Smith's words meant more than any piece of bronze or polished silver. "To hear it from a teammate," he said, "that meant a lot."
Now he is one game away from getting back on the Super Bowl horse that has bucked and trampled him twice in two tries. "A lot of people in Denver are afraid to go and face the NFC again," said Elway. "Nobody wants us to go. But I want a chance to step up to bat. It's like going oh for 4 against Nolan Ryan—you want to step up there again."
First, though, comes Cleveland. Hide the ashtrays.