In a hotel suite in Pittsburgh last Saturday night, Denver
Broncos coach Mike Shanahan talked about his team's sudden sense
of urgency. Three weeks earlier the Broncos had been sailing
along at 9-1, looking like a lock for home field advantage
throughout the AFC playoffs. Now as they prepared to play the
Pittsburgh Steelers, they were 11-2 and fighting to keep sole
possession of the AFC West lead. The Kansas City Chiefs were
lurking a game back and giving no reason for anyone to believe
they wouldn't win their final three games--against the Oakland
Raiders, the San Diego Chargers and the New Orleans Saints. If
Kansas City ran the table and Denver lost one of its last three
games, the Chiefs would win a tiebreaker over the Broncos (by
virtue of a better division record). In other words, one slipup
and Denver was looking at a wild-card berth--no first-round bye
and probably only one home playoff game.
Which makes the egg that Denver laid on Sunday against the
Steelers (10-4) all the more astonishing. The 35-24 defeat at
Three Rivers Stadium was a steamrolling, eerily similar to the
stunning 30-27 playoff loss the Jacksonville Jaguars pinned on
the Broncos last January. Jacksonville had scoring drives of 50,
80, 65, 75, 88 and 74 yards; Pittsburgh had scoring drives of
81, 80, 50, 78 and 57 yards. The Jaguars' big back, 242-pound
Natrone Means, ate Denver alive, with 140 yards rushing, just as
243-pound Jerome Bettis did on Sunday, with 125 clock-eating
yards. Jacksonville quarterback Mark Brunell passed for 245
yards and two touchdowns; Pittsburgh quarterback Kordell Stewart
threw for 303 yards and three touchdowns, and he ran for 49
yards and two more scores. "The Steelers ran over us like we
weren't there," Denver free safety Steve Atwater said. "Did they
have a thousand yards?" Actually Pittsburgh piled up 476.
Afterward, aware that the Chiefs had shut out the Raiders, the
Broncos talked bravely about road playoff games not being a huge
obstacle, but who were they kidding? Of course, where Denver
plays won't matter if it can't stop the other team. Considering
how Bettis and Stewart dominated, the Broncos' off-season
acquisition of defensive linemen Neil Smith and Keith Traylor
and cornerback Darrien Gordon seemed like wasted money.
"We have to get ready to take the long road in the playoffs," a
resigned quarterback John Elway said. "We've got to remember
we're still 11-3."
Next, Denver travels to San Francisco for a Monday-night game
against the 49ers, who are 12-2 and trying to hold off the Green
Bay Packers for home field advantage in the NFC. What's worse,
that night the Niners will retire Joe Montana's number and
possibly will welcome back Jerry Rice from knee surgery (page 72).
"See you guys again," Pittsburgh guard Jim Sweeney told Denver
guard David Diaz-Infante as they left the field after Sunday's
"You know it," Diaz-Infante said.
If there's a rematch, it will most likely be at Three Rivers. A
month ago, who would have thought that was possible?