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 game.
"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?