The Pittsburgh Steelers' dreams of a Super Bowl run were crumbling, and Denver Broncos defensive end Alfred Williams was making sure that the Men in Black and Gold knew it. The Broncos had jumped to a 21-7 lead in the second quarter of a Dec. 7 game at Three Rivers Stadium, a matchup that would go a long way toward determining which of these elite teams would earn a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs. For two decades it has been nearly impossible for a team that played in the wild-card round to reach the Super Bowl—much less win it—and Williams's badgering reflected the magnitude of the moment. He talked smack to Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher and yapped nonstop at the Steelers' Jerome (the Bus) Bettis, telling the Pro Bowl halfback, "The Bus is grounded today, baby. The wheels are coming off."
By the fourth quarter it was Denver's bandwagon that was grounded. Pittsburgh fought back for a 35-24 victory, with the 243-pound Bettis gaining 74 of his 125 yards after halftime. The defeat dropped the Broncos behind the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West race, dooming them to the wildcard round and a postseason of probable futility. By the regular season's end Denver was in the same position as last year's San Francisco 49ers, who, despite a 12-4 record, finished second in the NFC West behind the Carolina Panthers and were eliminated by the Green Bay Packers in a second-round playoff game at Lambeau Field.
The Steelers, meanwhile, rode the Denver victory to an AFC Central title and a first-round bye. Whether the Bus and his friends will make the journey to San Diego for Super Bowl XXXII on Jan. 25 remains to be seen, but they have a heck of a head start. Since 1978, when the NFL added a second wild card in each conference, 100 teams have been forced to play an extra game to reach the second round. Only one, the '80 Oakland Raiders, won the Super Bowl, and just two others, the '85 New England Patriots and '92 Buffalo Bills, made it to the title game.
If the Broncos can't buck history, they'll undoubtedly look back to that chilly afternoon in Pittsburgh as the day their dream began to slip away. Williams certainly won't forget the way Bettis rubbed it in during the game's latter stages, yelling, "Alfred, where you at? I can't hear you. What were you saying back in the first quarter? Could you repeat it for me, Alfred? Please?" Predictably Williams didn't have much to say in the way of a comeback. "That's typical," Steelers fullback Tim Lester says. "When we run all day on a team, people shut up. It's a sign we've worn them down and destroyed their will."
It's a mental game Pittsburgh plays as well as any team, and one that could be the deciding factor in these playoffs. The Steelers boast the league's No. 1 rushing offense, while the other three teams that received byes—the Chiefs (fifth), 49ers (eighth) and Packers (12th)—all rank in the top half. Along with the playoff-bound New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the 8-8 Tennessee Oilers, Pittsburgh, Kansas City and San Francisco are the only teams that ran the ball more than they passed in '97. In a year when marquee runners have enjoyed a revival, it's logical to expect a back such as Bettis, who finished third in the league with 1,665 rushing yards, to claim center stage come playoff time.
There are two basic tenets about offense in the playoffs: One, it takes a great quarterback to elevate a team to the championship; and, two, a team can't succeed in the postseason if it can't run the ball. Nine of the past 10 Super Bowl winners have outgained their opponents on the ground, though that may be a function of the one-sided nature of most of those matchups. A more telling statistic is that in each of the last 10 NFC Championship Games, the winner—and eventual Super Bowl champion—outrushed the loser.
"Over the years I've seen so many AFC teams abandon the run when they get to the big game," Bettis says, alluding to his conference's 13-game Super Bowl losing streak. "That's not going to happen this year."
While the Steelers place their rushing fate in Bettis's hands, the Chiefs run by committee. Kansas City coach Marty Schottenheimer won't tip his hand, but it is widely believed that in crucial playoff moments he will turn to 37-year-old Marcus Allen, a future Hall of Famer who has scored more touchdowns (145) than any NFL player except Jerry Rice. Even the Niners and Packers, both practitioners of the pass-happy West Coast offense, have leaned heavily on the run this season. Garrison Hearst, San Francisco's key off-season acquisition, became the first Niner to break the 1,000-yard barrier since Ricky Watters in 1992. Green Bay's Dorsey Levens, in his first year as a starting halfback, got a Pro Bowl berth by running for 1,435 yards.
Partly because of their productivity, and partly because of their upbeat personalities, Bettis, Allen, Hearst and Levens are more popular in their locker rooms than Oakley shades. But each player has seen his share of dark days, and if there's one thing these lour backs have in common, it's an ability to charge past adversity.
JEROME BETTIS CLEARING HIS NAME