The Pittsburgh Steelers fought among themselves, yet there was no arguing with the result: A return trip to the AFC championship game.
The Steelers quarreled on the sidelines over their game plan, then almost copied that of last season’s AFC title game collapse. But they ultimately wore down the Bruce Smith-less Buffalo Bills for a 40-21 playoff victory Saturday.
Now, it’s back to the conference finals, where the Steelers blew a 10-point second half lead in losing to San Diego 17-13 last January. The Bills can only go home, where the flu-racked Smith and, as it would prove, the Bills’ pass rush spent Saturday.
“We have some unfinished business - a lot of unfinished business,” Steelers running back John L. Williams said. “We’re not celebrating this. We’ll save that for when we have something to celebrate.”
The Steelers play the winner of today’s Chiefs-Colts game in the Jan. 14 AFC title game. Pittsburgh will be at home only if the Colts win.
But perhaps the Steelers should hope to play on the road. In a near-repeat of the AFC finals, they watched a 20-point lead dissolve to a precarious five points before two Bam Morris touchdown runs in the final 6:16 saved them.
“Was I scared?” said Neil O’Donnell, who was 19 of 35 for 262 yards and two interceptions. “Personally, no, but I was looking at some of our guys and their eyes were a little big. I was just telling everybody to relax.”
So can America, which no longer must worry about another Bills trip to the Super Bowl. Buffalo is the only team to lose four consecutive Super Bowls.
“The NFL got their prayers answered, and so did the officials. We’re not in the playoffs any more,” said Jim Kelly, who threw for only 135 yards and two interceptions in the Bills’ third one-sided loss in Pittsburgh in as many seasons.
The Bills were angered by two calls. They felt linebacker Jerry Olsavsky interfered before making a critical fourth-down interception, and that Ernie Mills didn’t get both feet down on a second-quarter touchdown catch that made it 14-0. The officials ruled Mills was pushed out of bounds by two Bills defenders.
“(The officials) stunk the whole year, but that’s not why we lost,” said Kelly, who left briefly in the second half with an upper chest injury inflicted by a Greg Lloyd hit.
At first, the Bills seemed confused without Smith’s disruptive pass rushes and by a Pittsburgh game plan that all but dared them to run. The Bills ran for an AFC playoff record 341 yards against Miami last week, yet the Steelers opened the game with six defensive backs.
Lloyd was so distressed by the plan, he argued heatedly on the sidelines with coach Bill Cowher. The Bills seemed just as confused as Lloyd.
“We were mixing it in and out, just like we wanted to do,” defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. “Kelly is so gifted, we didn’t want to show him the same thing all day.”
The Bills also didn’t adjust initially when the Steelers began running away from All-Pro defender Bryce Paup, then, just as quickly, started running right at him.
Buffalo didn’t show much life until Steve Tasker, playing only after receiving a pregame painkiller, set up a 1-yard Thurman Thomas touchdown run and Alex Van Pelt’s 3-yard touchdown pass to Tony Cline with a 40-yard reverse and a 26-yard reception, making it 26-21.
Then the Steelers did what their Super Bowl teams did when in doubt: They returned to the run.
With O’Donnell suddenly off his game - he threw eight consecutive incompletions at one point in the second half - the Steelers began working the clock and the tired Bills defense with Morris’ running. Morris, out of shape and on the bench when the season began, finished with 106 yards on 25 carries, and the Steelers were home free.
“They have a herd of backs,” Bills center Kent Hull said. “They have a power runner in Morris, and Eric Pegram can turn the corner against you. They have all kinds of backs, and they use them all.”
The Bills are left to wonder if this team will ever make it back to the Super Bowl. They often looked as defenseless as they did in losing 23-0 and 23-10 in Pittsburgh the last two seasons, and Thomas, who gained 158 yards as Buffalo eliminated Miami, managed only 46 yards and sprained his right ankle on his third carry.
Steelers 40, Bills 21
Buffalo 0 7 7 7 - 21
Pittsburgh 7 16 3 14 - 40
Pit-J.L.Williams 1 run (N.Johnson kick), 5:31.
Pit-Mills 10 pass from O’Donnell (N.Johnson kick), :42.
Pit-FG N.Johnson 45, 7:29.
Pit-FG N.Johnson 38, 10:38.
Buf-Thomas 1 run (Christie kick), 14:15.
Pit-FG N.Johnson 34, 14:53.
Pit-FG N.Johnson 39, 6:36.
Buf-Cline 2 pass from Van Pelt (Christie kick), 11:33.
Buf-Thomas 9 pass from Kelly (Christie kick), 3:37.
Pit-Morris 13 run (N.Johnson kick), 8:44.
Pit-Morris 2 run (N.Johnson kick), 13:02.
Buf Pit First downs 18 23 Rushes-yards 21-94 43-147 Passing 156 262 Punt Returns 3-4 2-13 Kickoff Returns 8-133 4-71 Interceptions Ret. 2-22 3-12 Comp-Att-Int 18-39-3 19-35-2 Sacked-Yards Lost 2-6 0-0 Punts 5-40 5-33 Fumbles-Lost 3-1 1-0 Penalties-Yards 5-25 5-41 Time of Possession 21:56 38:04
Individual statistics RUSHINGBuffalo, Thomas 13-46, Tasker 1-40, Holmes 4-14, Van Pelt 2-8, Mohr 1-(minus 14). Pittsburgh, Morris 25-106, Pegram 8-33, Stewart 1-5, J.L. Williams 4-3, Mills 1-3, O’Donnell 4-(minus 3).
PASSINGBuffalo, Kelly 14-29-3-135, Van Pelt 4-10-0-27. Pittsburgh, O’Donnell 19-35-2-262.
RECEIVINGBuffalo, L.Johnson 5-28, Cline 3-36, Brooks 3-28, Thomas 3-12, Tasker 2-38, Reed 2-20. Pittsburgh, Mills 5-66, Thigpen 3-77, Hastings 3-39, Stewart 2-27, Pegram 2-21, Morris 2-7, Hayes 1-17, J.L.Williams 1-8.
MISSED FIELD GOALSBuffalo, Christie 52.
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