It’s not just an American Football Conference championship. It’s also a pride thing. The last time the Denver Broncos made a trip to Three Rivers Stadium was Dec. 7, when the Broncos blew a 14-point first-half lead and lost 35-24 to the Pittsburgh Steelers, costing Denver home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The Broncos haven’t forgotten, particularly watching Steelers coach Bill Cowher repeatedly running on the field to hug and high-five his players. And the Steelers can’t forget, especially after a few of the Broncos suggested last week that Denver had in fact lost the game and gave it to the Steelers.
Let the game begin. It’s the Steelers against the Broncos today in Round II at Three Rivers.
“We have a nice little collection of bulletin board material up,” said Pittsburgh receiver Yancey Thigpen. “But that’s no good unless we go out and do something about it. Now it’s time to roll up the sleeves and go to work.”
“Bill Cowher is very irritating to me,” said Broncos veteran defensive end Alfred Williams in a published report last week. “I just don’t like the guy.”
The Broncos are trying to become the fourth wild-card team to reach the Super Bowl.
The playoffs have been a revenge tour for Denver. The Broncos beat Jacksonville 42-17 a year after the Jaguars had knocked them out of the playoffs. Last week, Denver beat Kansas City 14-10, avenging an earlier loss to the Chiefs this season.
Now it’s back to Three Rivers, where the Steelers have won eight in a row and 22 of their past 24.
“This can be a tough place to play in January - cold, noisy, hostile. Just the way we like it,” said Steelers running back Jerome Bettis.
“Going into Kansas City and doing what we did, that was a big confidence-booster,” Elway said. “We hadn’t won a big game against a good football team in a tough situation in a long time. By winning a big one on the road, we were able to get over the hump. It kind of got another skeleton out of the closet, got another monkey off our backs.”
Elway is another element that makes this game interesting. At age 37, he is a three-time Super Bowl loser and within a game of reaching a fourth.
He may never get this close again.
On the other side of the field is Steelers second-year quarterback Kordell Stewart, who doesn’t have the arm strength of Elway but possesses the same elusiveness Elway had when he was younger.
“You’ve got to control Kordell, minimize his damage,” said Broncos safety Tyrone Braxton. “The key word is contain. With John, he won’t leave the pocket as fast as he used to, but he still makes big plays on the run.”
The two teams have other similarities. Both have physical offensive lines. Denver has running back Terrell Davis, who has been the best runner in the league the past two seasons after Detroit’s Barry Sanders. The Steelers have Bettis, a k a The Bus.
Bettis runs with sheer power and deceiving speed. Davis has a good blend of both.
“We’re going to run it,” said Cowher. “But if you want to go to the big game, you have to be able to do both.”
Pittsburgh appears to have an edge over Denver in stopping the run. The Steelers allowed a league-low 3.3 yards a carry and haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in 19 consecutive regular-season games.
Denver has had trouble stopping the run and is ranked 16th in the league against the rush.
Pittsburgh linebacker Greg Lloyd will not play today, but his agent wants people to know the reason is a lot more serious than the sprained ankle that has bothered him all season and has sidelined him since Nov. 23.
“The guy almost died,” Dick Bell told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, referring to a staph infection that caused Lloyd to lose 16 pounds and had him on intravenous fluids for six weeks.
Bell was particularly annoyed at the speculation that the infection was caused by acupuncture treatments and criticism that it was taking Lloyd too long to return.