The road to a fourth straight Super Bowl appearance must go through Pittsburgh.
Actually, this looked like another Super Bowl performance by the Bills, who were dominated on both lines of scrimmage in losing to the Steelers, 23-0, last night before a sellout crowd at Three Rivers Stadium.
Buffalo had beaten the Steelers five straight times, including a 24-3 victory in last year's second-round playoff game.
But it was different this time around despite Buffalo (7-2) having the league's best record. The Bills were hardly ever in the game as Pittsburgh (6-3) had the ball on offense for nearly 45 minutes.
The Bills played the second half without quarterback Jim Kelly. Kelly apparently suffered a concussion when he was sacked by Steelers defensive end Kenny Davidson on the next-to-last play of the half with 24 seconds remaining. Kelly threw incomplete on the next play as time expired.
Frank Reich, a former quarterback at Maryland, replaced Kelly to start the second half. The Bills also lost starting wide receiver Andre Reed with a wrist injury on their first possession of the third quarter.
Pittsburgh, though, kept mauling the Bills in the third period. On their opening drive of the quarter, the Steelers went 70 yards in eight plays as Neil O'Donnell finished the drive with a 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Eric Green off play-action.
The big plays in the drive were a 19-yard run on a reverse by receiver Ernie Mills and a 20-yard pass from O'Donnell to wide receiver Dwight Stone.
Pittsburgh scored again on its next possession as Gary Anderson kicked a 19-yard field goal to end an 11-play, 65-yard drive as the Steelers led, 20-0, with 2:23 remaining in the third period. Anderson kicked a 31-yard field goal with 10:33 left in the game to push the Steelers' lead to 23-0.
The Steelers accomplished just about everything they wanted to do in the first half except score more points. Their rushing attack dominated the first two quarters, and kept the Buffalo offense off the field as Pittsburgh took a 10-0 lead.
The Steelers rushed for 123 yards in the first half despite losing leading rusher Barry Foster with a sprained left ankle with 7:48 left in the first quarter.
Foster injured the ankle while attempting to catch a screen pass in the left flat.
But the Steelers didn't seem to miss Foster, the AFC's second-leading rusher with 688 yards on 172 carries. O'Donnell, the former University of Maryland standout, and running back Leroy Thompson picked up the slack, especially on Pittsburgh's first possession of the game.
O'Donnell, using short passes over the middle for 9, 10 and 12 yards, took the Steelers from their own 9 to the Buffalo 27 before Foster got hurt. Three runs by Thompson netted 18 yards, including a 9-yard touchdown run that put the Steelers ahead, 7-0, with 5:36 left in the first quarter.
Pittsburgh scored again, this time on a 37-yard field goal by Anderson, with 9:14 left in the half. Thompson was again the key player in the drive, rushing four times for 21 yards. Pittsburgh got as far as the Buffalo 19 when O'Donnell overthrew Mills in the right flat on third-and-one.
It was somewhat of a strange call since Thompson had been running well and the Steelers had rushed for 146 yards to that point.
Pittsburgh got inside Buffalo territory once more before the end of the half, but could only get as far as the 48 with 3:17 left.
Buffalo had very little offense in the first half. Kelly completed seven of 19 passes for 93 yards, and the Bills were out of rhythm. Most of their offense came on a 51-yard pass from Kelly to Reed to the Pittsburgh 31 with 31 seconds left in the half.
But even then Buffalo failed to execute. Kelly was sacked by Davidson for an 11-yard loss, and Kelly threw incomplete to Reed as time expired to end the half.
Pittsburgh had 175 yards in the first half compared to 116 for Buffalo. O'Donnell completed eight of 18 passes for 81 yards as Pittsburgh had the ball for 20 minutes and 25 seconds for the half.