PITTSBURGH — PITTSBURGH -- The Denver Broncos couldn't have found a better place to conclude their Revenge Tour yesterday than Three Rivers Stadium.
The Broncos wanted to play where they had been embarrassed earlier this season. They wanted the game to be played against a storied NFL franchise on national TV where the country could watch them make one final drive for a Super Bowl with a team of aging players, including a quarterback who has never won the Big One.
John Elway & Co. will bid for another Super Bowl title after the Broncos defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers, 24-21, in the AFC championship yesterday before a crowd of 61,382.
The Broncos will play the defending champion Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXII in two weeks in San Diego, a fifth trip for the franchise to the game's premierevent. But before the Broncos traveled back to Denver to begin their Super Bowl celebrations, they had to take a few parting shots at the Steelers, who had beaten them, 35-24, Dec. 7 after the Broncos blew a 21-7 halftime lead.
"All week long we heard about how good the Steelers were, how they had the Big Three of Kordell Stewart, Yancey Thigpen and Jerome Bettis," said Broncos cornerback Darrien Gordon. "They were being compared to Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris and John Stallworth. We heard about how tough it was to win here because the ghosts of past greats haunted the place. Where were the ghosts today?"
Broncos defensive end Neil Smith was a bit more diplomatic.
"Take a look around," said Smith. "We have some young players here, but guys like myself, Tony Jones, Ray Crockett, Gary Zimmerman and John Elway, the veterans, we know this might be our last opportunity at a ring. We know the owner loaded up and brought us in for one reason, that's to win a Super Bowl. And to do it here, what we've been through, is amazing."
It's been a great playoff run by Denver. The Broncos avenged last year's playoff loss to Jacksonville by defeating the Jaguars, 42-17, in the wild-card game. Then the Broncos beat Kansas City on the road last Sunday, 14-10, after the Chiefs had beaten them 24-22 earlier in the season. And then the Revenge Tour was made complete with yesterday's win over the Steelers, with Denver becoming the fifth wild-card team to reach the Super Bowl.
"I'm glad we played Kansas City and Pittsburgh on the road," said Broncos defensive end Alfred Williams. "If we had played at home, we would have gotten cocky and wouldn't have been as hungry. We may not have made the big plays we needed to
The Broncos won because they took Pittsburgh running back Jerome Bettis out of the game by taking an early lead and forcing the Steelers to rely on the erratic arm and inexperience of Kordell Stewart, who committed four turnovers in completing his first season as the Steelers' starting quarterback. They won because the Steelers couldn't handle the Denver receivers, who combined for 18 receptions for 210 yards, or running back Terrell Davis, who ran for 139 yards on 26 carries.
And the Broncos won because they have Elway.
Who else would come up with the big play in crunch time? Faced with a third-and-six from his own 15 with two minutes left in the game and Denver clinging to a 24-21 lead after a Pittsburgh touchdown its previous possession, Elway fired a bullet to tight end Shannon Sharpe for an 18-yard gain. First down.
Then on the next play, Elway faked a handoff to Davis around left end, bootlegged right and threw a cautious, yet great touch pass to wide receiver Ed McCaffrey for 10 more yards. Another first down. End of game.
"They had been playing their guys off and they were bringing a lot of zone blitzes, and we thought at the time the thing to do was for everybody to run hitch patterns and get the first down," said Broncos coach Mike Shanahan. "They came out and played bump coverage, which is exactly what we didn't want to see. John had five choices on the play and he chose Shannon. That ball was right there on the break. There aren't too many quarterbacks who will make that play."
Elway is on his own personal revenge tour. He has played in three Super Bowls without a win. He has the sentiment of a nation behind him this time.
"Since I've been there before, I think it's more about a football game than all the hoopla that goes around it," Elway said of the Super Bowl. "I think the first couple of times you go there you think about all the different types of things going on. I'm already focusing on the game. We have one left to complete our goal.
"We've been working on this since April," he said. "I'm not happy about getting back to the Super Bowl. I want to win it."
Elway, 37, out-dueled Stewart, 25. Elway completed 18 of 31 passes for 210 yards and two touchdowns. Stewart completed 18 of 36 for 201 yards, but threw three interceptions. The most costly may have come on second-and-goal at the 5 with 8: 17 left in the third quarter. Stewart underthrew slot receiver Charles Johnson on a quick slant across the middle into triple coverage and the pass was intercepted by middle linebacker Allen Aldridge to stop the Steelers' first possession of the third period after Denver had taken a 24-14 halftime lead.
Another costly one occurred on a second-and-one from the Broncos' 34 with 4: 40 left in the half when Stewart threw into double coverage for Thigpen and his pass was intercepted by Crockett.
Then there was the Stewart fumble that stopped another Steelers' drive at the Denver 32 on the last play of the third quarter.
"The last time we played him, we stayed in straight man-to-man coverage," said Gordon. "This time we gave him a little bit of everything from bump and run to zone blitzes. He was definitely confused out there. I think he is going to be a great quarterback, but he still has a lot to learn. When you take Bettis out of the game, they become pretty one-dimensional. There are only so many trick plays you can beat a team with in the playoffs."
Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher defended his quarterback.
"This is not on Kordell Stewart. This is not about him. Hey, we still had our opportunities and we just couldn't find a way to get them done," said Cowher, whose on-field pounding of the Steelers after big plays had angered the Broncos in the previous meeting. "There is so much critiquing done of the quarterback. That kind of goes with the territory. He made some good throws. In the two-minute offense, he takes us down the field."
Both teams scored in the first quarter, the Broncos on an 8-yard touchdown run by Davis and the Steelers on a 33-yard run around right end by Stewart.
But Denver owned the second quarter, even after Bettis' 1-yard run gave the Steelers a 14-7 lead 2: 18 into the period. Jason Elam got the Broncos started with a 43-yard field goal with 8: 20 left left in the half, followed by a 15-yard touchdown pass in the left flat to fullback Howard Griffith with 1: 47 left. Then there was a 1-yard touchdown pass from Elway to McCaffrey with 16 seconds remaining to culminate a four-play, 54-yard drive that lasted 30 seconds -- and could have been quicker if the officials would have granted McCaffrey a touchdown on his diving bid two plays before.
Down 24-14, the Steelers controlled the third quarter, having the ball for 10: 45, but Pittsburgh came away with two Stewart turnovers and no points. Denver allowed the Steelers to get back in the game with a prevent defense late in the game that led to a 14-yard touchdown pass from Stewart to Johnson with 2: 46 remaining, but then it was Elway's time.
"I've been around some great quarterbacks like Joe Montana and Steve Young, but the quarterback I want in that situation is John Elway," said Denver linebacker Bill Romanowski. "He just gives you such confidence. The Steelers said they wanted to ride The Bus [Bettis], well they can, home for the off-season."
Wild-card teams that have played in the conference championship game. (Note: There was one wild-card team for each conference from 1970-77. Bolded team indicates wild card. The year listed below indicates the season.
Conf. Yr Result
AFC '71 Dolphins 21, Colts 0
NFC '72 'Skins 26, Cowboys 3
NFC '75 Cowboys 37, Rams 7
AFC '77 Broncos 20, Raiders 17
AFC '78 Steelers 34, Oilers 5
AFC '79 Steelers 27, Oilers 13
NFC '80 Eagles 20, Cowboys 7
AFC '80 Raiders-x 34, S.D. 27
AFC '83 Raiders 30, S'hawks 14
AFC '85 Pats 31, Dolphins 14
NFC '86 Giants 17, Redskins 0
NFC '87 Redskins 17, Vikings 10
NFC '89 49ers 30, Rams 3
AFC '92 Bills 29, Dolphins 10
AFC '95 Steelers 20, Colts 16
AFC '96 Pats 20, Jaguars 6
AFC '97 Broncos 24, Steelers 21
x-won Super Bowl.
Pub Date: 1/12/98