PITTSBURGH — t PITTSBURGH -- Maybe these Buffalo Bills are different, after all.
Maybe this is not just Jim Kelly's team, or Thurman Thomas' team, or Bruce Smith's team.
When the Bills bounced the Pittsburgh Steelers, 24-3, yesterday to advance to their third straight AFC championship game, they proved to be masters of improvisation.
That was Mitch Frerotte, an obscure offensive lineman, catching a touchdown pass in the second quarter, not Andre Reed.
That was Kenneth Davis rushing for 100 yards against Pittsburgh's stubborn defense, not Thomas, whose effectiveness was hampered by a painful hip pointer.
That was Frank Reich slicing through a suddenly vulnerable Steelers secondary for a pair of touchdown passes, not Kelly, the team's Pro Bowl quarterback.
"We've been playing well the last two weeks," said Smith, who delivered a big sack and forced a fumble despite playing with cracked ribs. "It's not just one person who made
all the plays today. That's the way it should be."
The Bills' first playoff victory on the road in 11 years assured them of one more road trip next week. They will meet the winner of today's AFC semifinal between the San Diego Chargers and Miami Dolphins.
Asked if he had a preference, Smith found a silver lining in the Bills' travels as an AFC wild-card team.
"It doesn't make any difference," he said. "All we know is we're going someplace warm."
The Bills came in out of the freezing cold of Three Rivers Stadium with a new formula for victory. They won with big-play defense, with backups making the difference, and with a little help from the opposition.
The matchup of former Maryland quarterbacks was won by Reich, who completed 16 of 23 passes for 160 yards in a near-perfect imitation of Kelly. Neil O'Donnell, playing for the first time since he cracked his right fibula on Dec. 6, was 15-for-29 for 163 yards but committed three first-half turnovers that robbed the Steelers of momentum.
Pittsburgh crossed midfield all five times it had the ball in the first half, but came away with just three points. O'Donnell threw two interceptions, one on a tipped pass, and lost a fumble when he was sacked -- and stripped -- by Smith.
"You play at this time of the year and you can't turn the football over," said Steelers' first-year coach Bill Cowher. "We did that and dodged it a couple of times. . . . We had opportunities to get up on them, we just couldn't do that today."
The Steelers struck for a 3-0 lead on Gary Anderson's 38-yard field goal in the first quarter after Buffalo failed to convert fourth-and-one at the Steelers' 45. A third-down sack by linebacker Darryl Talley snuffed the drive after the Steelers reached the 12-yard line. That was the closest they would get to the goal line all day.
Before the first half ended, O'Donnell was intercepted by cornerbacks Nate Odomes and James Williams.
"Any time you go down the field to the red zone and don't score, it lets a team down," Odomes said. "It might have had an effect."
The Bills, meanwhile, took a 7-3 lead when Reich flipped a 1-yard touchdown pass to Frerotte, who lined up as a tailback in the backfield. It was Frerotte's third touchdown catch of the year, but both previous scores came as a tight end. Reich nearly fell while backpedaling, and Frerotte turned the wrong way, but it was still a touchdown.
The Steelers lost their best defender, cornerback Rod Woodson, after he took a shot to the head returning a punt in the second quarter. In the third quarter, the Bills went after his replacement, Sammy Walker.
Walker was beaten on three pass plays and called for pass interference on a fourth during an 80-yard, 13-play touchdown drive. James Lofton got behind Walker for a 17-yard touchdown catch that made it 14-3.
One play earlier, Richard Shelton dropped a would-be interception and an almost certain score on a pass intended for Don Beebe.
"Sometimes when you're playing hard, you have good things happen to you," said Bills coach Marv Levy. "There was a key play in our second touchdown drive where Shelton had the ball in his hands. He might have gone all the way, and then the next play we scored."
The pass, one of Reich's few mistakes, was a turning point.
"I've got to read the cornerback," Reich said, "whether he's going to drop or cover the receiver. I thought he dropped. It was a bad read on my part."
Then, on the touchdown pass, Reich was ready to throw a short, safe screen pass to Davis on third down. "I was ready to settle for a field goal," he said.
But when the Steelers played bump-and-run on Lofton, Reich went for the touchdown.
The Steelers' last chance to get back in the game was probably lost late in the third quarter. They had moved down the field behind Barry Foster's slashing runs to a first down at the Buffalo 21. Foster gained six yards on first down to go over 100 for the game. But on second and third downs, both of O'Donnell's short-yardage passes fell incomplete.
Finally, a 33-yard field-goal attempt was aborted when holder Mark Royals mishandled the snap and lost 15 yards. The Steelers went quietly after that.
Buffalo added a 43-yard field goal by Steve Christie and a 1-yard touchdown run by Carwell Gardner in the fourth quarter to finish the scoring.
"There was a lot of pressure this week," Reich said. "Everyone was saying we hadn't won a playoff game on the road in a long time. I knew Pittsburgh was awfully good. I think we overcame a lot of things today."