PITTSBURGH -- If this was a statement game, then the Pittsburgh Steelers delivered a clear message to the Buffalo Bills last night.
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, before a sellout crowd of 60,265 at Three Rivers Stadium.
Buffalo had beaten the Steelers five straight times, including twice last season, one of those a 24-3 victory in a second-round playoff game.
But it was different this time, despite the Bills (7-2) having the league's best record. AFC East co-leader Buffalo, which played the second half without quarterback Jim Kelly, was hardly in the game, as AFC Central leader Pittsburgh (6-3) had the ball on offense for nearly 45 minutes.
Pittsburgh had 400 yards of total offense compared to 157 for Buffalo. The Steelers also were 10 of 18 on third-down conversions and had 227 yards rushing despite playing most of the game without leading rusher Barry Foster, who left in the first quarter with a sprained left ankle.
Foster said last night he probably will miss two games. His replacement, Leroy Thompson, finished with 108 yards on 30 carries.
"This is a big win, a very big win," said Pittsburgh quarterback Neil O'Donnell, a former Maryland standout, after completing 16 of 27 passes for 212 yards.
"We've really struggled with Buffalo in the past, especially last year, and this should give us more confidence heading into the last part of the season."
Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher said: "I've told the guys to keep this win in perspective, but it's really nice to beat the team that has won the conference title the last three years, and ended our season a year ago."
Kelly apparently suffered a concussion when he was sacked by Steelers defensive end Kenny Davidson on the next-to-last play of the first half.
The Bills also lost starting wide receiver Andre Reed with a wrist injury on their first possession of the third quarter. And Bills wide receiver Don Beebe had to leave the game in the fourth quarter with a mild concussion.
Pittsburgh, though, refused to relent after taking a 10-0 halftime lead. On the opening drive of the third quarter, the Steelers went 70 yards in eight plays as O'Donnell finished the drive with a 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Eric Green.
The big plays in the drive were a 19-yard run on a reverse by receiver Ernie Mills and a 20-yard completion from O'Donnell to Dwight Stone.
Pittsburgh scored 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 quarter. Anderson kicked a 31-yard field goal with 10:33 remaining to push the Steelers' lead to 23-0.
"I don't think they ever got in rhythm," said Rod Woodson, the Steelers' All-Pro defensive back. "We controlled the ball offensively, and took the long ball away from them. We didn't talk about revenge or anything, but we did want to show the nation we were a better team than the one that got beat in the playoffs last year."
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.
O'Donnell, using short passes over the middle for 9, 10 and 12 yards, took the Steelers from their 9 to the Buffalo 27 before Foster got hurt. Three runs by Thompson netted 18 yards, including a 9-yard scoring run that put the Steelers up 7-0 with 5:36 left in the first quarter.
Anderson's 37-yard field goal with 9:14 left in the half made it 10-0. 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 on third-and-one.
It was somewhat of a strange call because Thompson had been running well and the Steelers had rushed for 146 yards to that point.
Buffalo had very little offense in the first half. Kelly completed only seven of 19 passes for 93 yards. Most of the Bills' offense came on a 51-yard pass from Kelly to Reed down to the Pittsburgh 31 with 31 seconds left in the half.
But even then Buffalo failed to execute, thanks to Davidson's sack of Kelly.