PITTSBURGH -- The farewells were premature for the Buffalo Bills last season, but yesterday may have been the Bills' final curtain call as one of the league's greatest teams during the past decade.
Buffalo looked old and worn in a 40-21 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in an AFC semifinal playoff game before 59,072 at Three Rivers Stadium yesterday.
The Bills (11-7) gave a good effort, and even made another attempt at a miracle comeback when quarterback Jim Kelly threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to running back Thurman Thomas that cut the Steelers' lead to 26-21 with 11:23 left in the game.
But Pittsburgh (12-5) is a team on a mission. The win was secured by Bam Morris' 13-yard touchdown run with 6:16 left on about as determined an effort as a runner can give, and Morris scored on another run nearly five minutes later.
"Ever since we lost to San Diego in the conference championship a year ago, our desire has been to get to the Super Bowl from Day One," said Morris, who rushed for 106 yards on 25 carries.
"No disrespect to Buffalo because they gave a great effort, but I believe their best days are over and ours are here now," said Morris.
There will be few arguments after yesterday. On a day when defensive end Bruce Smith stayed in Buffalo with the flu, the Steelers either double-teamed or ran away from Smith's All-Pro linemate Bryce Paup. Pittsburgh picked on the Bills' inexperienced secondary for 262 yards passing, 169 in the first half when the Steelers took a 23-7 lead.
Thomas' legs had little life, and Kelly's arm seemed just as tired. His passes floated, his timing was off, and the Bills had no deep threats. Both Thomas (ankle) and Kelly (separation of the collarbone and breastbone) came back from injuries that cost them playing time, but Kelly also threw two interceptions in the game's final seven minutes in addition to the touchdown pass to Thomas.
"Their offense was never in sync," said Pittsburgh inside linebacker Levon Kirkland, who intercepted Kelly's last pass with 3:46 left in the game to set up Morris' final touchdown run. "Their receivers were coming out of the break, but the ball wasn't there. When it was there, Jim was telegraphing the play."
Steelers quarterback Neil O'Donnell wasn't entirely sharp either, but he was excellent in the first half, especially reading blitzes.
The Steelers scored on their first two possessions, first on a 1-yard run by John L. Williams with 9:29 left in the first quarter, and then on a 10-yard pass from O'Donnell to receiver Ernie Mills over the middle 42 seconds into the second quarter.
Pittsburgh had a 20-0 lead with 4:22 left in the half.
"In the first half, they couldn't stop us," said O'Donnell. "We did everything we wanted to do. Then in the third quarter we got in a lull, and out of rhythm. We're going to have to do something about that before next week."
Conservative play-calling, bad field position and poor punting allowed Buffalo back in the game.
The Bills took possession at the Steelers' 42 with 5:27 left in the third quarter, and four plays later backup quarterback Alex Van Pelt passed 2 yards to tight end Tony Cline for a touchdown that pulled the Bills within 26-14.
Then with about 13 minutes left in the game, Kelly jogged from the locker room back onto the field. He threw the touchdown pass to Thomas to bring the Bills within five. But Pittsburgh had been in this situation before.
"Just like San Diego in the conference championship where we had to drive the length of the field at the end of the game, only to fall 3 yards short on the possible game-winning drive," said Morris.
The Steelers weren't sweating. O'Donnell took them 76 yards in nine plays, including one leaping 21-yard reception by receiver Yancey Thigpen down the right sideline on third-and-eight at the Steelers' 41.
"That's the play of the game," said O'Donnell. "It turned the momentum around."
It also set up Morris' 13-yard touchdown run, putting the Steelers the AFC championship game against the winner of today's Kansas City Chiefs-Indianapolis Colts game. It ended Buffalo's chance to advance to a fifth Super Bowl with such familiar faces as Kelly, Thomas, defensive lineman Phil Hansen and linebacker Cornelius Bennett.
Kelly, who got in a shoving match with Steelers defensive end Ray Seals during the game, was still feisty afterward.
He said Mills was out of bounds on his touchdown reception and that the officials missed a couple of pass-interference calls.
"The NFL got their prayers answered," said Kelly. "We're not in the playoffs anymore. So did the NFL officials. They've stunk the whole year."
Steelers defensive end Brentson Buckner responded: "Yeah, yeah, yeah, excuses, man. The officials. The crowd noise. The weather. Bruce Smith didn't play. Great teams overcome adversity. We have all year. Tell the Bills they just got their butts kicked.
"It's over, and now we move on to other business. We don't have time to celebrate, and this year we aren't doing a Super Bowl rap video until we get there."
NFC divisional game
Teams: Philadelphia (11-6) at Dallas (12-4)
Time: 12:30 p.m.
TV: Chs. 45, 5
NFC divisional game
Teams: Indianapolis (10-7) at Kansas City (13-3)
Time: 4 p.m.
TV: Chs. 11, 4