Steelers are Super-serious this time Spurred by memory of bitter title defeat to underdog Chargers

January 14, 1996|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

PITTSBURGH -- The pain lasted for nearly a month, but this was one wound time could not fully heal.

"The memory never goes away," said Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Neil O'Donnell. "We were only inches away from going to the Super Bowl, man. Inches.

"It took me a month of walking on the beaches in New Jersey to get it out of my system. But I will never forget."

It has been a year since San Diego linebacker Dennis Gibson knocked down O'Donnell's fourth-down pass to running back Barry Foster inside the Chargers' 1-yard line with 68 seconds left in the AFC title game.

The Chargers were 8 1/2 -point underdogs that day, but left with a 17-13 victory and an invitation to the Super Bowl, which they lost to the San Francisco 49ers, 49-26.

Pittsburgh left that cold, gray day with bitterness and some unfinished business, which the Steelers plan to finalize today in the AFC championship against the Indianapolis Colts at Three Rivers Stadium.

"I'm not going to talk about last year, but there is a definite sense of urgency among the older guys here. We may not have any more chances," said Steelers linebacker Kevin Greene, 33. "We're going to have a very professional work ethic and attitude."

It's a completely different Steelers attitude from a year ago. One week before the Steelers played the Chargers, Pittsburgh tight end Eric Green and some teammates made a Super Bowl rap music video. Defensive lineman Ray Seals created his own Steelers T-shirts and predicted the Chargers would be shut out. Fellow defensive lineman Brentson Buckner choreographed an end zone dance and discussed cutting a rap album.

The Steelers had gone Hollywood.

"We talked the talk, but when it came to walk the walk, we were humbled," said Seals. "We had played Cleveland twice in three weeks, so there was a lot of trash-talking. We got caught up in the hype."

But last Saturday, after the Steelers defeated the Buffalo Bills, 40-21, in a conference semifinal, there were no long-winded celebrations in Pittsburgh's locker room.

The Steelers are on a mission. They want a shot at the Super Bowl, a ring and all the endorsements that go with a championship.

"Everyone keeps talking about that San Diego game, that we took them lightly," said Steelers coach Bill Cowher. "I thought we played well that day, but San Diego just made bigger plays. Maybe we weren't as focused as we needed to be, but that won't be a problem this year. We're not taking the Indianapolis Colts lightly."

The Colts don't care. They are a wild-card team that didn't qualify for the playoffs until the final weekend of the regular season.

They were underdogs going into their wild-card game with San Diego two weeks ago, and were 9 1/2 -point underdogs last week against the Kansas City Chiefs.

And yet, here they are in the conference championship game. The Colts aren't sweating the Steelers' status as 11-point favorites.

"This team has grown accustomed to not getting any respect," )) said Colts defensive end Freddie Joe Nunn. "We just play, and fight to the end. We're not used to being here, so we don't take anything for granted. We're in the final four of the playoffs. We all know what is on the line in Pittsburgh."

The Colts will be without running back Marshall Faulk, who will miss his third straight game because of a knee injury. He will be replaced by Lamont Warren.

A victory over the Steelers would put the Colts in the Super Bowl for the first time since they won it as the Baltimore Colts in 1971.

"We're like the Dead End Kids; nobody expected us to do much," said Colts coach Ted Marchibroda. "The only reason all this media is here is because there is no other place to go. There are only four teams left.

"We wanted the playoffs, but I don't think we could envision this. But once we got into the playoffs, we felt it was wide-open, and I think that has been proven. The closer we get, the better we see the top of the mountain."

One that got away

The Pittsburgh Steelers today can erase the memory of last year's disappointing finish to the AFC championship game against the San Diego Chargers. Leading 13-10 with 9:57 remaining, the Steelers allowed the Chargers to go 80 yards for the game-winning score.

Success . . .

Down ........ Spot .... Play

1st and 10 .. SD20 .. Natrone Means runs right for 1 yard

2nd and 9 ... SD21 .. Stan Humphries 23-yard pass to Alfred Pupunu

1st and 10 .. SD44 .. Humphries 8-yard pass to Pupunu

2nd and 2 ... P48 ... Means runs left for 1 yard

3rd and 1 ... P47 ... Means runs 8 yards around right end

1st and 10 .. P39 ... Means loses 4 yards

2nd and 14 .. P43 ... Humphries 5-yard pass to Shawn Jefferson

3rd and 9 .. P38 ... Harry Swayne penalized 5 yards for false start 3rd and 14 .. P43 ... Humphries 43-yard TD pass to Tony Martin

. . . and frustration

The Steelers took over with 5:13 remaining, and drove inside the

Chargers' 10, only to be foiled on four plays.

Down ........ Spot ..... Play

1st and 10 .. P17 .... Neil O'Donnell 17-yard pass to Eric Green

1st and 10 .. P34 .... O'Donnell 7-yard pass to John L. Williams

2nd and 3 ... P41 .... O'Donnell 13-yard pass to Ernie Mills

1st and 10 .. SD46 ... O'Donnell 4-yard pass to Williams

2nd and 6 ... SD42 ... O'Donnell 3-yard pass to Williams

3rd and 3 ... SD39 ... O'Donnell 9-yard pass to Green

1st and 10 .. SD30 ... O'Donnell 21-yard pass to Green

1st and 9 ... SD9 .... Barry Foster loses 1 yard

2nd and 10 .. SD10 ... O'Donnell pass incomplete to Green

3rd and 10 .. SD10 ... O'Donnell 7-yard pass to Green

4th and 3 ... SD3 .... O'Donnell pass incomplete to Foster

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