Broncos ride on revenge to title Elway, veteran cast drive past Steelers for AFC crown, 24-21

January 12, 1998|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

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

make."

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."

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