Pittsburgh's scrappy kid gets a few lessons from the old man

From The Sidelines

January 12, 1998|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

PITTSBURGH -- The old man with the glorious past met the kid with the glittering future in yesterday's AFC championship game. And in two weeks, the old man will be taking another swing in football's showcase game, while the youngster might still be digesting the mistakes that kept his team out of the main event.

Ultimately, Denver's 24-21 victory came down to Broncos quarterback John Elway, 37, showing the skill and poise of a future Hall of Famer, while directing Denver to the fourth Super Bowl berth in his storied, 15-year career.

It also came down to Stewart, the third-year sensation, making poor decisions at the worst times to punctuate his first full season as Pittsburgh's quarterback with a sour note.

Stewart came into the game with the well-earned reputation of rebounding from poor first halves with terrific, second-half efforts. His habit of directing second-half comebacks even brought Elway -- the master of the late-round, come-off-the-ropes knockout -- to mind.

Yesterday, Stewart directed the touchdown drive that cut Denver's lead to 24-21 with 2: 46 left in the game, but his sloppy moments in the second and third quarters made the hill too steep to climb for the Steelers.

With 4: 40 left in the first half, Pittsburgh led 14-10, and had the ball on the Denver 35. On second-and-two, Stewart chose to throw to Yancey Thigpen into the end zone, and into double coverage. Cornerback Ray Crockett wrestled the interception away from safety Steve Atwater. End of possession and end of momentum. The Broncos then drove 80 yards for the touchdown that gave them a 17-14 lead they would never relinquish.

Stewart followed that by blowing a 73-yard drive with a terrible pass midway through the third quarter. On second-and-goal from the Denver 5, somehow Stewart did not see three defenders standing in the way as he tried to deliver the ball to Charles Johnson in the end zone. Middle linebacker Allen Aldridge picked off the pass, preserving the Broncos' 24-14 lead.

Contrast the kid's shaky hand with the old man's grace under pressure.

There was Elway, calmly shaking off his early interception to erase the Steelers' early, 14-7 lead. How about that 18-yard laser he threw to Rod Smith down the middle with just under nine minutes left in the first half on third-and-10? That put Denver on the Pittsburgh 25, and it put kicker Jason Elam in position to kick a 43-yard field goal to cut the lead to 14-10.

Then, after Stewart's ill-advised toss to Thigpen, Elway showed the kid how it's done. Directing an 80-yard march with the help of a questionable pass interference call against Steelers cornerback Chad Scott, Elway completed all four of his passes for 57 yards, including a 15-yard scoring pass to Howard Griffith.

The next Elway blow followed. Starting with a pass interference penalty against Pittsburgh cornerback Carnell Lake, Elway crowned a 54-yard drive by finding wide-out Ed McCaffrey twice, including the 1-yard toss that put Denver in front at the half, 24-14.

Elway delivered the killer punch -- not while staging one of his fabled comebacks, but while protecting a tenuous, 24-21 lead. Just inside the two-minute warning, with the Broncos desperate for a first down on a third-and-six at their 15, Elway hit tight end Shannon Sharpe with a 18-yard completion, over linebacker Jason Gildon. Ballgame.

The kid figures to have his day down the road, but this one belonged to the old man. Some other observations from the sidelines:

Turning point: On the final play of the third quarter, Stewart's fourth turnover sent the rowdy Three Rivers Stadium crowd into a state of shock. With Denver leading 24-14 and the Steelers driving at the Broncos' 32, Stewart scrambled out of the pocket and was stripped from behind by Neil Smith. Defensive tackle Mike Lodish fell on the fumble, ending a quarter in which Pittsburgh went scoreless despite having the ball for nearly 11 minutes.

In good hands: Denver's 35-24 loss at Three Rivers five weeks ago was marked by eight dropped passes by the Broncos. No such sloppiness yesterday. Denver's receivers simply caught every good Elway pass, and threw in a few outstanding grabs, several by Smith. The sweetest was by fullback Griffith, whose 15-yard touchdown play started with a one-handed stab of an Elway swing pass. The score gave Denver a 17-14 lead with 1: 47 left in the first half.

What were they thinking?: Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher's decision not to run out the clock in the first half after Griffith's touchdown was questionable. The Steelers had just lost the lead, and before that, Stewart's first interception had killed a promising drive in the Denver end zone. Still, Stewart threw two incomplete passes, stopping enough clock to give Denver one more chance to score with 43 seconds left. Following a poor, 32-yard punt by Josh Miller, the Broncos made the Steelers pay by scoring another touchdown to take a 24-14 lead at the break.

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