The Denver Broncos, thirsting for a chance to avenge a pair of Super Bowl blowouts, managed to advance a step in their quest on Sunday.
But they barely survived it against a team that knows all about getting blown out.
The Broncos beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 24-23, to move on to the AFC final at Mile High Stadium on Sunday against Cleveland, the team they beat in two thrillers that led to trips to the NFL's ultimate game.
But it took a 71-yard drive engineered by John Elway that led to Melvin Bratton's one-yard touchdown run for the winning score with 2:27 left. That was Denver's only lead against a team whose last-in-the-league offense dominated most of the contest, a team that had lost its first two games this season by a combined score of 92-10.
"It showed we had a lot of guts," Bratton said of the Broncos, who lost the 1986 and 1987 Super Bowls by something approximating that--81-30. Then he added, with only a slight misstatement:
"I'm glad I got it. In the past, every time I score the winning touchdown, we lose."
In fact, Denver had lost three of its past four games after clinching the AFC West with five weeks to go, although the Broncos still had the AFC's best record at 11-5.
Pittsburgh, by contrast, had to win five of its last six games to make the playoffs at 9-7, then beat Houston in overtime in the wild-card game.
But it was Pittsburgh that controlled most of the game as the unheralded Merril Hoge became the first back to run for 100 yards against the Broncos this season.
He finished with 120 yards in 16 carries and an 11-yard touchdown run. He ran for 75 yards in the first quarter alone as the Steelers jumped to leads of 10-0 and 17-7. But the Broncos tied it in a span of 2:28 on a 43-yard field goal by David Treadwell and a 37-yard pass from Elway to Vance Johnson.
Gary Anderson's field goals of 35 and 32 yards put the Steelers ahead, 23-17, before Elway began the drive that won the game midway through the fourth quarter.
Still, the Steelers, who averaged a league-low 251 yards, gained 404 against the Broncos, who allowed the league's fewest points and limited Pittsburgh to 170 yards and seven first downs in a 34-7 victory Nov. 5. And quarterback Bubby Brister matched Elway pass for pass--he was 19 of 29 for 229 yards, including a nine-yard touchdown to Louis Lipps. Elway was 12 of 20 for 226 and scrambled for 44 more.
"I can't say they're better than we are," Brister said. "They won, but it's a shame we have to lose a game like this one."
"We knew we had to run, but we never knew we could run this well," Hoge said. "We could have won the game, we should have won the game. But the breaks went against us at the end."
Elway began the winning drive with an 18-yard pass to Mark Jackson, then hit Johnson for 36 yards on a flea-flicker. Bobby Humphrey, who finished with 85 yards in 18 carries, ran for nine, five and seven yards to the two before Bratton ran in from the one on third down.
"I know we were down all day, but we had confidence we could come back," Humphrey said. "When you have guys with experience like we do, you always know you're in the game."
Added one of those guys with experience, All-Pro linebacker Karl Mecklenburg:
"We've been there before. We want to go again. We expected a tough game and we got one."
Pittsburgh took the opening kickoff and used 7:47 with Tim Worley and Hoge carrying the football 65 yards in 13 plays to set up Anderson's 32-yard field goal. There was only one pass on the drive, an 11-yard toss from Brister to Lipps.
Hoge, Worley and Brister went at it again as the Steelers took just five plays and 2:27 to take a 10-0 lead 1:38 into the second quarter.
First, Hoge burst 45 yards to the Denver 48, then Brister passed to Worley for 33 yards over the middle to the 15. On a third-and-two from the seven, Brister handed to Hoge from the shotgun formation and he ran around left end for the score.
Bratton went in from the one to cut it to 10-7 with 6:22 left in the second quarter at the end of a 75-yard, 12-play drive that was aided by two key penalties--an offside against Greg Lloyd and a holding call against Bryan Hinkle. Treadwell's extra point barely made it over the crossbar after Aaron Jones got a hand on it.
The Steelers came right back to score on Brister's nine-yard pass to Lipps with 26 seconds left in the second quarter at the end of a 77-yard, 12-play drive that featured a 19-yard run by Worley and third-down completions from Brister to Hoge and Lipps. The touchdown came on a third-down play on which Lipps simply turned around at the goal line and caught the football after it was drilled in by Brister.
That made it 17-7, but Elway hit Jackson for 26 yards and Ricky Nattiel for 15 to put the Broncos in position for Treadwell's 43-yard field goal that cut the deficit to 17-10 at halftime.
The Steelers held the Broncos on their first possession of the third quarter, then Brister completed a 23-yard pass to Weegie Thompson on the first offensive play. But on the second, Rich Kragen stripped Worley, Tyrone Braxton recovered at the Steeler 37 and one play later, Elway hit a wide-open Johnson at the goal line to tie the score just two minutes into the third quarter.
But the Steelers came back with a 62-yard drive that led to Anderson's 35-yard field goal that gave the Steelers a 20-17 lead midway through the third quarter.
Anderson made it 23-17 seven seconds into the fourth quarter with a 32-yard field goal set up by Thomas Everett's interception of Elway's pass.
But Elway started the winning drive with 7:06 remaining and the Broncos survived.