Steelers were ripe – for an upset
By BOB LABRIOLA
They were confident. Very confident. And to those getting paid to pay attention, they had every apparent reason to be very confident.
"We're just ripe," said cornerback Tim McKyer. "Everything is conducive for us to go out there to accomplish something great. Home field advantage, solid defense, great running game – those are championship elements. And that's just being realistic."
The reality was that the 1994 Pittsburgh Steelers were the hosts for the AFC Championship Game, and they were double-digit favorites to represent the conference in Super Bowl XXIX. That reality had come about after a 12-4 regular season in which their Blitzburgh defense set a franchise record with 55 sacks and their offense had led the NFL in rushing.
The Steelers were physical and mean and hungry. And this week under the spotlight also would show them to be immature.
As for the mood of the town in the days after the Steelers had earned their spot in the AFC Championship Game with a 29-9 domination of the Cleveland Browns, allow Myron Cope's radio commentary for Jan. 9, 1995 offer some insight:
In determining whether the Steelers were better off facing the San Diego Chargers, who had defeated Dan Marino's Miami Dolphins, 22-21, in the other AFC Divisional Round game, Cope said, "If the Steelers maintain their excellent level of effort, neither the Chargers nor the Dolphins are their equal."
Cope concluded, "Were it Marino dramatically coming back to his hometown and bent upon getting to a Super Bowl, we'd be a little more worried than we'll be looking at the San Diego beach boys."
The players were feeling that, as well. "Looking at the way our team is playing right now, it's very tough for an opponent to play well against us," said Carnell Lake. "The Browns are a team with a lot of talent, but what helped us even the last time we played them was our offense scored early and we got turnovers on defense. When you do both of those things, it's hard for the other team to win."
It was hard to imagine a scenario in which the Chargers would come to Three Rivers Stadium and win, even though the Steelers had ended their regular season with a 37-34 loss in San Diego. But the rationalization for that was Coach Bill Cowher's decision to rest many of the team's front-line players; with everything at stake this time, the outcome certainly would be different.
That's what everybody thought, including the Steelers, which is precisely when confidence crosses the line and becomes a negative.
On the Tuesday before the game, tight end Eric Green presided over a meeting held in the Steelers' offices to discuss the production and promotion of a Super Bowl rap video. On Wednesday, Ray Seals predicted the Chargers offense would not score a point. Come Thursday, Cowher greeted his players with a tongue-lashing about the consequences of losing their focus.
"He was hot," said Dermontti Dawson about Cowher, "but he spoke the truth."
The hope in Pittsburgh was that Mother Nature would roll out a rude welcome for the "San Diego beach boys," but instead the afternoon of Jan. 15 was uncharacteristically mild, albeit gray and damp.
If the Steelers came into this game over-confident, that attitude only was reinforced by the events of the early parts of the game. The Steelers opened the game with a 13-play, 67-yard drive that ended with a 16-yard run by fullback John L. Williams for a 7-0 lead.
But if the Steelers were controlling the play, there were ominous signs as well. After a John Carney field goal cut the Steelers lead to 7-3, Neil O'Donnell directed two long, time-consuming drives, but an inability to make plays in the red zone forced the Steelers to settle for short Gary Anderson field goals both times. Still, midway through the third quarter the Steelers led, 13-3, and the Chargers had yet to show the ability to sustain much offense.
Eleven times during the regular season, the San Diego offense scored touchdowns on plays of 40 yards or longer, and on a day when quarterback Stan Humphries and running back Natrone Means weren't having a lot of success moving the chains, the Chargers went for the big play.
They got one when cornerback Deon Figures bit on a play-action fake to allow lumbering tight end Alfred Pupunu to out-flank the Steelers secondary for a 43-yard touchdown down the sideline in front of the Pittsburgh bench.
"We read run," said Lake. "One tight end blocked down, and the guard and tackle pulled. There's no better key for a defensive player to read run than that. Give the Chargers credit."
It was 13-10, and the Chargers were not allowing the Steelers running attack to do what it had done to the Browns in the AFC Divisional round. O'Donnell ended the day by completing 32-of-54 for 349 yards, and even though he didn't turn it over and wasn't sacked, the Steelers offense didn't make enough plays to get back on the scoreboard. An impending sense of doom settled over the stadium.
That sense was heightened when the Chargers struck for another big play, this one on a third-and-14 situation in which McKyer inexplicably allowed Tony Martin to beat him deep, and Humphries put the ball on the button for another 43-yard touchdown. This one put the Steelers behind for the first time in these playoffs, 17-13, with 5:13 left in the game.
The Steelers took the ensuing kickoff and began their final drive on their own 17-yard line. O'Donnell completed eight passes, and the Steelers season came down to a fourth-and-goal from the Chargers 3-yard line.
Because they had been unable to mount a consistent running attack all day, things would come down to a final pass attempt by O'Donnell, and the Chargers deployed accordingly. They formed a picket fence along the goal line and dared O'Donnell to fit the ball through to a receiver.
One more time, the offense couldn't make a play in the red zone, and when O'Donnell's pass for Foster over the middle, just inside the end zone, was low and batted away by linebacker Dennis Gibson, the Steelers' Super Bowl train had been derailed.
"Everyone picks a spot on the goal line, and you try to make them take the ball into the picket fence," said Gibson. "When you see everybody sitting on their spots, like 7 yards apart, and the quarterback has to get the ball in there, it's tough."
And after they celebrated their conference title on the rug at Three Rivers Stadium, the Chargers reveled in the role of the underdog that pulled off the upset.
"Everybody said that we couldn't beat these guys," said Gibson. "Their defense said we couldn't score on them, so it's nice to win, especially when they talk like that. They were talking about their Super Bowl video and everything like that. We're really happy about winning this game."
Added safety Stanley Richard, "I wonder what those guys are going to do with their Super Bowl video now. Maybe we need to get their choreographer over to San Diego so we can get our video going. The San Diego Chargers are on the move."
Specifically, on the move to Super Bowl XXIX in Miami.
Williams 16 run (Anderson kick)
Carney 20 FG
Anderson 39 FG
Anderson 23 FG
Pupunu 43 pass from Humphries (Carney kick)
Martin 43 pass from Humphries (Carney kick)
Total Net Yds