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Steelers Slam Door Slowly on the Colts

AFC: Trailing at half, Pittsburgh goes on an almost 10-minute scoring drive en route to 42-14 victory over Indianapolis.

December 30, 1996|STEVE SPRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PITTSBURGH — No Hail Marys this time.

No last-second heroics.

No dramatic finish to leave the Three Rivers Stadium crowd waiting to exhale.

Instead, the Pittsburgh Steelers reverted to blue-collar football in demolishing the Indianapolis Colts, 42-14, in an AFC opening-round playoff game Sunday, setting up a second-round matchup against the New England Patriots Sunday at Foxboro, Mass.

So who's complaining?

Certainly none of the 58,078 waving their Terrible Towels. And certainly nobody in the Steeler locker room.

Those who were on hand a year ago remember all too well the AFC championship game played in this stadium, which came down to a Hail Mary pass by Colt quarterback Jim Harbaugh with the game on the line, a pass that was in the grasp of receiver Aaron Bailey for a moment before it fell to the ground, sending Pittsburgh to the Super Bowl.

So when Bailey caught a nine-yard touchdown pass from Harbaugh in the second quarter for a 14-13 halftime lead, the Steelers, who had dominated statistically, decided enough was enough.

In the locker room, Coach Bill Cowher used the old analogy of the partially filled cup. Half full or half empty?

"Look at that first half," Cowher told his players, "the energy we came out with and the execution and the emotion. . . . In my eyes, it was half full."

The Steelers were obviously paying attention. They put together a 16-play, 91-yard drive over 9:30, culminating in a one-yard run off left tackle by Jerome Bettis.

Goodbye, Colts.

Hello, Foxboro.

"I've been around the game a while," Cowher said, "and I don't know if I've seen a drive that took up that much time that was that well executed."

It was that way most of the day as the Steelers (11-6) controlled the Colts (9-7).

Pittsburgh amassed 407 yards in total offense and gave up 146. The Steelers rushed for 231 yards, led by Bettis' 102, and gave up 41, including only 25 for Marshall Faulk in nine carries. The Steelers held the ball for about 15 minutes longer than the Colts.

Bettis, who came here via an off-season trade with the St. Louis Rams, has brought with him a nickname, "The Bus," which goes back to his days at Notre Dame. It was particularly fitting Sunday when his overpowering offensive line constantly opened holes big enough to drive a bus through.

Harbaugh, Faulk and company wouldn't know about such things. Harbaugh couldn't even see his offensive line most of the time after taking the center snap, his vision obstructed by onrushing defenders such as Chad Brown and Jason Gildon.

On the first series of the game, on the fifth play, Harbaugh was hit by Gildon, a left outside linebacker, resulting in a chipped tooth, a cut in the mouth requiring 15 to 20 stitches and a pinched nerve in the neck.

And that was before things got bad.

"I don't know what happened to my tooth," Harbaugh said. "I might have swallowed it."

But he swallowed his pride and kept going out there to take his beating. The Steelers collected four sacks, three by Brown and one by Gildon, Gildon's coming against backup quarterback Paul Justin, who relieved Harbaugh for the final offensive series.

"I probably should not have come back after halftime," Harbaugh said, "but because we had a chance to win, I wanted to stay in there."

How did the Colts still have a chance to win, considering the way they had been overwhelmed?

Two key plays. That's all it took.

By late in the second quarter, Kordell Stewart's one-yard scoring run and a pair of Norm Johnson field goals, from 29 and 50 yards, had given Pittsburgh a 13-0 lead.

Then, with the Steelers looking for still more on third and four from the Colt 42, Pittsburgh quarterback Mike Tomczak took aim at receiver Ernie Mills along the left sideline, but never saw cornerback Eugene Daniel lurking behind Mills' left shoulder.

"He kind of peeked behind Ernie," Tomczak said. "Stuff happens out there real quick."

Daniel stepped in front of Mills, intercepted the pass and raced untouched into the end zone 59 yards away.

Tomczak got the ball back and did it all over again. But this time, it wasn't the Pittsburgh quarterback's fault.

He fired a pass that went in and out of the hands of tight end Kirk Botkin, landing in the arms of safety Ray McElroy.

Harbaugh converted the turnover into the touchdown pass to Bailey.

In the end, however, it didn't matter. Pittsburgh shut the Colts out in the second half, outscoring them, 29-0.

Bettis scored on two one-yard runs, Stewart added his second touchdown on a three-yard run, and even fullback Jon Witman got into the end zone, bursting through the exhausted Colt line on a 31-yard carry.

"When they came back on the field after our long drive," said Steeler tackle John Jackson of the Indianapolis defense, "they were dragging. But you can't blame them."

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