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Bronco John Elway is just one win from his fourth Super Bowl, but fast-improving Steeler Kordell Stewart stands in the way

by Michael Silver

Posted: Wed January 7, 1998


He bounded onto the field with a spring in his step, as elated as the 76,965 fans at Arrowhead Stadium were deflated. John Elway, one of the more dignified competitors of his generation, had succumbed to the sadist within. His Denver Broncos, just having repelled the Kansas City Chiefs' last-ditch fourth-down pass into the end zone, held a 14-10 lead with 12 seconds remaining in their AFC divisional playoff game. All Elway had to do was handle one snap and take a knee, and Denver would advance to the AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh against the Steelers.

This wasn't as gripping as the Drive in 1987 or any of Elway's other famous comebacks, but to him it was just as sweet. "There's nothing I love more than going on the road and shutting up an opposing crowd," Elway had said three days before Sunday's victory—the Broncos' first road playoff triumph in nearly 11 years. "People are yapping at you all day long, calling you every name in the book. Then you win, and nobody makes a sound."

John Elway Those closing moments in Kansas City were about more than the thrill of victory; here was the chill of mastery, evidence of a spiteful streak in Elway that the public seldom sees. Then Elway snapped out of it. He danced off the field like a much younger man, headed through the tunnel toward the locker room and slipped into the California-dude vernacular of his past. "Awesome," he said. "Just awesome."

After a season of handing the ball to All-Pro halfback Terrell Davis and trying to protect leads, the Comeback Kid is alive. In Pittsburgh, Elway, 37, will face the new wonder: Kordell Stewart, who got an up-close view of Elway while playing quarterback at Colorado and who has referred to him as the Man.

The 25-year-old Stewart is, as Elway once was, an athletic anomaly who has burst onto the scene and demonstrated uncanny grace under fire. Though only a first-year starter at quarterback, Stewart outplayed his idol in the Steelers' 35-24 victory over the Broncos at Three Rivers Stadium on Dec. 7. And Stewart passed his first playoff test last Saturday by guiding Pittsburgh to a 7-6 home triumph over the New England Patriots. But as he heads into the fifth AFC title game of his career, Elway is playing his position as adroitly as Jimi Hendrix played guitar: Kordell, are you experienced? Have you ever been experienced? Well, I have. "John has been there before, and it shows," Denver coach Mike Shanahan said after Sunday's game. "I don't think he made one mistake today."

A few minutes earlier a Broncos official who has kept a close eye on Elway's career for more than three decades had proclaimed, "John's playing as well as he's ever played, maybe better." Denver director of pro scouting Jack Elway should know, and once the Steelers study the Broncos' most recent game tapes, they are likely to share the proud papa's assessment.

It's unlikely either quarterback will be subjected to a defensive assault more daunting than those they endured last weekend. The Patriots blitzed Stewart on almost every down, often with cornerbacks and safeties. New England even lined up defensive backs in the three-point stance, concealing them between linemen who sometimes dropped into coverage. Pittsburgh was seeing some of these blitzes for the first time, yet Stewart made just one glaring mistake, a second-quarter pass that cornerback Steve Israel intercepted deep in Patriots territory (and replays showed that Israel, who had to dive to make the play, may have trapped the ball).

More significant, while New England neutralized Steelers Pro Bowl running back Jerome Bettis and kept Pittsburgh from connecting on a scoring pass, the swift Stewart made the play that held up as the game-winner, racing 40 yards down the left sideline for the game's lone touchdown on the Steelers' opening possession. "I blew off scrambling for most of the season; I'm just getting started now," he had said while sitting on the hood of his new car in late December. "Once I start running, with the weapons we have, the only way we can be stopped is if we stop ourselves."

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Some of the blitzing against Elway was personal. Though Kansas City coach Marty Schottenheimer has done his best to downplay the history between the two, it clearly haunts him. Schottenheimer has made the playoffs 11 times in 13 seasons as a head coach but has yet to reach the Super Bowl; he came closest when his Cleveland Browns reached the 1986 and '87 AFC title games, but both times Elway thwarted the Browns. Elway entered Sunday's game holding a 13-8 career edge over Schottenheimer, with seven fourth-quarter comebacks.

Think Schottenheimer gets a kick out of the rivalry? Anyone who spent time with the Chiefs last week can set you straight. Schottenheimer is big on rhetoric and notorious for going over the top in his speeches during meetings, but he hit a new plateau. Among his biting comments to K.C. players was a facetious slap at Elway's bowlegged gait: "I want you to take that crook leg of his and straighten it."

It may be that Schottenheimer is merely a victim of bad timing, a valiant competitor destined to play Alydar to Elway's Affirmed. Now Elway will try to torment Schottenheimer's disciple, Steelers coach Bill Cowher, and attempt to silence another raucous crowd. Elway might have pulled it off during Denver's regular-season visit to Pittsburgh had his receivers held on to the ball; by Shanahan's count the Broncos dropped eight passes. Schematically Denver's passing offense matches up well with Cowher's zone-blitz-oriented defense. If anyone has shown an ability to dissect that trendy defense, it's Shanahan, as he showed in the Broncos' 34-0 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Nov. 9. And if any quarterback can handle the blitzing pressure, it's Elway, who still has a serviceable amount of his trademark mobility and is the league leader in poise.

Chris CantyHearst's return should help San Francisco sustain Against the Chiefs, Elway was sacked only once, while connecting on 10 of 19 passes for 170 yards. The Steelers had to be especially impressed by a play on the second snap of the fourth quarter that sparked the game-winning drive. Kansas City had just taken a 10-7 lead. On third-and-five from the Chiefs' 44, Elway, working from the shotgun formation, read a zone blitz in which no defender rotated to the left flat. Wideout Ed McCaffrey ran a right-to-left crossing route from the right slot. Elway delivered the ball perfectly, and the slow-footed McCaffrey chugged down the left sideline to the one, setting up a second touchdown run by Davis, who finished with 101 yards on 25 carries.

Because the Broncos were such front-runners this season—Denver never trailed in the fourth quarter of its previous 13 victories—Elway's comeback skills had been dormant. "I like to think it's like riding a bike, that you never lose the ability to come back," he said last Thursday. "Playing with a lead is totally different. There's a fine line between not losing your aggressiveness and making dumb plays that let them back in the game."

Elway then brought up the mother of all blown opportunities: the Broncos' December loss to Pittsburgh, a game in which Denver squandered a 21-7 lead. Expect Shanahan to take the handcuffs off his offense in the rematch, especially because the Broncos may find it tough to run the ball against the league's top rushing defense. In the first meeting the Broncos were held to 89 yards on 24 attempts. "We'll come up with something," Shanahan insisted after Sunday's game. "We have to have a better game plan than we did last time, that's for sure."

One strategy on defense may involve moving the safeties up for support against the punishing Bettis and to limit big plays by Stewart. Denver had success blitzing Elvis Grbac from the weak side, but the Broncos caught a break when the K.C. coaches failed to adjust. Blitzing Stewart, and thus forcing him to scramble, can be dangerous; there's no easy way to contain him.

"We didn't even slow him down," Shanahan said on Monday of a game in which Stewart passed for 303 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 49 yards and two more scores. "He's been able to make the big play when there's nothing. Not only is he fast, but he also has the arm strength to throw any pass—the 70-yarder, the comeback route. He can hurt you in so many ways."

On occasion the Patriots used linebacker Tedy Bruschi as a "spy" to shadow Stewart, who nevertheless ran for 68 yards. Of course, the tactic also leaves the opposition with one less defender in pass coverage.

Another problem for Denver is that Stewart and Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Chan Gailey have been outstanding at adjusting on the fly. Already Stewart has established a pattern of following weak first-half efforts with second-half brilliance, another reason he seems destined to become the Elway of his generation. "I've always looked up to John Elway," Stewart said after beating New England. "It's not how many points he scores or the stats. With him it's all about winning. When I saw him play, I always thought we did the same things—scrambling, moving around, making things happen no matter what was going on around us."

When those comments were relayed to Elway on Sunday evening, he broke into a huge smile, saying, "Yeah, but he's faster and stronger and a lot better at all that now than I am. His athletic ability can make up for his inexperience."

Stewart and the Steelers are all that stand in the way of Elway's getting a fourth crack at the ring that has eluded him. His quest to redeem himself after three well-documented Super Bowl failures would make for compelling theater, and it's presumed to be the sole force that drives him in the twilight of his career. This is what we are supposed to believe, yet upon closer inspection he shows a coarser edge.

As he walked into the chilly Kansas City night to join his teammates on buses in the Arrowhead parking lot on Sunday, Elway was besieged by autograph seekers. He happily obliged those wearing Broncos colors, but he had no time for Chiefs fans. "You've got the wrong hat, dude," Elway said to one teenager. A few steps from the bus, a freckle-faced youngster wearing a sweatshirt bearing Schottenheimer's likeness tapped Elway on the shoulder. Elway whirled around.

"Please, John," the boy begged.

For a split second Elway appeared sympathetic. Then his face turned cold. "Sorry, buddy," Elway said. He spun and boarded the bus, crook leg and all.

Issue date: January 12, 1998



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