Deep in the heart of Tinseltown, on a smog-free Saturday afternoon, a chic woman in a black blazer confronted five very large men and asked a pointed question. She was standing in the lobby of the Westin Century Plaza hotel, a place where presidents lodge and some of L.A.'s most stylistically singular subgroups roam. On this day the marbled piano bar was littered with high-fashion models, wintry college football fanatics in full Fighting Irish getup, a Jewish wedding party and its appendages, the esteemed guest list of the Links Debutante Cotillion, a pair of done-up ladies who looked as if they might be en route from the Heidi Fleiss trial and a quintet of seemingly innocuous, decidedly groggy out-of-towners in dark sweat suits.
It was this last assemblage to which the woman in the black blazer directed her query, in a breathy tone that would have made Sharon Stone proud. "What's going on here?" she inquired. "Is there a professional football team in town or something?"
The woman didn't stick around long enough to get a proper response from the five Pittsburgh Steelers, and that's just as well. The Steelers are not big on self-promotion. Their lowly reading on the glitz meter ranks somewhere between Carl Sagan and Michael Dukakis. They express themselves with the greatest conviction on game days—their most compelling statement having been delivered on Sunday at the L.A. Coliseum, where Pittsburgh provided the Los Angeles Raiders and 58,327 fans with a convincing character sketch. Yes, ma'am, there was a professional football team in town, and it may be the AFC's best bet to end up in Miami on Jan. 29 in Super Bowl XXIX.
Quietly, forcefully, Pittsburgh has emerged as the team to beat in the conference of second-class citizens. Tied at 9-3 with the Cleveland Browns atop the AFC Central and with the San Diego Chargers for the best record in the conference, the Steelers, by virtue of a better record against AFC opponents (8-1), headed home from L.A. with the inside track toward home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Of more immediacy was the way the Steelers' 21-3 victory resonated not only in the Raiders' locker room but also in their own. The might with which Pittsburgh stomped on the helpless Raiders in the second half was enough to make Steeler coach Bill Cowher admit that his team "played some championship football." Later, as he walked to the team bus, Cowher stroked his bushy mustache and then stopped to marvel at the spectacle he had witnessed. "It was our best team effort of the year," he said. "The perseverance and the relentlessness with which we played was incredible, and I was so proud of our overall effort. The offense scored when it had to, the special teams came through, and the defense was just amazing."
And there, in condensed form, is the Cowher Method, a dated approach to winning football that might just represent progress for the beleaguered AFC. It would be uplifting to think this conference, having lost the last 10 Super Bowls, has something to offer come January beyond the no-huddle offense and a quick, reactive defense. In the Raiders and the Steelers, the AFC was featuring its two teams most capable—from a stylistic standpoint, at least—of matching up with the reigning NFC powerhouses, the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers.
While the Raiders, who fell to 6-6 with Sunday's defeat, probably aren't going anywhere near Joe Robbie Stadium in January, the Steelers are beginning to harbor notions of excellence that exceed the usual AFC longings. "The last few weeks we've been packing a lot of heat," says Steeler safety Carnell Lake. "We're just one step closer to being where we want to be." Another defensive back, veteran Tim McKyer, speaks openly of getting to the Super Bowl, comparing the current Steelers with the two Super Bowl champion 49er teams for which he played in the late '80s. "I see everything that I saw in our teams when we won in San Francisco," McKyer says, "an opportunistic defense, an offense that wears the other team down, a close-knit team that finds away to win."
Pittsburgh wins games the way the New York Giants did in their most recent Super Bowl season (1990): pushing for early points, relying on a steady kicker, killing the clock with a straightforward ground game and counting on the defense to make a game-turning play in the fourth quarter. Steeler offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt, who also ran the Giants' offense in '90, flatly concedes that his per-game ideal is 21 points from his unit. In San Francisco that's a good quarter, but Pittsburgh, which was averaging only 17.8 points per game through Sunday to rank 22nd in the NFL, makes do with what it has. Two Sundays ago the Steeler offense broke a hideous streak of more than 13 quarters without a touchdown, but Erhardt's charges have yet to score a point in the third quarter this season. Still, the Steeler defense is so good—Pittsburgh limited the Raiders to 179 total yards—that it oftentimes doesn't matter. Corner-back and return man Rod Woodson, arguably the team's most dangerous scoring threat, muses that to avoid what he calls "the Rodney Dangerfield effect" and to gain respect, the Steelers may have to win a close game that is not a defensive struggle. "I think we probably need to win a shoot-out," Woodson says. "You know, win 23-21 or something."
Win 23-21? That's not a shoot-out, it's a squirt-gun fight. But shrunken numbers are a way of life for the Steelers, owners of the league's third-ranked defense following Sunday's game, with fewer points allowed (14.3) than any team but the Browns and more quarterback sacks (45) than any team in the NFL. These Steelers may not boast as much talent as their '70s incarnation, the Steel Curtain unit that produced four Hall of Famers, but they have speed and a proactive bent in their favor. This group is more like a Steel Swinging Door, ready to slam the opposition backward from various directions.
Pittsburgh's victory over Los Angeles, however one-sided, was not unlike its other recent triumphs. The Steelers came into the fray with three consecutive victories, two by way of Gary Anderson field goals in overtime. The Raiders had won two in a row to restore hope to a season going bad, and they tried to impress their newfound strength upon the Steelers. In the first half, when Pittsburgh scored on a 27-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Mike Tomczak to wide receiver Yancey Thigpen and L.A. answered with a Jeff Jaeger 32-yard field goal, the Raiders were going helmet-to-helmet, talking trash and doing all the things that make their spunky spectators throw wild forearms with glee. But by the middle of the third quarter, L.A. had no words for its antagonists. "No, no, no—you don't say —— when you get your ass kicked," Steeler tight end Eric Green explained. The always emotional Cowher was so excited, he was inadvertently spitting on his players—literally foaming at the mouth. When that happens, says Green, "you've just got to look the other way."
Save one startling statistical anomaly—Anderson, who had a streak of 19 consecutive field goals coming in, went an unseemly 0 for 3—the Steelers destroyed the Raiders in every department. After a slow first half, the Pittsburgh running game kicked in; the tailback tandem of Barry Foster and Bam Morris combined for 114 of their total 132 yards after intermission (Morris scored Pittsburgh's final TD on a three-yard run). The defense forced a pair of second-half fumbles and blitzed Raider quarterbacks Jeff Hostetler and Vince Evans into befuddlement (and five sacks). Hostetler left the game late in the first half after taking several hard hits, the most damaging from the two Steeler rightside linebackers, the superb Greg Lloyd and budding star Chad Brown. Hostetler returned for just three plays in the fourth quarter; he was sacked twice. The official reason for Hostetler's absence was a migraine that was causing double vision, though it's possible the Steelers' unyielding pressure made it appear as though there were 22 defenders on the field.