All week they made pests of themselves, Erric Pegram and Bam Morris, the Pittsburgh Steelers' scatback and fat back. In the days leading up to their AFC divisional playoff game against the Buffalo Bills, they gave their offensive coordinator, Ron Erhardt, no peace. "Coach Ron, just give us the ball," they pleaded. "Let us do it for you. Run us to death."
In the end Erhardt gave the ball to Bam. Nine times during the regular season Pittsburgh had passed more times in a game than it had run. But the Steelers will return to the conference championship game for the second consecutive year because when it mattered most last Saturday, they returned to their roots—or, as western Pennsylvanians say, rutz. A season highlighted by the passing of quarterback Neil O'Donnell, the catching of wide receiver Yancey Thigpen and the panache of a rookie called Slash was extended in more familiar fashion as Pittsburgh clubbed Buffalo into submission with a pair of fourth-quarter rushing touchdowns that turned a close 26-21 game into a 40-21 rout.
Give the Bills credit, though, for putting some suspense back into the proceedings with a strong second half. After receiving a shot to alleviate pain in his right collarbone caused by a third-quarter hit—the injury was later diagnosed as a separation of the collarbone and the sternum—Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly emerged from the dressing room two minutes into the fourth quarter, like El Cid without a horse. Kelly promptly led the Bills to a touchdown that narrowed the score to 26-21—this after Buffalo had trailed 23-7 at halftime. As long-maned Pittsburgh linebacker Kevin Greene could not resist putting it, "Things were getting hairy out there."
Indeed, the Terrible Towel-twirling denizens of Three Rivers Stadium began experiencing terrible flashbacks to last season's conference championship game, when their beloved Stillers came from 10 points ahead and lost 17-13 to the San Diego Chargers.
Two significant events followed Buffalo's fourth-quarter touchdown last Saturday: Thigpen made a gorgeous catch of a 21-yard pass from O'Donnell on third-and-eight, keeping the Steelers' ensuing drive alive and delighting in particular the occupants of a small corner of Three Rivers known as Thigpen's Pigpen. Then Morris took center stage. "I'm at my best just pounding and pounding the ball," he said after scoring two touchdowns and rushing for 48 of his 106 yards in the fourth quarter. "I'm in the huddle, my eyes are buggin', I'm hearing the play, nothing else. At that point I need the ball. I'm craving it. All I can think about is, When do I get to run over some more people?"
This is a vast improvement over last summer, when it seemed that all Morris, a second-year player out of Texas Tech who had broken Earl Campbell's Southwest Conference single-season rushing record, could think about was his next meal. As a 235-pound rookie he had led the Steelers with seven touchdowns. But in July he reported to camp at 255-plus pounds. Morris tiptoed through holes, fumbled three times in his first four games and was soon benched in favor of Pegram.
However, as Steeler coach Bill Cowher said in November after watching Pittsburgh storm back from a 31-13 deficit to defeat the Cincinnati Bengals 49-31, "It's not how you start, it's how you finish." Morris, who has dropped 20 pounds (but still sports an ample belly), is finishing strong. He scored five touchdowns, rushed for 258 yards and averaged 5.1 yards a carry in Games 11 through 13 of the season. Having recovered from a pulled hamstring that kept him out of the final two games of the regular season, he is running like his old self again. And is sounding like his old self. "Please" he said last Thursday, "just give me the ball about 25 times, and I'll get you about 250 yards and send the game ball home to Mama."
Four plays after Thigpen's acrobatic catch, Morris scored on a 13-yard rumble, at the midpoint of which he pulverized Buffalo safety Matt Darby like a bull trampling a slow-running rodeo clown. Morris's second touchdown of the quarter, a two-yard burst with 1:58 left, made the final score 40-21.
The Bills showed their customary class by refusing to blame the loss on the absence of eight-time Pro Bowl defensive end Bruce Smith, who was laid low by a nasty flu—he was in bed Friday with a 103° fever—and did not make the trip to Pittsburgh. Smith, whose 12 postseason sacks are the most in NFL history, was replaced by Karl Wilson, who is playing for his ninth team in eight years. While Wilson did not embarrass himself, he posed little threat as a pass rusher, allowing the Steelers to concentrate on sackmeister Bryce Paup, who spent the season playing King Kong to Smith's Godzilla. Said the downcast Paup, from whom the Steelers spent the day running, "They did just about everything they wanted to on us."
The only bitter note came from Kelly, who said the game officials stunk "like they stunk all year." And then he intimated that the league, horrified at the prospect of another Buffalo trip to the Super Bowl, was no doubt delighted by the outcome of the game. "The NFL got its prayer answered," said Kelly, who apparently has seen too many Oliver Stone movies.