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."
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."
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."