The decision was dicey, like choosing between an airport security line or a car ride with Bill O'Reilly, but Lee Flowers knew which way to go. The Pittsburgh Steelers' saucy strong safety had Cris Carter lined up to his left, Randy Moss to his right and an entire end zone to patrol as the Minnesota Vikings got set on Sunday to take their final shot at stealing a victory. With 62,661 shrieking fans turning Heinz Field into what sounded like a 1964 Beatles concert, Flowers surveyed the situation: The Vikings were down by five points and faced fourth-and-goal from the 20 with 1:58 remaining. Knowing the Steelers' blitz would leave him alone in their zone coverage, Flowers made an executive decision.
Like a soccer goalie defending a penalty kick, Flowers started to his right before the ball was snapped and arrived just in time to help cornerback Dewayne Washington bottle up Moss as the pass floated toward the All-Pro receiver. "Maybe I distracted his vision, and maybe I didn't," Flowers said. "All I know is I had to guess right on that play, or we were screwed."
After the ball fell innocuously to the end zone turf, the usually impudent Flowers struck a telling pose: He dropped to his knees and thanked God that his gamble had paid off. Relief, rather than elation, was the predominant emotion for the Steelers, who closed out a 21-16 victory that left them alone atop the AFC with a 9-2 record. That's how nearly blowing an 18-point, fourth-quarter lead will make you feel.
"We didn't play for the full 60 minutes today, and it's disappointing, because when you get someone down, you have to keep them down," inside linebacker Earl Holmes said in the sober Pittsburgh locker room. "You've got to learn from a game like this, and we will. Hell, we have to. Things have changed. We're the team to beat now."
Thus the AFC's team to beat spent the better part of Sunday evening beating itself up. In a typical scene quarterback Kordell Stewart approached tackle Wayne Gandy and said softly, "I know there was a lot of pain and a lot of frustration, but congratulations." Later that night, as he lay on his living room couch nursing the groin injury that knocked him out of Sunday's game late in the third quarter, NFL rushing leader Jerome (the Bus) Bettis said, "We got sloppy and let a lead slip away, and that's why guys were more pissed than happy. There's no question it felt like a losing locker room."
In an era in which the margin between winners and losers has shrunk to minute proportions, Pittsburgh is hardly a team that can expect to overwhelm opponents. Instead, the Steelers rely on relentlessly physical play and a toughness forged during last year's 9-7 season, when they beat both AFC Championship Game participants (the Baltimore Ravens and the Oakland Raiders) yet missed the playoffs for the third consecutive year. Memories of last year's 0-3 start and several last-minute losses are fresh enough that coach Bill Cowher, in his postgame address to the team on Sunday, attempted to cheer his players: "Don't worry if this was ugly. We've been on the other side, and we deserve to win some games like this."
Ugly or not, the win was the 100th of Cowher's 10-year career, but he doesn't get caught up in numbers. A motivational tactic Cowher employed last week demonstrated that. When the Steelers arrived for their Thursday-morning meeting, the grease-marker board behind the coach's podium, listing the team's 2001 schedule and results, had been altered. "He had cleared off the first 10 games and told us, 'Those games are gone; it's a six-game season,' " says Flowers.
Cowher can spew hokey homilies with the best of them, and when he gets going, he is one of the world's most prolific unintentional public spitters. (Says defensive coordinator Tim Lewis, "When I got this job and Bill asked me whether I wanted to be upstairs or downstairs on game day, I said, 'Up, because I don't want to get sprayed!' ") For all of Cowher's outward fire, there is plenty of ice within. No coach is better at regulating his team's temperament, at walking the fine line between intensity and buoyancy.
Think the run-oriented Steelers have a boring offense? That's a bunch of Mularkey—as in offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, the former tight ends coach whom Cowher promoted last January after dismissing the grumpy and exacting Kevin Gilbride. That move was complemented by the hiring of Tom Clements as quarterbacks coach, the first one the Steelers have had since Babe Parilli in 1973.
"Twenty-eight years, dude," said Stewart, who credits Mularkey and Clements for his dramatic improvement this season after three disappointing campaigns. "Now I'm finally in a comfort zone. Look it up—I had three offensive coordinators in four years at Colorado and five in seven years here. The last couple of years I had to do what I was told, but Mike treats us like adults, and he encourages me to use my game to exploit opponents. It's fun. I'm running around like a kid in a park."