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Noll says, "Getting his supporting cast back has helped Mark tremendously." Lipps, the big deep threat, has played hurt all season, but the offensive line is healthy again. The running game, with Abercrombie finally finding his legs and Jackson at his normal NFL production, gives Malone more weapons and less pressure.
Mary Ellen defends the excess: "Mark has never lived in a true house before. It's always been apartments. This will be our home." Mary Ellen says the word reverently, because both she and Mark grew up in unstable households, and their parents went through wrenching divorces. She understands Mark's needs: home, safety, warmth, children.
While their dream house has been under construction, the Malones have been living with Mary Ellen's sister Sharon Baker and her husband, Chris. All four of them are crammed into a $60,000 suburban starter home. So much for the life-styles of Pittsburgh's rich and famous.
Week No. 10, Nov. 9
The first play of the game, a draw up the middle that goes for 10 yards, is an omen. The Steelers are offside. Says Malone later, "That play was supposed to go on the first sound. Just after we got to the line, one of their 'backers yelled 'move,' and our guys jumped." It is the first of 15 Steeler penalties, all of them genus Stupiditas.
Down 16-12 late in the game, Malone moves the Steelers from their 20 to the Bills' 29. With time running out, he throws for Sweeney in the end zone, but the ball floats in the gusting wind and is picked off. Noll takes a nice serving of blame. "I gave the team two weeks in a row without pads, trying to get ready for a surge," he says. "Never have done that before, and we were flat." He won't do that again.
Though not mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, the Steelers are finished. The shuttle-bus driver at the Pittsburgh airport summarizes the season: "First the boys dug a hole. Then they jumped in it. Now they've pulled dirt down on themselves."
The day is cold and dreary. Almost 9,000 ticket holders find something else to do. The Steelers play one half of excellent offense and superb defense throughout to make the 21-10 halftime score the final.