SI Vault
Rick Reilly
January 15, 1990
The Pittsburgh Steelers almost flipped favored Denver out of the playoffs, but the Broncos righted themselves in time
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January 15, 1990

Upset? Not Quite

The Pittsburgh Steelers almost flipped favored Denver out of the playoffs, but the Broncos righted themselves in time

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Happiness this week is being a TV repairman in Cleveland. Can you imagine? Just think how many shoes, bricks, bottles, remote-control clickers and clam dip bowls went through Cleveland picture tubes on Sunday.

When NBC delivered proof that the Denver Broncos had used luck, pluck and a seeing-eye extra point to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, it meant that for the third year in the last four, the Cleveland Browns would have to change planes in Hell to get to Heaven. It meant that for the poor Browns to win the AFC title, they must go to Chez Elway—Mile High Stadium—and beat the dreaded Broncos, the team that put the cleave in Cleveland's dreams in both 1987 (The Drive) and '88 (The Fumble). What can Browns fans expect from Denver this Sunday, The Trap Door?

And to think that Cleveland was within one point of staying home and hosting upstart Pittsburgh, which outplayed Denver left, right, up, down and everywhere but on the scoreboard. "The best team did not win today," said the Steelers' 230-pound running back, Merril (as in barrel) Hoge, and he might be right. Using Hoge's impossibly gritty performance and the shoot-me-because-I'm-not-gonna-die will of quarterback Bubby Brister, the slower, younger, talent-poorer Steelers came thisclose to pulling off the upset of the year.

Browns fans could barely stand to look. One field goal banked in off an upright. A key dropped pass went unseen by the officials. A blocked extra-point attempt from the toe of Denver kicker David Treadwell somehow wobbled across the bar by the hair of his chinny-chin chin strap. And when Brister fumbled an ankle-high shotgun snap with two minutes left, the end came to the best game Pittsburgh had played all season—make that in many seasons.

The Steelers arrived in Colorado as 10-point underdogs, wearing their 9-7 regular-season record—worst among the playoff teams—like a tattoo. They were outscored by 61 points during the year and outgained in every game but three. This team was Cinderella, working the ballroom in a burlap strapless.

And here was Denver, 11-5, the first team in the NFL to clinch a division crown and an odds-on favorite to spend the last week in January eating jambalaya in New Orleans. "It's going to come down to you and Bubby," Bronco coach Dan Reeves told quarterback John Elway before the game. Wait a minute. John Elway versus Bubby Brister? Beef Wellington versus Spam?

But Reeves was right. Denver had a Bubby blister right from the coin flip. Before the Broncos could clear their throat, Brister had staked the Iron City to a 10-0 lead after a seven-yard touchdown run by Hoge (as in dodge). Hoge not only became the first anybody to run 'for 100 yards against Denver this season, but he also did it in the first half. How can a slow-footed fullback from Pocatello, Idaho, go for two straight 100-yard games in the first two playoff games of his life? Maybe the secret is in his locker back at Three Rivers Stadium—it's Franco Harris's old one.

The Broncos finally got in the game midway through the second quarter with six points from Melvin Bratton's one-yard back dive, but Treadwell's PAT attempt was blocked by Aaron Jones. Well, kind of blocked. "All I heard was two thumps, my foot kicking it and somebody blocking it," said Treadwell.

Said Jones, "It hit my hand. I thought I had it blocked." But the ball belly flopped a foot over the crossbar and died happily on the other side. Jones had a gnawing in his stomach. "I had that feeling that we might need that," he said.

Brister came back with a little buttonhook TD pass to Louis Lipps six minutes later, and the worms were eating the fish 17-7, with 26 seconds to go before half-time. But before the gun could sound, Denver got back in it on two bits of pure Rocky Mountain mother-lode luck. Elway hooked up with Ricky Nattiel for 15 yards, even though replays showed that the ball took a little hop off Nattiel's chest, onto the grass and back into his arms. What about it, Ricky? "Replays lie," said Nattiel with a straight face.

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