In the middle of this conversation the waitress inched toward his table. Politely she asked, "Can I show you a picture of my daughter?"
"Sure," Bettis said. "Let's see."
"She's eight now," the waitress said, showing him the little girl's school photo. "Her name's Brianna. Do you know that the first words out of her mouth were? 'The Bus! The Bus!' She just loves you. We are so happy for your season!"
"Oh, wow!" Bettis said. "Come on, I've got to sign something for her." On a blank restaurant check Bettis wrote, BRIANNA. KEEP CHEERING FOR ME! JEROME BETTIS, 36.
After last Saturday's game, Staley looked back on his first season as Bettis's teammate. "It's been a joy playing with him, watching how he handles himself and how he handles this team," Staley said. "People look at us and, because we've gotten along so well, think it [the friendship] must be phony. I guarantee you, it's genuine."
During the season the running game was never more impressive than on Oct. 31, when Staley and Bettis helped Pittsburgh end New England's NFL-record 21-game winning streak. They did most of their damage in the second half, when the Steelers protected a 31--13 lead by controlling the ball for more than 20 of the last 25 minutes. During that stretch Pittsburgh threw only three times as Staley and Bettis combined for 22 carries that produced 118 yards. The frustrated Patriots even went to their goal line defense for six or eight plays. "I didn't even realize they had their goal line defense out there till I watched it on film," Bettis says. "I was like, Are you kidding me? We're running against that?"
Tackles Marvel Smith and Oliver Ross, guards Alan Faneca and Keydrick Vincent, and center Jeff Hartings kept opening holes. "That game was a dream for any lineman, especially because it was against the Super Bowl champs and a team we had so much respect for," recalls Hartings, who is going to his first Pro Bowl. "That's one of the games I'll look back on at the end of my career and marvel at."
In 2004 the Steelers ran the ball on 61% of their snaps, an NFL high. However, in the playoff against the Jets, they relied more on the pass because New York played so many eight-man fronts and because Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt believed his unit created matchup advantages by spreading the field and throwing short passes. After 43 minutes of play the Steelers' run-pass ratio was 50-50, and the Jets led 17--10; over the last 17 minutes, plus overtime, running plays were called on 22 of the team's 31 snaps, and Pittsburgh won on Jeff Reed's 33-yard field goal.
Three months ago the Steelers weren't worried about matchups. They just lined up and overpowered teams like New England. This time the Patriots will bring a power back of their own, Corey Dillon, who missed the first meeting with a bruised foot. In 16 games this season he ran for 1,779 yards, including 144 on Sunday in a 20--3 divisional playoff win over the Indianapolis Colts. "If Dillon's running well, it's a long day for anybody," Steelers linebacker Larry Foote said on Sunday, after the AFC title-game matchup had been set.
For the first time since the merger in 1970, the teams in the AFC Championship Game will have a combined winning percentage of more than .900 (31--3, .912). The Patriots will be gunning for their third Super Bowl in four years. The Steelers, who haven't been to the big game since losing in January 1996, will need a better performance from Roethlisberger than he had against the Jets. "Ben struggled tonight, and he's a little down," Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher said on Saturday night. "It's good for him. He'll come into the championship game really focused, and when he's really focused, he plays well. I'm not worried about him."