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Six days before the AFC Championship Game, Denver Broncos cornerback Ray Crockett read the game plan and experienced a moment of clarity. He then wrote in the dog-eared spiral notebook he uses as a journal, Me against Yancey Thigpen. If I win this battle, we win the game.
Thigpen, the Pittsburgh Steelers' Pro Bowl wide receiver, had tortured the Broncos on Dec. 7, making three touchdown catches in a 35-24 victory in which upstart Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart seemed to be asking his 37-year-old counterpart, John Elway, Aren't you getting a little old for this? The loss relegated Denver to wild-card status, making its road to the Super Bowl vastly more difficult.
That road reached a critical juncture midway through the second quarter of Sunday's AFC title game at Three Rivers Stadium. With Pittsburgh on the move, threatening to take a 21-10 lead, Stewart made the first of his several poor decisions in the game, locking in on Thigpen—even though Thigpen was smothered by Crockett and free safety Steve Atwater—and letting fly the pass on which the game turned. "Yancey did a little stutter step, and I didn't go for the stutter," recalled Crockett, who made a leaping interception in the end zone. That play set up the touchdown drive that gave the Broncos a 17-14 lead they never surrendered en route to a 24-21 win.
Denver's return to the Super Bowl raises some important questions: Will Elway retire after the game? Will Broncos left tackle Gary Zimmerman actually speak at Media Day? Are the Green Bay Packers really 12½ points better than Denver, as oddsmakers declared on Sunday night?
You will be reminded ad nauseam over the next week and a half that the AFC has lost the Super Bowl 13 years running. You will learn that this game constitutes a homecoming for Denver running back and San Diego native Terrell Davis, who has suffered from chronic migraines—as opposed to Elway, who suffers from a chronic inability to win the NFL title game. The Broncos have been outscored 136-40 (before long, you will have these numbers memorized as well) in Elway's three Super Bowl losses. "I know we'll be huge underdogs, but ask me if I care," said Denver defensive end Neil Smith, who came to the Broncos as a free agent in the off-season. "No one thought we'd come this far."
That lack of faith was understandable. Denver faltered down the stretch, dropping three of its final six regular-season games before rattling off three playoff wins. The biggest difference for the Broncos in the postseason has been a dramatic improvement in their defense, which has benefited greatly from the return to health of Smith and fellow defensive end Alfred Williams, both of whom were plagued by torn triceps this season. Williams, in fact, tore both of his.
"Oh, is that why we beat them the first time?" asked Steelers running back Jerome Bettis last Friday. "It's always something, isn't it?"
"Ask him if he noticed any difference today," riposted Smith, who bunny-hopped into the locker room after Sunday's game, so overjoyed was he to be Super Bowl-bound for the first time in his 10-year career. On Dec. 7 he was dominated by Pittsburgh right tackle Justin Strzelczyk, but on Sunday, Smith had the upper hand. For instance, with 1:43 left in the first half, he beat Strzelczyk around the corner, drawing a holding penalty that wiped out an 18-yard completion. As a result the Broncos got the ball back in the last minute before intermission and drove for the touchdown that put them up 24-14.
On the last play of the third quarter, Smith sacked Stewart and forced a fumble that defensive tackle Mike Lodish recovered at the Denver 41. It was Smith's third sack of the playoffs. He and Williams had two apiece in Denver's 14-10 divisional playoff win over the Kansas City Chiefs, with whom Smith spent his first nine pro seasons.
Rather than having his players sit back on defense and allow first-year starter Stewart to dissect them, as had happened a month earlier, Denver defensive coordinator Greg Robinson this time threw a far more exotic mix at the Steelers. Defensive linemen did more slanting and stunting, the better to confuse Bettis and to prevent Pittsburgh's hogs from teeing off on them. Broncos backup linebacker Glenn Cadrez came in on passing downs to "spy" Stewart, while the secondary showed a variety of looks. Don't take this the wrong way, cornerback Darrien Gordon had been told before the game, but Crockett's going to cover Yancey this time. It was Gordon who was thrice burned for touchdowns by Thigpen on Dec. 7.