There were almost too many stories for reporters to follow Sunday in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers' 21-20 win over the Oakland Raiders kept alive their slim playoff hopes. "This was a real football game," exclaimed offensive tackle Wayne Gandy. "One of the best games I've ever been a part of. It was two teams who weren't going home losers today."
Resurgent quarterback Kordell Stewart threw two touchdown passes to erase a 10-point, halftime deficit and ran 17 yards for the game-winner with just minutes left in the fourth quarter. "What a great effort," said coach Bill Cowher. "The kid came out and, hopefully, he won some people back over."
If Stewart's rocket arm and gazelle-like running ability weren't enough to send Steelers fans back to his corner, then perhaps his toughness will. Stewart left the game in the second half with a calf sprain, but he emerged from the locker room in the third quarter to lead the Steelers to their seventh win of the season.
"I don't think there's a person in this locker room who doesn't believe he can go out there and get it done," said running back Jerome Bettis of Stewart. "It was an amazing game he played when you consider the circumstances."
The game featured many of the same elements that made the legendary Steelers-Raiders contests of the 1970's famous. There were fiery halftime speeches and players complaining about late shots at the bottom of the pile, defensive end Reagan Upshaw spit in the face of Pittsburgh punter Josh Miller, while Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon and coach Jon Gruden even demanded a recount of the downs in a series that ended with two seconds to play at the Steelers 41-yard line when Gannon threw an incomplete pass. The Raiders believed they had another down because the scoreboard showed third down, but an accounting of the official play-by-play showed that it was, indeed, fourth down.
"I wasn't even sure until they said, 'Black ball, first down.' I said, 'Cool, we won the game,' " said linebacker LeVon Kirkland.
In the end, the Steelers left Three Rivers Stadium with a hard-fought, one-point win which accurately reflected the history of professional football in Pittsburgh. But for Bettis, that was hardly the most important point.
"You lose this game," he said, "your playoff hopes go away. You lose another game at home, the fans begin to disappear. Then the team starts to fall apart mentally. We couldn't allow that to happen."
Up next: at New York Giants, 9-4
Speaking of drama, you couldn't have written a better script than the one that unfolded in Philadelphia on Sunday. Embattled placekicker Al Del Greco, whose missed 28-yard field goal attempt in Jacksonville a week earlier left the door open for the Jaguars to beat the Titans, nailed a 50-yarder as time expired to beat the Eagles and all but solidify their first AFC Central championship since 1993.
"Awesome," said a smiling Del Greco when asked of his feelings immediately after the kick. "It's always more fun when it's the last play of the game and you don't have to kick off. What was there, six seconds? It was a long enough field goal that the time expired while it was in the air. It was a good feeling."
It was another game in a long string of contests that featured the Titans finding a way to pull it out in the end, as opposed to dominating from the start. Quarterback Steve McNair put together a quick 32-yard drive for the game-winning field goal and he managed to milk the clock from 1:43 down to the final six seconds for Del Greco's kick.
"It's like the norm around here now," said receiver and kick-return man Derrick Mason. "We know if we get into a two-minute situation, Steve's going to do what he has to do to make us win. Nobody panics, starts looking around to see who's going to make plays. Steve just bails us out."
The Titans would have been sunk without Del Greco, who bailed them out of long, sustained drives that bogged down inside the Eagles 20-yard line. Tennessee's first three scoring drives lasted 15, 15 and 12 plays and all ended in field goals. Del Greco scored all of the Titans points and set a personal record with five field goals in the 15-13 win.
"Al's had a tough couple of weeks and he needed that to boost his confidence," said running back Eddie George. "A lot of guys rallied around him."
Coach Jeff Fisher changed his defensive strategy against Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. The Titans' normally aggressive, attacking defense laid back and took more of a disciplined approach against the elusive second-year quarterback.
"We did a little change up, it wasn't our forte," explained defensive tackle Joe Salave'a, "but we had to bear down and execute it."
The Titans held McNabb to just 39 yards rushing, but gave up the go-ahead touchdown with just over three minutes to play. The defense would get another shot, after the Titans offense failed to earn a first down. Fisher ordered a punt with just over two minutes to play, relying on his defense.
They put the clamps on Philadelphia and got the ball back for McNair's game winning drive. "We played the last series like it was the last play of the season," said cornerback Denard Walker. "It was all or nothing. That's what we said in the huddle."
Defensive ends Jevon Kearse and Kenny Holmes left Philly without much affection for former teammate Jon Runyan. Both players accused the right tackle of less than honorable tactics.
"I talked to him during the game to tell him how dirty he was," said Kearse. "He was grabbing me … and there were a couple of cheap shots. One time he caught me downfield and did a number on me."
The win essentially clears the way for the Titans to win the division. Tennessee hosts Cincinnati and Dallas and travels to Cleveland to end their season. If they win out, they'll maintain their one-game advantage over the Baltimore Ravens and be in great shape for a playoffs bye and home playoff game.
Up next: Cincinnati, 3-10
There wasn't much drama on the field in Cincinnati on Sunday, as two teams who had one playoff appearance between them in the last 10 years played for pride. The Bengals beat the Arizona Cardinals, 24-13, to earn their third win of the season.
The drama is starting to unfold off the field, however, where coach Dick LeBeau, quarterback Scott Mitchell and running back Corey Dillon were playing for their professional futures. Dillon ran for 216 yards against the Cardinals and, in the process, became the Bengals' all-time leading rusher. The enigmatic Dillon, who becomes a free agent after this season, already had broken Walter Payton's single-game rushing mark in October and is putting the squeeze on the Bengals to throw a pile of money his way in March.
Mitchell won his first game as the Bengals' starting quarterback and is 1-1 in two appearances. Owner/General Manager Mike Brown suggested last week that Cincinnati might re-sign the journeyman veteran for 2001, with the idea that he makes them more competitive.
LeBeau, the interim coach, needed to give Brown a reason, any reason, to bring him back to coach a club that has played harder this season than in any other in recent memory. "I really believe in the core of this team," said LeBeau, who is 3-10 since replacing Bruce Coslet.
"I really do. I don't think that we're any further away from that goal than many of the other teams who aren't quite there. I know our record does not quite reflect that, but I think we have continued to improve in terms of points and defense. I think we can run the football, and I believe with the youth of our skill people that will improve dramatically."
Dillon is, of course, the link between what LeBeau has and what he believes he can have. In Cincinnati's three wins this year, the fourth-year runner has averaged 210 yards per game, and considering how bad their downfield passing game has been, they're likely to have been 0-13 without him.
"Just go out and give him the bank," said right tackle Willie Anderson, who took much of the bank home last summer. "If he leaves, it will set us back another five or 10 years."
Mitchell has given the Bengals a legitimate shot at winning the last few games since replacing second-year man Akili Smith. Smith had a 10-game stretch in which he had less than 100 net passing yards in five of them, and while Mitchell isn't making anyone forget about Dan Marino, he has given the Bengals a shot in the arm.
"He did what he had to do to win," said LeBeau. "He ran the team well."
But what of the $56 million paid to Smith and what about the development of a young quarterback for a team that hasn't developed one since Boomer Esiason in 1985?
"I'm not going to worry about whether I am or I am not the guy," said Mitchell. "I'm just going to focus on what I have this year."
Up next: at Tennessee, 10-3
Browns coach Chris Palmer almost lost his temper when reporters questioned him about the heart of his football team following a 48-0 loss in Jacksonville.
"They're professionals," he retorted. "Their job is to play football, my job is to coach football. They've done it for a long time. I've done it for a long time. You have to be realistic that there are some problems that we have. We have to address those."
The problems began on offense where the Browns managed just two first downs, both in the first half, and never crossed midfield. That led to breakdowns for a defense that was on the field entirely too long.
"We can't score any points," said cornerback Corey Fuller. "We are not playing like we're being coached. We were more disciplined as an expansion team in our first year than we are in our second."
There was talk on Monday in Cleveland that veteran players were upset about Palmer's decision to get younger guys into the lineup at the expense of winning. Most of those who were upset had little to say, instead, letting their silence speak for them.
"I don't think it can get any lower," said linebacker Jamir Miller. "I guess it can, if we lose by 100 points."
The move that created the most discussion was the decision to start rookie Spergon Wynn instead of veteran Doug Pederson. Wynn completed only five of his 16 passes for 17 yards and was sacked five times and looked more like a deer in the headlights than a promising young signal-caller.
"I thought it would be a good experience for him, being roughed up a little bit," said Palmer. "I think he hung in there and tried to fight."
Up next: Philadelphia, 9-5
Ravens coach Brian Billick took the unusual step of calling a team meeting and practicing on Sunday instead of letting his players enjoy their bye week at home.
The Ravens got an early start on the 1-12 San Diego Chargers, in their effort to keep what is a four game winning streak going. "The main thing I wanted to do was for them to come back, get their legs back under them a little bit and to break a good sweat," said Billick.
At 9-4, the Ravens find themselves a game behind the Titans in the AFC Central, after Tennessee's win in Philadelphia. That win almost assures the Titans of the division title and almost as assuredly sends the Ravens to the wild-card round of the playoffs.
Billick and his team weren't worried about who or where, as far as the playoffs are concerned. On Sunday, their focus was on the Chargers. "As I've said before, we're at a point in the season where it really doesn't matter who you're playing because what we want to get done does not change," said Billick.
The Ravens have momentum behind them as they head into the final stretch of their season. Their defense is ranked number one overall and is first against the run, and their offense has averaged 420 yards and 30 points per game the last month. Add to that a running game that is capable of taking over a game, and you've got a team that should beat the Chargers, Cardinals and Jets to finish 12-4 and earn their first playoff berth.
Up next: San Diego, 1-12