SPORTS

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January 29, 2002

The best team doesn't win all the time

Two days ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers lost the AFC Championship game to a far inferior New England Patriots squad whose grit, hustle, and timely plays carried them past the number one-seeded black-and-gold wrecking crew into a showdown with the blue-and-gold St. Louis Rams. Kordell Stewart, the Steelers' MVP-candidate quarterback, who threw three interceptions, said as much.

"Sometimes," he said, "the best team doesn't win."

He's right. Sometimes the best team just doesn't win. And Stewart has been in enough close playoff games to know.

The year before he arrived in Pittsburgh, the best team did not advance to the Super Bowl. The San Diego Chargers walked into Three Rivers Stadium and rode a hot Natrone Means over a superior Steelers team and into Super Bowl XXIX, where they were throttled by the San Francisco 49ers.

The next year, the number two seed Steelers again hosted the AFC championship game. This time, they got lucky against Captain Comeback Jim Harbaugh and the remarkably perky Indianapolis Colts. Then wide receiver and gimmick-quarterback Stewart, led by Bam Morris and Neil O'Donnell, couldn't put the Colts away and had to watch a Hail Mary pass come perilously close to being completed before the best team won. But it did.

In 1996, the Steelers were throttled by the Patriots 28-3 in the divisional round of the playoffs in a game the best team clearly won. But as important to the Patriots' chances of making the Super Bowl was a surprise upset of the top-seeded Denver Broncos by the Jacksonville Jaguars the day before. When the Patriots advanced to the Super Bowl and got beaten handily by the Packers, it was clear that the best team had not won the AFC, and no one in Green Bay was complaining.

The Steelers' losing ways picked back up in 1997, when they again were the number two seed and again hosted the AFC championship game against wild-card Denver after squeaking by the Patriots, 7-6, on a 40-yard Stewart touchdown scamper. The best team had won then, and the best team won the next game, too. Playing at home, the Broncos upset the Steelers and went on to shock the Green Bay Packers in one of the best Super Bowls in history.

Clearly, the best team does not always win: in those four years, the best team in the AFC advanced to the Super Bowl only twice. Instead of applying revisionist history, Stewart is right in believing that sometimes the best Super Bowl match-ups don't materialize. And if anyone should know about losing big games, it's Kordell Stewart.

Throughout the entire year, everyone saw Pittsburgh and St. Louis on a collision course and envisioned a Marshall Faulk/Stewart athletic contest for the ages. Offense versus defense, speed versus power, and two opposite coaches going at it in the Superdome: it was a great script. It's still playing, but without the Steelers.

Disregarding Stewart's lack of production over the last four weeks of the regular season, it looked as if Pittsburgh was the team to beat this weekend, coming off their win over Baltimore. But the fickle nature of predictions, playoff predictions, especially distorted Pittsburgh's advantage last weekend.

One week earlier, the media claimed that the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens were "back," having drubbed the Miami Dolphins 20-3. Like the L.A. Lakers, they had taken the regular season off and were finally ready to dispense all challengers. They were going to crush Pittsburgh and roll past whoever stepped in their way. Predictably, they did just the opposite. Against a great Pittsburgh defense, Elvis Grbac and company were torn up by Stewart, who torched them. The Patriots, meanwhile, squeaked past the Raiders on a technicality and were lucky to get out alive.

Of course, none of that was true. The Patriots did get past the Raiders on a call for the ages (or so it seemed until the five inexplicable botched replays in last weekend's game), but they were still losing at the time. After the call, the Patriots tied the game and later won it. This is what championship teams do. The Raiders had a justifiable complaint, but they used it as an excuse to quit even before Adam Vinatieri hit his first late field goal, the last thing a championship team does. And they weren't done, because after the game, Charles Woodson, Tim Brown, and Jerry Rice all felt the game had been stolen from them and said so. Seeing Brown, a classy Hall of Fame player, embarrass himself by claiming an anti-Raider conspiracy was almost as bad as the tuck rule that prolonged the Patriots' season.

Fortunately for Stewart, he does not have the reputation that Tim Brown has, so he had far less to lose by running his mouth. Stewart makes his living not simply passing the ball (he's not good enough to do that) but by scrambling to get himself out of trouble. He did it once against New England, and it appeared to be a turning point in the game.

It was the second quarter, and his 34-yard run put the Steelers in prime scoring position and got the fans back in the game. The towels came back out, and everyone in Pittsburgh knew everything would be just as it had been in October, when Kordell Stewart was so much better than Kordell Stewart had ever been.

When he failed, he tried again to scramble out of trouble. If you ask him, Kordell Stewart was, in 2002, a championship quarterback who was going to lead the best team to the Super Bowl. And he's not ashamed of his miserable performance because, sometimes, the best team simply doesn't win.

It did on Sunday.