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AFC NOTEBOOK

Bettis's career hits the homestretch

Detroit may be Bus's last stop

DENVER -- Pittsburgh running back Jerome Bettis talked to his teammates Saturday night and asked them to give it their all and make sure he gets to play in Detroit, site of the Super Bowl and Bettis's hometown.

His teammates took it to heart and mind before pounding Denver, 34-17, yesterday.

''I've got so much respect for Jerome and what he's brought to this football team," Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher said. ''He's a classy guy and he's been such an inspiration.

''We talked about the Detroit thing, and that really had been put aside, but it's very fitting that we're going back to his hometown."

Bettis played his first three seasons with the Rams, and didn't join the Steelers until 1996, the year after Pittsburgh's last Super Bowl appearance.

Receiver Hines Ward, who wept in disappointment for Bettis last year when the Steelers lost to New England in the AFC Championship game, said he fought off the tears in celebration.

''It's gratifying," Ward said. ''Hell, I almost cried. We both almost cried about going back to Detroit.

''I told him whatever I had to do . . . Jerome has affected, in some way, everybody on this team. [He's] someone you can count on. I think more players were trying to rally and make sure they did their job to get him back to Detroit."

Bettis, who will make his Super Bowl debut in his 13th season, led all rushers with 39 yards on 15 carries, and he scored a touchdown. He hasn't said so, but all indications are that he intends to retire at the end of the season.

''What better way, if it's his last year, to finish off his career where it started in Detroit?" Ward said. ''We're happy to be going to the Super Bowl, but we want to win. We want to go there and win the whole thing and give him that ring. It would be a book in the making of the Jerome Bettis Story."

Bettis's plea for the Steelers to give 110 percent brought jokes from safety Troy Polamalu.

''Well, mathematically I was confused when he posed that question to us," Polamalu said. ''But he's a Notre Dame guy, and their mathematics aren't on par with USC."

Right on target

After drilling a perfect strike for a second-quarter touchdown pass to Ward, Ben Roethlisberger ran around firing imaginary six-shooters to celebrate. He was right, the Broncos were dead, trailing 24-3. Not only did they face a three-touchdown halftime deficit against a team that they were unable to force to punt in the first two quarters, but according to the Elias Sports Bureau, under Cowher, the Steelers have gone 105-1-1 in games in which they held a 10-point lead at any point in the contest. ''I was fired up," Roethlisberger said of his celebration after the play. ''I couldn't breathe afterwards. I forgot I was at Mile High. I lost my oxygen." . . . Roethlisberger had another beautiful throw for a touchdown, floating a pass to Cedrick Wilson early in the second quarter. Roethlisberger's pump fake drew Champ Bailey, who had a 100-yard interception return against the Patriots last week, to the inside, leaving Wilson wide open in the right corner of the end zone. The same corner Bailey picked off Tom Brady's pass. It was Wilson's second touchdown catch of the postseason. He did not have one in the regular season. Wilson led the Steelers with five catches for 92 yards. ''I didn't know I was going to be featured," Wilson said. ''They stacked the box, and the coaches left it up to the receivers to make plays down the field." . . . Denver held the Steelers to 90 yards rushing (49 fewer than their average), but allowed 275 passing yards (92 more than Pittsburgh's norm).

Prognosis negative

After a plus-4 turnover margin against New England last week, Denver was minus-4 yesterday, forcing no turnovers by the Steelers. Quarterback Jake Plummer threw two interceptions and fumbled twice to account for all the Broncos' turnovers. ''The interceptions were bad, and I really hadn't fumbled the ball all year," Plummer said. ''I was just trying to step up in the pocket and make a play. I had to just keep two hands on the ball, but sometimes it goes to one hand and they made a good play getting the ball out of there." Plummer said turnovers or no, he would take the blame for the loss. ''That's my job," Plummer said. ''As a quarterback I have to lead the team to a win and I didn't get the job done. I fought hard all year, and all through this game, but I had a couple of poor decisions and in a game like this you can't do that." . . . Pittsburgh converted seven of its first eight third-down plays to build the lead, and converted 10 of 16 on the day, including 5 of 7 on third-and-7 or longer . . . Receiver Rod Smith (4 catches for 61 yards) now owns Broncos records for receptions (49) and yards (860) in the playoffs. Shannon Sharpe held the receptions mark until yesterday, and Smith passed Vance Johnson in yards last week . . . The loss was the first for Denver at home this season (9-1) and its first home loss in an AFC Championship game (4-1) . . . Las Vegas sportsbooks have made the Steelers early 3 1/2- to 4 1/2-point favorites over the Seahawks in the Super Bowl . . . As expected, the Houston Texans will hire Denver offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak to take over the worst team in the league and help decide what to do with the first pick in the draft. Texans owner Bob McNair, who made the announcement about an hour after yesterday's game, said the hiring won't become official until later this week.

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