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COWBOYS? LOST IN A CLOUD OF COAL DUST

Folks in blue-collar western Pennsylvania have loved football since Joe Namath weighed nine pounds and had both kneecaps. But they don't have their heads in the clouds about it. Truth be told, there probably aren't three Pittsburgh Steelers fans in ten who actually believe their club can upset the cocky, strutting Dallas Cowboys in Sunday's Super Bowl. Those who do may have spent too many years down in the mines.

Fact is, Pittsburgh backed into the big game on the strength of a bad call, a dropped interception and a Hail Mary that fell two syllables short of an answer. If there were justice in heaven, mid-career wonder Jim Harbaugh and the out-of-nowhere Indianapolis Colts, not the Steelers, would be the doomed souls who'll be led out onto the killing ground at Tempe, Arizona, this Sunday. The Colts won the AFC Championship game in every sense but the one that counted.

Little matter. The NFC's domination of the AFC is now in its twelfth year and, with just two exceptions (wanna try that again, Mr. Norwood?), recent so-called Super Bowls have all taken on the qualities of ritual sacrifice. Every time the last week in January rolls around, the outmanned Broncos or insecure Bills (or their reasonable facsimiles) dutifully put on their helmets, and the Cowboys, Redskins or 49ers dutifully smash them into next season before breaking a sweat.

Consider: Since the L.A. Raiders beat Washington on January 22, 1984, the NFC has outscored the Almost Football Conference 428 to 181.

Take last year. The San Diego "What the hell are we doing here?" Chargers summoned up enough nerve to take the field against San Francisco, but Niners quarterback Steve Young burned the Diego secondary with two touchdown passes in the first five minutes of the game, then meandered on through the early evening to a 49-26 win. It was like the Tyson-McNeely fight: If you stepped into the kitchen for a minute to grab another bowl of Uncle Elmer's chili, you missed the whole thing. By halftime, even O.J. was watching Italian movies on Bravo and Super Bowl TV sponsors were leaping off high ledges.

So, then: Pittsburgh 24, Dallas 21.
That's right. Along with Joe Sixpack in Aliquippa and a couple of old single-wing halfbacks from Canonsburg High School, I'm throwing history out the window and picking the Steelers. I may also have inhaled too much coal dust, but here is how the conventional wisdom (kindly see summary above) and the Dallas Cowboys will be defeated:

1: Barry Bombs. One recent occupant of this year's Super Bowl venue, Buddy Ryan, has been given his long-overdue pink slip by the floundering Arizona Cardinals. But his spirit remains--on the Dallas sideline. If there's a more inept head coach in the NFL than the Cowboys' Barry Switzer, he hasn't shown himself. As thin-skinned as Ryan, more inflexible than Mike Ditka, the former molder of great minds at the University of Oklahoma has inherited the best roster in the game--Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin and many more--but when his stars squabble, Barry can't control the damage, and when the team comes out flat, is banged up or has an off day, he can't seem to squeak them past an inferior opponent. Norv Turner and the dreadful Washington Redskins beat the Boys twice this year, and confirmed Switzer-blitzers point to those consecutive failures running the ball on fourth-and-one against Philadelphia as classic Barry.

If Pittsburgh gets ahead early, Jerry Jones's second-in-command might just implode in the manner of--let's see here--Dan Reeves. Meanwhile, the coach on the other side of the field, Bill Cowher, is a cunning strategist and a supreme motivator. Give his outclassed troops a crack of light and they'll tear it wide open. While Barry stews in his juices.

2: Prime Time Burnout. If there's a more arrogant collection of egos in the game than the one in Big D, no one's seen that, either. Following their NFC Championship win over the Green Bay Packers (America's real team), assorted Cowboys raised a familiar chorus of I-told-you-so's and we're-going-home-to-the-Super-Bowls. One of the loudest voices belonged to wide receiver Irvin, who could be called for offensive holding on 85 percent of his patterns and for felonious assault on the others. Smith had his say, too, but it came as no surprise that first prize in the Loudmouth Sweepstakes went to Deion Sanders--one of the most gifted players in the NFL and the embodiment of everything that's gone wrong in pro sports. Apparently, Prime Time had forgotten that the Packers-Cowboys game featured five lead changes and that Green Bay, down just 31-27 late in the fourth quarter, was driving toward a go-ahead touchdown when QB Brett Favre threw the interception that turned the tide.

The Steelers haven't forgotten. While the Cowboys, who are 13-point Super Bowl favorites, continue to posture and pose and put another win in the books with their talk, Pittsburgh goes about its business--which is super-tough defense and a surprisingly inventive passing game that dropped out of nowhere in 1995.

3: The Slash Bash. Your Colorado Buffaloes will have to wait for next season to contend for another national championship, but the Golden Buffs Alumni Association--Pittsburgh Chapter--can help do it this week in Tempe. Steelers linebacker Chad Brown, cornerback Deon Figures, center/guard Ariel Solomon and nose tackle Joel Steed are all former CU players, and they've all made their marks in the Bigs. But the star of the show is Pittsburgh rookie Kordell "Slash" Stewart, the former Buff quarterback who now mutates at will: Not even Cowher seems to know if Kordell's a wideout, a quarterback, a punt returner or a punter, so he's used in all those capacities. Naturally, this drives opposing coaches crazy (where's he gonna line up on this play?) and often rattles defenses so badly that Slash's mere presence on the field becomes a winning angle. Cowher is likely to throw Stewart, in his many guises, straight into the teeth of the swift, overplaying Cowboys defense (maybe even at the overconfident Sanders), but there's one guy he's almost certain to exploit--slow, uncertain Dallas cornerback Larry Brown, number 24.

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