Reggie McKenzie, Seattle's veteran offensive guard, has a prediction, albeit biased, for the AFC playoffs.
"You gotta believe," he said yesterday, "that the champion of the AFC will come out of the West."
The odds are in his favor. Three of the five AFC playoff teams are from the West -- Denver (13-3), Seattle (12-4), and the Los Angeles Raiders (11-5) -- and only East winner Miami (14-2) has a better record. Pittsburgh won the hapless Central Division with a 9-7 record.
But consider the final weekend of the regular season in what became the incredibly wild West. All three teams already knew they had made the playoffs, yet two of them lost at home: the Seahawks, 31-14, to the Broncos; and the Raiders, 13-7, to the Steelers.
Now, the AFC wild card game becomes the losers' bracket, with the Raiders playing at Seattle this weekend. They enter the game as equals; both looked bad.
"It was junk," Raiders defensive end Howie Long said of the defending Super Bowl champions' effort.
"We have to pick ourselves up," said McKenzie. "We're going into the playoffs coming off two losses."
So much for momentum.
The Steelers, the only team in the National Football League to beat the San Francisco 49ers this season, were not given much of a chance against the Raiders, who were playing for the home-field advantage in this weekend's wild card game.
"We've been up and down all year," said veteran safety Donnie Shell, whose second interception of the day with 2 1/2 minutes remaining at the Steelers' 46-yard line clinched Pittsburgh's victory. "Everybody had written us off."
Including the Cincinnati Bengals. After they trounced Buffalo, 52-21, the Bengals settled down in front of the television to watch the Raiders win and send them to the playoffs with an 8-8 record.
Naturally, they were a little surprised by the result. Cincinnati punter Pat McInally, who writes a regular newspaper column, wondered how hard the Raiders really tried.
"To the Raiders, I say I'm more than a little disappointed you didn't come through for us. Or yourselves," he wrote in the Cincinnati Enquirer.
"In all honesty, it was one of the poorest performances I've ever seen. My teammates' comments will not be reprinted here, but suffice it to say that we'll be pulling for the Seahawks to annihilate the defending world champs next week in Seattle."
Cincinnati Coach Sam Wyche, in his first season with the Bengals, refused to criticize the Raiders.
"Pittsburgh just played too good for them," he said. "I'm not surprised because Pittsburgh has played good teams well."
Perhaps the most intriguing question of the day, however, concerns the Raiders. Can they win three road games to return to the Super Bowl with an increasingly bleak situation at quarterback?
Marc Wilson, who replaced Jim Plunkett when he suffered a torn abdominal muscle Oct. 7, completed only five of 13 passes for 45 yards before being replaced by Plunkett in the third quarter.
Plunkett went nine for 20 for 123 yards and the only touchdown, but threw the interception to Shell to end the Raiders' chances.
"We challenged them defensively a little more than we were used to doing this season," Shell said of a Raider-like, man-to-man defense played by Pittsburgh. "It has not been our style of play, but it worked, so maybe we'll continue using it."
Shell is one of only four players remaining from Pittsburgh's Super Bowl teams of the 1970s. (Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster are the others.) Things are not like they used to be.
"It's a different feeling," he said. "We have to hang in there with perserverence now, and we never had to do that before. With guys like (Lynn) Swann and (Terry) Bradshaw, the big guns, we always won. This year, we had to scratch and fight."
The Steelers are underdogs, and loving it.
"They can joke about the AFC Central all they want," Shell said. "Records don't matter anymore. We're all equal now, whether we're 16-0 or 8-8."
The Raiders are bewildered.
"We don't have any excuses," said Coach Tom Flores. Added Long: "I'm ashamed to go out and show my face on the block."
And the Broncos, who get the week off before hosting the Steelers Dec. 30, are the one team in the West that enjoyed the weekend.
"I couldn't sleep (after the Seattle game)," Coach Dan Reeves said. "Just lying in bed, thinking about how fortunate I've been, I had tears in my eyes."