Three months ago, the experts knew who was going to be in the World Series: the Detroit Tigers and Chicago Cubs.

Nobody notified the San Diego Padres.

Now the smart money has the Super Bowl all doped out: San Francisco 49ers and Miami Dolphins. Best teams, best coaches, best quarterbacks.

It's the game everybody wants, just like they wanted the Tigers and Cubs.

But are we certain the Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers have been informed?

There's a nervous little hum down here. Nobody can believe the Dolphins get to face the Steelers here on Sunday, not the formidable Denver Broncos.

It can't be this easy, can it?

After all, the Steelers are the same team that Miami beat, 31-7, in Pittsburgh three months ago. That was the Steelers' worst loss ever in Three Rivers Stadium.

These are the same Steelers who have lost this year to the Houston Oilers, Indianapolis Colts and Cleveland Browns -- teams with a combined record of 9-36 in their other games.

As recently as a month ago, the Steelers had a 7-7 record and the NFL world barely noticed them. They were a rebuilding franchise with 15 first-year players and 29 guys with three years or less of NFL experience. They were a team that had started nine rookies on offense at one desperate time or another. The Steelers had changed quarterbacks, changed running backs, completely rebuilt their offensive line in midseason.

Where names like Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Mean Joe Greene and Lynn Swann once struck terror, the new names on key Steeler jerseys were Abercrombie and Pollard, Malone and Merriweather, Louis Lipps and Tunch Ilkin.

Tunch Ilkin?

What is this, a berserk Scrabble rack?

Well, you see the problem.

Once, the Steelers were the Steel Curtain. This year, you might as well have called them the Iron Curtain because they were a better-kept secret than anything in the Kremlin.

All season the Steelers played camouflage football. One week they'd beat the Los Angeles Rams or the 49ers -- yes, they're the team that kept San Francisco from a perfect 16-0 season.

But the next week they'd get thumped so bad, or lose to somebody so gawdawful, that the glare of NFL attention would sweep past them like a spotlight in a prison yard missing the guys making a breakout.

The Steelers never won more than two games in a row. Nobody caught on. Until it was too late. The offensive line got very tough at ball-control crunching. The defense learned to gamble and scored six touchdowns. And morale got spooky good. "We feel like we can't die," said Craig Wolfley.

First, Pittsburgh beat the Los Angeles Raiders, 13-7, to force the Super Bowl champs on the road in the wild card game. That set the stage for the demise of the black-and-silver.

Then, last week, the Steelers ignored two fumbles, three missed field goals and a blocked punt to upset the Broncos, 24-17, in Mile High Stadium where visiting teams are supposed to get the bends in the fourth quarter.

Instead of folding late, the Steelers came from behind. "We got to John Elway (Denver QB) so much we intimidated him . . . . He was just throwing the ball up, hoping . . . " said Pittsburgh end Keith Willis.

The idea is taking shape that the Steelers might be getting better fast. And at a very good time. Chuck Noll, the best coach who never said anything good about himself, has this thing about playoff games; his 15-6 record is the best percentage among coaches who've been in more than 10 such scraps.

No, the Steelers aren't pretty. Or even particularly exciting.

Sure, 220-pound running back Frank Pollard is a little plump. But knock him at your peril. One Denver columnist called him "P-O-L-L-A-R-D as in S-T-I-F-F"; that day Pollard killed the Broncos with 147 yards of all-purpose offense.

Some say the only thing Steeler quarterback Mark Malone has in common with Miami's Dan Marino is that they both threw 17 interceptions this year. Marino, however, threw 48 touchdown passes to Malone's 16. But Malone's record as a starter is 7-3; he didn't open October's debacle against Miami.

It's easy to say this Steeler team has no pedigree. Only three remain who played on all four Super Bowl champion teams in the '70's: Pro-Bowlers Mike Webster (the classic center) and John Stallworth (1,395 receiving yards), plus dangerous safety Donnie Shell.

But the new wave has class, too. Robin Cole and Mike Merriweather are both pro bowl linebackers on a 3-4 defense that bends plenty, breaks some, but snaps back with big plays, like 31 interceptions.

The new Steelers like to talk, too, a tactic their forebears didn't need, terror being self-explanatory.

"I'm sure no one will give us much of a chance, but that's fine with us. That just pulls us together," said free safety Eric Williams, whose interception set up the winning touchdown last week. "We've beaten several good teams now and people still say we're sorry."

"I'm glad the game's at Miami," Cole has said. "They already came to our place and stuffed us. It's time for us to go down there and shut their people up."

"I don't think Miami has a very good defense," said Abercrombie.

"We can beat Miami," said Pollard. "Just control the ball and keep it away from Marino."

Brave talk indeed since, according to scouting reports, the Dolphins have 49 players who can read.