Notebook: Whisenhunt might want to wait

PITTSBURGH – If Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan whispers into the ear of Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt after today's AFC Championship game, it'll be easy to figure out what he's saying:

"Stay away from Al Davis and the Raiders."

Whisenhunt is believed to be a candidate to become the next head coach of the Oakland Raiders. After the St. Louis Rams hired Scott Linehan, the job is probably Whisenhunt's only remaining opportunity.

The San Jose Mercury News pondered the question late this week.

"Good luck," wrote one columnist, "because we all know Al picks his coach last and fires him first."

After firing Norv Turner, Davis is looking for his sixth coach since hiring Mike White in 1995. Davis has had trouble luring top coaches because, as the Sacramento Bee put it yesterday, he's "an over-the-top control freak."

Shanahan was one of the lucky few to escape with his reputation intact. A fast-rising young defensive coordinator in 1989, Shanahan left the Raiders for his first job with the Broncos. Since then, he's disparaged Davis at almost every turn and beaten him nearly as often (17-5).

Whisenhunt would certainly receive other opportunities if he waits. Last week's game plan alone elevated his stock. ESPN.com's star reporter, Len Pasquarelli, said Whisenhunt has been "in a zone" the last two playoff games.

"I don't know about that," Whisenhunt said. "I just think the guys have been making plays. It's as simple as that."

Against the heavily-favored Indianapolis Colts, Whisenhunt courageously called a pass-first game against a team with the league's best pass-rusher in the league's noisiest stadium. The potential for Steelers mistakes was large.

"We talked about it and thought it was going to be the right thing to do against those guys, especially after having played them," he said. "I felt good about Ben (Roethlisberger), especially the way he's performed the last couple of weeks. And our receivers have been working hard. We like to think we can do those kinds of things if we feel like we need to. We thought it was the right time."

Whisenhunt said his confidence in Roethlisberger grew during one of his worst games. At Heinz Field against the Cincinnati Bengals, Roethlisberger was intercepted three times in a 38-31 loss.

"We knew going into that game they were going to try to stop the run, and we felt we had a pretty good plan throwing the football," Whisenhunt said. "He threw for 300-and-whatever yards, so we felt good about him throwing the ball. And he's never been one to turn the ball over a lot, so that was more of an unusual situation."

Whisenhunt mentioned his plans for the Colts game to coach Bill Cowher early last week.

"He said, ‘I like that. I think that's what we have to do,'" Whisenhunt said. "He was good with being aggressive with it. It's good when you've got a head coach who allows you to do that."

Remember that when Al Davis calls.

DENVER REVISITED

Only one current player was with the Pittsburgh Steelers when they lost the 1997 AFC Championship game to Denver, 24-21, at Three Rivers Stadium.

What does Jerome Bettis remember most about that game?

"Turnovers," he said. "Turnovers in the end zone, both end zones, and interceptions."

Quarterback Kordell Stewart threw three interceptions and fumbled that day. His most damaging interception came with 4:40 left in the first half on second-and-2 from the Denver 35. The Steelers had a 14-10 lead at the time and Bettis was beginning to wear out the Broncos on his way to 105 yards rushing on 23 carries. But Stewart threw deep and was intercepted.

"We tried to go for it all and it backfired on us and we started to slide after that," Bettis said.

The Steelers have lost two AFC Championship games since then. Bettis called the loss to the Broncos the most regrettable of them all.

"That was the one you wish you had back," he said. "There was no reason for you to be in that position to have to throw the football like that."

Bettis is considering retirement, and most members of the media are pushing the idea that the Steelers want to get to the Super Bowl in Detroit for Bettis. Bettis laughs at the idea.

"I've been on the losing side of quite of few of these AFC championships. I think that's driving me more than anything, not that it's in Detroit," he said. "This is a long time coming. It's an opportunity for us to do something that we haven't won. We've been here before and we lost and that's what I'm looking at."

DUKE OF HEATH

Roethlisberger calls tight end Heath Miller "Earl."

Why?

"You should know," Miller said.

Because of the "My Name is Earl" TV show?

"No. It's my first name," Miller said. "It took them almost a whole year to find it out. In college I held it a secret for two years."

Doesn't Miller like his given first name?

"Well, you know, I like Heath," he said of his middle name. "But it's alright. I don't mind."

The Rocky Mountain News called Miller one of the four ex-quarterbacks in the Steelers' offense who are liable to be involved in a trick play.

A quarterback in high school, Miller said he was involved in two trick plays as a tight end at the University of Virginia.

"I was lined out as a wide receiver and the quarterback threw it to me and I threw it downfield," he said. "I passed it to the other tight end, Patrick Estes, about 35 yards for a touchdown. The next time we ran that play I just tucked it and ran it. I didn't want to mess up my passer rating."

PRESS BOX NOTES

The Broncos are 4-0 in home AFC Championship games. They could tie the Washington Redskins (5-0) for best NFL record with a win today. … Roethlisberger could become the second-youngest starting quarterback in the Super Bowl. Dan Marino would have the 23-year-old Roethlisberger beat by 213 days, but Roethlisberger will be the only quarterback to start the AFC Championship game in his first two seasons. … The Broncos have rushed for more yards than any NFL team the last five years. The Steelers have allowed the fewest rushing yards during that same time. … The Steelers can become the ninth non-division winner and the first sixth seed to reach the Super Bowl. Four of the previous eight non-division winners won the Super Bowl (Kansas City 1969, Oakland 1980, Denver 1997, Baltimore 2000).


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