- The Washington Times - Friday, January 14, 2005

One barely registers on the star scale despite playing in New York and stringing together 10 straight 1,000-yard seasons. The other accepted a massive pay cut and backup status to remain with his team last spring.

And now both, having irrefutably proven themselves with such humility, not to mention careers that make them among the NFL’s top five all-time rushers, have just one person left to outrun.

Dan Marino.

Running backs Curtis Martin and Jerome Bettis are on dual quests to burnish their likely Hall of Fame careers with a Super Bowl ring, the goal that eluded Marino throughout his 17-year NFL stint.

One rusher will take a step toward that goal tomorrow. The matchup between Martin and Bettis highlights the AFC divisional playoff game between Martin’s Jets and Bettis’ Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field.

“It’s not about individual numbers with me,” Bettis recently told the Detroit Free Press. “I’ve been to Pro Bowls. I did all the individual things. What I haven’t done is have team success, in terms of a Super Bowl.”

Despite being veritable graybeards at their position, each rusher enjoyed a statement season in 2004. Martin and Bettis defied their career trends and helped carry their teams to the playoffs in the stacked AFC.

Martin, the NFL’s No.4 all-time rusher (13,366 yards), became the oldest player (31) to lead the league in rushing. After struggling to a career-low 1,094 yards in 2002 and starting poorly in 2003, Martin rushed for 1,697 yards this season, a career high and Jets record.

The Henry Aaron of running backs, Martin one day could challenge Emmitt Smith’s NFL record (18,355 yards and counting) by maintaining his amazing consistency. Smith, 35, rushed for 1,203 yards at 31 and hasn’t approached that level since. Martin, in contrast, never has dipped below 1,000 yards and seems to be heating up.

“Curtis Martin has our utmost respect,” said Steelers linebacker James Farrior, a former Jet. “He’s a Hall of Fame running back. He has proven that [with] another year under his belt.”

Bettis, who’s fifth all-time with 13,294 yards, pulled an even bigger stunner this season. After being shifted to second string for a second straight year, this time for free agent Duce Staley, Bettis rushed for more than 100 yards in each of his six starts and scored a career-high 13 touchdowns.

Better known as the “Bus” for his 5-foot-11, 255-pound frame, Bettis made that production possible by swallowing his pride and trimming his compensation from $4.5million to $1million. Then during the season, he patiently idled in a short-yardage role before Staley’s hamstring injury created more playing time.

“He has made a lot of concessions,” Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. “He has been the ultimate leader and has been very inspirational for this football team. He has not only accepted the role that he was given at the beginning of the season [but also] really took the opportunities to have that role expanded.”

Both rushers earn praise for being humble. Jets offensive coordinator Paul Hackett called Martin “a true superstar with a low profile,” and the former third-round pick by the New England Patriots in 1995 said it was “humbling” to be mentioned among Smith, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders.

Bettis, meanwhile, might not even start tomorrow. Cowher this week kept his enviable running backs depth chart under wraps. For the season, Bettis finished with 941 yards in 15 games while Staley had 830 yards in 10 starts.

“It doesn’t really matter [who starts],” Bettis said. “We both are going to play. I can pretty much guarantee you that.”

The Jets counter with a similarly potent tandem: Martin and former Maryland star LaMont Jordan, who averaged 5.2 yards a carry this season. Neither of New York’s backs has the girth of Bettis or Staley, but both are capable of breaking big gains.

“I think that we have that same one-two punch here,” Martin said. “We know our roles, and we try to play them as well as we can.”

In the first meeting, a 17-6 Steelers win at Heinz Field, Martin led the group with 72 rushing yards while Bettis averaged 5.7 yards a carry. It was a bruising contest, with the quarterbacks combining for five interceptions and Bettis, on a trick play, throwing the lone touchdown pass.

Tomorrow’s game should be no different, as two all-timers face two of the NFL’s five best rushing defenses in search of a Super cap to their careers.

“The ring, as far as football is concerned, is my ultimate motivation,” Martin said. “I really believe I will get one before I get out of this game.”

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