January 02, 2005

Steelers Backups End Bills' Playoff Hopes

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. - The Pittsburgh Steelers are so good that they ended Buffalo's playoff hopes with their backups. Fourth-string running back Willie Parker had 102 yards rushing and backup linebacker James Harrison returned a fumble 18 yards for a touchdown, helping seal the Steelers' 29-24 win over Buffalo on Sunday. The Steelers won their 14th straight to match the record set by Miami in 1972 and became just the fourth team in NFL history, the first in the AFC, to finish 15-1.

The Bills (9-7) had a six-game win streak snapped, and squandered a chance to win their first playoff spot since 1999. Their loss automatically put the New York Jets in.

Buffalo made it close when Willis McGahee scored his second touchdown of the game on a 1-yard plunge with 78 seconds left. But the Bills failed on an onside kick when Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor recovered the ball.

It was an exceptional performance by the Steelers, who already had clinched home-field advantage in the playoffs. They won without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Jerome Bettis, receiver Plaxico Burress and linebacker Kendrell Bell. And from the third quarter on, their lineup included quarterback Brian St. Pierre, promoted from the team's practice squad last week, and a defense with just five starters.

St. Pierre, who replaced Tommy Maddox late in the third quarter, missed on his one pass attempt in an NFL debut that consisted of him handing the ball to Parker.

Maddox went 12-of-24 for 120 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.

The game turned late in the third quarter after Buffalo's Rian Lindell missed wide right on a 28-yard field-goal attempt that left the Bills clinging to a 17-16 lead.

The Steelers responded on their next drive when Jeff Reed hit a 37-yarder, set up by Parker's 58-yard run.

Pittsburgh then went ahead 29-17 when cornerback Ricardo Colclough blind-sided quarterback Drew Bledsoe, forcing a fumble that fell directly into the hands of Harrison, who ran it in for a score with 13:24 remaining.

The Bills went three-and-out on their next possession.

The Steelers then ate up nearly nine minutes with a 14-play, 46-yard drive — helped by two defensive penalties. It was capped with a 33-yard field goal by Reed, who kicked five.

Antwaan Randle El also scored on a 16-yard reception.

The Bills looked nothing like a team that had outscored its opponents 228-89 in its previous six games. The offense managed just 267 yards with seven three-and-outs.

McGahee finished with 79 yards rushing and two touchdowns, a 3-yarder.

Buffalo's offense managed just 267 yards, and had seven three-and-out series.

Bledsoe finished 16-of-30 for 189 yards passing and an interception.

The atmosphere at a soldout Ralph Wilson Stadium was electric, and featured a large contingent of Steelers fans. For Bills fans, this was considered the most significant home game since Buffalo lost to Jacksonville in the 1996 playoffs in Jim Kelly's last game.

And the Bills fans erupted in singing "Let's Go Buffalo," after McGahee put the Bills up 7-3 on a 3-yard run 9 minutes into the game.

That's all they had to cheer for in a first half in which the Bills' offense managed just 88 yards, and had five of their first six series last three plays or less. Things might have been worse if the Bills defense didn't force two turnovers, a Randle El fumble and a Maddox interception.

No comments: