Steelers, on Road, Advance to Super Bowl
DENVER - Big Ben, The Bus and all those Terrible Towels sure are traveling well this postseason. Next stop, the Super Bowl, the final destination of a Pittsburgh road trip the Denver Broncos were powerless to derail.
Ben Roethlisberger had a brilliant afternoon, throwing for 275 yards and two scores, and Jerome Bettis extended his career one more game, lifting the Steelers to a dominating 34-17 victory in the AFC title game Sunday.
Bettis said, "We're going home!" as the game wore down and he celebrated on the sideline. He is, indeed, back to his hometown of Detroit for Pittsburgh's first appearance in the Super Bowl since 1995.
"I thought we could get there. It's come true," he said. "Detroit, watch out. Here we come!"
Outschemed, outplayed and pushed around all day, the Broncos (14-4) shuffled off to their locker room, heads down, after their first home loss in 10 tries this season.
"They had a great game plan," said Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, now 2-1 in AFC title games. "They played big on the road, very well-coached game, very well-played game."
Though Pittsburgh's next game, against either Seattle or Carolina, will be a homecoming for Bettis, the Steelers (14-5) have looked extremely comfortable on the road.
They became the first team to win three away games to make it to the Super Bowl since the 1985 New England Patriots. Some might look at that as a surprise. Anyone who has watched the Steelers over the past decade — and especially the last two months — certainly wouldn't.
They came out passing, not running, much the same way they did when they upset Indianapolis last week. Roethlisberger called pass plays on seven of Pittsburgh's first 11 snaps and threw completions on five of those.
The first drive resulted in a field goal. On Denver's next possession, Pittsburgh's Joey Porter blitzed to force a Jake Plummer fumble. Five plays later, Roethlisberger hit Cedrick Wilson for a touchdown and a 10-0 lead, quieting the Invesco Field crowd much as the Steelers did in Indy last week and Cincinnati the week before.
After a Denver field goal, the Steelers essentially salted this game with a 14-play, 80-yard drive that ate up nearly 7 1/2 minutes and had the Broncos defense totally off balance and gasping for air. The Steelers converted six of seven third downs in the first half.
Bettis capped it by bulling in from the 3 for a 17-3 lead to put him well on his way to the Super Bowl. Jut-jawed coach Bill Cowher smiled widely for that one, remembering Bettis' near disaster on the goal line last week in Indy.
"This is a great group of guys, how we got here, we're a different team," Cowher said. "We're a focused team, no matter what's happened, we've stayed together. We've got a resilient group."
The Broncos trailed by two touchdowns, but they had escaped worse predicaments in the past.
But there was no Drive, no Fumble, no comeback and no you-know-who on the field this day.
John Elway was on hand, but sitting in a luxury suite, watching the Broncos fall short of the ultimate destination for the seventh straight year since he led them to their second championship.
Plummer, who had played so well in the lead all season, finally faced some comeback pressure and failed miserably. He went 18-for-30 for 223 yards with two lost fumbles and two interceptions.
He threw one pass underhanded, scrambled for his life and, though valiant as always, proved what had been proved many times before — that he can't do it by himself.
Trailing by two touchdowns, Jake the Snake lobbed a terrible pass into the flat that was easily intercepted by Ike Taylor. Moments later, Bettis ran it in from 12 yards for an apparent touchdown on third down.
A penalty nullified that, but it only set up Roethlisberger for his best throw of the day — a 17-yard touchdown that barely cleared the fingertips of Al Wilson and Nick Ferguson, before finding Hines Ward tucked neatly in the back of the end zone.
That made it 24-3.
Roethlisberger ran to the sideline and celebrated by pretending to fire six-shooters from his hip. Yep, he was on target all day in this one — 24 yards to Heath Miller, 17 more to Wilson, 21 to Ward and 18 to Wilson again, all after being given ample time against Denver's ill-timed blitz.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Denver pulled within 27-17 and got the ball back at its 20.
But Plummer lost a fumble on fourth-and-10 and that pretty much made it official: The Steelers would be back in the big game, searching for that long elusive fifth world championship — that "One For The Thumb" — to add to the 1970s legacy of Bradshaw, Swann, Stallworth and Harris.
It has been a long road between then and now for the Steelers. Five AFC title games since 1994, all at home, resulted in only one victory, leading many to wonder if the pressure of being a favorite, or doing it in front of the home crowd, was something the Steelers could handle.
Cowher, now in his 14th year, kept his job through it all — the Rooney family cherishes stability over all else.
"It feels great today, I'll tell you that," Steelers owner Dan Rooney said. "The coach already told me we're going to the Super Bowl to win it, not just to be there."
As the clock wound down, Cowher was still going full tilt on the sideline, jabbing his finger at Bettis, preaching ball control and no repeat of last week's fumble in Indy.
Roethlisberger put this one away, diving in on third-and-goal and sending the crowd home.
Except, that is, for the loyal Pittsburgh partisans.
They stayed 'til the end, watching Cowher share hugs with Roethlisberger, Joey Porter and especially The Bus.
They blanketed the corners of Invesco with black and gold, waving those Terrible Towels and holding up their Steelers banners.
"Next Bus Stop: Detroit," one said.
In all, it looked like a home away from home for the Steelers — pretty much like every stop they've made on their magical ride this postseason.