January 15, 2006

Steelers Upset Colts in Classic

INDIANAPOLIS - The Pittsburgh Steelers gave the Colts every opportunity to steal their playoff game Sunday. In the final moments of one of the most thrilling playoff games anyone can remember, Indy couldn't figure out how to take it.

So the Steelers survived a goal-line fumble by Jerome Bettis and one of the most mysterious replay reversals in NFL history to shatter the Colts' dream season with a 21-18 win. Pittsburgh (13-5) became the first sixth seed to make a conference championship game and will journey to Denver next Sunday for a shot at the Super Bowl.

They will do so breathlessly. Both benches seesawed between elation and agony with every possession as the game hung in the balance, stirring the crowd into waves of deafening sound.

This victory should have been so much easier. The Steelers dominated the Colts (14-3) until a fourth quarter with almost unimaginable twists and turns that ended when Mike Vanderjagt missed his first field goal at home, wide right from 46 yards. Vanderjagt then slammed his helmet to the turf, obviously forgetting how fortunate he was to have the chance.

After Pittsburgh's ferocious defense sacked a befuddled Peyton Manning twice, taking the ball on downs at the Colts 2 with just more than a minute left, Bettis fumbled when hit by Gary Brackett. Nick Harper, whose knee was cut with a knife Saturday in an apparent domestic dispute with his wife, grabbed the ball and headed toward the end zone.

But Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, brilliant all game with his arm and head, tumbled, reached out a hand and made a saving tackle at the Indy 42.

"I was frustrated," Bettis said. "That shouldn't happen, I'm supposed to take care of the football. I was upset that it happened. My defense bailed me out. I can leave here with my head up high."

Given life, Manning passed the Colts into field goal range, but Vanderjagt missed.

"It is disappointing. We had a great regular season, didn't play well enough in the playoffs," Colts coach Tony Dungy said. "That is disappointing, we have to pick it up from here. Pittsburgh came in and ratcheted things up and played a great game."

With 5:26 remaining and Pittsburgh on top 21-10, referee Pete Morelli overruled Troy Polamalu's diving interception at the Pittsburgh 48. Replays shown in the stadium and on CBS clearly showed Polamalu catching the ball as he fell, rolling and tumbling with it in his hands, then fumbling it as he got up to run.

Dungy had no choice but to challenge; the Colts were reeling.

After keeping the ball, Manning made some vintage throws — something missing almost all day. Passes of 20 yards to Marvin Harrison and 24 to Reggie Wayne set up a 3-yard TD run by Edgerrin James. When Wayne got a 2-point conversion pass, the lead was down to three.

The Steelers, who won at Cincinnati last week while the AFC South champion Colts were off, built their advantage thanks to a superb game plan they seemed to steal from Indy. Bill Cowher showed why he has been a winning coach for 14 seasons in Pittsburgh, which has won two straight road playoff games for the first time.

Pittsburgh has one of the league's most varied running attacks, but Cowher, mirroring Indy's image, opted to open it up. Roethlisberger threw for two first-quarter touchdowns while Manning was wildly missing his first four passes and feeling pressure from everywhere. He wound up being sacked five times in all.

When the Steelers needed to run, they turned to the speed of Willie Parker and the power of Bettis.

Then everything went wacky.

The Colts were left to wonder where the magic went. They started 13-0, threatening the 1972 Dolphins' perfect season, only to drop three of their next four — including the most meaningful game, Sunday's defeat.

It was a bitter loss for Manning, who has few major wins to go with his individual honors. Until the frenzied final minutes, he was mostly a non-factor.

And it was a sad ending for Dungy, whose son died of an apparent suicide last month. Dungy's team clearly was the NFL's best for 13 weeks. But in the most important weeks, they faltered.

Antwaan Randle El's 6-yard TD reception for a 7-0 lead was his first since the season opener, hardly an impressive stat for a starting receiver. But it capped one of Pittsburgh's most impressive drives of the season, 84 yards in 10 plays, with seven passes, including 36- and 18-yarders to rookie tight end Heath Miller.

Quite a difference from the Steelers' previous trip to the RCA Dome, where the crowd noise caused several false starts and the Colts scored on an 80-yard pass to Harrison on their first offensive play.

With the defense plaguing Manning, the Colts did nothing early. Then Hines Ward broke two tackles on a 45-yard completion, leading to Roethlisberger's 7-yard TD pass to Miller. With 3:12 remaining in the first period, it was 14-0. Shockingly, Pittsburgh had the 14.

Shortening Manning's drops, at times sliding the blocking pocket, the Colts marched 96 yards in 15 plays, taking up nearly 10 minutes of the second period. But their best drive, on which Manning went 6-for-6, ended with only Vanderjagt's 20-yard field goal.

Could three points be any more deflating to the team that scored them?

The potent Colts had all of 123 yards at halftime, 74 in the air, and trailed by 11.

It didn't get better early in the second half. Manning saw pressure for rush linebackers, ends, blitzing backs and even nose tackle Casey Hampton. He nearly was sacked for a safety late in the third period and was downed at the 1, which eventually led to Bettis' 1-yard drive for his 11th TD of the season — and ninth since the Steelers' 26-7 loss here on Nov. 28.

They haven't lost since and now have a shot at their first Super Bowl trip in 10 years.

No comments: