Monday, January 16, 2006

Steelers, not Colts, left standing when madness ends




Not only did Ben Roethlisberger throw for two TDs, but he made the game-saving tackle.

Hines Ward and the Steelers are heading to the AFC title game after knocking off the Colts.

INDIANAPOLIS (Jan. 15, 2006) -- Forget the first 55 minutes, when the Pittsburgh Steelers dominated the Indianapolis Colts. And no one will remember much how they scored all the points.

What they'll be talking about in Pittsburgh for years to come is those last five, thrilling minutes -- a wild finish made of missed opportunities, gut-wrenching twists and one unimaginable, tide-turning play after another.

The Steelers won their sixth straight game, 21-18 over the Colts, becoming the first sixth seed to advance to a conference championship game. When the Steelers (13-5) catch their breath, they'll head to Denver, with the winner next Sunday representing the AFC in the Super Bowl.

"It was a unique game. It ranks up there. It was crazy," Jerome Bettis said.

"It went from an all-time high to an all-time low back to an all-time high," Hines Ward added.

In a matter of minutes, too -- holding the deafening crowd spellbound.

Pittsburgh spent three quarters building a 21-10 lead with a pass-first game plan that could've come straight from Indy.

Then things got wacky:

All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu made a diving interception of Peyton Manning at the Pittsburgh 48 with 5:26 remaining. He got up to run and fumbled the ball, but recovered -- only to have it mysteriously overturned on a challenge.

Manning capitalized with passes of 20 yards to Marvin Harrison and 24 to Reggie Wayne before a 3-yard touchdown run by Edgerrin James and a two-point conversion pass to Wayne.

Pittsburgh was forced to punt on its next series, but with 1:20 remaining, the befuddled Manning was sacked for the fifth time, on fourth down at his 2.

Game over, right?

Not on your life. The sure-handed Bettis fumbled when popped by linebacker Gary Brackett. Nick Harper, whose knee was cut with a knife in an apparent domestic dispute with his wife, grabbed the ball and headed toward a highly improbable winning touchdown.

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.

"Once in a blue moon, Jerome fumbles," Roethlisberger said. "Once in a blue moon, I make a tackle. They just happened to be in the same game."

Two passes got the ball to the Pittsburgh 27, and Mike Vanderjagt lined up for a 46-yard field goal to send it to overtime.

Wide right.

Vanderjagt slammed his helmet to the turf, obviously forgetting how fortunate he was to have had the chance.

"It's extreme disbelief," Vanderjagt said. "From the Polamalu interception reversal to Jerome's fumble, everything seemed to be lined up in our favor. I guess the Lord forgot about the football team."

It was the first time the Steelers won two straight playoff road games. And this one should have been so much easier for Pittsburgh.

With wide-open passing, hardly their forte, and ferocious defense -- definitely the Steelers' style -- Bill Cowher showed why he has been among the league's top coaches since 1992. The Steelers, who won at Cincinnati last week while the AFC South champion Colts were off, built their lead thanks to a superb game plan they seemed to steal from Indy.

Pittsburgh has one of the league's most varied running attacks, but Cowher 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.

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

"The play-calling was aggressive," Ward said. "They thought all we can do is run the ball. We can pass the ball, too."

The Colts (14-3) 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.

"There is no question we were in good position with home field and having the bye," Manning said. "At this point, it is hard to swallow."

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.

They certainly made it interesting, beginning with the challenge.

"I know they wanted Indy to win this game; the whole world loves Peyton Manning," Steelers LB Joey Porter said. "But come on, man, don't take the game away from us like that."

In the end, nobody took it away, even with the Steelers doing their best to give it away.

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.

Hines Ward broke two tackles on a 45-yard completion, leading to Roethlisberger's 7-yard TD pass to Miller to make it 14-0.

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.

Deflating.

It didn't get better early in the second half. Manning saw pressure from 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.


Vanderjagt slammed his helmet to the turf, obviously forgetting how fortunate he was to have had the chance.


Not his day

INDIANAPOLIS -- Peyton Manning couldn't get comfortable against the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense Sunday. Then he had to squirm through the latest round of questions about another playoff failure.

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After his Indianapolis Colts lost 21-18 to the Steelers, at home no less, Manning stared into the cameras and tried to explain the disappointment of knowing that another promising season had slipped away without a trip to the Super Bowl.

"All I know is to keep working, to come back next year and be a better quarterback, a better leader," he said. "You get tired of saying that after every playoff loss because pretty soon, you start running out of years."

Clearly, this loss was more frustrating to Manning, now 3-6 in the postseason. It was a blown chance, perhaps his best yet of reaching the Super Bowl.

Manning and the Colts opened 13-0 to earn the AFC's top seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. And with New England already eliminated, the two-time MVP finally seemed primed to take Indianapolis all the way.

Three weeks of rest were also supposed to make Manning stronger, and the Colts healthier.

But Indy (14-3) didn't play well, and Manning hardly looked like himself until he nearly rallied the Colts in the fourth quarter.

The sharp, accurate passes that have defined Manning's career were missing early. Instead, he was plagued by overthrows, wide throws and heavy pressure. He finished 22-of-38 for 290 yards with one touchdown, five sacks and several hurries. Afterward, he grudgingly accepted it for what it was -- another season of failing to meet expectations.

"I couldn't tell you how much I studied these guys over the last two weeks," Manning said. "It's disappointing we didn't win the game. But I'm going to keep trying, that's all I can say."

The Colts' high-scoring offense opened the game with four consecutive punts. They managed one first down -- on a one-handed catch by Marvin Harrison -- and only 25 total yards in the first quarter. As the Steelers continued bringing pressure, things got worse.

"They blitzed and that's their style," Colts coach Tony Dungy said. "We made some throws against the blitz in the fourth quarter, but not enough. They made the plays."

To Manning, it's become an all-too-common refrain.

He lost his first three playoff games, including an embarrassing 41-0 defeat to the New York Jets in January 2003. Then came back-to-back losses the last two years at New England in the rain, snow and ice. After those losses, some contended the only way for Manning and the Colts to reach the Super Bowl was to stay indoors.

Their 13-game winning streak assured them of that much, but the Steelers' defense destroyed any chance of it this season.

It wasn't all Manning's fault, to be sure. Tarik Glenn was called for two false starts, one that cost Indianapolis a touchdown. Mike Vanderjagt, the NFL's most accurate kicker, missed a 46-yard field goal that would have forced overtime after a gift fumble by Jerome Bettis.

Receivers broke routes off short when Manning expected them to run deeper. Edgerrin James was held mostly in check, and Pittsburgh rattled the Colts' defense with two early touchdown drives.

"I'm looking for a safe word here, I don't want to be a bad teammate," Manning said when asked about Indianapolis' blown blocking assignments. "Pittsburgh gave us trouble and put us in some situations we're not usually in."

But, as often happens, the burden fell to Manning, and he couldn't save his team.

"We just didn't play well enough today," Dungy said. "They played better than we did, they deserved to win the game. We played hard and gave ourselves a chance but didn't quite make enough plays."

Manning did stabilize the Colts by leading them on a 96-yard drive in the second quarter, but they settled for a 20-yard field goal after Glenn's miscue on third-and-goal from the 1 cost them a TD. He hooked up with Dallas Clark on a nifty, 50-yard TD pass early in the fourth quarter to make it 21-10.

Manning delivered again with a six-play, 80-yard drive after an interception call was curiously reversed. James eventually ran 3 yards for the TD and Manning threw to Reggie Wayne on a 2-point conversion to make it 21-18.

Then, with the season on the line, Manning drove the Colts to the Pittsburgh 28 but missed Wayne on two consecutive throws. Manning figured Vanderjagt would force overtime.

"When you're down three and you get to that distance, you feel like it's a safe field-goal distance, so you try to go for the win," Manning said. "You try to be aggressive and try to win the game."

But Vanderjagt pushed it wide right as Manning winced on the sideline.

"The reality is when you see it going right, you know the season is over," Manning said. "It's a hard feeling to swallow."


Notes: The potent Colts had all of 123 yards at halftime, 74 in the air, and trailed by 11. ... Bettis has nine TDs since the Steelers' 26-7 loss here on Nov. 28. ... The Steelers haven't lost since falling here and now have a shot at their first Super Bowl trip in 10 years. They lost to Dallas after the 1995 season.

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