Ben's play has Steelers feeling super
By BOB LABRIOLA
They didn't care. They really didn't. When a team had to win four straight regular season games and also get some help just to make the playoffs, there isn't a lot of extra energy to expend on making a list of preferred opponents. It was back on Jan. 1 after a win over the Detroit Lions had squeezed the Steelers into the AFC playoffs as its No. 6 seed, and a room filled with microphones was waiting for Coach Bill Cowher to talk about those and other things.
On televisions near the front of the room, the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins still were waltzing around the floor of Gillette Stadium in the game that would set the matchups for AFC Wild Card Weekend; the dates and kickoff times were a foregone conclusion.
If New England defeated Miami in that regular season finale, the Steelers would be their opponent in the Wild Card round. If the Dolphins won, Jacksonville was headed to Foxboro and the Steelers would be sent to Cincinnati for a rubber match with the Bengals. As Cowher sat down at the table to begin his news conference after the Lions' game, the Patriots-Dolphins game was about to be decided by a two-point conversion attempt.
Cowher noticed his audience was distracted. "You guys watching something?" When updated on the situation, Cowher asked if they all wanted to wait and watch the deciding play. A reporter answered that with his own question: "Don't you?" Cowher just shrugged and answered, "Nah. Let me know."
This was a reflection of the attitude the Steelers would take into the 2005 NFL playoffs, and the one-game-at-a-time approach had been narrowed further to become one-day-at-a-time, and then one-snap-at-a-time as the team upset the No. 3 seeded Bengals and then the No. 1 seeded Indianapolis Colts. Their ability to focus, their willingness to attend to the details during the preparation for each opponent had allowed them to beat both the Bengals and Colts.
On the morning after the Steelers had lost the AFC Championship Game to the New England Patriots, many of their players bemoaned the opportunity they had squandered, and they talked about all the hard work required to get back to that point again.
They were back, and so the 2005 AFC Championship Game would a Denver Broncos team that was undefeated at home in 2005, a team with a homefield advantage made more daunting by the mile-high altitude, versus a Steelers team on a run that could make it the best road team in NFL playoff history.
"Throughout the course of these playoffs, with our football team we have had really great weeks of work," said Cowher. "We have been as healthy as we have been all season. We are playing our best football at the right time of year. It's a very resilient group of guys, a very grounded group of guys. We never took anything for granted, never looked beyond the next game, and all of that allowed us to have a great focus for the challenge of that particular week."
This week, the week the AFC would decide whether the Steelers or the Broncos would represent the conference in Super Bowl XL, well, it was no contest.
Due respect to the Broncos, who had finished 13-3 to earn the AFC's No. 2 seed and the bye that came with it, who had taken out the two-time defending champion New England Patriots to host this conference championship, but this game was over at halftime.
Again, it was second-year quarterback Ben Roethlisberger who led the Steelers. Apparently not convinced what they had seen him do to the Colts was real, the Broncos figured the Steelers to start by trying to run the ball and they aligned their defense accordingly. Bad move. In fashioning a 10-0 lead, Roethlisberger was 7 for 8 for 89 yards and the touchdown, and his precise play was the catalyst for a first half that all but clinched the outcome that day.
In losing the 1997 AFC Championship Game to the Broncos, the Steelers had fallen behind at the half, 24-14; in losing the 2001 AFC Championship Game to the New England Patriots, they were behind at the half, 14-3; and in the 2004 AFC Championship Game loss to those same Patriots, they had been behind at the half, 24-3.
Not this time. This time it was the Steelers who put the Broncos in a deep hole come halftime, a deep hole described by the scoreboard as 24-3.
On the Steelers' three touchdown drives of the half, Roethlisberger completed 13 of 17 for 180 yards and two scores, but it wasn't just the offense that dominated.
In helping build that 24-3 halftime lead, the defense had limited the Broncos' No. 5-ranked offense to six first downs and 38 yards rushing while forcing two turnovers; Jeff Reed's 47-yard field goal 10 minutes into the game had established a positive dynamic right off the bat for the Steelers, and the combination of his kickoffs and coverage had made Denver's average drive start its own 28-yard line.
In fact, after the game's first 30 minutes, the only statistical categories in which the Broncos had posted higher numbers were turnovers and punts.
Still, these playoff games are the times when teams truly need great quarterback play, and the Steelers got it from Roethlisberger. In the win over the Bengals, and in the first halves against Indianapolis and Denver, Roethlisberger completed 39 of 55 for 560 yards, with seven touchdowns and one interception for a passer rating of 135.6. It was a string of remarkable performances by a quarterback who outplayed the guy on the other team, head-to-head, in three straight road playoff wins, but also a guy who had finished seventh in the AFC balloting for the Pro Bowl. Yes, seventh.
"The toughest route they said to take was the scenic route, and that ended up being the best route for us," said linebacker Joey Porter. "We went to three different cities and shocked the world three different times. We weren't supposed to be in this situation, but we pulled it off. We pulled it off everywhere we went."
The Steelers were going to the Super Bowl, and the story of Jerome Bettis capping a magnificent career with a return to his hometown for a shot to go out as a champion would dominate the worldwide sporting press for the next fortnight.
But the Steelers' winning this AFC Championship Game also meant Ben Roethlisberger had kept two promises he made, promises that at the time sounded mostly like youthful bravado. On Jan. 23, he went up to Bettis on the sideline at Heinz Field as the Patriots were wrapping up the 2004 AFC Championship and promised through tears that if retirement could be postponed for another year he'd get him to that Super Bowl. And on Aug. 1, he told reporters who were asking about the possibility of a sophomore slump, "All you guys think I'm going to have it, so I'm not going to. We can still win a Super Bowl and not win 15 (regular season) games."
Now, it was on to Detroit.
"We have to go and win the game," said Cowher. "Nobody every remembers the loser in the Super Bowl."
Reed 47 FG
Wilson 12 pass from Roethlisberger (Reed kick)
Elam 23 FG
Bettis 3 run (Reed kick)
Ward 17 pass from Roethlisberger (Reed kick)
Lelie 30 pass from Plummer (Elam kick)
Reed 42 FG
Anderson 3 run (Elam kick)
Roethlisberger 4 run (Reed kick)
Total Net Yds