Ben makes plays early, late in big win
By BOB LABRIOLA
It was going to take a superior effort, and it would have to start with the first team meeting of the week, through every practice, until the game clock told them to stop. It was going to take every player performing at a career-best level. It was going to take a flawless marriage of strategy and execution.
One of the benefits of being the sixth seed in the AFC was the Steelers knew that if they advanced to the Divisional Playoff round their opponent had to be No. 1 seed Indianapolis. This was another opportunity for some payback, because just as the Cincinnati Bengals had humbled the Steelers during a December afternoon at Heinz Field, the Colts had handled them on a Monday night in late November. But any disappointment in the outcome that evening in the RCA Dome was mitigated by what they had learned from the experience.
From the very start of Bill Cowher's tenure as coach, the Steelers would prepare for particularly difficult venues by setting up speakers during practice to simulate the problems they were going to encounter because of crowd noise, but nothing they could manufacture was comparable to what they actually experienced on Nov. 28, 2005 in the RCA Dome.
The way the Steelers defense had played in the 26-7 regular season loss to the Colts gave the team hope that if it could get some of the problems they had offensively squared away, there was going to be a real chance to pull off the upset. It all would start with them mastering their own version of a silent count, a procedure where everyone would key off a signal from center Jeff Hartings to determine when the ball would be snapped.
The silent count would give the offensive linemen a better chance against the aggressive, turf-aided Colts defensive front, but parlor tricks were only going to get them so far. If they were going to win this game, they were going to have to force the Colts to play 60 minutes of Steelers football, and that wouldn't happen if they fell behind early.
Linebacker Joey Porter had shattered the mid-week calm with the accusation that the Colts hadn't been more physical than the Steelers back on Nov. 28, and if his words drew the predictable outraged rebuke from an Indianapolis newspaper columnist, those words also revealed the attitude the Steelers were bringing to this playoff game.
Yes, the Steelers were respectful of the Colts in terms of concentrating during the preparation, but they weren't impressed to the degree that would indicate deference to the team that posted an NFL-best 14-2 regular season record. If the Colts were going to win this time, it was going to be after a full 60 minutes of football hell.
Against the Steelers, football hell is play after play of physical confrontations at every position, in every one-on-one matchup. It's wide receivers blocking and safeties filling and backs picking up blitzes and everybody generally playing as though their hair was on fire. Back in November, the specifics of the game and the evolution of the numbers on the scoreboard prevented the Steelers from going at the Colts this way for 60 minutes. But this time, the Steelers showed up prepared for the noise and the Colts' team speed on defense. This time, the Steelers also arrived with a healthy, confident quarterback.
Because of the magnitude of this game, the press box was stocked with the same national media types who long ago had traded a portion of their professional objectivity to become card-carrying members of the Peyton Manning fan club. But before the first half of this AFC Divisional Playoff game was over, it was clear the best quarterback on the field was the guy wearing the white No. 7 jersey.
On the game's opening possession, Roethlisberger completed 6 of 7 for 76 yards and a touchdown; the only incompletion was a drop, and his first two strikes against Tony Dungy's famed cover-2 were to Heath Miller over the middle, at the defense's soft underbelly.
"No one thought we could win this game except the guys in this locker room," said Roethlisberger, "and we knew if we wanted to have a chance to win we needed to come out firing on all cylinders. We got the ball first, and when we went down and scored on the opening drive, that was huge. We threw the ball well, the receivers got open and the line did a good job of giving me time. And then all of that opens up the run."
The Colts went three-and-out on each of their opening two possessions before Roethlisberger struck again. On a third-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 39-yard line, he found Ward for 45; two plays later, it was another strike to Miller over the middle and it was 14-0 with 3:12 still to play in the first quarter.
"It all goes back to getting off to a good start," said receiver Antwaan Randle El, who caught Roethlisberger's first touchdown pass. "You look at the last time we played them, we came out and turned the ball over, and with the crowd noise we made some mistakes. That was the biggest thing. We had a better plan when it came to coming out and attacking them. It goes back to being able to snap the ball, get off the ball without having penalties and without having negative plays."
All of a sudden, the Colts were in the type of game they were ill-equipped to play, and all of their warts were revealed under the glare of this national spotlight. One first-half Indianapolis possession lasted 15 plays and consumed more than nine minutes and yielded only three points, while a Steelers possession in the fourth quarter ended in a punt but not before it sucked eight minutes off the clock.
The Steelers had established their physical dominance to this point in the game and held a 21-10 lead when referee Peter Morelli overturned a Troy Polamalu interception in the kind of ruling that could've sent a lesser team into a death spiral.
The situation was this: After the Steelers had eaten eight minutes of the fourth quarter with a punishing 13-play drive, Chris Gardocki's punt went into the end zone for a touchback. Manning connected with receiver Reggie Wayne for a 24-yard gain to the 44-yard line, and with the Colts in their hurry-up, he rushed the offense back to the line of scrimmage for another crack at the Steelers defense.
But this time Manning's pass was intercepted by Polamalu near midfield. Judging by the reaction of the players on the field, there was no doubt about the fact Polamalu had made the interception and controlled the ball before he lost it and then recovered it himself at the Steelers 48-yard line. There was 5:26 to play, as Bettis and the Steelers offense came back onto the field.
"I don't even know what to say, because I don't know if the league will fine me for saying we got cheated out there today," said Porter. "On that play right there, (Polamalu) caught that ball, got on the ground, was getting up and knocked the ball out with his own knee. I mean, I know they wanted Indy to win this game. The whole world loves Peyton Manning, but come on, don't take the game away from us. That play right there – they tried to take the game away from us."
If the play was ruled correctly, the Steelers probably chew up the remaining 5:26 after Polamalu's interception with their running game, and maybe score again. Had that happened, Manning would have finished 16 of 29 for 205 yards, with no touchdowns and one interception. As it was, the Steelers needed to dip into the well of their resolve and make the kinds of big plays in critical situations that served to show the rest of the NFL they had the stuff of champions.
Once Polamalu's interception was nullified, Manning completed three straight passes – 9 yards to tight end Dallas Clark, 20 yards to receiver Marvin Harrison and 24 yards to Wayne – before Edgerrin James ran in from the 3-yard line to make it 21-16. Manning's pass to Wayne followed for the conversion, and the Colts were within a field goal of a tie, 21-18.
The Steelers offense managed only four plays on the ensuing possession before Chris Gardocki's punt gave the ball back to Manning at the Indianapolis 18-yard line with 2:31 to play. This was when the Steelers defense rose up and seemingly clinched the biggest upset of the 2005 NFL postseason.
After completing a 2-yard pass to James, Manning was sacked on second down by Porter, hurried into a bad throw on third down and sacked again by Porter at the Colts 2-yard line on fourth down. Steelers' ball, with 1:20 left in the game. "Let's just say we had some problems in protection," said Manning. "I'll give Pittsburgh credit for their blitzes and their rush, but we did have some protection problems."
Since the Colts still had all three of their timeouts, the Steelers couldn't just take a knee three times and head for the locker room. But running Bettis into the line a couple of times historically had been almost as risk-free, and there was a strong likelihood he would punch the ball into the end zone for a clinching touchdown. Again, it had seemed as though the Steelers defense had clinched the game.
Didn't happen that way. Colts linebacker Gary Brackett forced a Bettis fumble that Colts safety Nick Harper scooped up on the run, and with the Steelers in a short-yardage offensive formation there weren't any fleet guys on the field capable of running down a defensive back from behind.
"I turned to hand off to Jerome, and then I turned to watch to make sure he doesn't fumble, or to watch him get into the end zone, and all of a sudden I just see the ball go flying," said Roethlisberger. "My first reaction is to go get it, but I knew I wasn't going to get there in time. Then it's, 'Let's try to slow him down, do something so our guys can come up and make a play.' I think I turned him enough times that he got close to me and he couldn't decide which way to go. I saw his leg, and I just went down and grabbed it and luckily he went down."
Still, the Colts had the ball at their 42-yard line, and still with three timeouts. Manning completed two passes to get the ball to the Steelers 28-yard line, but then he missed on his next two attempts to set up a fourth-and-2 from that spot. Mike Vanderjagt, referred to by Manning a year earlier as "the idiot kicker," was wide right, and then the Steelers finally were able to begin celebrating their 21-18 upset victory that put them in the AFC Championship Game.
"I had made everything all day – in practice, all through pregame," said Vanderjagt. "I made everything all week. I wasn't worried about the kick at all, so I'm somewhat in shock that I'm standing here after a missed field goal."
Randle El 6 pass from Roethlisberger (Reed kick)
Miller 7 pass from Roethlisberger (Reed kick)
Vanderjagt 20 FG
Bettis 1 run (Reed kick)
Clark 50 pass from Manning (Vanderjagt kick)
James 3 run (Manning pass to Wayne)
Total Net Yds
Time of poss.