Steelers vs. the Indianapolis in the AFC Divisional Playoffs
The Steelers were the huge underdog going in and most people thought it would be a repeat of the game late in the regular season when the Colts outclassed Pittsburgh, 26-7, on Monday Night Football.
Cowher Decides its Time for Big Ben
One of head coach Bill Cowher‘s perceived faults in previous postseasons was being too conservative on offense and letting the other team dictate the action.
- In the AFC Divisional Playoff Game vs. the Colts, The Chin would overcome this failing.
For the first time in over twenty years, the Steelers had a bona fide franchise quarterback in one Ben Roethlisberger, and Cowher cut him loose on the Colts right out of the gate. The first possession of the game saw the Steelers drive right down the field on the strength of Roethlisberger’s arm. He got things started with a play-action pass to tight end Heath Miller for 36 yards that set Indianapolis back on its heals. The drive culminated in a quick slant pass to Antwaan Randle El for a six yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
Two drives later, the Steelers took control of the game when Roethlisberger hooked up with Miller for a seven yard touchdown pass, making it 14-0 Pittsburgh in the first quarter. The key play on this drive was a third down pass to Hines Ward in which he picked up 45 yards and netted an additional 15, thanks to a face mask penalty on a Colts defender.
Defense has Manning on his Heals in Rematch
On defense, the Steelers had Peyton Manning and the Colts’ offensive line totally confused. In the regular season game, Pittsburgh’s defense barely touched Manning as he passed for 245 yards and two scores, but in this game, he didn’t have much time to do anything, especially in the first half. Towards the end of the second quarter, the Colts embarked on their best drive of the game up until that point. They started at their own two yard line after a great punt by Chris Gardocki.
Thanks mostly to running back Edgarin James, Indianapolis moved the ball deep into Steelers’ territory. Eventually, it was third and goal and it looked like James scored on a tough running play. Unfortunately for the Colts, a linemen moved too early and Indy eventually had to settle for a field goal to make it 14-3 at halftime.
The Defense, The Bus Impose Their Will in the Third Quarter
The second half started out pretty much like the first half, at least for the Colts on offense. They couldn’t do much of anything, and Pittsburgh was winning the battle of field position.
In-fact, the defense sacked Manning just inches shy of his own goal line, nearly resulting in a safety. The ensuing punt gave the Steelers great field position at the Colts’ 30 yard line. Passing was great early on, but on the previous drive, it looked like Roethlisberger injured his throwing elbow while being hit.
- If ever there was a time to kick the tires and bring Jerome Bettis, the Bus, out of the garage, this was that time.
Bettis was the workhorse on this very short drive, a drive that would eventually result in a one yard scoring leap by the big man and a 21-3 lead for Pittsburgh. I was hysterical. I remember picking up my two year old cousin and throwing her around. I was so happy! And even though the Colts had the best offense in the NFL that year, for some reason, I didn’t think there was any way they’d come back on Pittsburgh’s suffocating defense.
Manning Steps Up to Impose his Will on Tony Dungy and the Steelers Defense
The following drive, however, the Colts got back in the game when Manning appeared to wave off the punt team on fourth and short, deep in his own territory and hit Brandon Stokley with a 13 yard pass on the last play of the third quarter to move the chains and give his team new life. Two plays later, Manning hit tight end Dallas Clark and Clark out-ran most of the Steelers secondary for a 50 yard touchdown to make it 21-10.
- Just like that the Colts were back in the game after being dominated for three quarters.
The next drive, in my opinion, was the most important one of the game for Pittsburgh. They didn’t score, but they took about eight minutes off the clock after converting twice on fourth and short. There was much controversy on the first conversion after the Colts jumped off-sides and touched one of the Steelers offensive linemen because they thought that Alan Faneca flinched.
Whether he did or not was immaterial because the officials didn’t blow the whistle so off-sides should have been called. But nothing was called and after a lot of arguing from the Steelers’ sideline, the refs just did a “do-over” and I almost had a heart-attack when it looked like Roethlisberger was stopped short. But thanks to a great second-effort and a little push from Jerome, he just barely made it.
Troy Polamalu Saves the Day for Pittsburgh……..Not so Fast
As I said, Pittsburgh didn’t score on that drive but they gave the ball back to the Colts with barely over six-minutes left in the game. At that point, one more defensive stand would all-but wrap up the game for the Steelers. And they appeared to make that stand when Troy Polamalu dove to intercept a Manning pass.
He got up to try to advance the ball and fumbled it, but fell on it and Pittsburgh had the ball at mid-field with less than six-minutes left. I went into celebration mode at that point. I figured the Steelers would just run the clock down and be on their way to Denver for their second straight appearance in the AFC Championship Game. The Colts challenged the play, but it just seemed like blind desperation from head coach Tony Dungy. It was obvious from every camera angle that Polamalu intercepted the ball and it never touched the ground. I walked around my uncle’s living room with my arms raised in victory.
- Mr. referee came out to give his verdict, it was just a formality, though, right?
Wrong! He said that since Polamalu lost the ball before getting both knees off the ground while trying to advance it, it was an incomplete pass. So, in other words, had Polamalu stayed there on the turf after intercepting the pass, it would have stood, but since he got up and tried to advance the ball, it was an incomplete pass? He was punished for doing more? Made no sense then, makes no sense now. I had never witnessed such a call before that day and not since. I don’t know what the referee’s thought process was or what rule he used as a reference for his decision, but he was clearly wrong and everyone knew it.
I remember turning to my uncle and saying, “I can’t believe they’re taking the game away from us!” My uncle said that he never saw me so angry and beside myself watching a sporting event, and he was right. I could not believe that happened. If you don’t already know, you can probably guess what unfolded once the Colts resumed their drive.
They eventually scored a touchdown on a James’ three yard plunge, and Manning hit Reggie Wayne for a two point conversion to make it 21-18 with a little over four minutes to go. Just minutes prior, it looked like the game was over and now suddenly, the Colts had all the momentum.
The Steelers needed to run the clock out at that point. Roethlisberger, sore elbow or not, threw for a first down, but underthrew Ward on third down later in the drive, and the Steelers had to punt. So, there it was, the Colts had the ball with 2:42 left and I was so nervous, that I wussed out and left for a drive in my car. Can you believe that? Me, Mr. Steelers fan, chickened out and took a tour of Pittsburgh during the most crucial part of the Steelers season.
Missing Perhaps the Most Heart Stopping (literally) 2:42 seconds in Steelers History
I drove to Mt. Washington, for some reason, and decided to turn the radio on about 15 minutes later. At that point, the first thing I heard was Tunch Ilkin, the Steelers color commentator, saying his heart went out to Tony Dungy whose son committed suicide earlier in the year.
I didn’t hear the Colts crowd going nuts. “What happened?” I wondered to myself. The Steelers were kneeling on the ball and Steelers play-by-play man Bill Hillgrove was singing, “turn out the lights, the party’s over.” I knew at that point Pittsburgh had victory in hand, so I stuck my hand out of my car and did the “No 1” sign as I drove to my mom’s house, not knowing the pulsating events that led up to the Steelers’ upset victory.
- When I arrived at Mom’s, she informed me that she prayed for a miracle during the last seconds of the game.
According to her, the miracle came true because Pittsburgh won. However, she wasn’t quite sure what transpired that led up to the victory.
Do you remember what transpired in-between the time I left my uncle’s with 2:42 remaining? I believe every Steelers fan knows what happened, but I missed it all. The Colts got the ball back and needed a field goal to tie it or a touchdown to win it.
- Pittsburgh didn’t allow an inch on defense, sacking Manning twice, the second time Joey Porter dropped Manning on fourth and long, in the shadows of Indianapolis’ own end zone.
After the sack, Manning screamed, “Yeah, that’s the game, baby! It’s on to Denver!” The Steelers had the ball 1st and goal with 1:28 left. Unfortunately, they couldn’t just kneel on the ball because Indianapolis had all three time outs left. The offense had to punch it in to put the game on ice. On first and goal, Roethlisberger handed it off to Bettis, who unbelievably fumbled!
Nick Harper, the Colts defensive back, picked the ball up and was off to the races. Roethlisberger made a play for the ages as he zigged when Harper zigged and zagged when he zagged. Roethlisberger lunged for Harper’s leg and brought him down near mid-field. Everyone was in disbelief, especially Bettis who was inconsolable on the sidelines.
(The Bettis fumble was shocking to everyone, both players and fans alike, and it was later revealed that Pittsburgh resident Terry O’Neil suffered a heart attack just seconds after the Bettis fumble and needed immediate medical attention–O’Neill would thankfully make a full recovery).
Naturally, the Colts drove the ball down the field on the Steelers’ stunned defense and eventually had a second and two at Pittsburgh’s 29 yard line. Manning went for the victory when he went deep for Wayne in the end zone. Wayne came within inches of catching the ball only to have it knocked out by Steelers rookie defensive back Bryant McFadden. People are always going to remember “the tackle,” but I think McFadden’s play is one of the most underrated in Steelers’ history, and it was the best play of his career. Two plays later, Mike Vanderjagt, who hadn’t missed a field goal at home the entire season, set up for a 46 yard attempt with seconds remaining.
- I guess my mom must have prayed for intercession to the right Saint because, not only did Vanderjagt miss the kick, it wasn’t even close.
I missed all of that, but maybe it was a good thing. My uncle was eating some dinner on one of those drop tables and when Jerome fumbled, he said he flung it across the room. In crucial moments of a big game, I usually stand right by the TV, so I might have been in the line of fire and had my face rearranged by that drop table and some mashed potatoes.
What an exciting victory. This concludes part three of my tale.