The Steelers Road to Super Bowl XL: Remembering Pittsburgh’s Greatest 9 Weeks Ever (Part IV).

Still Feeling the Afterglow of the Steelers Upset at Indianapolis

I can’t tell you how stunned I was at the time that the 2005 Steelers went into Indianapolis and knocked off the Colts. Up to that point in NFL history, most teams that had seasons like Indianapolis had in’05–flirting with perfection–usually went on to win the Lombardi trophy. I was pretty optimistic before the game like any fan would be, but even I knew that I witnessed something special.

The next day on craigslist, the fans from Denver were coming onto the Pittsburgh board and thanking the Steelers for allowing the Broncos to host the AFC Championship game.

  • Much like the Colts and Pats fans from a week earlier, they were acting as if victory was all but certain and the AFC title game would be a mere coronation for the their team.

And I can’t really blame them. The Broncos were the No. 2 seed in the AFC, and the fans probably figured the upstart Steelers were out of miracles. After all, Denver had just knocked off the two-time champion Patriots, and the Steelers took care of the No. 1 seed. Another thing working in Denver’s favor was the fact that no number six seed had ever made it to the Super Bowl. If the Steelers were in a similar situation, I would be feeling pretty good, too.

  • At work, everyone was talking about the near-disastrous ending of the Colts’ game and the almost miscarriage of justice because of the blown-call on the Polamalu interception that wasn’t.

But what had some of the female customers just gushing was when Troy kissed his wedding ring as a tribute to his wife after he made what should have been the game-sealing interception. At that moment, Polamalu endeared himself to millions of women and was probably the most perfect man in the universe.

Tuesday evening, I went to yet another television taping of the Joey PorterShow at the Firehouse Lounge in the Strip District, and at that point, Steeler-mania was in full-swing and the place was jumping. In previous weeks, I was able to sit right near the front, but on this night, I was back by the bar, trying to watch it as best I could. This was the only taping I attended by myself since my aunt couldn’t make it that night.

  • I talked to some very interesting people, including a woman who had a home-made terrible towel that she made in the late 70’s. That was neat to see.

Joey’s Steeler-guests that night were Ben Roethlisberger and Chris Hoke. I’m assuming that Roethlisberger taped his interview earlier because he wasn’t there when I arrived, but Hokey’s interview was pretty insightful and funny. He commented on the playoff beards that all the “white guys” were growing for the playoff run. He seemed like a cool guy. It was a pretty fun night, all the way around.

  • Of the three AFC playoff games the Steelers played, the AFC Championship game in Denver was the one I was most confident about, but that didn’t stop me from being nervous.

I had a right to be, of course, as that round of the playoffs was a real source of frustration for many years. The Steelers played in the AFC title game five previous times under Bill Cowher, all at home, and lost all but one time. And here they were on the road in Denver, a place where the team never played well, trying to get back to the Super Bowl for the first time in 10 seasons.

  • For my money, losing in the round before the Super Bowl is even more frustrating than losing the Super Bowl.

I know a lot of people will disagree with me, but that’s how I’ve always felt. Losing in the Super Bowl is like going to Kennywood on a rainy day. Sure, it sucks, but at least you get to go to Kennywood.

There is nothing worse than spending an entire week confident that your team will win and make it to the Super Bowl only to see those hopes and dreams hit a brick wall. I have a hard time watching the Super Bowl after the Steelers lose the AFC Championship game. The Super Bowl between the Patriots and Rams was one of the most exciting ever, and I missed most of it because I just couldn’t stand to watch New England play in a game I thought the Steelers were locks to make.

But I was confident leading up to the Denver game because I thought the Steelers had the better team and the better quarterback. The Broncos’ quarterback, Jake Plummer, was having an almost flawless season, rarely turning the ball over.

  • But I knew if he was pushed and confused by Dick Lebeau and the Steelers defense, Jake “The Snake” he would be forced into turnovers.

I commented to a friend of mine that Plummer would play like Kordell Stewart did in the 1997 AFC Championship game against the Broncos.

AFC Championship Game: Steelers Dominate Denver in First Half

The AFC Championship Game vs. Denver began as the Steelers got a field goal on their first drive, but not before I almost had a heart attack when Champ Bailey nearly picked off Roethlisberger on a third down pass to Hines Ward. Thankfully, Ward came to the rescue and caught the deflected pass before getting smacked by John Lynch. We had our first Nate Washington sighting on that drive as he made the first catch of his career, a key pick up on another third down. A few plays later, Jeff Reed kicked a 48 yard field goal, and the Steelers were in front, 3-0.

  • On the next Broncos’ drive, Plummer was hit by Joey Porter, who stripped him of the ball. Casey Hampton recovered and the Steelers were on their way.

Pittsburgh capitalized on the takeaway and made 10-0 early in the second quarter when Roethlisberger pump-faked a slant pass to Cedrick Wilson, who instead, turned it into an out and was wide open in the back corner of the end zone for a 12 yard touchdown pass. Bailey bit hard on the play and seemed to be stunned at the turn of events.

  • After Denver made it, 10-3, Pittsburgh marched down field and went up, 17-3, on a Jerome Bettis tough, three yard touchdown run late in the second quarter that turned out to be the last one of the Bus’ career.

Instead of just running out the clock, Denver decided to try and move the ball and Ike Taylor, of all people, intercepted a lazy pass by Plummer and Pittsburgh was poised to take an even bigger lead into the half.

Pittsburgh advanced the ball to the 12 yard line, and with time running out, Bettis inched up to the line right before the snap, took a quick hand-off and raced untouched for a score. Unfortunately, it didn’t count because Ward was called for illegal formation.

Thankfully, Ward made amends on the next play when a scrambling Roethlsiberger threaded a pass through two Broncos’ defenders and hit No. 86 in the back of the end zone with a 17 yard touchdown pass to put Pittsburgh ahead, 24-3, with just seconds left in the first half.

We were going nuts at my uncle’s house. Just a year earlier, the Steelers were down, 24-3, to New England at halftime of the AFC title game and here they were on the positive side of the exact same score.

Steelers Play Rope-a-Dope with Denver to Start Second Half

Pittsburgh got the football to start the second half and a did a good job of burning clock on its first two drives but couldn’t quite put the Broncos away. Denver’s offense finally broke through and inched a little closer late in the quarter when Plummer hit Ashley Lelie with a 30 yard touchdown pass over a beaten Chris Hope to make it, 24-10, Pittsburgh.

But Pittsburgh’s offense answered the Broncos’ score by putting Reed in position to kick a 42 yard field goal early in the fourth quarter. Reed’s attempt was successful, and the Steelers were sitting pretty with a 27-10 lead.

On the very first play of Denver’s next possession, Larry Foote picked off Plummer, and Pittsburgh had the ball near mid-field. My confidence was at an all-time high. Unfortunately, the offense couldn’t really capitalize, and when the Broncos got the ball back, they marched down field with the help of several penalties on Pittsburgh’s defense–including a questionable pass interference call on Taylor–and got to within 10 points thanks to a Mike Anderson three yard touchdown run.

  • At that point, I was pacing the floors, and almost fainted when Roethlisberger was nearly intercepted by Lynch on the Steelers subsequent possession.

Denver eventually got the ball back and had all the momentum.

Keisel puts Steeler Nation at ease

I had no need to worry.

It was fourth and 10 yards to go and precious few minutes left in the game. Plummer stepped back to pass and was almost taken down by Clark Haggans, who missed the often-elusive quarterback. However, Brett Keisel reached Plummer and knocked the football loose. To this day, I don’t know who recovered the football, but like play-by-play man Bill Hillgrove exclaimed, “It didn’t matter!”

By this point, victory was all but assured. However, I’m sure the ending of the Colts’ game was still fresh in every fan’s mind (I know it was for me), so nobody had stamped their ticket to Detroit just yet.

The Steelers eventually moved the football inside the 10 yard line, and during a break in the action, Cowher called over Bettis and had this smile and expression on his face. I couldn’t read his lips, but I’m guessing what he was telling the Bus was something like, “We’re riding you to the end zone, Bussy. Please don’t torture us like you did last week.”

After a couple of Bus rides, it was third and goal inside the five yard line. Instead of giving it to Bettis once again, it was a bootleg, and a four yard score by Roethlisberger to give Pittsburgh a 34-17 lead and assure a trip to Super Bowl XL.

When Roethlisberger scored, I jumped up and said, “We’re going to the Super Bowl!” It was one of the best moments of my life, and I mean that in all sincerity.

Despite the few nervous moments in the second half, it was one of my all-time favorite Steelers games. It was nice to see the AFC Championship game be sort of a blow out with very little suspense.

Feelings of Euphoria in Pittsburgh, Steelers Nation

The feeling that I had the rest of the evening was euphoric. Something happens to you when your favorite team wins a game like that. You have this urge to get in your car and drive around so that’s what I did. I found myself at my sister’s house in Avalon, and my brother in law, a Broncos fan, was still talking trash and trying to remind me of the Broncos’ back-to-back Super Bowl titles in ’97 and ’98. But he couldn’t hurt me that night. I was in Heaven.

Ok, this concludes part four. I hope you all enjoyed it. Stay tuned for the conclusion!

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