Steelers clinch wild card with 35-21 win

PITTSBURGH (Jan. 1, 2006) -- Jerome Bettis acted like a man ready to retire. He received two standing ovations, signed dozens of jerseys and footballs for his teammates and posed for pictures on the field for a half-hour after the game ended.

What Bettis hopes is the Pittsburgh Steelers delay his anticipated retirement for four more games.

Bettis matched his career high with three touchdown runs in what likely was his final game in Pittsburgh and the Steelers overcame some sloppy defense to beat the Detroit Lions 35-21, securing their 10th playoff appearance in 14 seasons under coach Bill Cowher.

The Steelers (11-5) will play AFC North champion Cincinnati, a 37-3 loser to Kansas City, at 4:30 p.m. Sunday in a wild-card game. Pittsburgh won at Cincinnati 27-13 on Oct. 23, but effectively lost the division title with a 38-31 loss to the Bengals in Pittsburgh on Dec. 4.

"We play them twice a year and we know them," Hines Ward said. "We'll take our chances going to Cincinnati. ... It's not going to be easy, but we're more comfortable with them."

Pittsburgh avoided a playoff rematch with New England when the Patriots lost 28-26 to Miami. The Steelers lost AFC championship games at home to the Patriots last season and during the 2001 season.

"It didn't make any difference to me who we play," safety Troy Polamalu said. "We have unfinished business with both of them."

Bettis, the fifth-leading rusher in NFL history, said last week he wanted to "do something special" if this was his final home game. He had only 41 yards -- Willie Parker ran for 135 -- but scored on runs of 1, 5 and 4 yards to help the Steelers overcome an early 14-7 deficit.

Bettis could think of only one better way to end his career -- playing in the Super Bowl for the first time.

"I told the guys, 'We've got to get there -- I'm running out of time,'" said the 33-year-old Bettis, who came back this season mostly for the chance to play in the Super Bowl in his Detroit hometown.

Still, the Steelers' challenge is a big one. No sixth-seeded team has made it to a conference championship game, much less the Super Bowl, since the NFL's present playoff format was adopted in 1990. To get there, the Steelers might have to beat the Bengals, Colts and Patriots, all on the road.

"But I think if any team could do it, it's this team," said Polamalu, who thinks the Steelers are playing better now than a year ago, when they were top-seeded after winning their final 14. "Maybe that's why our season has gone the way it has."

The Steelers allowed Joey Harrington to throw three touchdown passes after giving up only one touchdown and 12 points in their previous three games, but won their fourth in a row following a three-game skid. The Lions (5-11) finished their fifth consecutive losing season with six losses in seven games.

This wasn't the kind of game the Steelers wanted to take into the playoffs -- Ben Roethlisberger was only 7 of 16 for 135 yards and threw his first two interceptions in four games -- but Bettis supplied an emotional lift.

"It was his day," Ward said.

For a team that needed to win to make the playoffs, the Steelers seemed to lack desperation after Antwaan Randle El scored on an 81-yard punt return less than two minutes into the game. Harrington threw scoring passes of 12 yards to Marcus Pollard and 1 yard to Cory Schlesinger to put the Lions up 14-7.

"We gave them a game, gave them a little scare, but it wasn't enough," Lions coach Dick Jauron said.

Bettis scored the Steelers' next three touchdowns, celebrating the final one early in the third quarter by waving his arms to encourage a long, loud standing ovation from the crowd of 63,794.

When the Lions cut it to 28-21 on Harrington's 15-yard TD pass to Roy Williams, the Steelers starters stayed in and Bettis returned to the game, getting several more ovations and two video tributes on the Heinz Field scoreboard. His final carry was a 4-yard run to the Steelers 41 with 3:10 to play, giving him 13,662 yards in his career.

Like Bettis, the Lions have decisions to make. Among them is whether to bring back Jauron, who replaced Steve Mariucci when the Lions were 4-7, and Harrington, a former first-round draft pick.

"A big part of me wants to stay and right what we started, but there's another part that wants to go somewhere else and get a fresh start," Harrington said. "Two months ago, the consensus was I should have been on the first thing smoking coming out of town."

Notes: Parker, an undrafted rookie in 2004, finished with 1,202 yards, the most by a Steelers running back since Bettis' 1,341-yard season in 2000. ... Detroit is 0-10 in Pittsburgh since 1955. ... The Steelers' defensive players wore throwback Lions No. 44 Dick LeBeau jerseys to honor their defensive coordinator, a former star cornerback. ... Bettis also ran for three touchdowns against Arizona in 1997 and the Raiders last season.

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