Steelers survive strange Colts rally, 21-18

INDIANAPOLIS (Jan. 15, 2006) -- Forget the first 55 minutes, when the Pittsburgh Steelers dominated the Indianapolis Colts. And no one will remember much how they scored all the points.

What they'll be talking about in Pittsburgh for years to come is those last five, thrilling minutes -- a wild finish made of missed opportunities, gut-wrenching twists and one unimaginable, tide-turning play after another.

The Steelers won their sixth straight game, 21-18 over the Colts, becoming the first sixth seed to advance to a conference championship game. When the Steelers (13-5) catch their breath, they'll head to Denver, with the winner next Sunday representing the AFC in the Super Bowl.

"It was a unique game. It ranks up there. It was crazy," Jerome Bettis said.

"It went from an all-time high to an all-time low back to an all-time high," Hines Ward added.

In a matter of minutes, too -- holding the deafening crowd spellbound.

Pittsburgh spent three quarters building a 21-10 lead with a pass-first game plan that could've come straight from Indy.

Then things got wacky:

All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu made a diving interception of Peyton Manning at the Pittsburgh 48 with 5:26 remaining. He got up to run and fumbled the ball, but recovered -- only to have it mysteriously overturned on a challenge.

Manning capitalized with passes of 20 yards to Marvin Harrison and 24 to Reggie Wayne before a 3-yard touchdown run by Edgerrin James and a two-point conversion pass to Wayne.

Pittsburgh was forced to punt on its next series, but with 1:20 remaining, the befuddled Manning was sacked for the fifth time, on fourth down at his 2.

Game over, right?

Not on your life. The sure-handed Bettis fumbled when popped by linebacker Gary Brackett. Nick Harper, whose knee was cut with a knife in an apparent domestic dispute with his wife, grabbed the ball and headed toward a highly improbable winning touchdown.

But Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, brilliant all game with his arm and head, tumbled, reached out a hand and made a saving tackle at the Indy 42.

"Once in a blue moon, Jerome fumbles," Roethlisberger said. "Once in a blue moon, I make a tackle. They just happened to be in the same game."

Two passes got the ball to the Pittsburgh 27, and Mike Vanderjagt lined up for a 46-yard field goal to send it to overtime.

Wide right.

Vanderjagt slammed his helmet to the turf, obviously forgetting how fortunate he was to have had the chance.

"It's extreme disbelief," Vanderjagt said. "From the Polamalu interception reversal to Jerome's fumble, everything seemed to be lined up in our favor. I guess the Lord forgot about the football team."

It was the first time the Steelers won two straight playoff road games. And this one should have been so much easier for Pittsburgh.

With wide-open passing, hardly their forte, and ferocious defense -- definitely the Steelers' style -- Bill Cowher showed why he has been among the league's top coaches since 1992. The Steelers, who won at Cincinnati last week while the AFC South champion Colts were off, built their lead thanks to a superb game plan they seemed to steal from Indy.

Pittsburgh has one of the league's most varied running attacks, but Cowher opted to open it up. Roethlisberger threw for two first-quarter touchdowns while Manning was wildly missing his first four passes and feeling pressure from everywhere.

When the Steelers needed to run, they turned to the speed of Willie Parker and the power of Bettis.

"The play-calling was aggressive," Ward said. "They thought all we can do is run the ball. We can pass the ball, too."

The Colts (14-3) were left to wonder where the magic went. They started 13-0, threatening the 1972 Dolphins' perfect season, only to drop three of their next four -- including the most meaningful game, Sunday's defeat.

It was a bitter loss for Manning, who has few major wins to go with his individual honors. Until the frenzied final minutes, he was mostly a non-factor.

"There is no question we were in good position with home field and having the bye," Manning said. "At this point, it is hard to swallow."

And it was a sad ending for Dungy, whose son died of an apparent suicide last month. Dungy's team clearly was the NFL's best for 13 weeks. But in the most important weeks, they faltered.

They certainly made it interesting, beginning with the challenge.

"I know they wanted Indy to win this game; the whole world loves Peyton Manning," Steelers LB Joey Porter said. "But come on, man, don't take the game away from us like that."

In the end, nobody took it away, even with the Steelers doing their best to give it away.

Antwaan Randle El's 6-yard TD reception for a 7-0 lead was his first since the season opener, hardly an impressive stat for a starting receiver. But it capped one of Pittsburgh's most impressive drives of the season, 84 yards in 10 plays, with seven passes, including 36- and 18-yarders to rookie tight end Heath Miller.

Quite a difference from the Steelers' previous trip to the RCA Dome, where the crowd noise caused several false starts and the Colts scored on an 80-yard pass to Harrison on their first offensive play.

Hines Ward broke two tackles on a 45-yard completion, leading to Roethlisberger's 7-yard TD pass to Miller to make it 14-0.

The Colts marched 96 yards in 15 plays, taking up nearly 10 minutes of the second period, but their best drive, on which Manning went 6 for 6, ended with only Vanderjagt's 20-yard field goal.

Deflating.

It didn't get better early in the second half. Manning saw pressure from rush linebackers, ends, blitzing backs and even nose tackle Casey Hampton. He nearly was sacked for a safety late in the third period and was downed at the 1, which eventually led to Bettis' 1-yard drive for his 11th TD of the season.

Notes: The potent Colts had all of 123 yards at halftime, 74 in the air, and trailed by 11. ... Bettis has nine TDs since the Steelers' 26-7 loss here on Nov. 28. ... The Steelers haven't lost since falling here and now have a shot at their first Super Bowl trip in 10 years. They lost to Dallas after the 1995 season.

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