#2. A.F.C. Divisional Playoff Game
January 15, 2006
The Immaculate Redemption and Wide Right!
Steelers 21 – Colts 18
Before I begin a discussion of what happened during the game, I thought that I’d share a humorous anecdote about how and why I missed almost the Steelers’ entire 1st Drive after the opening kickoff. I must preface this story by saying that I was a Freshman in college and living in Hawai’i at the time, and trust me this will come into play.
Since Saturday’s Playoff action saw the Broncos defeating the Patriots, a friend of mine who was from the Denver area was having a get together at his place to celebrate his Bronco’s mighty triumph. I decided to go an have a “good time” and was out until at least 3 in the morning and stumbled back into my apartment for some shut-eye before having to wake up bright and early at 7 A.M. to watch the Steelers game. The problem was, I overslept by a bit and woke up about 20 minutes late because I forgot to set my alarm! How and why I woke up that early without an alarm at 18 after a night of partying I will never understand. At that age it took nothing short of an air-horn to wake me up after a long night. I guess it was just one of those days where the unexpected happened.
After quickly cursing myself, I grabbed my remote and turned on the game. Much to my surprise CBS was showing an instant replay that featured Antwaan Randle El catching a TD Pass from Big Ben! I had missed the entire 1st Drive of the game, but managed to catch the tail end of the instant replay where A.R.E. snagged a patented “Steelers Slant” from Ben and put the Steelers ahead 7-0. I couldn’t believe that the Steelers had jumped out to such an early lead and thought that I was still dreaming.
After forcing an Indianapolis punt and beginning “Operation Put Peyton Under Duress: Divisional Playoff,” the Steelers responded again with another fantastic drive. Kudos must go to Ken Whisenhunt who called a masterful game in the 1st Quarter, and a stellar game overall. The Colts expected the Steelers to try and play their usual “smashmouth” football in this game and come right out and try and set the tone. This attitude was especially true after Joey Porter had decided to pop-off early in the week when he told the media that the Colts were in essence afraid to play a physical football game. Yet Whisenhunt had a few tricks up his sleeve for this Divisional Playoff Game and he called a masterful game. Instead of coming out and riding Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis until their wheels fell off, Ken had Ben out on that field “guns ablazin'” those first two drives.
After a long Hines Ward catch and run got the Steelers in the Red Zone, the Steelers were primed to score. Using Bettis as a decoy when the ball was inside the 10, Ben fired a laser after moving around in the pocket to Rookie TE Heath Miller (who was money all season long) and suddenly the Steelers were up 14-0 in the 1st Quarter! I was so bewildered that I couldn’t even talk at that point! Wasn’t this the same Colts team that had beat the Steelers 26-7 on Monday Night Football no more than two months ago? Wasn’t this supposed to be Peyton Manning’s year to finally win the big one?
As much as Ken Whisenhunt deserves to be lauded for his playcalling that day, Dick LeBeau should garner equal accolades for the wonderful game plan he put together. Throughout his career Peyton Manning’s #1 (and probably only) bugaboo has been playing effectively against 3-4 Defenses which feature a lot of exotic blitz packages. LeBeau obviously did his homework, because he was blitzing Manning that day and confusing the hell out of him and his Offensive Line.
After about 2/3’s of the 2nd Quarter had gone by, Manning rallied his troops and mounted a 96 yard drive that cut into the Steeler lead. For the first time all day the Colts actually looked like the team that Phil Simms and Jim Nantz had been fellating all year long while doing games on CBS (the Gumbel and Dierdorf tandem did this game, and as always did a stellar job). Yet in their “2005-2006 Road Warrior” fashion, the Steelers Defense stood tall at the Goal Line. Indianapolis was stoned on 3rd and Goal after an Edgerrin James run attempt was thwarted. The Colts were forced to settle for a Mike Vanderjagt 20 yard Field Goal, and the Half ended with the score 14-3 in favor of the Steelers.
I’ll never forget the Steelers standing tall against that end of the Half Indianapolis onslaught. When they limited the Colts to 3 points instead of 7 there, I knew that the Steelers simply wanted this game more than Indianapolis, and if they could score 7-10 more points this game would be in the books. I can’t remember a thing from the Half Time show, because honestly I just was focused on wanting the game to start. The Steelers were standing 30 minutes from literally one of the greatest upsets in Playoff History and I didn’t want to miss a thing.
The 2nd Half started and played out much like the 1st: complete and total domination by the visiting Steelers. After forcing Indianapolis to punt from their own end zone, the Steelers found themselves with cake field position and a chance to go up 18 points on the road in the playoffs. Using a steady diet of Jerome Bettis, Ben directed the Steelers inside the Colts’ 5 yard line and Jerome Bettis literally flew over the Goal Line to make the score 21-3 Steelers! As I was the entire game, I remained in a state of total and complete shock in my dorm room watching what was laid before me. I truly now began to think that this game might actually be over, and a mentally weak team like the Colts just couldn’t come back from a deficit like this. Plus you add in the fact that the RCA Dome and the Colts’ fans were about as quiet as an audience at a Paul Reiser stand-up act, this game was pretty much in the bag. Yet this was Hall of Fame QB Peyton Manning, and the game only ended when he said it did.
The beginning of the 4th Quarter started with a bang. Manning hit TE Dallas Clark over the middle, and thanks to some poor tackling, the end result was a 50 yard TD, and the Colts found themselves only down 21-10. The ensuing drive that the Steelers mounted is what legends are made of, and something that I will never in my life forget. While it wasn’t sexy, and while the Steelers didn’t score any points, they took almost half the quarter just moving the football and playing keep-away. As much as I wanted them to score, all I kept saying to myself in my dorm room was, “Time is money.” The more time the Steelers’ Offense was on the field, the less chances Peyton Manning would have to play hero.
After finally punting the ball the Colts had seen half the Quarter evaporate and Manning was left to throw at will. Manning got too reckless however, and it appeared that he lost the game when Troy Polamalu made what appeared to be one of the most athletic plays in Steeler playoff history on an INT on an errant pass over the middle of the field. However, Indianapolis challenged the ruling on the field because they thought that Troy hadn’t fumbled the ball after he caught it and never established possession.
In one of the most controversial and blown calls ever made in N.F.L. Playoff history, the refs. ruled that the ball was incomplete, and Indianapolis was allowed to retain possession. The string of explaitives I let out when that call was overruled would have made a sailor blush, and I’m glad nobody was around to hear me say what I said. It came as no surprise to me that later the N.F.L. came forward and said that Referee Pete Morelli botched the call, but I digress.
Indianapolis quickly responded from the gift, and Peyton kept slicing and dicing the Steelers Defense with the passing game. The drive ended in a 3 yard TD run by Edgerrin James and a 2 point conversion from Manning to Reggie Wayne! With just over 4 minutes to play in the game, the Colts had come back and cut the deficit to 3 points. After Wayne added the 2 point conversion my heart sank. I just hoped that the Steelers could just run out the clock and win the game on the ground. Unfortunately the Steelers Offense couldn’t salt the game away, and the Colts were given the ball back deep in their own territory right before the 2 minute warning.
There’s an N.F.L. Films shot of Joey Porter before the drive started, and he looked uber-pissed. However, his aggression was channeled effectively on the next 4 plays, because he got himself 1.5 sacks and helped to get the Steelers the ball back at the Colts’ 2 yard line with just over 1 minute to play. But as we all know, nothing in life is easy, and Jerome Bettis almost became a name synonymous with “goat” after he fumbled the ball when trying to score the game-icing Touchdown.
To be completely honest, I actually never saw the fumble. I’m not lying at all, I truthfully never saw the play happen live. I was in my dorm room hallway talking with my Mom and celebrating the 4 and Out defensive stop the Steelers just had when I just heard her scream, “OH MY GOD! HE FUMBLED! NO! BEN! NO! GET HIM! OH! OH! OH THANK GOD!” I didn’t know what exactly had happened so I rushed inside my room and saw the replay. Seeing Bettis cough up the ball on a textbook hit by Colts LB Gary Brackett and Safety Nick Harper scoop it up and start running the other way was almost mind-numbing. Then I saw Ben running backwards making literally one of the most incredible hustle plays ever. Ben snagged Harper just enough while he was running to allow his teammates to gang tackle him at around the Colts 30. I told my Mom that I would call her after the game and I hung up angry at myself that I had tried to “count my chickens before they hatched.”
Now with the Steelers only up 3 points and facing a Peyton Manning led-Offense hell bent on winning the game and at midfield, the odds didn’t look like they were quite in their favor. I mean I literally felt numb at that particular moment, all I remember about the immediate aftermath of that play was just sitting on my bed with my head in my hands wondering why the hell the game had to end in such fashion. The Colts had all the momentum and I thought for sure that they would at least send the game into O.T. because they had Mike Vanderjagt who was the most statistically accurate Kicker in the history of the N.F.L.. Manning quickly went to the air after the ball was set and had some success. However, the Colts only tried to go to the end zone once on their drive, and Rookie CB Bryant McFadden made a game saving play when he defended what looked like the go ahead TD pass to Wayne. Now facing 4th Down and 21 seconds to play, Vanderjagt trotted out onto the field to send the game into O.T. for Indianapolis.
I’ll never forget being down on my knees with my fingers crossed and hoping for a block on that play. It wasn’t a block that happened, but the outcome was just as good. In the most Ray Finkle moments I have ever seen, the “Idiot Kicker” missed a 46 yard Field Goal! Watching that jagoff throw his helmet to the turf in disgust was priceless. It seriously was almost as funny as when Rex Ryan threw his headset to the ground during last season’s A.F.C. Championship Game! The Steelers ran out the clock and finished pulling off one of the biggest upsets in N.F.L. history with the refs. and the entire national media rooting against them.
It was truly the then-highlight of Bill Cowher’s coaching career, and it was even nicer to see that Jerome Bettis didn’t enter the Goat-like Hall of Shame occupied by Scott Norwood and Earnest Byner. I just remember calling my Mom after that and walking around in circles in the common area of my dorm floor because of how excited I was. My heart was racing a mile a minute and I didn’t care. After that game I knew that the only thing that could stop that specific team would inevitably be themselves, because nothing was going to stand in their way after a game like that!