Steelers survive as Colts' attempt to tie sails wide

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- 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
the wild finish -- those last five thrilling minutes, which included missed
opportunities, gut-wrenching twists and one unimaginable,
tide-turning play after another.

The Steelers won their sixth straight game Sunday, 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

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 by referee Pete Morelli.

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 2-point conversion pass to Wayne.

• Pittsburgh was forced to punt, 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 surehanded Bettis fumbled when popped by
linebacker Gary Brackett. Nick Harper, whose knee was cut with a
knife Saturday in an apparent domestic dispute with his wife,
grabbed the ball and headed toward a highly improbable winning

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," said Roethlisberger , who became the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to reach the Conference Championship Game in his first two seasons in the league.
"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 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

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 leaue'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

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

With the Steelers' offense and Colts' defense already on the
field, referee Pete Morelli stunningly ruled an incomplete pass.
Replays shown in the stadium and on CBS clearly showed Polamalu
having possession as he fell, then fumbling as he got up to run.

Morelli said: "I had the defender catching the ball. Before he
got up, he hit it with his leg with his other leg still on the
ground. Therefore, he did not complete the catch. And then he lost
the ball. It came out, and so we made the play an incomplete

Which incensed Steelers linebacker Joey Porter.

"I know they wanted Indy to win this game; the whole world
loves Peyton Manning," 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


It didn't get better early in the second half. Manning saw
pressure for 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.

Game 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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