Peter Diana, Post-Gazette photos
Receiver Santonio Holmes picks up yardage on a 34-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger in the fourth quarter.
CINCINNATI -- North Carolina was on the mind of just about everyone at Paul Brown Stadium, including Bill Cowher, who was getting buzzed with questions about his future on a day when the future of the Steelers rescued his apparent farewell.
But North Carolina was not the state on the mind of Santonio Holmes. Not when he enjoys playing so much in Ohio.
"I was thinking about that the whole time on the plane trip here," Holmes said.
Holmes played his college football at Ohio State, which is less than two hours north on Interstate 71 from where he broke the hearts of the Cincinnati Bengals yesterday. Last time he played in Ohio, Holmes had five catches for 75 yards and caught his first NFL touchdown in a 24-20 comeback victory in Cleveland.
Yesterday, Holmes had two of the game's biggest plays in a 23-17 overtime victory against the Bengals, a game that allowed the Steelers to finish at 8-8 and end Cincinnati's playoff hopes. First, he allowed the Steelers to reach overtime with a 34-yard catch that set up a Jeff Reed field goal with 1:03 remaining.
And he brought an end to the drama with a 67-yard touchdown on a slant pass from Ben Roethlisberger three plays into overtime.
"The way Santonio ended the game, you can't call it any better for a wide receiver," said Hines Ward. "You couldn't call a better way to finish than catch a game-winning touchdown in overtime."
To be sure, it was the finishing touch on a season in which Holmes finished with 49 catches and 824 yards, second only to Ward and the second-best rookie total in team history. Of that, though, Holmes had nine catches for 199 yards and two touchdowns in two games in Ohio, the state where he produced many big plays with the Buckeyes.
None, perhaps, as dramatic and meaningful as the one that gave the Steelers their sixth consecutive victory in Paul Brown Stadium.
"I was thinking I get the opportunity to come back to the state where I played my college ball and I have to really make some plays because I know I have a lot of fans here," Holmes said. "I figure if I come back here and make a few plays those guys will continue to love me."
The Steelers have loved Holmes' ability since they moved up seven spots to make him the 25th overall selection and the first receiver selected in the NFL draft.
And Holmes got to reward the man who drafted him by taking a quick slant pass from Roethlisberger in the middle of the field and outracing several Bengals defenders to the end zone -- the same end zone where Cedrick Wilson's flea-flicker touchdown catch ended the Bengals' 2005 season.
Holmes said Cowher did not tell the players if this was his last game as Steelers coach. If it is, he was able to give him a memorable sendoff. It was Cowher's 21st career victory against the Bengals, more than any other NFL team.
Steelers receiver Santonio Holmes looks back as he scores on a 67-yard touchdown to beat the Bengals in overtime yesterday at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.
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At home in Ohio
Santonio Holmes had two of his best games of the season in the state where he went to college.
"He said it hurts, that he needs to take a little time to decide, take a week or so off to really find out what he wants to do," Holmes said. "He told us he loves us guys but that he's really going to take his time right now."
Holmes didn't waste any time finishing off the Bengals, who lost their final three games -- all to 2005 AFC playoff teams -- to miss the playoffs. And he did it with a play very similar to the slant he caught for 34 yards in the fourth quarter, setting up Reed's 35-yard field goal that tied the score, 17-17, with 63 seconds remaining.
This time, though, the play wasn't designed; it was a sight adjustment in which Holmes' route is determined by how free safety Madieu Williams is positioned. When Williams blitzed on the play, Holmes ran a slant route from the left side toward the area vacated by the free safety.
Offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said Roethlisberger had to make a quick throw on the slant because the blitzing Williams is not accounted for in pass protection on the play.
"They kept running that same blitz the whole time," Ward said. "It was their blitz of the day, I guess. And Ben saw it. He was on the same page with Santonio and gave him a chance to run after the catch. Santonio just took it to the house from there. He was just running scared."
Said Holmes: "He knows I was running scared, just for the simple fact I wanted us to get off the field. We gave those guys a lot of opportunities to beat us and they really didn't want it as bad as we did."
If nothing else, a nice sendoff for the coach.
"Santonio made a couple really big plays, particularly at the end of regulation," Cowher said.
Then, in a moment of reflection, he later added, "We have young guys like Anthony Smith and Santonio Holmes who have very good futures."
Even if he isn't around in the future to coach them.
Gerry Dulac can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1466.