Saturday’s improbable victory ranks with best of Steelers’ playoff games
January 11, 2016 12:09 AM
The Steelers’ Mike Mitchell, left, and Ryan Shazier, right, look to recover a fumble by the Bengals’ Jeremy Hill in the fourth quarter of the AFC wild-card game Saturday at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger makes the saving tackle on Colts’ Nick Harper after a Jerome Bettis fumble late in the fourth quarter in January 2006 in Indianapolis. The Steelers defeated the Colts 21-18, and eventually marched to victory in Super Bowl XL.
Harry Cabluck/Associated Press
In this Dec. 23, 1972, file photo, Steelers running back Franco Harris (32) eludes a tackle by the Oakland Raiders’ Jimmy Ware on the way to scoring the go-ahead touchdown in an AFC playoff game at Three Rivers Stadium. The Steelers won the game, 13-7, on the scoring play, which was dubbed the “Immaculate Reception.” The play began with a desperation pass by Terry Bradshaw that deflected off either Oakland’s Jack Tatum or the Steelers’ Frenchy Fuqua before Harris made a shoestring catch.
By Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
With a lead, less than two minutes left and a first down deep in opposing territory, this playoff game was over. Then came the unthinkable – a stunning lost fumble and renewed life for the near-dead.
The ensuing drive led to a field goal try and an improbable turnaround with a chance to take another step toward the Super Bowl.
Saturday night’s scenario in Cincinnati for the Steelers? Similar, yes, but in this case it was a Jerome Bettis fumble at the 2-yard line in Indianapolis 10 years ago, the Steelers ahead by three points and just 1:01 left. Ben Roethlisberger made a saving shoe-top tackle of the Indianapolis Colts’ Nick Harper, who picked up the lose ball and ran it back to his 42.
Peyton Manning guided the Colts to the Steelers 28 to set up a 46-yard field goal try by the sure-footed Matt Vanderjagt. He missed wide right with 17 seconds left, the Steelers won and eventually marched to victory in Super Bowl XL.
Had the Colts pulled it out, that game would have had the kind of heartsick ending for the Steelers that the Bengals felt Saturday in Cincinnati, and it falls among the most exciting endings in the Steelers’ postseason history.
But their 18-16 victory in Saturday’s playoff opener in Paul Brown Stadium ranks higher for its sudden turnaround and the circumstances that caused it, at least by those who were around for both games. In fact, in one-man’s opinion (mine), it ranks second only to the 1972 Immaculate Reception for that kind of stunning end-of-game turnaround in a postseason contest involving the Steelers.
“No, I can’t recall anything like that,’’ said linebacker James Harrison, who did not play in that 2005 game because of an injury. “Not a turnaround like that.”
Heath Miller, a rookie starter at tight end for the 2005 Steelers, said Saturday’s game in Cincinnati was the wildest ending he has ever seen.
“Not even close,’’ concurred long-snapper Greg Warren, also on the 2005 team. “This was the biggest turnaround, most exciting game I’ve ever been involved in on any level.”
The sheer drama of it helped make it so. The Steelers blew a 15-0 fourth-quarter lead and lost quarterback Roethlisberger to a shoulder injury. The Bengals, their heated American Football Conference North rivals and division champs, scored three consecutive times to take a 16-15 lead with 1:50 to go. Cincinnati then got the ball right back at the Steelers 26 with 1:36 left when backup quarterback Landry Jones threw an interception on the next play.
But on the next play, linebacker Ryan Shazier stripped halfback Jeremy Hill of the ball and teammate Ross Cockrell recovered at the 9. With 1:23 left, on came Roethlisberger, with an injured right arm and unable to throw much more than 10 yards.
“We not only had to stop them with less than two minutes in the game in their own territory but then drive down with a quarterback who has been seriously injured and he’s going back out there grinding away, just doing everything he can to help us win,’’ Warren noted.
Like that tackle of Harper 10 years earlier, Roethlisberger saved the day. He somehow completed five of seven passes for 40 yards. On his next pass, two personal fouls against the Bengals put the ball on the 17. Chris Boswell then kicked a 35-yard field goal with 14 seconds left to give the Steelers the two-point victory.
To add a connection to Indianapolis in 2005 and Saturday in Cincinnati, this latest victory advances the Steelers to the next round against top-seeded Denver, which will start Manning at quarterback for a postseason rematch.
Herewith, a subjective ranking of the most exciting (if not always winning) dozen postseason endings in Steelers history:
1. Steelers 13, Oakland 7, 1972 season divisional playoff: Immaculate Reception, Franco Harris’ 60-yard shoestring reception and touchdown run of a deflected pass as time ran out — judged most famous play in NFL history.
2. Steelers 18, Cincinnati 16, 2015 wild-card game: See above.
3. Steelers 27, Arizona 23, Super Bowl XLIII: After Arizona took its only lead with 2:37 left, Steelers drive 78 yards in 2:02 to score on Ben Roethlisberger’s 6-yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes with 35 seconds left.
4. Steelers 21, Indianapolis 18, divisional playoff 2005 season: See above.
5. Chargers 17, Steelers 13, AFC championship game 1994 season: Chargers, heavy underdogs, erase 13-3 Steelers lead in second half with two 43-yard touchdowns and Steelers fail to score at the end after first down at San Diego 9. On fourth down from the 3, linebacker Dennis Gibson bats down Neil O’Donnell’s pass in the end zone for Barry Foster.
6. Steelers 36, Cleveland 33, AFC wild-card game, 2002 season: Trailing by 33-21, the Steelers scored two touchdowns in the final 3:06 to pull it out.
7. Chargers 31, Steelers 28, AFC tournament 1982 season: Steelers blow 28-17 lead in final 8½ minutes as Chargers score two TDs, the final with one minute left.
8. Steelers 26, Houston 23 (overtime), AFC wild-card game, 1989 season: Steelers send game into overtime when Merril Hoge scores from the 1 with 46 seconds left. In overtime, with the Oilers in Steeles territory, Rod Woodson forces a Lorenzo White fumble, recovered at the Houston 46. Five plays later Gary Anderson kicks a 50-yard field goal to win it.
9. Kansas City 27, Steelers 24 (OT), AFC wild-card game, 1993 season: Ahead by a touchdown, the Steelers have a punt blocked with 2:29 and the 31-yard return puts the ball on the 9. Joe Montana throws his only TD pass with 1:43 left to tie it and Nick Lowery’s 32-yard field goal wins it in overtime.
10. Broncos 24, Steelers 23, AFC divisional playoff, 1989 season: John Elway leads the Broncos on a 75-yard drive for a touchdown with 2:27 left for their first lead of the game. Mark Stock then drops a Bubby Brister pass in Denver territory, and a third-down fumble ends an upset bid.
11. Steelers 20, Indianapolis 16, AFC championship, 1995 season: Bam Morris scores with 1:34 left to give the Steelers the lead. Jim Harbaugh’s Hail Mary pass in the end zone is batted out of the hands of receiver Aaron Bailey by defensive back Randy Fuller on the game’s final play.
12. Steelers 20, N.Y. Jets 17 (OT), AFC divisional playoff, 2004 season: With the score tied, the Jets’ Doug Brien misses a 47-yard field goal with 1:58 left and a 43-yarder with no time left to send it into overtime. There, Jeff Reed kicks a 33-yard field goal after the Steelers defense stopped New York on the first drive.
Ed Bouchette: email@example.com and Twitter @EdBouchette.
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