DENVER -- The Steelers proved again yesterday, there's no place like away from home, unless you're Jerome Bettis and that's where you're headed -- home, to Detroit, to Super Bowl XL.
After losing four AFC title games in Pittsburgh over the previous 11 seasons, the Steelers left home to seek their fortune. They found it yesterday when they mauled the favored Denver Broncos, 34-17, to win their second conference championship in the past 26 years.
They became the second team in history to win three consecutive playoffs on the road to land in the Super Bowl and can become the first to follow with a world championship.
"The toughest route they said to take was the scenic route, and that ended up being the best route for us," declared linebacker Joey Porter, who had a monster game. "We went to three different cities and shocked the world three different times. We weren't supposed to be in this situation, but we pulled it off. We pulled it off everywhere we went."
They have one more stop, in Detroit Feb. 5 against the NFC champion Seattle, which routed Carolina, 34-14, last night. It's a trip that helped lure Bettis, the fifth-leading rusher of all time and the heart of the Steelers the past decade, to play one more season, give it one more try to get to his first Super Bowl, to make his last game the one in his hometown.
He talked to his teammates Saturday night and left them with this:
"Get me home," the Bus said.
They punched that ticket early, stunning the Broncos by scoring on all four of their possessions in the first half for a 24-3 lead. Denver cut it to 10 midway through the fourth quarter, but the Steelers maintained their control and began celebrating when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger rolled left into the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown that sealed it at 34-17.
"Once Ben scored, I think everyone cut loose a little bit because we were up by so much with so little left," guard Alan Faneca said. "Everybody knew it was over, and we were excited."
Bettis and Duce Staley dumped the traditional bucket of Gatorade on Bill Cowher's head, and the sopping wet coach gave a big hug to Dan Rooney on the sideline. It has been 10 years since they have made this trip, 26 since they won a Super Bowl.
"We need to go and win the game," Cowher said. "Nobody ever remembers the loser in the Super Bowl."
The Steelers became the first sixth seed in the playoffs to reach the Super Bowl, and they did it by knocking off Nos. 3-1-2 in that order. They did it again yesterday before thousands of Terrible Towel-waving Steelers fans who also showed up in droves in Cincinnati and Indianapolis the two previous weeks.
"I know the fans here are going crazy," receiver Antwaan Randle El said. "It must be really crazy at home ... It is amazing, especially to have done it all on the road."
Once again, their young quarterback was the catalyst. The Steelers found it tough to run on Denver and managed only 90 yards on the ground, the first time this season they have won a game with fewer than 100 yards rushing. Roethlisberger and his receivers more than made up for that. He completed 21 of 29 passes for 275 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and two sacks for a 124.9 passer rating, his third striking performance in the playoffs.
"He's the catalyst of our offense," said Hines Ward.
Jeff Reed kicked a 47-yard field goal to get things going, and the Steelers never stopped. Cedrick Wilson, operating most of the day against rookie cornerback Domonique Foxworth, scored on a 12-yard pass, one of five receptions for 92 yards. Bettis put the finishing touches on an 80-yard drive by running 3 yards for a touchdown. Ward completed the first-half blitzkrieg by catching a 17-yard touchdown pass.
The Broncos' only score of the first half came on Jason Elam's 23-yard field goal. They did score two touchdowns in the second half on Ashley Lelie's 30-yard reception from Jake Plummer and Mike Anderson's 3-yard run.
But Reed kicked another field goal from 42 yards, and Roethlisberger stilled any overbeating Steelers hearts when he put it away with his 4-yard run.
"The offense won this game," defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen said.
Not so fast there. Larry Foote and Ike Taylor each intercepted Plummer, who was sacked three times. And Denver's ground game never really materialized with 97 yards rushing.
Denver coach Mike Shanahan, who embraced Cowher on the field after the game, was impressed.
"Anytime you go into somebody's back yard and you beat the first, second and third teams and you do it throughout the playoffs, you can be very impressed," he said.
Reed's 47-yard field goal that got things going came after Denver cornerback Champ Bailey dropped an interception near midfield with no one in front of him.
The defense set up the Steelers' first touchdown when, three plays after the field goal, Porter smacked into Plummer, who fumbled. Casey Hampton recovered at the Broncos' 39.
Roethlisberger completed a 24-yard pass to tight end Heath Miller to the 14. On third down, Wilson faked inside, and Bailey bit on it. Wilson cut outside, and Roethlisberger delivered a perfect pass in the back corner for a 12-yard touchdown and a 10-0 Steelers lead on the first play of the second quarter.
"I didn't know I was going to be featured," Wilson said. "They stacked the box, and the coaches left it up to the receivers to make plays down the field."
Elam's 23-yard field goal gave the Broncos some light, albeit brief.
The Steelers responded with a 14-play, 80-yard drive that took 7 minutes, 28 seconds, and ended with Bettis running for a 3-yard touchdown behind the block of Faneca. It was the same play that produced the infamous Bus fumble last week.
Bettis' touchdown made it 17-3 and growing. Taylor, who dropped 10 interceptions by his count during the regular season, intercepted his first pass on the next play from scrimmage on a Plummer attempt along the sideline to Stephen Alexander.
"I missed about 10, but I told everybody in the postseason I'd come up with one,'' Taylor said.
The Steelers began at Denver's 38, and Parker ran twice for 24 yards. Bettis scored from 12, but Ward's penalty for an illegal formation brought it back to the 17. Ward redeemed himself on the next play when Roethlisberger scrambled away from pressure to his left, threw across his body over two defenders into the back of the end zone where Ward caught it for a 17-yard touchdown with seven seconds left in the half.
"He had a small window to get it there and he got it in that window,'' Ward said.
The Steelers led, 24-3, the Broncos faithful booed their team as it left the field and the talk in the locker room was "don't take the pedal off the gas," Faneca said.
Denver scored its first touchdown late in the third quarter on a 30-yard pass from Plummer to Lelie, who caught it over safety Chris Hope in the end zone.
A 30-yard pass from Roethlisberger to Wilson helped set up Reed for a 42-yard field goal and a 27-10 Steelers lead early in the fourth quarter.
Denver's Charlie Adams returned the kickoff 47 yards to the Steelers' 43, but on the next play, Foote intercepted Plummer.
The Broncos, though, still had life as Plummer hit Lelie for 38 yards, Taylor was called for a 22-yard pass-interference penalty, and Anderson ran in from the 3 to cut the lead to 10 with 7:52 left.
Not to worry. Brett Keisel crashed into Plummer, who fumbled. Travis Kirschke recovered at Denver's 17, and Roethlisberger drilled the final stake into the Broncos.
Now for the possibly bad news: The Steelers will serve as the "home" team in Detroit, but they do get to choose which jerseys to wear. Perhaps they will go with their white ones, their roadies.
"Getting there is good," Dan Rooney proclaimed, "but we're going there to win. This is just another stop."
How the Steelers have fared in the Super Bowl:
Tulane Stadium New Orleans
Defense limits Vikings to only 17 yards rushing.
Lynn Swann has four catches for 161 yards and a 64-yard touchdown.
Terry Bradshaw passes for four touch downs and 318 yards.
Rose Bowl Pasadena, Calif
Steelers become first team to win four Super Bowls.
Sun Devil Stadium Tempe, Ariz.
Cowboys cornerback Larry Brown's late interception thwarts Steelers' comeback.
As the clock winds down at Invesco Field at Mile High in Denver yesterday, Steelers receiver Hines Ward and running back Jerome Bettis share in the happiness of Pittsburgh's 34-17 victory over the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game.
Click photo for larger image.
Next stop: Detroit and Super Bowl XL
Porter-led defense puts hammer on Denver, creates chances for offense
Bettis, von Oelhoffen got messages through to teammates
Steelers Notebook: It's a Super homecoming for Foote, too
Jubilant fans celebrate Steelers win over Broncos
Demand for tickets, lodging promises to be Super
Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
A Steeler fan at Invesco Field at Mile High brought memories of the Steelers past to the AFC Championship Game yesterday.
Click photo for larger image.
Ed Bouchette can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-3878.