A trip down Steelers vs. Colts memory lane
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In the storied and stunningly successful history of their franchise, the Steelers have been involved in some of the most memorable postseason games the National Football League has ever seen. Some have bordered on the impressive. Others have simply morphed from unimaginable to incredible.
There was the Immaculate Reception and the Ice Bowl, the plane crash in Baltimore and the criminal element in Oakland. There were acrobatic catches against the Dallas Cowboys and a miracle finish against the Arizona Cardinals, a 100-yard interception return by a free-agent linebacker and a 75-yard touchdown run by a free-agent running back.
But, through an incredible journey that has spanned 52 playoff games and an unprecedented six Super Bowl victories since 1972, there might not have been a more pulsating conclusion to a postseason game than the one that occurred six years ago in Indianapolis -- a numbing 80-second unfolding of events that began as monumental, shifted to the incredibly bizarre and climaxed to unbelievable.
In the final one minute and 20 seconds of the Steelers' 21-18 victory against the Colts in a 2005 AFC Divisional playoff game, any one of five key developments that unfolded on the indoor turf could stand alone as significant and unforgettable moments in franchise lore. And yet, they all were lumped together to produce a game that remains as unforgettable as it was palpitating and an ending that likely is the second-most stunning in Steelers playoff history.
Looking back, it was a frenetic flurry of huge plays, two rare and colossal blunders by players not known for such gaffes, and a fortuitous tackle by a quarterback that saved the season, all in less than 1 1/2 minutes.
Tonight, the Steelers return to Indianapolis for the first time since that game, a nationally televised meeting that carries less significance and even less star power with the loss of Peyton Manning. And, while the stadium and some of the players have changed, the memories haven't dissipated much, if at all.
• • • •
The Steelers had taken a 21-3 lead into the fourth quarter and were riding the tempo they had established on the second play of the game when Ben Roethlisberger crossed up the Colts with a 36-yard pass to tight end Heath Miller from a tight run formation.
But, the Colts scored 15 points on a 50-yard pass from Manning to tight end Dallas Clark and a 3-yard run by Edgerrin James with 4:24 remaining, the latter set up when video replay overturned an interception by safety Troy Polamalu with 5:26 remaining.
On the ensuing possession, the Steelers got a pass-interference penalty against, of all people, cornerback Nick Harper on first down, then had to punt after three plays failed to get another first down.
With three timeouts and 2:31 remaining from the Steelers' 18, Manning tried to generate a comeback. But, on second down, he was sacked by outside linebacker Joey Porter at the 12 on a blitz called "Indy Fire Zone," a package put in specifically for the Colts. After an incomplete pass to Brandon Stokely set up fourth-and-16, Manning was sacked by Porter again on the same blitz call, this time with assistance from James Farrior, at the 2.
One minute, 20 seconds remained. The game appeared to be over.
"We definitely thought we pretty much sealed the deal," Farrior said. "By the time we got to the sideline and I was about to sit down, we were right back out there. It was crazy."
On the sidelines, offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt debated whether to run down the clock by taking a knee or having his reliable running back, Jerome Bettis, try to score a touchdown. The latter seemed like a safe option because Bettis had not fumbled in his previous 220 carries.
So Whisenhunt called Counter 36 Power, the same play on which Bettis had run over Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher five weeks earlier on a 5-yard touchdown.
"The play was Jerome's favorite play," said Whisenhunt, now head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. "We talked about kneeling on the ball, but, at that point, we decided to push it in because Jerome doesn't fumble."
In an instant, one of the most surprising and infamous moments in franchise history occurred: Bettis was hit on first down by linebacker Gary Brackett at the 2 and fumbled. Harper picked up the ball on the second bounce at the 7 and started running the other way.
"Everything was in slow motion," Bettis said the other day, recalling the moment that nearly derailed his goal of playing in Super Bowl XL in his hometown of Detroit. "As it popped out, I could kind of see it, then I lost it for a second. I didn't know where it was. Next thing you know, I look up and see a guy running, and it was the sickest feeling in the world."
Harper was something of an unlikely hero: In the early morning hours before the game, he was stabbed in the right knee with a filet knife by his wife during a domestic dispute and had been unsure if he would be able to play against the Steelers.
"The first thing I thought about was, all we got on the field is big guys; we don't have any fast guys to run him down," Whisenhunt said. "When he picked up the ball and started running, you got sick to your stomach."
There was only one player between Harper and the go-ahead touchdown:
Roethlisberger said he was so sure Bettis would score on the play he didn't even bother to carry out his fake after the handoff.
But, when he saw the ball pop loose, he had to make a split-second decision: Try to recover the fumble or start running the other way. When the ball hopped perfectly to Harper, Roethlisberger chose the latter.
"That was my first thought, that we had our jumbo package in the game, that we had no speed guys on the field," Roethlisberger said. "And then it was start running backward, literally. That was your best chance, to buy some time, try to outsmart him."
Harper ran up the middle of the field, toward Roethlisberger, and surprisingly cut to his left around the 30. When he did that, Roethlisberger was able to reach out with his right arm as he was falling backward and trip Harper on his right leg.
If Harper had not cut back, Roethlisberger said, he would have had "no chance" of tackling him. "He could have literally run straight to the sideline away from me."
Tight end Jerame Tuman, who was trailing the play, said he would have caught Harper if Roethlisberger had not made the tackle. But nobody was really buying that assurance.
If Roethlisberger had not tripped Harper, there likely would not have been a fifth Super Bowl trophy.
"One of the greatest plays he ever made," said offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who was the receivers coach in 2005.
The Colts had the ball at their 42. Sixty-one seconds remained.
After a 22-yard pass to Reggie Wayne and an 8-yarder to Marvin Harrison, Manning had the Colts on the move, setting up second-and-2 at the Steelers' 28. Only 31 seconds remained.
Next play, Manning went right back after rookie cornerback Bryant McFadden, who was playing in the team's nickel package. He lofted a pass down the left sideline into the end zone for Wayne, who reached and got both hands on the ball.
"It was a perfect pass," said defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, recalling the play he said he has never forgotten. "B-Mac was in good position, but the ball was absolutely perfect."
McFadden, though, battled with Wayne as the players became entangled, and he was able to rake the ball from his grasp. What looked like the winning touchdown turned into a harmless, but heart-stopping, incompletion.
"I got my hands on it, he got his hands on it, and I just kept scraping and kept fighting," McFadden said. "I knew when I hit the ground, I saw the ball out and I was like, 'Ahhh, I got it out.' "
On third-and-2, Manning tried to hit Wayne again and, again, another incompletion -- a play in which McFadden almost intercepted.
"None of us in Pittsburgh would have a Super Bowl championship if he [didn't] make those two plays back-to-back," LeBeau said. "He brought the field-goal kicker out on the field and he missed and we went to Denver, and the rest is history."
Ah, yes, Mike Vanderjagt.
The most-accurate kicker in NFL history had a chance to send the game into overtime with a 46-yard field goal with 21 seconds remaining.
Vanderjagt converted 230 of 266 field goals in his career, a percentage of 86.5. He made 23 of 25 attempts that season, including 11 of 12 at home. He was a perfect 4 of 4 when the Steelers lost to the Colts earlier in the season at the RCA Dome.
But Vanderjagt not only missed, he missed badly. The kick started right and kept going right, producing one of the most ignominious moments for a kicker in NFL history. Vanderjagt was so angry he took off his helmet and slammed it to the ground, drawing a 15-yard unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty.
"I was amazed," tackle Trai Essex said. "I was like, 'Oh my goodness.' "
"When you saw him kick it, it never looked good," Whisenhunt said. "I still remember coach [Bill] Cowher's face, the look of disbelief that he missed it."
Five moments. One minute, 20 seconds.
First Published September 25, 2011 12:00 am