The Pittsburgh Steelers gave the Colts every opportunity to steal their playoff game on Sunday. In the final moments of one of the most thrilling playoff games anyone can remember, Indy couldn't figure out how to take it.
So the Steelers survived a goal-line fumble by Jerome Bettis and one of the most mysterious replay reversals in NFL history to shatter the Colts' dream season with a 21-18 win. Pittsburgh (13-5) became the first sixth seed to make a conference championship game and will journey to Denver next Sunday for a shot at the Super Bowl.
They will do so breathlessly. Both benches seesawed between elation and agony with every possession as the game hung in the balance, stirring the crowd into waves of deafening sound.
This victory should have been so much easier. The Steelers dominated the Colts (14-3) until a fourth quarter with almost unimaginable twists and turns that ended when Mike Vanderjagt missed his first field goal at home, wide right from 46 yards. Vanderjagt then slammed his helmet to the turf, obviously forgetting how fortunate he was to have the chance.
After Pittsburgh's ferocious defense sacked a befuddled Peyton Manning twice, taking the ball on downs at the Colts 2 with just more than a minute left, Bettis fumbled when hit by Gary Brackett. Nick Harper, whose knee was cut with a knife on Saturday in an apparent domestic dispute with his wife, grabbed the ball and headed toward the end zone.
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.
"I was frustrated," Bettis said. "That shouldn't happen, I'm supposed to take care of the football. I was upset that it happened. My defense bailed me out. I can leave here with my head up high."
Given life, Manning passed the Colts into field goal range, but Vanderjagt missed.
"It is disappointing. We had a great regular season, didn't play well enough in the playoffs," Colts coach Tony Dungy said. "That is disappointing, we have to pick it up from here. Pittsburgh came in and ratcheted things up and played a great game."
With 5:26 remaining and Pittsburgh on top 21-10, referee Pete Morelli overruled Troy Polamalu's diving interception at the Pittsburgh 48. Replays shown in the stadium and on CBS clearly showed Polamalu catching the ball as he fell, rolling and tumbling with it in his hands, then fumbling it as he got up to run.
Dungy had no choice but to challenge; the Colts were reeling.
After keeping the ball, Manning made some vintage throws -- something missing almost all day. Passes of 20 yards to Marvin Harrison and 24 to Reggie Wayne set up a 3-yard TD run by Edgerrin James. When Wayne got a 2-point conversion pass, the lead was down to three.
The Steelers, who won at Cincinnati last week while the AFC South champion Colts were off, built their advantage thanks to a superb game plan they seemed to steal from Indy. Bill Cowher showed why he has been a winning coach for 14 seasons in Pittsburgh, which has won two straight road playoff games for the first time.
Pittsburgh has one of the league's most varied running attacks, but Cowher, mirroring Indy's image, 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. He wound up being sacked five times in all.