Tue, Jan 17, 2006 - Page 20 News List

Steelers survive, Bears die

DIVISIONAL PLAYOFFS Pittsburgh ruled Indianapolis until a fourth quarter when things began to go wrong, but the Colts were unable to capitalize on the mistakes

AP , INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANAAND CHICAGO

When the Steelers needed to run, they turned to the speed of Willie Parker and the power of Bettis.

Then everything went wacky.

The Colts were left to wonder where the magic went. They started 13-0, threatening the 1972 Dolphins' perfect season, only to drop three of their next four -- including the most meaningful game, Sunday's defeat.

Antwaan Randle El's 6-yard TD reception for a 7-0 lead was his first since the season opener, hardly an impressive stat for a starting receiver. But it capped one of Pittsburgh's most impressive drives of the season, 84 yards in 10 plays, with seven passes, including 36- and 18-yarders to rookie tight end Heath Miller.

Quite a difference from the Steelers' previous trip to the RCA Dome, where the crowd noise caused several false starts and the Colts scored on an 80-yard pass to Harrison on their first offensive play.

With the defense plaguing Manning, the Colts did nothing early. Then Hines Ward broke two tackles on a 45-yard completion, leading to Roethlisberger's 7-yard TD pass to Miller. With 3:12 remaining in the first period, it was 14-0. Shockingly, Pittsburgh had the 14.

Shortening Manning's drops, at times sliding the blocking pocket, the Colts marched 96 yards in 15 plays, taking up nearly 10 minutes of the second period. But their best drive, on which Manning went 6-for-6, ended with only Vanderjagt's 20-yard field goal.

Could three points be any more deflating to the team that scored them? The potent Colts had all of 123 yards at halftime, 74 in the air, and trailed by 11.

It didn't get better early in the second half. Manning saw pressure for rush linebackers, ends, blitzing backs and even nose tackle Casey Hampton. He nearly was sacked for a safety late in the third period and was downed at the 1, which eventually led to Bettis' 1-yard drive for his 11th TD of the season -- and ninth since the Steelers' 26-7 loss here on Nov. 28.

They haven't lost since and now have a shot at their first Super Bowl trip in 10 years.

Carolina 29, Chicago 21

Steve Smith and the Carolina Panthers road show left Chicago's vaunted defense face down and out of the playoffs.

Now it's off to Seattle for the NFC championship, where the Panthers will have to rely on their playmaker more than ever.

Smith had 12 catches for a career-high 218 yards and two long touchdowns, including a 58-yard scoring reception on the second play from scrimmage, to lead Carolina to a 29-21 victory over the Bears on Sunday.

It sends the fifth-seeded Panthers into their second championship game in three years. But they'll go without running back DeShaun Foster, who broke his ankle late against the Bears, leaving Smith as their only true offensive threat.

"All we've got to do is keep plugging," Smith said. "Guys got to step it up and I think they will. We will play it by ear after that."

But with Smith on their side, the Panthers like their chances.

"He is as tough a competitor as you can find at any position," Carolina coach John Fox said. "He does well home or away."

Smith carried the Panthers this entire year, his comeback season after missing 15 games in 2004 with a broken leg. He returned better than ever and ended the regular season as the NFL leader with 1,563 yards receiving.

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