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.
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.
The Bears should have known what to expect out of him -- after all, Smith had a career-high 14 catches for 169 yards in their first meeting, a 13-3 Chicago win. The Bears spent all week boasting about that win, which only fired up Smith and his teammates.
"Last time we played them I had 14 [catches] but we didn't score," Smith said. "All I heard all week long was what I didn't do. We were ready for whatever they threw at us."
He proved it by catching the Bears off guard just 55 seconds into the game.
Smith beat Charles Tillman on the Panthers' second snap, leaving him face down on the ground as Smith reeled in a long pass from Delhomme. With Mike Brown in front of him waiting to make the tackle, Smith stopped in mid-stride, tiptoed around Brown and into the end zone for a lightning-fast 7-0 lead.
"Defensively we talked about not giving up the big play, trying to keep Steve Smith contained, and we weren't able to do that starting early," Bears coach Lovie Smith said.
Smith later caught a jump ball between Tillman and Chris Harris at the Chicago 2 for a 46-yard gain. Three plays later, John Kasay made a 20-yard field goal to give Carolina a 10-0 lead.
But after the Bears cut it to 16-14 late in the third quarter, Smith came up big again. Foster had just left the game with a broken ankle and momentum had shifted in Chicago's favor.
Still, Smith embarrassed the Chicago secondary by blazing his way past Chris Thompson, who was left lying on the field as Smith raced into the end zone for a 39-yard TD that stretched Carolina's lead to 23-14. His 218 yards receiving ranks fourth all-time in the playoffs; Eric Moulds had 240 yards for Buffalo in a wild-card game at Miami in 1999.
"I saw [Thompson] was covering him -- when I saw that I gave him a signal that I wanted to go there," quarterback Jake Delhomme said. "Steve put on the burners and took off."
Smith has done it time and time again this year en route to his first All-Pro season.
"I'm just really utilizing my talents," he said. "They throw me the ball, my job is to catch it. If I don't catch the ball, they will get somebody in here who will. I've got four people at home depending on me to do my job, so I can't come home with excuses.
"If you lined up my mama out there, I got to catch it over her, too."
Carolina becomes the third No. 5 seed since 1990 to advance to the championship game. The Panthers did it by letting their defense challenge Chicago quarterback Rex Grossman, who was starting his second game of the season.
Grossman, who missed most of the season with a broken ankle and had attempted just 39 passes heading into the playoffs, was decent once he settled down. He led the Bears on two second-half scoring drives to rally them from a 16-7 halftime deficit.
He was driving the Bears again late in the fourth quarter when they trailed 29-21, but he was intercepted by Ken Lucas -- Carolina's big-money offseason acquisition -- with 2:27 to play, then threw incomplete to former Panthers receiver Muhsin Muhammad on fourth-and-1 to seal the win.
"It's been a crazy year, nothing that I expected to happen, happened," Grossman said. "I am going to come back prepared physically and mentally to be the best quarterback in the league.
"All I can say is I am going to be ready to go next year, our whole team is. We're all really mad in there but still hungry."
The loss spoiled a resurgent season for the storied Bears, who used outstanding defense to return to the playoffs for the first time in four years. Their run included the dominating November win over the Panthers, when the Bears had eight sacks and two interceptions against Delhomme.
Delhomme was much better in this one, improving to 5-1 in the playoffs.
After Chicago made it 23-21 on Jason McKie's 3-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter, Delhomme remained calm to engineer yet another scoring drive.
He helped put the Bears away with his third touchdown pass of the game -- a 1-yarder to Kris Mangum. Kasay missed the point after, but it still gave Carolina the cushion it needed.
Delhomme finished 24-of-33 for 319 yards while cutting down on the mistakes that had plagued him in the first meeting. He threw one interception and was sacked only once.
"When we came a couple months ago, basically I lost the game," Delhomme said. "It was nice to come back and get on top this time. They're a good defense, but we stepped up to the challenge.
"This team has been here before. Guys want to make plays. Guys don't have big eyes in the huddle."