PITTSBURGH - More than 3 1/2 hours after it began, the throng at Heinz Field walked, ran and danced toward the exits singing along with a blaring public-address system.
The song? "I'm a Believer."
They had to be, perhaps, to imagine their Pittsburgh Steelers were still alive in the NFL playoffs and headed into next Sunday's AFC Championship game.
The Steelers stumbled and fumbled and occasionally bumbled, but survived into overtime against the New York Jets so that rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger could fashion a 14-play, 72-yard drive that resulted in a 33-yard field goal by Jeff Reed for a 20-17 victory.
Here is a statistic you rarely read or hear:
The Jets ran exactly one play in the red zone - inside the Pittsburgh 20-yard line - the entire game and it lost yardage.
Still, just as amazingly, New York led 17-10 after three quarters thanks to two touchdown returns, one of a punt and the other of an interception.
Pittsburgh scored with six minutes left in the game to tie it when Roethlisberger capped another long drive with a four-yard shovel pass to Hines Ward.
Still, the Steelers had to survive two New York field goal attempts, both of which went awry, in the final 2:03 of regulation before they could pull it out in OT and run their winning streak to 15 games.
"To overcome two returns for touchdowns, plus another turnover when we drove it all the way down the field and fumbled, is just a tribute to how resilient this bunch of guys is," said Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher.
The Steelers will host the winner of today's Indianapolis at New England game next Sunday with the victor heading to the Super Bowl.
They finally got headed in that direction with a drive that was equal parts Roethlisberger and running back Duce Staley.
Big Ben, the Findlay High School and Miami of Ohio product, completed three passes, two of them to Ward on third-down plays that kept the chains moving. Staley carried six times for 28 yards and Verron Haynes chipped in with an eight-yard gain on another third-down conversion.
Finally, Reed came on to nail his 33-yarder and the Steelers, now 16-1, kept their magic ride in gear.
Jerome Bettis was the starter at running back and the main workhorse with 27 carries for 101 yards.
But he suffered cramps late in the fourth quarter and Staley got the call in overtime. He finished with 54 yards rushing.
In all, the Steelers ran up 193 yards on the ground. Roethlisberger, who completed 17 of 30 passes for 181 yards, chipped in with four carries for 30 yards.
"That depth at running back really is nice to have," Cowher said. "Who would even think about cramps in January in Pittsburgh? But it happened to Jerome. Whoever we put in there ran hard."
The Steelers' 193 rushing yards was matched by the Jets, but in the category of return yards.
Without them, Pittsburgh's defense probably would not have allowed the game to be close. New York was held to 275 yards - NFL rushing champ Curtis Martin had 77 yards on 19 carries - and converted on just three of 12 third-down situations.
The Jets, who became the first NFL team ever to play three straight overtime games, bowed out at 11-7.
"That was a long, tough stretch and I thought our guys battled, but I also think our defense got tired down the stretch," said Jets coach Herman Edwards. "We couldn't score a touchdown on offense and we couldn't get the field goal we needed."
Pittsburgh forged an early 10-0 lead, capitalizing on a Troy Polamalu interception of Chad Pennington for a short, 25-yard drive that was capped by Bettis' three-yard touchdown plunge.
But the Jets would tie it on a 75-yard punt return by Santana Moss, who was on course to be leveled by several Steelers before juking to the right, eluding all of them, and finding an open crease.
Another big return gave the Jets a seven-point lead with just under 4:00 remaining in the third quarter.
Roethlisberger was flushed from the pocket and, appearing set to run, instead tried to squeeze a pass to Antwaan Randle El. It was underthrown by nearly 10 yards and Jets' safety Reggie Tongue took it 86 yards in the other direction for a 17-10 New York lead.
The Steelers would tie it, then watched as veteran Jets kicker Doug Brien missed two field goals in the waning minutes.
The first, a 47-yard effort that followed the Jets' best offensive possession of the second half, was a low, wobbling kick that hit the crossbar and came straight back onto the field.
But Roethlisberger threw his second interception of the game on the first play of Pittsburgh's ensuing possession and the Jets had another golden opportunity after David Barrett returned the pick to the Steelers' 37-yard line.
The Jets played it safe, kept it on the ground and advanced to the Pittsburgh 24 before Brien came on with 0:04 left in the game and a trip to the AFC Championship game on the line.
This time, from 43 yards, he pulled it a foot or two left of the upright and the game went into overtime.
"I guess I believe in destiny now," said Pittsburgh linebacker James Farrior. "I don't like that we had to get two missed field goals, but I'll take it. It's a game that could have given you a heart attack, but we just kept fighting, hung in there and came away with a win."
Contact Dave Hackenberg at: email@example.com or 419-724-6398.
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