INDIANAPOLIS Move over Immaculate Reception, you have company.
The Pittsburgh Steelers head to Denver for the AFC championship Sunday after their most improbable ending to a playoff game since Franco Harris ran into history in 1972.
They survived the Indianapolis Colts 21-18 yesterday because quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made a game-saving tackle and Mike Vanderjagt, the most accurate field goal kicker in NFL history, missed badly from 46 yards with 17 seconds left.
I don t need too many more of those feelings, receiver Hines Ward said, but it s good to come out on the right side. You thought the game was over, your season was over and then the guy missed the field goal.
The game appeared over when Pittsburgh linebacker Joey Porter sacked Colts quarterback Peyton Manning on fourth down at the Colts 2 with 1:20 left and the Steelers ahead by three, the fifth sack of the NFL s leading passer yesterday.
Because the Colts had three timeouts left to stop the clock, the Steelers sent Jerome Bettis off right guard to try to put it away.
We score there, and the game s over, coach Bill Cowher said.
But linebacker Gary Brackett slammed into Bettis and put his helmet on the ball. The man who rarely fumbles fumbled for the first time this season.
The ball popped backward. Cornerback Nick Harper, playing with three stitches in his right knee where his wife allegedly stabbed him Saturday, picked it up. He had one man to beat to run 93 yards for the go-ahead touchdown Roethlisberger.
Once in a blue moon, Jerome fumbles, Roethlisberger said. Once in a blue moon, I make a tackle. They just happened to be in the same game.
The quarterback who had not made a tackle in two NFL seasons got in front of Harper and then tackled him by the foot as tight end Jerame Tuman came in to finish him off. For all the punishment the Steelers dealt to Manning and the Colts offense yesterday, a tackle by their quarterback was the most important of all.
That might be the biggest play ever in his career, linebacker Larry Foote said. My heart was going to my feet and back up.
Still, the Colts and Manning had the ball at their 42 with 1:01 left. They reached the Steelers 28, then rookie cornerback Bryant McFadden broke up a pass in the end zone to Reggie Wayne on second down and knocked away another for Wayne on third.
Vanderjagt came on to do what he does better than anyone: Convert a field goal and send it to overtime.
Not today, Foote said.
Vanderjagt s attempt was wide right, and the Steelers became the first No. 6 playoff seed to knock off a No. 1 seed.
That was one of the craziest games I have been in, Porter said.
The Steelers, winning for the sixth consecutive time, lost 26-7 to the Colts here on Nov. 28. The Colts were favorites to win the Super Bowl.
A day ago, nobody wanted to give us a chance, Ward said. We came out and we did what we had to do. We knew it would be tough to come into Indianapolis, and they beat us pretty good the last time. This is kind of redemption for us.
The Steelers stunned the Colts and the noisy RCA Dome crowd when they took a 14-0 lead in the first quarter on Roethlisberger s touchdown passes of six yards to Antwaan Randle El and seven to rookie Heath Miller.
Roethlisberger was hot, hitting 6 of 7 on the first scoring drive and connecting with Ward for a 45-yard pass on third down that set up the second touchdown. He would throw only five times in the second half, completing 14 of 24 on the day for 197 yards.
Manning was 22-for-38 for 290 yards. The Steelers seemed to rattle him with both their blitzes and their disguised non-blitzes.
Steelers safety Troy Polamalu appeared to end the Colts hopes when he made a diving interception of Manning at the Steelers 48 with 5:26 left.
But Colts coach Tony Dungy challenged it, and referee Pete Morelli overturned it, saying Polamalu dropped it, even though he did not drop it until he stood up after making the catch and before a Colts player touched him.
The Colts, given new life, continued on the series that ended with Edgerrin James running three yards for a touchdown. Manning s pass to Wayne for the two-point conversion drew the Colts to within three with 4:24 left.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Ed Bouchette is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.
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