At the risk of some of you believing that I live only in the past, I'd like to post a follow-up to the 1964 John Henry Johnson piece that happened in recent history. There were interesting similarities between the 1964 Browns game and 2006 Colts playoff game, especially in my own family lineage (if you'll indulge me some personal touch).
What the heck, we're in the slow offseason anyhow. I'm sure some of you will agree with me that the 06 Colts playoff game was one of the most intense, emotional games of our history. So let's have a little fun during the down-time remembering it. Here goes my version. What was running through your veins?
The scenario was eerily familiar. The Steelers were huge underdogs, on the road, against the declared best team in the NFL. They received the opening kickoff and drove down the field to score. They did it soon again thereafter. They didn't punt in the first quarter. In the meantime, the unstoppable opponent could not get to the 50-yard line. After one quarter the Steelers had a two-touchdown lead.
No, I'm not taking about the Steelers-Browns game in 1964, though it seems that way. This time the game featured the Steelers and the Colts on Sunday, January 15, 2006. Instead of a nine-year old boy telling his dad that the Steelers were going to win, this time the boy was the dad and his 10-year old daughter was telling her dad that the Steelers were going to win. Now it was me walking that fine line, loving the child's optimism, but fearing a naive letdown.
In 1964 the Steelers faced one of the top-five running backs in NFL history. They not only shut down the run, they themselves ran all over the field. Forty-one years later they faced one of the top-five quarterbacks in NFL history. They not only shut down the pass, they themselves passed their way into a lead they never relinquished.
Ben Roethlisberger was the 1964 version of John Henry Johnson. Big Ben out-Peytoned Manning the way John Henry out-Jimmied Brown. After his first pass was dropped, he completed seven in a row and marched the Steelers 84 yards for the game's first score on an 11-yard touchdown pass to Antwaan Randle-El. He led a 72-yard drive a few minutes later that culminated in a seven-yard TD pass to Heath Miller. In between the Steelers' perfect offensive executions, coach Dick Lebeau's defensive unit blitzed and confused the Colts, rendering them impotent.
Randle-El Snags First Steelers' Score From Big Ben
The Steelers led by nine at halftime in 1964. Against the Colts at half the difference was 11. Everything about both of those games up until half was filled with incredible similarities and ironies, especially to me. There was no comfort at halftime of either game as we kept fearing the second-half explosion that could reverse the contest.
And, like 1964, the Steelers came out in the third quarter and scored an early touchdown (Jerome Bettis from a yard out) to extend the lead and keep momentum. But here is where the similarities and ironies end. In 1964 the Steelers continued their domination throughout the second half. Against the Colts there were two plays the likes of which had never been seen before. They both went against the Steelers, and thus unlike 1964, turned the game into a thriller.
The Bus Extends the Lead
The first play occurred when the Steelers were "clinging" to a 21-10 lead. I say clinging because Peyton Manning was having the greatest statistical year of any quartback in NFL history. He had just scored quickly and had the ball again at mid-field. Manning threw a pass that was intercepted by Steelers' safety Troy Polamalu. The Steelers knew it. The Colts knew it. The 57,449 fans in the Indianapolis RCA Dome knew it. The millions who watched the game on television knew it. Little old ladies knitting in their rocking chairs knew it.
Steelers Stunned at Referee Pete Morelli's Decision
Somehow, incredibly, Referee Pete Morelli saw something the rest of the world didn't understand. He ruled tha pass imcomplete, giving Manning new life. 1964 changed on that play. The Colts struck quickly. Instead of having an 11-point lead and the ball at mid-field halfway through the fourth quarter, the Steelers found themselves fighting for their lives, ahead just 21-18.
Still, Pittsburgh regained its poise and actually had control of the game again after linebackers Joey Porter and James Farrior sacked Manning on fourth and long. The desparate Colts gave up the ball on downs at their own two-yard line with just 1:27 to play. Because the Colts had all three of their timeouts remaining, Pittsburgh Coach Bill Cowher decided, justifiably, that handing the ball to Jerome Bettis was a better option than Ben Roethlisberger taking a knee.
Porter and Farrior Smother Peyton Manning at the Two.
But then came the second bizarre play of the game. The normally sure-handed Bettis ran into Colts' linebacker Gary Brackett, whose helmet hit the ball directly and popped it loose. Indianapolis defensive back Nick Harper, who had been in the hospital the night before with a stab wound to his leg allegedly caused by his wife, scooped up the ball and began running to a stunning victory.
The Steelers had no speed in the game since they were in their goal-line offense. The only player who could possibly stop Harper was quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and if Harper make one more move, or one less, that doesn't happen. Give credit to Ben, a great deal of it. He made the tackle at the 42-yard line of the Colts. But Manning had new life.
Alert Ben Saves the Day
The game had been emotional for over three hours, especially for a 10-year old fan. Mary Rose and I were both wearing our Number 7 Roethlisberger jerseys, white to match the Steelers' road uniforms. We were sitting in the big chair together and it was all I could do to calm down her emotional roller-coaster.
I tried to tell her it was just a game and that the game wasn't over. She was buying neither of that as Manning was completing passes and now going for the kill in the end zone. I thought to myself, "Gosh, have I created a monster?" amidst dealing with my own tensions of that ballgame.
After Steelers' cornerback Bryant McFadden perfectly defended a pass in the end zone to Reggie Wayne, Colts' kicker Mike Vanderjagt lined up boot a game-tying 46-yard field goal. Vanderjagt had been money from long range his entire career. I pleaded with Mary Rose that even if the kick was good, the game would only be tied and the Steelers could still win in overtime. She wasn't buying anything I was trying to sell.
Rookie Bryant McFadden Saves the Day, Again
The kick never had a chance, badly off to the right. Mary Rose paid quite an emotional price for a 10-year old, but she finally came of age as a legitimate die-hard Steelers' fan, just like her dad 41 years earlier. Final score: Steelers 21 Colts 18. Unlike 1964 though, better days were looming ahead for the modern-day Steelers in the weeks to come.