As we check the plutonium on our BTSC Delorean and make certain that our flux capacitor is indeed fluxing, we head back to a time when NASA’s Stardust mission as the first to return dust from a comet ended, movie viewers were enjoying Glory Road in theaters and radios were playing “Laffy Taffy” by D4L like crazy. Meanwhile Steeler Nation was buzzing as the black-and-gold were gearing up for a Divisional Playoff against the top-seeded and 14-2 Indianapolis Colts.
Welcome to January 15, 2006
The Steelers entered the postseason as the sixth seed and were traveling to Indiana after their upset win over rival Cincinnati the previous week. Joey Porter, whose mouth wrote many a check regardless of his account balance, turned heads when he guaranteed a win over the two TD favorite Colts, a team that destroyed the Steelers in that very building seven weeks prior. It was a game in which Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James embarrassed Pittsburgh 26-7.
The Colts coach and former Steeler Tony Dungy, a few weeks removed from a devestating personal tragedy that saw him lose his son a few weeks before, was coaching with a heavy heart. His Super Bowl favorites were undefeated until a mid-December upset against San Diego and their high-powered offense/solid defense made them favorites against the low seed that was Pittsburgh.
The day of the game, the Colts learned that DB Nick Harper had been stabbed with a steak knife by his wife in a domestic dispute the night before. The wound required three stitches, but it was wondered aloud if the incident would have any bearing on the game’s outcome.
The Colts kicked off to start the game as the raucous home crowd did their best to have an effect on the Steelers. The noise was responsible for five offsides in the regular season contest. Starting from the 16, Ben Roethlisberger went long for a 38 yard connection with the rookie from Virginia, Heath Miller. Miller hauled in one for 18 more yards on the next play. Later on in the drive on 3rd and 3 from the Indianapolis six, Rothlisberger threw a ball behind Antwaan Randle-El who made a good adjustment and captured the bullet for the touchdown. The play capped off a 10 play/84 yard drive. With 9:25 remaining in the first, Bill Cowher’s squad led 7-0.
After a rare occasion when Indy went three-and-out, Roethlisberger went back to the TE. This time it was Jerame Tuman for 19 yards to put Pittsburgh into Colt territory. But on the very next play, Ben stayed in the pocket way too long and paid for it when Dwight Freeney cracked him. The ball squirted ahead and was intercepted by Cato June at the Colt 35. But the Colts could only muster three yards and had to punt again.
Roethlisberger rebounded well from his passing gaffe and led his Steelers down the RCA Dome track again. With a mix of runs by Willie Parker, Jerome Bettis and Dan Kreider and a long third-and-ten conversion by Hines Ward, the second-year QB engineered a seven-play drive for 72 yards. The capper was a pass for seven yards to Heath Miller with 3:12 left in the first quarter of play.
On the Colts third drive, the Steelers continued to harass Manning. Kimo von Oelhoffen had a huge sack to start the series. Manning finally completed a pass on his fifth attempt of the game for a first down to Marvin Harrison, but James Farrior sacked Manning for another huge loss, forcing 3rd and 24. Indy punted again.
There was very little scoring in the second quarter as the Colts defense came alive. But the Steelers D stayed impressive, forcing a third three-and-out on the fourth Indy offensive series. Then the Colts got a gift when Marlin Jackson was not called for interference on a blatant grab of Randle-El on what would have been a long gain, if not a score. The Steelers couldn’t convert.
Then Peyton Manning came alive. On nearly a ten minute drive that started on their own two, OC Tom Moore called a fine mix of Edgerrin James runs and Manning passes. The Colts thought James Mungro would score on a five-yard run, but a second offsides by Tarik Glenn nullified the Mungro TD. The Colts went from their own two to the Pittsburgh two, but settled for a 19-yard Mike Vanderjagt field goal. At the half, it was 14-3 in favor of the visiting underdogs.
The third quarter started with a punt by the blue-clad homers, followed by one by the visitors in white. The third possession of the new half could have been devastating for the boys repping Circle City. What appeared to be a Farrior safety of Manning on third down was just shy of the end zone. The Colts got a punt off instead, but Pittsburgh got excellent field position, and started at the Indianapolis 30. After Bettis drained the third quarter clock, No. 36 finished off the Steelers drive with a 1 yard plunge to paydirt. After Jeff Reed’s conversion, it was 21-3 with 1:26 remaining in the third.
Seconds before the quarter ended, Manning waved off Dungy’s punt decision and went for it from his own 36 and made it. The decision paid off a few moments later when No. 18 connected with Dallas Clark for a 50-yard score with 14:09 remaining. It was now 21-10 Steelers with a quarter to play.
In the fourth, the Steelers had a stretch of 11-straight running plays that included a Ben Roethlisberger sneak on 4th and 1 at midfield. Cowher’s gamble worked as the Steelers got a good spot and extended the drive. Bettis converted another 4th and 1, but the drive ended in a Chris Gardocki punt with 6:07 remaining in the contest.
This is where it gets a little crazy. With With 5:26 remaining, Peyton Manning threw what appeared to be a sure interception gabbed by Troy Polamalu. No. 43 caught the ball, rolled over on the ground while making a football move, dropped the ball and recovered it at midfield. That should have been the nail in Indianapolis’ coffin. Dungy challenged the call and the crowd erupted when the ref, Pete Morelli, announced the overturning of the call on the field as an incomplete pass. Dick Enberg and Dan Dierdorf, calling the game for CBS, expressed shock. Steeler Nation was stunned and enraged.
With a second chance, Manning took advantage of the gift. Four plays later, James plunged in from the three and when Reggie Wayne (backed up by a false start penalty) made a seven yard catch for the 2PC, the score was only 21-18 with 4:24 left.
The Steelers couldn’t answer back, so Indy took over at their own 18 with 2:32 remaining and a chance to win or tie. But the Steeler defense, who had been flummoxing Manning and his o-line all game, answered the bell and looked to put the game away. On 2nd and 8, Joey Porter sacked No. 18 for a six yard loss. Then on 4th and 16, Porter and Farrior sacked Manning to stop the Colts seemingly for good. Tunch Ilkin on the radio broadcast urged fans to get their reservations for Denver.
The Steelers took over on downs and looked to ice the game when their version of a football closer came in with the ball at the two. That was No. 36. Everybody knows about the wall that was Gary Brackett that Bettis hit and the uncharacteristic and crazy fumble that occurred. When Nick Harper scooped up the ball and raced down the field, the collective jaws of Steeler Nation dropped. One man had a heart attack while watching at a bar. I don’t know whether it was the stabbing from the night before or the knee injury from early on or divine intervention...but something slowed down Harper enough for Big Ben to make the most important of tackles in Steeler history. With the jumbo package in the game to block, fast guys weren’t on the field to catch Harper. But Ben made the twisting ankle-tackle to save the TD. Meanwhile. Tunch recanted his reservation proclamation.
After that, the Colts still had a chance at their own 43 with 1:09 left. Manning immediately found Reggie Wayne for 21 yards to the Steeler 36 and the sure-footed All Pro, Mike Vanderjagt, warmed up to kick. Harrison got eight more to the 28, while Bettis nervously knelt on the sideline and Tommy Maddox consoled the legend. On the next play, Manning went for the win on a long pass to Wayne, but rookie CB Bryant McFadden had amazing coverage and broke it up.
At 3rd and 2, Manning went back to Wayne and McFadden almost intercepted. This was a huge mistake. The Colts could have gotten closer for their kicker, but it would be a try from 46 to tie. Bill Cowher iced Vanderjagt (the game’s most-accurate all-time kicker at that time) and the WVU product pointed with a mocking gesture to the Steeler coach, as to imply, “How dare you ice me!”
With :21 remaining, Bettis paced and Steeler fans painfully waited for the inevitable trip to OT, where the Steelers would surely lose. However, the cocky kicker had an ugly kick that was never close and sailed wide right. Vanderjagt slammed his helmet to the turf, as Bettis raised his in relief and delight.
The Steelers celebrated, Tunch invited fans to Denver and Manning threw his line under the bus in the presser. It was a monumental and improbable victory for this particular team of destiny.
It was believed that the only way the Steelers could win would be via a punishing ground game, but the Steelers stormed in throwing and set the tone early. On the defensive side, Pittsburgh set out to harrass Manning and never let up. it was a game plan well-executed and well-planned. In the end, lady luck contributed as well.
To me, this was one of the greatest games in Steelers history. It was the victory that transformed pretenders into contenders and eventually...Champions.
I have great memories of this game for a completely different reason. I had just started dating the woman I would marry, but she lived over an hour away from my apartment in Frostburg, Maryland. Because of my absurd superstition (at the time) to eat the same food, sit in the same spot and wear the same clothes during the playoffs...I did not watch the game with her. Nor did I accept an invitation to watch it with my friend across the hall.
Her name was Joanne and she was a sweet 75-year-old lady that shared my love for football and treated me like a grandson. Even though I was 33 at the time, I hung out with Joanne. I even took her to a WVU game a few months earlier. She was my buddy and I adored her like family.
Because of my policy to never celebrate “until there’s three zeroes on the clock”, I reluctantly accepted Joanne’s congratulations when she knocked on my door after the Joey Porter sack gave the Steelers the ball on the doorstep of the Colt end zone. I invited her in, but as soon as her butt hit my recliner... “The Bus” famously fumbled. When the dust settled and I halted my stream of cuss-words that would make Samuel L. Jackson proud, I turned to my friend who was sitting in absolute shock and horror. She looked at me and said, “I think that was my fault”. As polite as I possibly could, I said, “Joanne, I love you dearly...but you really need to go back to your apartment now”. She replied, “I know” and left.
When Vanderjagt missed that kick, I was elated and I could hear Joanne cheering alone across the hall. As happy as I was, I felt awful about the way I treated my dear friend. I sheepishly went across the hall to apologize, but Joanne didnt want any part of that. She told me, “We know better than to celebrate early. We’re just lucky Ben made that tackle.” We would always laugh about that moment.
I moved away six months later and Joanne would always remind me how much she missed me. She came to Hagerstown to attend my wedding the next year and got to see my baby boy after he was born. We kept in touch, but work and family required more attention...and our calls and visits got less frequent. In 2010, my sweet friend passed away and I didn’t learn about it until a few months later. But I had strong memories of our friendship and cherish the football that we did view together. I still miss my sweet friend.
When I think about how special that game was to everybody that loves the Steelers, I smile and think about how memorable that Super Bowl ride was that year. But even more, I think about the power of friendship and how football can bring people the unlikeliest of friends together. I think about Joanne.