It was the first time the Steelers won two straight playoff road games. And this one should have been so much easier for Pittsburgh.
With wide-open passing, hardly their forte, and ferocious defense — definitely the Steelers’ style — Bill Cowher showed why he has been among the league’s top coaches since 1992. The Steelers, who won at Cincinnati last week while the AFC South champion Colts were off, built their lead thanks to a superb game plan they seemed to steal from Indy.
Pittsburgh has one of the league’s most varied running attacks, but Cowher 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.
When the Steelers needed to run, they turned to the speed of Willie Parker and the power of Bettis.
“The play-calling was aggressive,” Ward said. “They thought all we can do is run the ball. We can pass the ball, too.”
The Colts (14-3) 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.
It was a bitter loss for Manning, who has few major wins to go with his individual honors. Until the frenzied final minutes, he was mostly a non-factor.
“There is no question we were in good position with home field and having the bye,” Manning said. “At this point, it is hard to swallow.”
And it was a sad ending for Dungy, whose son died of an apparent suicide last month. Dungy’s team clearly was the NFL’s best for 13 weeks. But in the most important weeks, they faltered.
They certainly made it interesting, beginning with the challenge.
With the Steelers’ offense and Colts’ defense already on the field, referee Pete Morelli stunningly ruled an incomplete pass. Replays shown in the stadium and on CBS clearly showed Polamalu having possession as he fell, then fumbling as he got up to run.
Morelli said: “I had the defender catching the ball. Before he got up, he hit it with his leg with his other leg still on the ground. Therefore, he did not complete the catch. And then he lost the ball. It came out, and so we made the play an incomplete pass.”
Which incensed Steelers linebacker Joey Porter.
“I know they wanted Indy to win this game; the whole world loves Peyton Manning,” Porter said. “But come on, man, don’t take the game away from us like that.”
In the end, nobody took it away, even with the Steelers doing their best to give it away.
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.
Hines Ward broke two tackles on a 45-yard completion, leading to Roethlisberger’s 7-yard TD pass to Miller to make it 14-0.
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.
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.
Notes: The potent Colts had all of 123 yards at halftime, 74 in the air, and trailed by 11. ... Bettis has nine TDs since the Steelers’ 26-7 loss here on Nov. 28. ... The Steelers haven’t lost since falling here and now have a shot at their first Super Bowl trip in 10 years. They lost to Dallas after the 1995 season.
PFT: Defensive end finally finds a new team in San Diego — and for a honey of a deal that would be worth a max of $13.35 million.
PFT: Jets RB Mike Goodson was charged with five gun and drug counts Friday morning, after New Jersey State Police found the car he was riding in parked in the middle of Route 80 in Denville, N.J.
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