PITTSBURGH - The Pittsburgh Steelers are accomplishing as an underdog what they couldn’t do so many times as a favorite under coach Bill Cowher, winning on the road in January after countless postseason failures at home.
The Steelers are going to a sixth AFC championship game in 14 seasons under Cowher, one of the most successful NFL coaches in history who hasn’t won a Super Bowl. Only they’ve never gotten there the way they did in stunning the Colts 21-18 Sunday in a divisional playoff game — barely a month after it seemed the Colts might not lose all season and the Steelers might not make the playoffs.
It all ended improbably on a 46-yard field goal miss by Mike Vanderjagt.
“The range of our emotions there were all over the place,” said Jerome Bettis, whose fumble at the Colts 2 in the final 90 seconds almost turned the game for Indianapolis.
Now, the Steelers, albeit with a huge sigh of relief, are headed to Denver for their first road AFC championship game since a January 1986 loss in Miami.
And they’re going there with confidence, momentum and the belief that having to win three games on the road in three weeks isn’t a big enough obstacle to keep them out of the Super Bowl. Until this season, one sixth-seeded team — the 1999 Dolphins — had won a game in the AFC playoffs. Now, the Steelers have done so twice in eight days.
The coach believes, too.
Cowher showed that by gambling twice successfully on fourth-and-short situations at midfield in the second half. A year ago, he played it safe in the AFC title game against New England by going for a short field goal instead of a touchdown that might have gotten them back into a game they ended up losing 41-27.
“We’re playing to win,” Bettis said. “We’re not playing not to lose.”
And they’re going to Denver despite a seemingly blown call that got the Colts back into a game the Steelers owned since the opening moment. Troy Polamalu thought he had cleanly intercepted a pass from Manning early in the fourth quarter, but the call was reversed and Indianapolis went on to score its second TD in four minutes and make it 21-18.
In the same way it doesn’t seem right that these Steelers are in the AFC title game.
“It doesn’t matter — they counted us out about six weeks ago,” Porter said. “Don’t change now. Everybody was against us, so let’s keep it that way, it keeps a chip on our shoulder. It makes us play like we know how.”
After an excellent week of practice, the Steelers were convinced they had the defensive game plan to control Peyton Manning. Some of the plan was swiped liberally from the blitz-heavy Chargers’ scheme that so controlled Manning in the loss that ended Indianapolis’ chance for a 16-0 season.
Their offensive plan was the reverse of most Steelers playoffs teams under Cowher — come out throwing, seize the lead, then sit on the lead with Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis, rather than setting up the pass with the run.
“They really did have a lot of confidence, which was great,” said team chairman Dan Rooney, who has seen every playoff game in Steelers history and sensed last week this game might be special.
That was almost the problem — the Steelers may have been too confident.
This is the second time in as many seasons the Steelers have escaped their divisional playoff game because of a kicker’s gaffe. Last year, the Jets’ Doug Brien twice had a chance to kick a game-winning field goal in the final 2:02 of the fourth quarter, only to miss both. The Steelers went on to win in overtime.
“That was one of the craziest games I’ve ever been in,” a visibly relieved Porter said. “I feel good the ball actually bounced our way in the playoffs one time.”
CSN: The Super Bowl's golden anniversary will be held in the Golden State. The new stadium, which opens in 2014, in Santa Clara will host Super Bowl L two years later, the NFL announced Tuesday.
Super Bowl bound
Top images from the NFL’s divisional playoff round.
Super Bowl XL media coverage
‘Happy for the city’
Steelers coach Bill Cowher says he's thrilled to win this Super Bowl for his owner, Dan Rooney, and the city.
2013 SNF Schedule
Check out the 2013 Sunday Night Football schedule.
Latest from ProFootballTalk
Video: Football from NBC Sports
Check out some of the NFL cheerleaders from across the league.