This one certainly didn't go as expected.
After finishing the regular season with the best record in the NFL, the Indianapolis Colts started slowly and watched the Pittsburgh Steelers jump out to a 14-0 lead. Head coach Bill Cowher had his Steelers well prepared as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger engineered two touchdown drives in the first quarter in three possessions.
Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh defense frustrated Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and the rest of the Colts offense with a disrupting pass rush that simply overwhelmed the Colts offensive line. The Colts were forced to punt on their first four possesssions.
Indianapolis finally put together a sustained drive in the second quarter after taking over at their own 2-yard line and moving the ball 96 yards in 15 plays. But they had to settle for a 20-yard Mike Vanderjagt field goal after offensive tackle Tarik Glenn was flagged for a false start at the Pittsburgh 1-yard line.
Roethlisberger was 7-9 on his two early touchdown drives, including a 45-yard pass to Hines Ward to set up the Steelers for their second score, a 7-yard pass to tight end Heath Miller. The Steelers' first points came off of a 6-yard completion to Antwaan Randle El.
Pittsburgh managed the only score of the third quarter after they took possession of the ball at the Colts' 30-yard line. With the Colts backed up to their own 9-yard line, Manning was sacked for an 8-yard loss by linebacker James Farrior. That set the stage for a punt by Hunter Smith to midfield that was returned for 20 yards by Randle El. The Steelers used six consecutive runs, including a 1-yard burst by Jerome Bettis to pull ahead 21-3.
The Colts caught a spark from tight end Dallas Clark when he caught a pass in the open field and rumbled his way through would-be tacklers to score the first touchdown of the day for Indianapolis with more than 14 minutes remaining in the game. The play covered 50 yards and closed the gap to 21-10.
The Steelers proceeded to chew up the next 8 minutes of the game before being forced to punt. Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis kept the chains and the clock moving, leaving the Colts with just 6 minutes to address their 11-point deficit.
Two plays later it appeared the Colts' fate would be sealed as safety Troy Polamalu snared a Manning pass across the middle. But upon replay, the officials ruled that Polamalu lost control of the ball before getting both knees off of the ground, apparently nullifying the interception. Ironically, had Polamalu not tried to get up, there would have been no doubt about the interception as he appeared to bump it out of his own hands while struggling to get to his feet.
The Colts took advantage of the opportunity, completing three consecutive passes, including a beautiful 24-yard toss to Reggie Wayne to set up a 3-yard score on the ground by Edgerrin James. Manning followed that up with a precision pass to the corner to Wayne, who dragged both toes to ensure a 2-point conversion, pulling the Colts to within a field goal of forcing overtime.
With just over 4 minutes remaining, the Colts defense stood tall, forcing the Steelers to punt after running just four plays, leaving the Colts offense with 2:31 to try to move the ball at least into field goal position. But the Steelers pass rush was relentless. They sacked Manning twice for a total of 18 yards and took over possession of the ball at the Colts' 2-yard line.
Just when it appeared the game was over with 1:20 left in the game, the unthinkable happened. Rather than take a knee and force the Colts to use all three of their time outs, at minimum pinning them back inside their own 5-yard line with under a minute to play, the Steelers tried to score. As Jerome Bettis tried to bully his way across the goal line, Gary Brackett stuck his helmet on the ball, popping it into the air. Colts cornerback Nick Harper grabbed the ball and sprinted 35 yards to the Pittsburgh 42 before being stopped by Roethlisberger.
The Colts moved the ball to the 28 before stalling after some unusual play calls. After finding some soft spots in the middle zone of the Steelers secondary, the Colts missed on a pair of passes to Reggie Wayne, forcing Mike Vanderjagt on the field to try a 46-yard field goal. Needing just two yards to move the chains after first down, the Colts tried to go deeper on the next two plays.
The gamble didn't pay of.
After hitting all of his attempts at home, 92% of all his kicks on the season, and 7 out of 8 from 40-49 yards, Vanderjagt's kick sailed so far right that it appeared that a sudden gust must have found it's way into the enclosed confines of the RCA Dome. Pittsburgh ran out the final 17 seconds of the clock after the errant attempt.
Pittsburgh pushed their all-time postseason record versus the Colts to 5-0 and will head to Denver to play in the AFC Championship game next weekend. For the Colts, they took another small step forward this season by qualifying for home field advantage. Perhaps next season, they can do the same and make it truly work to their advantage.
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