One more to go

The Pittsburgh Steelers used a varied offensive attack and pressure defense to defeat the Denver Broncos, 34-17, in the AFC Championship game. Here's Jim Wexell's view on the game:

The two-minute warning approached and the memory sprang to life.

The Pittsburgh Steelers led the Denver Broncos 10-3 in the AFC Championship game. They had the ball in Denver territory and were threatening to break the game open.

The circumstances were similar in 1997. Remember? It's when the Steelers had the lead, the ball and the clock on their side. And they got greedy. They threw an interception on second-and-2 and the AFC title game turned around.

Because of that one play, more than any other, the Steelers ended up watching the Broncos win the Super Bowl that year.

Chan Gailey wasn't the only man to blame for getting greedy. Bill Cowher was at fault. He'd given his offensive coordinator too much rope.

"No, get us a running play, Chan. Jerome's killing them."

That's what he should've said then. And so the memory was alive as the Steelers drove with their 10-3 lead yesterday. It was third-and-9 and the greedy devil popped up on the left shoulder; the logical angel on the right. And Cowher called timeout.

Had he flashed back? Was the monkey on his back spouting off again?

Play resumed and Ben Roethlisberger threw a safe 9-yard pass to Verron Haynes for a first down. Perfect. Haynes had stayed in to pick up the blitz, but there was none. The Broncos had dropped back to take on something greedy. Haynes had nothing better to do than slip out and convert a first down.

It set up the Steelers' new signature play, the counter power, and Alan Faneca took out three – count em: Sam Brandon, Ian Gold and D.J. Williams – with one pulling block and Bettis did the rest. The touchdown gave the Steelers a 17-3 lead and you could hear the beast roaring all the way back in Pittsburgh.

Bettis has been waiting to unleash that howl ever since Gailey got greedy way back when. Bettis called it his most regrettable of the three AFC title-game losses in his Steelers career.

That memory, that monkey … gone.

Also vanquished is the demon from the 2004 title game. Now, that's the one that made Cowher 1-4, the one that made him dismal. Nothing worse could be written about the long-time coach than those two numbers. And, hello, look at our halftime score. It's 24-3, the exact score as last year's AFC title game at halftime.

The Steelers put up a nice comeback last year, but it fell short. The Broncos did the same yesterday. It fell short and the Steelers won, 34-17, to advance to the Super Bowl. Cowher's losing streak – the embarrassing string of AFC title-game losses -- is over.

Redemption, that's what this game was all about. It's why the memories came alive for one last joust. But they're gone now and the redeemed are everywhere:

* Roethlisberger erased the doubts that came with his poor playoff performance of a year ago.

* Ike Taylor actually made the interception after dropping, oh, nine in a row to end the season.

* Chris Gardocki, the supposedly washed-up punter, dropped two beautiful kicks inside the five-yard line (replay be damned).

* Larry Foote's interception, a lovely leap after a deep drop, killed Denver's comeback, and any talk that Foote is the defense's weak link.

* Nate Washington, the undrafted rookie, made his first catch of the season on an early third-and-7 and then broke up an interception on the next third down. He was worth the wait.

* Cedrick Wilson proved he is the quality free-agent acquisition by beating Champ Bailey on a slick post-corner for a touchdown. He's been the top threat in three playoff wins.

* Hines Ward made up for a pre-snap penalty that cost the Steelers a touchdown with a touchdown catch on the next play.

* Joey Porter came back to Denver -- where "They SHOT me!" -- and continued his superb end-of-season play. He applied enough pressure to make Jake the Snake quake.

* Faneca and the line returned to Denver where they spent an embarrassing afternoon run-pass platooning two years ago because some of them were just that bad. The line's gone from the goat of 2003 to the backbone of the Super Bowl favorite.

* Ken Whisenhunt called a third consecutive masterpiece as offensive coordinator after being turned away in the job market. I can understand an owner being impatient, but not ignorant. This guy's a winner.

* And Cowher, the face of playoff failings in the past, rallied this team down the stretch and led them to wins over the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 seeds on the road.

Redemption, baby.

After the game, Cowher showed that he's not done coaching yet. He hugged his boss, like he did after the 1995 title game, but there was something different.

Back then, Cowher hugged Dan Rooney and wiped away tears. It was a huge moment. They were going to the Super Bowl!

There were no tears this time. This time, Cowher hugged Rooney, smiled and held up his index finger.

"One more to go," he said.


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