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NFL PLAYOFFS | CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIPS

They're the Big Two in Detroit

Steelers punish Broncos, 34-17, becoming the first sixth-seeded team to reach the Super Bowl and earning Bettis his first trip to title game.

January 23, 2006|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

DENVER — The words were heartfelt, spoken through tears.

Ben Roethlisberger's magical rookie season was coming to a bitter end, the New England Patriots putting the finishing touches on a blowout victory over his Pittsburgh Steelers in last January's AFC championship game at Pittsburgh.

His teammate, Jerome Bettis, was contemplating retirement.

"The clock was winding down, and it was obvious we had lost the game," Bettis said Sunday. "He was boo-hooing and I was boo-hooing and he turned to me and he said, 'Come back. I'll get you to the Super Bowl.' "

Roethlisberger made good on his promise Sunday, carving up the Denver Broncos in a 34-17 Steeler victory in the AFC championship game at Invesco Field and delivering the beloved "Bus" to the first Super Bowl in his 13-year career.

The Steelers, who bolted to a 24-3 lead by scoring on each of their four first-half possessions, literally took the long road to the Feb. 5 season finale in Bettis' hometown of Detroit, winning at Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver in consecutive weeks to become the first sixth-seeded team to reach the Super Bowl.

Or, as Joey Porter said, "We just took the scenic route."

The linebacker from Bakersfield and the rest of the Steelers obviously were elated after completing an improbable journey through the AFC playoffs.

They were 7-5, had lost three consecutive games and were in danger of falling out of the playoff race in early December before starting a seven-game winning streak. And they dominated a Bronco team that had been unbeaten in nine games at Invesco Field this season, among them a 27-13 victory over the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots last weekend. The Broncos also had been 4-0 at home in AFC championship games.

But after surviving a shaky initial possession that included a near-interception by Champ Bailey and a Willie Parker fumble that was nullified after video review, the Steelers were nearly flawless in front of 76,174.

"Today we shocked the world," wide receiver Hines Ward said of the Steelers, who took advantage of four Jake Plummer turnovers, three leading to 21 points. "To beat the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the conference as a sixth seed -- nobody believed in us, but we believed in ourselves and now we're in the Super Bowl."

Ward played a part in what may have been a game-changing first-quarter play, a Roethlisberger pass intended for Ward that was nearly picked off by Bailey with 50 yards of open field in front of the Bronco cornerback.

"I kind of grabbed his [left] arm a little bit ... and he tipped the ball up with his right," said Ward, who plucked the ball out of the air for a seven-yard gain. "If he would have picked that ball ... I don't know how the outcome of the game would have changed because the crowd would have got right behind it."

Bailey, whose 100-yard interception return was a pivotal play in the Broncos' victory over the Patriots, didn't stick around to discuss Sunday's game.

He'll have all winter, spring and summer to think about it because Ward's reception kept the Steelers marching toward a 47-yard Jeff Reed field goal and a 3-0 lead. Porter then forced a fumble by Plummer on the Broncos' next possession, leading to a 12-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to Cedrick Wilson that made the score 10-0 one play into the second quarter.

"This was not a football game [in which] we could afford to fall behind," said Steeler Coach Bill Cowher, who before Sunday was 1-4 in AFC championship games but had never played one outside Pittsburgh. "This [Bronco] team had a tremendous scoring margin over their opponents in the first quarter. If you fall behind against them, it's going to be a long day."

Instead, it was the Broncos who never recovered.

Roethlisberger, who completed 21 of 29 passes for 275 yards and two touchdowns, led the Steelers on a commanding 80-yard drive after the Broncos had cut the lead to 10-3, chewing up nearly 7 1/2 minutes. Bettis scored on a three-yard run to end the 14-play drive, making the score 17-3.

Only 1 minute 55 seconds remained in the half, but the Steelers got the ball right back when Plummer's first-down pass was intercepted by Ike Taylor.

Roethlisberger capped a 38-yard drive with a 17-yard touchdown pass to Ward seven seconds before halftime, expertly lofting the ball over Bronco safety Nick Ferguson and into the receiver's waiting arms in the back of the end zone.

The Steelers led, 24-3, and Roethlisberger's first-half quarterback rating, after he had completed 13 of 17 passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions, was 149.1. A 158.3 rating is considered perfect.

He wasn't quite that good in the second half, but he didn't need to be against the mistake-prone Plummer, whose second interception wasted an opportunity created by Charlie Adams' 47-yard fourth-quarter kickoff return.

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