PITTSBURGH — Seven months after winning one for the thumb, the Pittsburgh Steelers won the NFL opener with one big arm tied behind their back.
With recuperating quarterback Ben Roethlisberger cheering him on from the sideline -- and Heinz Field shaking from rafters to pilings -- Pittsburgh backup Charlie Batch threw three touchdown passes to power the defending champions to a 28-17 come-from-behind victory over the Miami Dolphins.
But Batch didn't do it alone. Tight end Heath Miller scored the go-ahead touchdown with six minutes 11 seconds remaining on a rumbling, 87-yard catch and carry. About three minutes later, Steelers linebacker Joey Porter put things out of reach with a 42-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Porter's runback happened on the field, but his retort to skeptics came in the locker room.
"Our team is for real," he said. "We like it when we don't get picked to win. We read the articles and stuff. We see where we're ranked at, and where [reporters] think we're ranked at, and we're not even picked to win our division. We're the defending champions."
Porter, whose touchdown was the first of his eight-year pro career, sealed the play with a smooch, one smack dab on the cheek of Steelers Coach Bill Cowher.
"Our relationship goes deeper than you guys think," Porter said. "I love that guy for real. It was just in the moment. He was there hugging me, wouldn't let me go, and I was like, \o7mwah\f7," kissing the air, " 'Now, get away from me.' "
Meanwhile, Miami quarterback Daunte Culpepper had to kiss an otherwise impressive debut goodbye. He played well for three-plus quarters before forcing things down the stretch and seeing two of his passes intercepted in the final six minutes.
"I'm better than that," Culpepper said. "We're better than that."
There was a bizarre twist after Miller's touchdown, a development that might have affected the outcome. The Dolphins had hoped to challenge the touchdown call when TV replays showed Miller's knee hit the ground just short of the end zone. But, while the Steelers were rushing to kick the extra point and therefore cement the touchdown call, Miami Coach Nick Saban was taking his time tossing the red challenge flag. When he finally threw it, the officials missed it. The kick went through the uprights. End of story.
"They said they didn't see it," Saban said. "Whose fault is that?"
Explained referee Walt Coleman: "You need to try to see the flag. Unfortunately, it was a touchdown. We delayed the try, waiting for the possibility there will be a challenge. We lined up for the try and unfortunately we focused on the snap.... The coach threw the flag and we didn't see it."
As the scene unfolded, Cowher held his breath.
"I've never seen an extra point take so long," the Pittsburgh coach said with a smile.
Nor had he seen his tight end run so fast. Miller's touchdown was reminiscent of the 75-yard touchdown run by Willie Parker in the Super Bowl victory over Seattle. Granted, Miller is 47 pounds heavier than the 209-pound Parker, and a bit more plodding, but he was certainly fast enough.
"He looked good running by me, but he still had a long way to go," Cowher said of Miller. "I was at about the 50, so ... "
The touchdown ignited the Terrible Towel-swinging crowd that had watched the Dolphins overcome a 14-10 halftime deficit with the second of Ronnie Brown's two touchdown runs.
For Miami, Brown shared the offensive spotlight with Culpepper, in the midst of a remarkable recovery from three torn knee ligaments last season, and Wes Welker, who was dazzling as a receiver and return man.
In the end, that mattered little. The victory belonged to the Steelers, and it couldn't have come at a better time for Pittsburgh. It was a somber place earlier in the day, when thousands gathered to pay their final respects to Bob O'Connor, the city's beloved mayor who died last Friday after a short bout with brain cancer. His son, Corey, participated in the pregame festivities with a ceremonial twirl of a Terrible Towel before the coin toss.
Afterward, the Steelers allowed themselves to twirl a towel of their own -- keeping in mind, of course, that this was merely the first of 16 regular-season games.
"Until we get beat, we are the champions," receiver Hines Ward said. "We're a pretty good team."