Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Road to Super Bowl XL. The Greatest Nine Weeks Ever! (PART FOUR)

Ok, from now on, it's going to be totally new material. I started writing this about two years ago and I never quite got around to finishing it.

Here goes nothing!

I can't tell you how stunned I was at the time that the Steelers went into Indianapolis and knocked off the Colts. In NFL history, most teams that had seasons like Indianapolis had in'05-flirting with perfection-usually went on to win the Lombardi trophy. I know I was pretty optimistic, but even I knew that I witnessed something special.

The next day on craigslist, the fans from Denver were coming onto the Pittsburgh board and thanking the Steelers for allowing the Broncos to host the AFC championship game. Much like the Colts and Pats fans from a week earlier, they were acting as if victory was all but certain and the AFC title game would be a mere coronation for the Broncos. And I can't really blame them. They were the number 2 seed in the AFC and they probably figured the upstart Steelers were out of miracles. After all, Denver had just knocked off the two-time champion Patriots and the Steelers took care of the number 1 seed. And no number six seed had ever made it to the Super Bowl. If the Steelers were in a similar situation, I would be feeling pretty good, too.

At work, everyone was talking about the near-disastrous ending of the Colts' game and the almost miscarriage of justice because of the blown-call on the Troy interception that wasn't.

But what had some of the female customers just gushing was when Troy kissed his wedding ring as a tribute to his wife after he made what should have been the game-sealing interception. At that moment, Troy endeared himself to millions of women and was probably the most perfect man in the universe.

I went to yet another television taping of the "Joey Porter Show" at the Firehouse Lounge in the Strip District, and at that point, Steeler-mania was in full-swing and the place was jumping. In previous weeks, I was able to sit right near the front, but on this night, I was back by the bar, trying to watch it as best I could. This was the only taping I attended by myself since my aunt couldn't make it that night.

I talked to some very interesting people, including a woman who had a home-made terrible towel that she made in the late 70's. That was neat to see.

Joey's Steeler-guests that night were Ben Roethlisberger and Chris Hoke. I'm assuming that Roethlisberger taped his interview earlier because he wasn't there when I arrived, but Hokey's interview was pretty insightful and funny. He commented on the playoff beards that all the "white guys" were growing. He seemed like a cool guy. Fun night, all the way around.

Of the three AFC playoff games the Steelers played, the AFC championship game in Denver was the one I was most confident about, but that didn't stop me from being nervous. I had a right to be, of course, as that round of the playoffs was a real source of frustration for many years. The Steelers played in the AFC title game five previous times under Bill Cowher, all at home, and lost all but one time. And here they were on the road in Denver, a place where they never played well, trying to get back to the Super Bowl for the first time in ten seasons.

For my money, losing in the round before the Super Bowl is even more frustrating than losing the Super Bowl. I know a lot of people will disagree with me, but that's how I've always felt. Losing in the Super Bowl is like going to Kennywood on a rainy day. Sure, it sucked, but at least you got to go to Kennywood. There is nothing worse than spending an entire week confident that your team will win and make it to the Super Bowl only to see the entire season hit a brick wall. I have a hard time watching the Super Bowl after the Steelers lose the AFC championship game. The game between the Patriots and Rams was one of the most exciting Super Bowls ever and I missed most of it because I just couldn't stand watching the Patriots play in a game I thought the Steelers were locks to make.

But I was confident because I thought the Steelers had the better team and the better quarterback. Denver's quarterback, Jake "the Snake" Plummer, was having an almost flawless season, rarely turning the ball over. But I knew, if he was pushed and confused by Dick Lebeau and the Steelers defense, he would be forced into turnovers. I commented to a friend of mine that Plummer would play like Kordell did in the 1997 AFC championship game against the Broncos.

The Steelers got a field goal on their first drive, but not before I almost had a heart attack when Champ Bailey nearly picked off Big Ben on a third down pass to Hines Ward, but Hines came to the rescue and caught the deflected pass before getting smacked by John Lynch. We had our first Nate Washington sighting on that drive as he made the first catch of his career, a key pick up on 3rd down, and a few plays later, Jeff Reed kicked a 48 yard field goal and the Steelers were in front, 3-0.

On the next Broncos' drive, Plummer was hit by Porter, who stripped him of the ball. Casey Hampton recovered and the Steelers were on their way.

Pittsburgh made it 10-0 when Roethlisberger pump-faked a slant pass to Cedric Wilson, who instead, turned it into an out and was wide open in the corner of the endzone. Champ Bailey bit hard on the play and seemed to be stunned at the turn of events.

After Denver made it, 10-3, Pittsburgh marched down field and went up, 17-3, on a Jerome Bettis tough, three yard touchdown run late in the half that turned out to be the last one of his career.

Instead of just running out the clock, Denver decided to try and move the ball and Ike Taylor, of all people, intercepted a lazy pass by Plummer and Pittsburgh was poised to take an even bigger lead into the half. And they did so when a scrambling Ben Roethlsiberger hit Hines Ward in the back of the endzone and put Pittsburgh ahead, 24-3.

We were going nuts at my uncle's house. Just a year earlier, the Steelers were down, 24-3, to New England at halftime of the AFC title game and here they were on the positive side of the exact same score.

Pittsburgh did a good job of moving the ball and burning some clock in the 3rd quarterback but they couldn't quite put Denver away. And the Broncos inched a little closer late in the quarter on a Jake Plummer touchdown pass to make it, 24-10.

But Pittsburgh came right back and kicked a field goal early in the 4th quarter to take a 17-point lead. And on the very first play of Denver's next drive, Larry Foote picked off Plummer and I think I about lost my mind. Pittsburgh had a 27-10 lead and the ball near mid-field. My confidence was at an all-time high. But Pittsburgh couldn't really capitalize and when Denver got the ball back, they scored their second touchdown of the second half on a penalty-riddled drive and were within ten points of Pittsburgh with still a half a quarter to go.

At that point, I was pacing the floors, and almost fainted when Ben was nearly intercepted by John Lynch. Denver eventually got the ball back and had all the momentum.

But I had no need to worry because on 4th and 10, Brett Keisel stripped Plummer of the ball and the Steelers all but had the game in the bag with only a few minutes remaining.

A few plays later, the Steelers had the ball inside the 10 yard line and during a break in the action, Cowher called over Bettis and had this smile and expression on his face and I couldn't read his lips, but I'm guessing what he was telling the Bus was something like, "We're riding you to the endzone, Bussy. Please don't torture us like you did last week."

After a couple of Bus rides, it was 3rd and goal inside the five yard line. And on 3rd down, instead of giving it to Bettis once again, it was a bootleg and Roethlisberger scored and Pittsburgh was on their way to Detroit with a 34-17 victory.

When Big Ben scored, I jumped up and said, "We're going to the Super Bowl!" It was one of the best moments of my life.

And despite the few nervous moments in the second half, it was one of my favorite games ever. It was nice to see the AFC championship game be sort of a blow out with very little suspense.

The feeling that I had the rest of the evening was euphoric. Something happens to you when your favorite team wins a game like that. You have this urge to get in your car and drive around so that's what I did. I found myself at my sister's house in Avalon, and my brother in law, a Broncos fan, was still talking trash and trying to remind me of the Broncos' back-to-back Super Bowl titles in '97 and '98. But he couldn't hurt me that day. I was in Heaven.

Ok, this concludes part four. I hope you all enjoyed it and I hope to write part five in the near future.

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