A.F.C. Championship Game
January 22, 2006
“My Wish Finally Comes True”
Steelers 34 – Broncos 17
I won’t lie to you, I had quite a few butterflies before this game started. Here the Steelers were, with a chance to lay the wood to Denver at their place, and do the unthinkable by being the 1st #6 seed to advance to a Super Bowl. Was this really happening? I mean, I had wanted this type of moment to happen every year since January of 1998, and here it finally was!
I didn’t want to be disturbed at all during the game, so I turned down offers to watch it at some of my friends’ places so I could simply concentrate on everything that was going on and I wanted to embrace every moment, good or bad. I had waited eight years for the Steelers to get revenge on the Broncos and here it was on their “door-step.” And to their credit, Pittsburgh “nutted up” in all phases of the game and proved from the very beginning why they were the better team.
On the opening drive of the game, Denver was forced to punt after driving the ball just past Midfield and pinned the Steelers down at their own 8 yard line. The bad field position only seemed to inspire the Steelers who gutted out a nice drive to put 3 points on the board.
The three plays I remember most were of course Hines Ward’s beautiful catch of a tipped ball and the shot he took from future Hall of Fame Safety John Lynch to convert a 3rd Down, Willie Parker’s (15 carries for 39 yards) forearm hitting the ground on a play that the refs. incorrectly called a fumble, but later reversed due to a challenge from Cowher, and finally Rookie WR Nate Washington’s 3rd Down converting catch that put the Steelers on the outskirts of Field Goal range. When Jeff Reed booted the 47 yard Field Goal, I noticed that the raucous Denver crowd wasn’t as loud as they had been before now that their Broncos were down 3-0. The worst was still to come however for the Mile High faithful, but that only served to put a smile on my face.
On their 3rd play from scrimmage on the ensuing possession, Jake Plummer was Sacked by Joey Porter and “Big Snack” Hampton pounced on the football near the Broncos 40 yard line! I’ll never forget seeing Porter come off the edge and yelling “Fumble! Snack! Eat It You Dirty Hippie, Plummer!” at my television screen.
Big Ben went right to work again, and after a 24 yard pass to his Rookie TE Heath Miller, the Steelers were faced with a crucial 3rd and 8 at the Broncos 12 yard line. Then, the game’s unlikeliest of M.V.P.’s showed up for the Steelers: WR Cedrick Wilson.
After being signed to help replace Plaxico Burress as a Free Agent that past offseason, Wilson had somewhat of a sub-par year in Pittsburgh. His pedestrian stats coupled with the fact that he didn’t even record a TD left many in Pittsburgh yearning for a solid #2 WR that could compliment Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El in the slot. Yet for all of his shortcomings in the ’05 regular season, Wilson had himself a terrific Postseason. He scored his first TD as a Steeler two weeks prior against the Bengals on the throwback pass from Ben to A.R.E. back to Ben, and with all the attention being paid to Ward and the other receiving targets, Wilson was needed to step his game up further. Thankfully, the Denver game was arguably the greatest game he has played at any level. But enough about Cedrick, let’s get back to the game.
Ben did a masterful job freezing All-Pro CB Champ Bailey with a pump fake on the 3rd and 8 play, and Wilson broke free towards the corner of the end zone. Ben hit Cedrick on a perfect pass, and suddenly the Steelers were up 10-0 at the beginning of the 2nd Quarter!
When Ben hit Wilson, I stood up from my chair and yelled almost verbatim “Where’s your jock strap Champ? Weren’t you supposed to be the best in the League? That 2nd Year QB just tooled you Nancy-Boy! Take that garbage back to Washington!”
It was amazing, the Steelers were doing to Denver exactly what they had done to Indianapolis the previous week: jumping to an early lead and taking the crowd out of the game, all while instilling fears of doubt in the opposition. The Broncos though tried their best to get back in the game on their following possession.
Denver drove all the way down to the Pittsburgh 12 after the Wilson TD, and it appeared that they wouldn’t be going away quietly. I remember thinking to myself: “Just give ‘em 3, and all will be okay. 3 won’t kill you, but 7 gets these jagoffs and their fans riled up and that’s exactly what you don’t need. Come on D.”
Thankfully, just like they did almost all day long, the Steelers Defense held firm. Plummer was harried into 2 incompletions on 1st and 2nd Downs, and Denver’s Offense apparently left their nut sacks at home that morning because a running play was subsequently called on 3rd and 10 and Denver didn’t convert. They just cut their losses instead of going for the throat and settled for a 23 yard Jason Elam Field Goal to make the score 10-3 Steelers with just over 9 minutes to play until Half Time.
All Pittsburgh needed was nice drive that netted points on their following drive. I told myself that Denver is playing “not to win” with that Red Zone strategy and the Steelers needed to hit ‘em where it hurt. The Steelers on their ensuing possession proceeded to get a masterful performance by their young QB and the rest of their Offense.
Starting at their own 20, Ben marched his troops 80 yards in over 7 minutes on a 14 play drive that saw the Steelers convert three 3rd and Long plays! The last one was a gritty effort by Backup RB/FB Verron Haynes who got 8 yards on 3rd and 8 from the Denver 11 to keep the drive alive! Then on 1st and Goal from the 3 and after the 2 Minute Warning, a familiar face took the field for the Steelers. A guy that had his Super Bowl hopes dashed by Denver 8 years prior and somebody we were all rooting for: “The Bus.”
Ben turned around, handed it to Bettis who then barreled his way into the End Zone for the score! The Steelers were up 17-3 and had literally taken Denver’s “souls” from them on that clock-devouring drive! When Bettis broke into the End Zone, I about lost it! I ran to my window which was on the 12th and top floor of my building and just let out a “YEAAAAHHHHH!”
It was incredible, for the third week in a row Pittsburgh was kicking the crap out of another one of the A.F.C.’s best teams! On the road! Yet as happy as I was in that instant, I about crapped myself with glee at what happened on Denver’s first play after the kickoff.
Needing some sort of points to salvage momentum, Plummer was forced to throw and get the Broncos into their 2 Minute Offense on their next possession. Bad idea, Jake, bad “bleeping” idea. At his own 20 yard line, Plummer fired a pass towards the sideline that was a total lollipop. Then from almost out of nowhere, 3rd year CB Ike Taylor swooped in and caught the ball to set the Steelers up with cake field position!
What made this play crazy was the fact that Ike actually held onto the ball! In spite of being one of the best CB’s in the League, Ike has not had what you would call the “softest” of hands. But that fine afternoon (and of course in Super Bowl XL), Ike held onto a crucial pick and basically gave the Offense a chance to drive a stake through the hearts of the Broncos! Then when you factored in the cascade of boos that rained down upon Plummer and the Broncos from their “faithful” crowd, I was laughing my ass off from my dorm room at what was going on at that moment.
With just under 2 minutes to play from the Denver 38 I figured: “Hell, just get a couple First Downs, then have Skippy kick a chippy for a 17 point lead.” But that wasn’t the Steelers’ style that day, and Offensive Coordinator Ken Whisenhunt “swept the leg” with his play-calling.
Pittsburgh should have scored on a 12 yard TD run by Bettis on a fake play that worked almost to perfection. For those of you that didn’t remember though, Hines Ward was lined up illegally and the Steelers’ score was taken off the board with just over 10 seconds remaining. Whisenhunt didn’t see it as a sign to give up though, he saw it as a sign to drive the stake right through the Broncos hearts on the following play.
Ben scrambled, bought time, and found Ward in the back of the end zone on a perfect touch pass over the Denver Defenders’ outstretched arms! With 7 seconds remaining in the Half, the Steelers had built a 24-3 lead and were dominating every single phase of the ball-game!
Probably the thing I remember the most about that specific play was Ben using his fingers as six-shooters and firing at the ground as his team mobbed him! I wish I had video of it, because it was just wonderful to watch Ben’ raw emotion come out at that moment. The 2nd year man out of Miami (Ohio) was beating the veteran-laden Denver Defense to a pulp, and it was simply beautiful to watch.
At that point, I couldn’t believe my eyes, and I just had to call home and see what my Mom thought about what was going on back in Denver.
When I dialed home after the Half ended, it wasn’t my Mom who picked up the phone, but my Dad. As I alluded to in my previous article my Dad is a Denver native and huge Broncos fan, so when he answered I simply asked him,
“So, how ’bout that game?” He replied, “Shit, they can’t do anything right and Pittsburgh is taking it to them.” I asked, “Where’s Mom?” He said, “She left, she got too nervous to watch the game, put it on the radio in the car, and went shopping with your Sister.” I said, “Dang, well let her know I called, I bet she’s super excited and Go Steelers. Take it easy, Pop.”
I had almost forgotten that my Dad and one of his work buddies who also was a Broncos fan had been watching the game that day at my folks place. Guess my Mom had more butterflies than me, and didn’t want to be around Denver fans. Plus it didn’t help that we had called each other in what was a premature celebration of the Steelers win over the Colts the week before (we were on the phone when Bettis fumbled), and she likely didn’t want to jinx what was going on after listening to the radio.
After our brief exchange, I spent Half Time just pacing in my sardine-can sized dorm-room thinking, “The Steelers are 30 minutes away from N.F.L. history and kicking the tar out of the team I despise the most in professional sports! Holy Crap! This is actually happening, a Bill Cowher coached team isn’t pooping the bed in a meaningful Playoff game!”
The Steelers took the 2nd Half kickoff and put together the best drive they possibly could have without scoring points. They took over 5:30 off of the clock and converted 2 key 3rd Down plays. Then Chris Gardocki let off a beautiful punt that was downed by the Steelers’ terrific coverage unit at the Denver 3 yard line!
Plummer again could do nothing, and Denver almost was forced backwards for a Safety when Troy Polamalu made another incredible play that almost left FB Mike Anderson inside his own Goal Line on 3rd and 10. Pittsburgh however could not do anything with their cake field position, and Gardocki got off another awesome punt, but it was ruled a touchback and Denver got the ball back again in the middle of the 3rd Quarter at their own 20.
That was the point that Denver’s Offense finally decided to step-up, although it probably had a lot to do with the Steelers Defense playing a bit too lackadaisically. In only 4 plays Plummer got the ball to the Steelers 30 yard line and then let off a bomb to WR Ashley Lelie, who in turn made an incredible catch over Steeler Safety Chirs Hope for the TD!
It had taken Denver almost 3 Quarters to score their first TD of the game, so I was happy, but I still felt that a 14 point lead might not be as safe as I had originally thought. Thus, up 24-10 with 3 and a half minutes to play in the 3rd Quarter, the Steelers needed to respond with some points.
Ben to his credit went right to work and found his best pass-catcher of the day twice on the following drive: Cedrick Wilson (5 catches for 92 yards and a TD on the day). I bet Domonique Foxworth still has flashbacks from this game getting tooled like he did, because Wilson ate him alive. Wilson had 45 yards receiving on that drive alone, and although the drive stalled Skippy Reed made a crucial 42 yard Field Goal to make the game 27-10 Pittsburgh with just over 13 and a half minutes to play in the game. The 5 minute drive worked to perfection and the Steelers regained a 3 score advantage.
Denver didn’t go away though and after a nice kick return they found themselves in Pittsburgh territory. Luckily Jake Plummer decided to screw the Broncos yet again with some bad decision making. Plummer fired a pass that was Intercepted by ILB Larry Foote and the Steelers were in business yet again! How or why Plummer even decided to get rid of that ball in that instant makes no sense to me to this day, but kudos must go to Foote for his athletic play.
Pittsburgh went 3 and Out, and had to give Denver the ball back after the turnover though so the game wasn’t quite over. Denver’s Offense then came alive thanks to another bomb to Lelie, Plummer’s scrambling, and a Pass Interference call on Taylor. Primed to score, Denver fought their way into the End Zone by way of a 3 yard TD run by Mike Anderson, and suddenly the game was 27-17 with just under 8 minutes to play.
At that point all I remember thinking was, “Hold On guys, you’re so dang close. Just hold on.” Pittsburgh’s Offense however failed to do anything on their next possession and went 3 and Out for the second time in a row. It was all up to the Defense with 6 minutes and change to play. And like they did all Postseason when it mattered most, they put the hammer down.
A Brett Keisel Sack of Plummer on 3rd and 3 set up the most crucial play of the game: 4th and 10 at the Denver 20 with just over 5 minutes left. Keisel stepped up again however and forced a fumble after Sacking Plummer which was recovered by DE Travis Kirschke at the Denver 17!
At that point my eyes welled up because I knew that victory was within the Steelers grasp! I can still remember not saying anything after the Kirschke recovery and just sitting in my chair silently a bit teary eyed.
Eight years of waiting for this type of revenge for the Steelers to get against the Broncos was finally a reality, and I was witnessing it. More importantly however, was that the Steelers were now 60 minutes away from a Super Bowl title, and if they won (which they did), it would be the first one I would be alive to see! I was so damn happy taking some time to reflect on what had happened, that I only caught the tail end of the Steelers’ game capping drive which ended with Ben’s 4 yard QB rush to the corner of the End Zone to put the game finally out of reach 34-17 with 3 minutes to play!
When the final gun sounded I was completely and totally overjoyed! The Steelers had done what was supposed to be impossible: They took down the A.F.C.’s Top 3 seeds (They took out the N.F.C.’s #1 two weeks later), and proved to be the ultimate “Road Warriors” in the process. Jerome was still in line to get his ring, and the franchise had a chance to get the “One For The Thumb” which had eluded them for a quarter of a century! I can still see the members of Steeler Nation which attended that game whooping it up all over Invesco as they presented the Lamar Hunt trophy as I watched them on my television screen from Honolulu those six years ago.
Because of my 9 years growing up in Denver as a Steelers fan, the magnitude of the game, and the fact that the Steelers won in Denver, this game remains my favorite non-Super Bowl win in Steelers history. In fact, I’ll say it now: Now non-Super Bowl win by the Steelers franchise will mean as much to me.
They say that revenge is a dish that is best served cold, and much to my delight, the Steelers served up an icy tray of “Take Your Crap Elsewhere” to the Broncos that afternoon. Now let’s just hope the Steelers take a similar attitude into The Mile High City this Sunday.
I hope you enjoyed my article, and if you have any thoughts or memories regarding this game, don’t hesitate to comment. I would love to hear what you have to say.
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