Sunday, January 15, 2006

Steelers beat Colts, 21-18

My phone rang shortly after 1 p.m. It was my pal, calling from his house off-post.

"Are you watching this?! The Steelers scored on their first possession! They're up seven-nothing!"

"The game's on?" I screamed. "I thought it wasn't till 4:30!"

We checked the proceedings in Mike's room and I ran and jumped in the shower. The next order of business was to jump into the Road Shark, pick up a new pack of smokes and some beer at the shoppette, and haul ass off post. Once I was outside the gates, I unrolled the engine, pushing the Camaro as fast as I could on the two-lane country road that led to my buddy's house.

Ease up on the gas going around the corners, then gun it coming out... burn it on the straightaways, look out for oncoming traffic...

I covered the six miles in about as many minutes, and ran inside and downstairs. It was a commercial, but I'd been listening to the ESPN broadcast on AM during the ride over. Pittsburgh was dominating in the very same arena they'd been blown out at only a few short weeks ago during Monday Night Football.

During the lead-up to the game, I'd looked forward to the Steelers' post-season trip to Indianapolis like I would the funeral of a friend. As much as I love the Steelers, the chances of victory in the RCA Dome looked remote. The Vegas oddsmakers agreed, most giving the advantage to the Colts, with a 9.5-point spread.

But those odds were not being reflected as the screen opened again in the RCA Dome. The Steelers' defense was frustrating everything Peyton Manning and company were trying to do -- keeping the homestanders to three-and-outs on three of their first four possessions. I was jubilant and incredulous... "Could this really be happening?"

At halftime, Pittsburgh led 21-3. Indy's first touchdown of the game didn't bother me. But 51 seconds into the fourth quarter, their second one started to make me nervous. A successful two-point conversion raised the odds futher -- at 21-18, the Colts would need only a field goal to tie the game and go into what would surely be a disasterous overtime period for the Steelers.

I screamed when Pittsburgh's 23-year-old Strong Safety Troy Polamalu dove and intercepted a pass by Manning. He hit the ground and rolled, and when he jumped back up, his left knee dislodged the ball from his arms. Tony Dungy threw his review flag, and after several torturous minutes, the referees overturned the interception call -- incomplete pass, giving the Colts another chance to salvage their game.

Things looked even grimmer on a later Colts possession, but screaming insued again when Manning was sacked on a fourth-down conversion attempt -- on his own two-yard line. We had it. We'd won.

But something went wrong. With seconds left and only two scant yards between the Steelers' offensive line and the final nail going into the Colts' collective coffin, veteran Jerome Bettis plowed into Indy's defense... but his head was up, the ball exposed... and suddenly, victory was gone. The ball flew backwards out of "The Bus's" hands, only to be snatched up by the Colts' Nick Harper, who'd been stabbed in the knee by his wife not 24 hours before. Harper was clear, he'd run the errant ball back into the endzone, sealing a victory for the Colts.

It was over... but... WAIT! Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger grabbed Harper by the ankles, bringing him down around midfield. How?! Quarterbacks don't tackle people. Could it be? Do we have a chance?

The final seconds of the game, and Manning is throwing again... looking more like The Real Manning, the one who led his team undefeated through 13 games this season. His team crossed the computer-generated Red Line, meaning the Colts were technically in field-goal range...

But they stalled, and the Colts kicker, Mike Vanderjagt, had 46 yards between him and the uprights. That's a long kick, even for someone in the runnings for the most accurate kicker in the league.

I held my breath as the ball was snapped. It's down on the ground, Vanderjagt is winding up for a kick...

The ball is up in the air... it's sailing toward the Steelers' uprights... time is standing still.

It looked certain... the ball was heading in.... wait, no? No! He shanked it hard to the right! It sailed outside the uprights, clearly a miss!

We'd been screaming the entire time, and I didn't even realize it. I'd paced, screamed, cursed at the officials (who apparently had money down on Indianapolis). Vanderjagt had missed, and thanks to Big Ben's hands and a critical final performance by the Pittsburgh defense, his team had failed to get him close enough to the goal. There would be no over time, and there would be no Indianapolis Colts in this year's Super Bowl.

I called my brother, who was at work in Pittsburgh. We gushed to each other, panting, relieved...

"What a game," he said finally. "That's one for the history books."

"Yeah," I said. "I think my emotions have been fucked with enough this weekend, though."