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INDIANAPOLIS -- Move over Immaculate Reception, you have some company.

The Steelers head to Denver for the AFC championship Sunday after their most improbable ending to a playoff game since Franco Harris ran into history in 1972.

They survived the Indianapolis Colts, 21-18, yesterday because quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made a game-saving tackle and Mike Vanderjagt, the most accurate field-goal kicker in NFL history, missed badly from 46 yards with 17 seconds left.

"I don't need too many more of those feelings," receiver Hines Ward said, "but it's good to come out on the right side. You thought the game was over, your season was over and then the guy missed the field goal."

The game appeared over when linebacker Joey Porter sacked quarterback Peyton Manning on fourth down at the Colts' 2 with 1:20 left and the Steelers ahead by three, the fifth sack of the NFL's leading passer yesterday.

Because the Colts had three timeouts left to stop the clock, the Steelers sent Jerome Bettis off right guard to try to put it away.

"We score there, and the game's over," coach Bill Cowher said.

But linebacker Gary Brackett slammed into Bettis and put his helmet on the ball. The man who rarely fumbles fumbled for the first time this season.

The ball popped backward. Cornerback Nick Harper, playing with three stitches in his right knee where his wife allegedly stabbed him Saturday, picked it up. He had one man to beat to run 93 yards for the go-ahead touchdown -- Roethlisberger.

"It's one of those things that once in a blue moon Jerome fumbles, and once in a blue moon I'm going to make that tackle," Roethlisberger said.

The quarterback who had not made a tackle in two NFL seasons got in front of Harper, wrestled with him a little and then tackled him by the foot as tight end Jerame Tuman came in to finish him off. For all the punishment the Steelers dealt to Manning and the Colts' offense yesterday, a tackle by their quarterback was the most important of all.

"That might be the biggest play ever in his career," linebacker Larry Foote said. "My heart was going to my feet and back up."

Still, the Colts and Manning had the ball at their 42 with 1:01 left. They reached the Steelers' 28, where rookie cornerback Bryant McFadden broke up a pass in the end zone to Reggie Wayne on second down and knocked away another for Wayne on third.

Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt, the most accurate field goal kicker in the NFL, boots a 46-yard potential game-tying kick wide right.
Click photo for larger image.

Vanderjagt came on to do what he does better than anyone: Convert a field goal and send it to overtime.

"Not today," Foote said.

Vanderjagt's attempt was long enough, but looked to be 20 feet wide, and the Steelers became the first No. 6 playoff seed to knock off a No. 1 seed.

"That was one of the craziest games I have been in," Porter said. "It feels good for the ball to actually bounce our way one time."

The Steelers, winning for the sixth consecutive time, overcame 10-point odds to a team that beat them, 26-7, here Nov. 28. The Colts were favorites to win the Super Bowl.

"A day ago, nobody wanted to give us a chance," Ward said. "We came out and we did what we had to do. We knew it would be tough to come into Indianapolis, and they beat us pretty good the last time. This is kind of redemption for us."

The Steelers stunned the Colts and the noisy RCA Dome crowd when they took a 14-0 lead in the first quarter on Roethlisberger's touchdown passes of 6 yards to Antwaan Randle El and 7 to rookie Heath Miller.

Roethlisberger was hot, hitting 6 of 7 on the first scoring drive and connecting with Ward for a 45-yard pass on third-down that set up the second touchdown. He would throw only five times in the second half, completing 14 of 24 on the day for 197 yards.

Matt Freed, Post-Gazette
Steelers receiver Hines Ward makes a catch in front of Colts cornerback Nick Harper and safety Mike Doss in the first quarter.
Click photo for larger image.

"We knew we wanted to do that early on and establish at that point that we were going to throw the ball on our own terms," Miller said.

When many expected the Steelers to run and control the clock, they came out throwing. They ran 13 times in the first half, and Roethlisberger threw 19 times and completed 12 in the first two quarters as the Colts dropped one safety back and kept everyone else but their cornerbacks close to the line of scrimmage.

"I knew they were going to give us eight guys in the box," coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said, "and they were going to play to stop the run. And our quarterback is really maturing, and he's understanding what we're trying to do."

Roethlisberger threw his only interception, in the first half, when he was hit by Dwight Freeney. But the Colts did nothing with that, much the way they spent the first three quarters. Manning (22 of 38, 290) threw off target, his passes sailing on him. The Steelers seemed to rattle him with both their blitzes and their disguised non-blitzes. Indianapolis managed only Vanderjagt's 20-yard field goal in the first half.

"I think we pressured them a lot more," Foote said. "Coach [Dick] LeBeau whipped up some new magic, gave them something nobody's seen yet."

Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Linebackers James Farrior and Joey Porter sandwich Peyton Manning for a 10-yard loss on fourth down to end a Colts' fourth quarter drive.
Click photo for larger image.

The Steelers seemed poised to put the game away after linebacker James Farrior's booming sack on a blitz of Manning put the ball on the Colts' 1 on fourth down. The Steelers took over on the Indianapolis 30 after the punt and ran six times in a row -- Willie Parker on an 11-yard scoot to start it and then Bettis five times for the other 19, including the final one up the middle for a touchdown that bounced them in front, 21-3.

Cowher's record is 100-1-1 in the regular season when his team leads at any point by more than 10. That did not seem to be in jeopardy even when Manning threw a 50-yard touchdown pass to Dallas Clark early in the fourth quarter.

And safety Troy Polamalu appeared to settle matters when he made a diving interception of Manning at the Steelers' 48 with 5:26 left.

But Colts coach Tony Dungy challenged it, and referee Pete Morelli overturned it, saying Polamalu dropped it, even though he did not drop it until he stood up after making the catch and before a Colts player touched him.

The Steelers were incensed by the call.

Matt Freed, Post-Gazette
Steelers backup center Chukky Okobi and receiver Hines Ward celebrate after Colts placekicker Mike Vanderjagt missed a 46-yard field goal that would have sent their AFC divisional playoff game into overtime.
Click photo for larger image.

"The world wanted Indy to win so bad, they were going to do whatever they had to do, man," Porter claimed. "It was like the 9-1-1 year, when they wanted the [New England] Patriots to win it for the world ... At a point, I didn't think the refs were going to let us get out of here with a victory."

The Colts, given new life, continued on the series that ended with Edgerrin James' running 3 yards for a touchdown. Manning's pass to Wayne for the two-point conversion drew the Colts to within three with 4:24 left, and the Dome rocked again.

When Porter sacked Manning twice in three plays, dropping him at the 2 on fourth down, it was all over. Except for a few plays at the end.

"I know a couple of times our players were ready to celebrate prematurely," Cowher said.

That they finally got to do so was a wonder in itself.

man after watching that game at the end it had my heart punding so fast ima steelers fan i just couldnt believe hos jerome fumbled at the last minute and when i saw the cn pick the ball and start running i was like the game is over but when i saw big ben tackle him i got happier than a lotto winner
here we go steelers here we go Pittsburgh going to the superbowl One for the thumb fellows
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