|The Pittsburgh Steelers know that to become the first sixth-seeded team to reach the Super Bowl, they'll have to keep defying long odds, even after stunning the NFL's top overall seed last week. Bill Cowher's club appears to be thrilled to have the opportunity.
The Steelers look to become just the second team to reach the Super Bowl by winning three road playoff games when they take on the Denver Broncos, one of the NFL's most dominant teams at home.
Pittsburgh's run gained considerable momentum Sunday when the Steelers knocked off the Indianapolis Colts 21-18 in a thrilling and controversial contest. The Steelers held on to win despite a reversed call on an apparent interception by Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu with 5:26 left, a decision the NFL admitted was wrong a day later, and a rare fumble by running back Jerome Bettis that would have been returned for the go-ahead touchdown if not for a game-saving tackle by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
"Once in a blue moon, Jerome fumbles," Roethlisberger said. "Once in a blue moon, I make a tackle. They just happened to be in the same game."
Polamalu's interception of Peyton Manning seemed to seal the victory for the Steelers. But when he got up to run and fumbled the ball, then recovered, Colts coach Tony Dungy challenged and the call was reversed. The league said a day later that referee Pete Morelli was wrong on the call, one that prompted Steelers linebacker Joey Porter to say that the league "wanted Indy to win this game."
After the Steelers sacked Manning on fourth down from the Colts' 2 with 1:20 remaining, Roethlisberger handed off to Bettis on the next play. Bettis lost the ball on a hit from linebacker Gary Brackett, and Nick Harper grabbed it and headed toward a winning touchdown. Only Roethlisberger giving chase and reaching out a hand to make a saving tackle at the Indy 42 prevented it.
The tackle proved to be the biggest play of the game for Pittsburgh, as Indianapolis' Mike Vanderjagt missed a 46-yard field goal to send it to overtime with 21 seconds remaining, sealing the Steelers' third trip to the AFC championship game in the past five years under Cowher, and second in a row.
This time, with his team surviving last week to stun the Colts, and with the way his defense is playing, Cowher's club appears to be reveling in the chance to overcome the odds and make its first trip to the Super Bowl since 1995.
"We are traveling a path right now that no one else has been on," said Cowher, whose team is the first No. 6 seed to reach a league championship game, and trying to become the first since the 1985 Patriots to win three road games to reach the Super Bowl. "But we certainly aren't going to let history dictate our journey. As I told the players, your journey can make history."
Pittsburgh's play on the defensive side of the ball may give it the chance to continue that journey past Sunday. The Steelers put constant pressure on Manning and sacked him five times. In the first two rounds, Pittsburgh has held the AFC's top scoring teams, Cincinnati and Indianapolis, to 17 and 18 points.
"When we play with a chip on our shoulder and play mad, that's when we play our best football," Porter said. "We play our best football when we're ticked off."
Porter and the Steelers will want to stay angry this week, because the Broncos may pose an even greater challenge than the Colts. Sunday's victory gave Pittsburgh five consecutive victories over Indianapolis in the postseason, but the Steelers will be facing a Denver club that has won 11 in a row at Invesco Field at Mile High, is 4-0 in AFC title games at home and is coming off a 27-13 victory over two-time defending champion New England last week.
The Steelers, meanwhile, are 1-4 in league championship games under Cowher, and they'll face a Denver team that's equally motivated to return to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1998.
"It's working out," Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said. "But it's not my dream to get to the AFC championship. It's winning the Super Bowl. One game left and we're in, and obviously we've got to win again if we get there. It's definitely the process I wanted to take when I came here."
Bailey made the pivotal play in the Broncos' win last week, intercepting Tom Brady in the end zone and returning it 100 yards to the 1 to set up a third-quarter touchdown that gave Denver a 17-6 lead.
Denver took advantage of five New England turnovers and Mike Anderson ran for two 1-yard touchdowns as the Broncos earned their sixth playoff meeting with the Steelers. Denver has won three of the five postseason matchups with Pittsburgh and two of the three playoff meetings at Mile High. The Broncos won the last meeting 24-21 at Denver in the AFC title game on Jan. 11, 1998.
The Broncos, who went on to win the second of back-to-back Super Bowls that season, expect a battle as they try to earn a trip to Detroit's Ford Field.
"It's going to be physical, probably the most physical game we play all year," Broncos safety John Lynch said. "They're going to come up and hit you and we have to bring it back to them. The team that establishes the run the best is probably going to win."
Denver will try to do that with Anderson and Tatum Bell, who powered the NFL's second-ranked rushing game this season. Pittsburgh will counter with Bettis and 1,200-yard rusher Willie Parker, who led the Steelers' fifth-ranked ground attack.
Both teams, though, also rely heavily on their quarterbacks throwing the ball. Roethlisberger threw two first-quarter touchdowns as the Steelers jumped out to a 14-0 lead last week, and the efficient and mobile Jake Plummer passed for 3,366 yards, 18 TDs and just seven interceptions this season for the Broncos.
The mobility of Plummer and Roethlisberger may be crucial, as the Steelers and Broncos both blitz heavily. The tactic worked especially well for Pittsburgh last week as it frustrated and rattled Manning, and the Steelers may try to put heavy pressure on Plummer as they go for yet another upset on the road.
"No team ever won all three games on the road and won the Super Bowl," Steelers receiver Hines Ward said. "Why not try to make history? We're one game away from having a chance to do it."