Steelers' crazy win, MVP curse, ranking the final four
Posted: Sunday January 15, 2006 8:33PM; Updated: Monday January 16, 2006 5:16PM
Peyton Manning will continue to be labeled as a quarterback who can't win a big playoff game.
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Maybe it was the Jerome Bettis fumble that conjured up memories of JoePisarcik, Herman Edwards and the Miracle of the Meadowlands. Maybe it was BenRoethlisberger's season-saving tackle of Nick Harper in the open field. Maybe it was MikeVanderjagt's bad-as-it-gets miss of a potential game-tying 46-yard field goal. Or the almost incomprehensible instant replay reversal of TroyPolamalu's apparent game-sealing interception.
But from the final play of the third quarter on, when Peyton Manning waved his punt team off the field in order to go for it on fourth-and-2 from the Colts' 36, this AFC Divisional Round playoff was about as good as it gets in the postseason, jamming more memorable moments into 15-plus minutes of action than seemed possible.
But when you added it all up, almost lost in the shuffle was the fact that wild-card qualifier Pittsburgh has won back-to-back games on the road to become the first sixth seed in the 16-year history of the NFL's 12-team playoff format to reach the conference title game. Little has been expected of these Steelers since late November, but here they are, getting ready to play in their sixth AFC title game in the past 12 years.
And then there are the top-seeded Colts, the once-perfect Colts, who have lost their playoff opener for the fourth time in PeytonManning's six trips to the postseason. But this one no doubt hurts more than any of them, by far.
In the final analysis, the Colts didn't get the perfect regular season that looked to be within their grasp when they started 13-0, or that elusive Super Bowl ring they've been chasing since going to the playoffs for the first time in the Manning era, in 1999.
In each case they came up three wins short.
And don't look now, but get ready for a whole new round of "Manning can't win the big one'' talk. He's now 3-6 as a playoff starter, and despite his 25 fourth-quarter/overtime comeback wins in the regular season, he has forged a pretty desultory body of work in the playoffs.
Against the Steelers, Manning had happy feet for much of the first half due to the fierce Pittsburgh pass rush, and he looked rattled more than I can ever remember seeing when he wasn't playing the Patriots. Indianapolis can talk all it wants about how insignificant its late-season doldrums were, or how much good it derived from all that pre-playoffs rest, but the fact is, for way too long on Sunday, the Colts offense looked like three yards and a cloud of rust.
All season long, the Colts held our focus as we tried to measure whether they were ready to replace the Patriots atop the AFC, and even the NFL. This time, it wasn't New England that got them. It was Pittsburgh. And maybe the same season-long burden of expectation that also felled the Steelers last year at this time.