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Hard to believe

Making sense of playoffs without Manning, Brady

Posted: Monday January 16, 2006 10:56AM; Updated: Monday January 16, 2006 7:43PM
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Colts quarterback Peyton Manning had trouble handling the Steelers' blitz on Sunday.
Colts quarterback Peyton Manning had trouble handling the Steelers' blitz on Sunday.
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SEATTLE -- Before the playoff game here on Saturday, Mike Wilbon of the Washington Post said to me: "It hasn't been a great year, has it? Not a lot of great games.''

And I thought for a minute. He was right. This season needed adrenaline.

Well, the arm was prepped and rubbed with alcohol in Denver on Saturday, and punctured in Indianapolis on Sunday.

New England is out of it. Startling. I was convinced they'd make a real run at a fourth Super Bowl.

Indianapolis is out of the playoffs too. Stunning. Another Peyton Manning failure, in his best shot ever to win a Super Bowl.

The best two teams in football, out of the race in a 17-hour span. It's why we all watch, why we spend all that time in the offseason on the draft, on free-agent signings and on the 63rd guy in training camp, wondering if he'll really make a difference this year. Seattle 20-10 and Carolina 29-21 were football games with some allure and interesting plays. But the other two games, and the impact they made -- they're destined to become NFL Films Classics with the Harry Kalas voice-over and drama that we'll remember for years.

Denver 27, New England 13, was memorable for a stupendous team blowing a season with five turnovers and Tom Brady not playing like Tom Brady for the first time in his playoff life. Pittsburgh 21, Indy 18 -- now there was a game. One of the greatest games I've ever seen. Ever.

"Uhhh-mayyyyyy-zing,''' Jerome Bettis told me on Sunday night. He was driving home from the airport in Pittsburgh, just off the charter home from Indianapolis. "Can you believe it?''

Not really. Can a game have more twists and turns? The Troy Polamalu interception with 5:26 to go and Pittsburgh up 21-10. Game over. No! Reversed by Peter Morelli, who probably should check in under an assumed name next fall on his first game trip into Pittsburgh. One minute later, the Colts convert the reversal to make it a 21-18 game. The Steelers can't mount a clock-killing drive and punt it away to Indy, which has one last chance.

The Steelers pile-drive Manning twice, on second and fourth downs, and the Steelers get the ball back ... at the Indy 2! Insurance points to come! Here comes Mr. Insurance, Bettis, to score the icing touchdown. He slams into the line, but the ball is knocked loose by linebacker Gary Brackett (go, you mighty Rutgers alum!), and picked up by the knifed one, Nick Harper (whose wife stabbed him 24 hours earlier, causing three stitches to be taken near his knee). From emergency room to all-time hero, in the span of one day! There goes Harper, racing downfield! On the Pittsburgh radio-cast, Steeler color man Tunch Ilkin is shrieking some word that sounds like "Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!'' And here is rumblin', stumblin' Ben Roethlisberger, backpedaling and running, trying to get in position to stop Harper, who jukes this way and that. And then, as Big Ben is falling backward at the Indy 42, he gets his right hand on Harper's kneecap, just enough to make him fall!

"The Immaculate Tackle! That's how it's going down in Steeler history,'' my HBO boss, Brian Hyland, screams into the phone a few minutes later.

Bettis, moaning on the sidelines, has at least 10 people -- Bill Cowher, Hines Ward, James Farrior, Joey Porter among 'em -- say to him, That will not be your last carry in the NFL! We'll pick you up, just like you pick us up all the time!'

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