In a ballroom at a suburban Denver hotel on Saturday night, Jan. 21, the Pittsburgh Steelers got their marching orders for the next day's AFC Championship Game. Urged by coach Bill Cowher to light a fire under the troops, running back Jerome (the Bus) Bettis, finishing his 10th Steelers season and likely closing out a 13-year NFL career, stood and asked the other 52 players plus the coaches in the room to do two things. The first: Give everything you've got tomorrow against the favored Denver Broncos. "If you do," the Bus said, "I'll shake your hand and love you forever." The second was personal: A Detroit native yearning to play in Super Bowl XL, to be staged six miles from his parents' house, Bettis said, "The last thing I'll ever ask you is, Take me home."
Sitting in the audience, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger struggled to control his emotions. As he said the next day, "All I was thinking was, Hey, Bussie, go sit down. You're going to make me cry."
A year earlier Roethlisberger had cried for Bettis, late in their 41-27 loss to the New England Patriots in the conference championship game. The rookie's poor performance had been a big factor in Pittsburgh's defeat, and on the sideline he tearfully asked the Bus to play one more year so he could get the big back into his first Super Bowl. Bettis returned, of course, and on Jan. 22, Roethlisberger delivered on his promise. Playing like a 10-year vet rather than a second-year pro, Roethlisberger (21 of 29, 275 yards) threw two beautiful touch-pass touchdowns and rushed for a third to key Pittsburgh's 34-17 victory. Bettis led all rushers with 39 yards on 15 carries and a touchdown. "Getting Jerome to Detroit has been my driving force all year," Roethlisberger said after the game. "This team is so happy for him."
The first No. 6 seed to advance to the Super Bowl, the Steelers also became the first team since the 1985 Patriots to win three playoff games on the road to qualify for the title game. But this hard-fought trip to glory began long before the postseason.
On Dec. 4, after a 38-31 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals gave them three straight defeats, the Steelers were 7-5, two games behind the Bengals in the AFC North and a game behind the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Diego Chargers in the wild-card race for the sixth and final AFC playoff spot. While Steeler Nation has wrapped its arms around Bettis, Roethlisberger and two defensive heroes, strong safety Troy Polamalu and linebacker Joey Porter, the well-traveled fans--there must have been 15,000 Terrible Towel wavers among the 76,775 at Invesco Field--would do well to embrace Pittsburgh's 14th-year coach, too. For a tactical decision Cowher made the day after that Cincinnati loss set the team on course for Detroit.
In a meeting room at the team's practice facility, there's a board that charts the Steelers' performance week by week, a statistical tracking kept by most NFL clubs. On Dec. 5, Cowher went to the board and removed all references to the first 12 games of the season and the last three, leaving only that week's opponent, the Chicago Bears, for the players to ponder when they arrived. "Clear your mind," Cowher told them. "Forget the past. Forget the future. Only one thing matters: Chicago. Every week's an elimination game now."
The Bears, on an eight-game win streak, went down in a snow squall 21-9. When the Steelers reported to work to prepare for their next opponent, the Minnesota Vikings, there was no evidence on the board that Pittsburgh had even played Chicago. The Steelers rolled over the Vikings 18-3. Same story before the 41-0 rout of the Cleveland Browns and the 35-21 whipping of the Detroit Lions. That 4-0 run down the stretch earned Pittsburgh the final wild-card spot. Alone outside his locker room, after the Denver game, Cowher sounded like a preacher, extolling the virtues of this elementary approach. "You'll be amazed--amazed--how fresh you feel when you forget everything in your life except what you're doing right now," he said.
It helps to have a quarterback who has matured with lightning speed. In last season's playoffs Roethlisberger threw five interceptions and three touchdowns passes while completing 57% of his throws in two playoff games. This postseason he has connected on 68% of his throws, with seven touchdowns and only one interception.
It also helps to have the best blitzing defense Cowher has had in years. Pittsburgh's blitzes certainly rattled quarterback Jake Plummer, who tried to hit receiver Rod Smith between three defenders on the first series; the pass fell incomplete, ending the drive. On the second series Porter sacked Plummer and forced a fumble, which the Steelers converted into a touchdown when wideout Cedrick Wilson caught a Roethlisberger pass in the corner of the end zone for a 12-yard score.
After Plummer moved Denver close enough to get a field goal on his third possession, the Steelers struck back as Bettis steamrollered from the three to give Pittsburgh a 17-3 lead. Seconds later Plummer handed Pittsburgh a gift, floating an incomprehensible pass into the arms of cornerback Ike Taylor at the Denver 39. Roethlisberger's perfectly lofted ball into the back of the end zone for Hines Ward made it 24-3 at intermission, and this one was over. "Now we're in the biggest game in sports," said Porter.