DENVER (AP)—The wildest road trip since “Animal House” rocks on.
The next stop for Big Ben, The Bus and all those Terrible Towels will be the Super Bowl in Detroit, thanks to a 34-17 dismantling of the Denver Broncos on Sunday in the AFC title game.
“We were sitting, looking at an outside shot to be in the Super Bowl,” Steelers linebacker Clark Haggans said. “This is an unbelievable feeling to be here right now.”
Unbelievable and almost unprecedented.
Led by 275 yards and two passing touchdowns from Ben Roethlisberger and a touchdown by Jerome Bettis, the Steelers became the first team since the 1985 Patriots to win three postseason road games en route to the Super Bowl. Counting the regular season, they’ve played five of their last six away from Pittsburgh.
Next up: Seattle, a 34-14 winner over Carolina in the NFC title game. The teams will meet in two weeks at Ford Field, and the Steelers were the early favorite by 3 1-2 points.
And while there’s no Otter or Boon—the characters who called for a road trip when things got tough for the Delta House fraternity—this Pittsburgh group has plenty of characters of its own.
There’s Bettis, The Bus, who stuck around for a 13th year with hopes of playing in his first Super Bowl, in his hometown of Detroit.
There’s Roethlisberger, Big Ben, the second-year quarterback who looked every bit the veteran in this one, completing 21 of 29 passes and keeping the Steelers going on six of seven crucial third-down situations in the first half.
There’s the coach, jut-jawed Bill Cowher, who worked the sideline in his usual manner, jabbing his finger at Bettis, then hugging him, smiling and scowling, too. This was tough love at its best—and good enough to move the Steelers back to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1995.
And all those loyal Pittsburgh fans. An estimated 8,000 came to Denver and they stayed well after the game, waving their Terrible Towels in the corner of Denver’s Invesco Field until security finally had to ask them to leave.
“It feels great today, I’ll tell you that,” owner Dan Rooney said. “The coach already told me we’re going to the Super Bowl to win it, not just to be there.”
Outschemed, outplayed and pushed around all day, the Broncos (14-4) shuffled off to their locker room, heads down, after their first home loss in 10 tries this season.
“We did not complete the mission and it’s frustrating,” linebacker Ian Gold said. “But anytime you make it to the AFC championship game and you lose, you hope to lose to a team like that.”
Indeed, it’s hard to deny the Steelers (14-5) are deserving. Their next game will be for their fifth championship—that elusive “One For The Thumb”— that the franchise couldn’t get in the 1970s heyday of Bradshaw, Swann, Stallworth and Harris.
Against Denver, the Steelers came out passing, not running, much the same way they did when they upset Indianapolis last week. Roethlisberger called pass plays on seven of Pittsburgh’s first 11 snaps and threw completions on five of those.
The first drive resulted in a field goal. On Denver’s next possession, Pittsburgh’s Joey Porter blitzed to force a Jake Plummer fumble. Five plays later, Roethlisberger hit Cedrick Wilson for a touchdown and a 10-0 lead, quieting the Invesco Field crowd much as the Steelers did in Indy last week and Cincinnati the week before.
After a Denver field goal, the Steelers essentially salted this game with a 14-play, 80-yard drive that ate up nearly 7 1/2 minutes and had the Broncos defense totally off balance and gasping for air.
Bettis capped it by bulling in from the 3 for a 17-3 lead to put him well on his way to the Super Bowl. Cowher smiled widely for that one, remembering Bettis’ near disaster on the goal line last week in Indy.
“This is a great group of guys, how we got here, we’re a different team,” Cowher said. “We’re a focused team, no matter what’s happened, we’ve stayed together. We’ve got a resilient group.”
The Broncos trailed by two touchdowns, yet everyone in Denver knew they had escaped worse predicaments in the past.
But there was no Drive, no Fumble, no comeback and no you-know-who on the field this day.
John Elway was on hand, but sitting in a luxury suite, watching the Broncos fall short of the ultimate destination for the seventh straight year since he led them to their second championship.
Plummer, who had played so well in the lead all season, finally faced some comeback pressure and failed miserably. He went 18-for-30 for 223 yards with two lost fumbles and two interceptions.
He threw one pass underhanded, scrambled for his life and, though valiant as always, proved what had been proved many times before—that he can’t do it by himself. He said he woke up with a bit of a cold, but it had no effect on his game.
The Steelers certainly did.
“It’s tough,” Plummer said. “They were getting after it and when they got a lead, we get one dimensional.”
Trailing by two touchdowns late in the first half, Jake the Snake lobbed a terrible pass into the flat that was easily intercepted by Ike Taylor. Moments later, Bettis ran it in from 12 yards for an apparent touchdown on third down.
A penalty nullified that, but it only set up Roethlisberger for his best throw of the day—a 17-yard touchdown that barely cleared the fingertips of Al Wilson and Nick Ferguson, before finding Hines Ward tucked neatly in the back of the end zone.
That made it 24-3.
Roethlisberger ran to the sideline and celebrated by pretending to fire six-shooters from his hip. Yep, he was on target all day in this one—24 yards to Heath Miller, 17 more to Wilson, 21 to Ward and 18 to Wilson again, all after being given ample time against Denver’s ill-timed blitz.
“He’s the catalyst of our whole offense,” Ward said. “The quarterback has to have confidence, or how else will the rest of the 10 guys follow him? He’s going out there confident and having trust in his teammates to make plays.”
Midway through the fourth quarter, Denver pulled within 27-17 and got the ball back at its 20.
But Plummer lost a fumble on fourth-and-10 and that pretty much made it official: The Steelers would be back in the big game after becoming the first team to beat the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 seeds in the playoffs.
“It’s amazing, especially to have done it all on the road,” Steelers receiver Antwaan Randle-El said.
The Steelers had played five AFC title games since 1994, all at home, and managed only one victory, leading many to wonder if the pressure of being a favorite, or doing it in front of the home crowd, was something the Steelers could handle.
Cowher, now in his 14th year, kept his job through it all—the Rooney family cherishes stability over all else.
“If you look at our ownership, Mr. Rooney is a football guy and he understands how hard it is to do this,” Cowher said. “Nothing would be more satisfying to me than to hand him the Vince Lombardi trophy in two weeks.”
As the clock wound down, Cowher was still going full tilt on the sideline, jabbing his finger at Bettis, preaching ball control and no repeat of last week’s fumble in Indy.
Roethlisberger put this one away, diving in for a score on third-and-goal and sending the crowd home.