Pittsburgh Steelers running back
"Our game plan
was to seal the deal
and get out of there."
There's an undeniable look of defeat that a veteran can sense in a defense. Instead of jogging out confidently, players trudge to their huddle with little conviction. Their heads stay bowed, their shoulders hunched, their eyes staring blankly into space. Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis saw all those signs in the Indianapolis Colts as they prepared for the final moments of an AFC divisional playoff game on Jan. 15, 2006. Even with 80 seconds left on the clock, Bettis sensed the Colts knew they were beaten.
The Steelers had the ball at the Colts' 2-yard line with a 21-18 lead. They had just sacked Colts quarterback Peyton Manning on fourth down of the previous possession. As Bettis looked to the sideline, he saw offensive line coach Russ Grimm rubbing his hands together as if he were spreading a condiment on a sandwich. "He was telling us it was time for our bread-and-butter play," Bettis said. "Our game plan was to seal the deal and get out of there. We thought that play was money."
The play was a simple counter, one that Bettis had run hundreds of times in his 13-year career. Steelers Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca would pull to his right, lead Bettis into the hole, and Pittsburgh would build an insurmountable 10-point lead that would propel them to the AFC Championship Game. As Bettis said, it seemed like an easy touchdown, right up to the point when he took the handoff from Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Bettis realized the first problem once he had the ball: Faneca had tripped on the play, leaving him without his most vital blocker. The second problem developed a split-second later: Colts middle linebacker Gary Brackett, the man Faneca was supposed to block, was shooting through the gap with his eyes focused squarely on the ball carrier. Bettis instinctively tried to twist his body to avoid contact, but that move was ill-fated. The half spin exposed the football to Brackett, whose helmet crashed into it as he tackled Bettis.
As soon as the ball popped out of Bettis' hands, the running back's heart sank. "It was all happening in slow motion," Bettis said. "I could see the ball, but I was going down as the ball was going up. When I looked up, [Colts cornerback Nick] Harper had the football."
The only thing Bettis could see from the ground was Harper running upfield. He never saw Roethlisberger's game-saving tackle, and he was pessimistic even though Pittsburgh still held a lead after the turnover.
"When I got to the sideline, I just said a prayer," Bettis said. "I knew there was a pretty good chance I was retiring, so I said, 'Lord, if this is going to be the last play of my career, I'm OK with it.' I was resigned to my fate in the same way the [Colts'] defense was when they took the field."
Of course, fate was with Bettis and the Steelers. Manning couldn't drive the Colts to a touchdown, and Indianapolis kicker Mike Vanderjagt missed a 46-yard, potential game-tying field goal attempt. The Steelers eventually went on to win the AFC Championship Game in Denver and Super Bowl XL two weeks after that in Bettis' hometown of Detroit. As Bettis knows, none of that would have happened without a few breaks in Indy.
"When you go on a run like that, you need some luck," he said. "We definitely got some divine intervention that day."
Gary Brackett, Cato June, Ben Roethlisberger, Nick Harper, Kendall Simmons, Jerome Bettis
"I thought it was over.
I was going crazy."
"The next day,
we still couldn't believe."
"I remember thinking,
'Jerome can't go
out like this.'"
"There was a
chance of him
making that tackle."
"That play was the turning point. ...
I told myself, 'We're going to the Super Bowl."
Ben Roethlisberger's tackle of Nick Harper didn't just save a game.
It ultimately saved a championship.
Photo by Steve C. Mitchell