STEELERS 20, JETS 17 (OT)
IT'S STRANGE to view a 16--1 team like the Pittsburgh Steelers as vulnerable, and perhaps quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's rookielike performance in his first playoff game will be judged a fluke if the Steelers beat the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game this Sunday at Heinz Field. But in a divisional playoff against the New York Jets last Saturday night, Roethlisberger threw more passes (30) than he had in any other NFL start and nearly cost Pittsburgh the game. "It wasn't me out there today," Roethlisberger said, after the Jets gift-wrapped a 20--17 overtime win for the Steelers, missing 47- and 43-yard field goal attempts in the final two minutes of regulation. "I did everything I could to lose this game."
"For the first time, I saw Ben waver," said wideout Plaxico Burress, the first-year player's best friend on the team.
Fortunately for Big Ben, and the Steelers, running backs Jerome (the Bus) Bettis and Duce Staley came to the rescue. Again. The 258-pound Bettis crashed through the New York defense 27 times for 101 yards and a touchdown, while Staley slashed for 54 yards late in the game. The great escape was as scary as it was reassuring for the Steelers. Scary because the Jets usually went with three defensive linemen and five linebackers on running downs in the first three quarters, as if saying to Roethlisberger, Beat us, kid--and he couldn't. Roethlisberger (17 for 30, 181 yards) seemed to press early on and never showed the confidence that has been his rookie trademark. He threw two careless interceptions. Safety Reggie Tongue returned the first one 86 yards for a touchdown that gave the Jets a 17--10 lead late in the third quarter; cornerback David Barrett's pick set up Doug Brien's 43-yard field goal try, which he missed badly on the last play of regulation.
Yet the outcome was reassuring in that Pittsburgh's ground attack, second in the NFL at 154.0 yards per game during the regular season, produced 193 yards on 43 carries against the league's fifth-ranked rush defense. There's no doubt the Steelers' run to the Super Bowl is in the hands of Bettis and Staley, not Roethlisberger.
What a year it has been for Bettis. When the season started, the 32-year-old 12-year veteran was insurance for Staley, the big free-agent pickup last June. With Staley on his way to 91 yards on 24 carries in the opener against the Oakland Raiders, fourth-string running back Willie Parker sidled up to Bettis on the sideline and asked, "JB, how do you do it, man?"
What Parker meant was: How do you take a $3.37 million pay cut? How do you accept being a backup when you're one of the top 10 rushers in NFL history? How do you remain the leader of the locker room? How do you walk so proudly around town? And do it all with a smile? "Willie," a grinning Bettis said, "sometimes in this league you've got to turn lemons into lemonade."
Bettis was the goal line back for the first half of the season (against the Raiders he carried five times for a net gain of one yard and three touchdowns), but his outlook never changed. Then Staley, who ran for 707 yards in his first seven games, injured a hamstring in practice on Nov. 5, and Bettis responded with 812 yards in his next eight games, all Pittsburgh victories. He was his old football self--steamrollering some tacklers, bouncing off others, even running away from a few. "Hey, Willie," Bettis said to Parker last week, "you like how I turned those lemons into lemonade this year?"
Last April, Bettis had an option: Accept a cut in pay from $4.37 million to $1 million or test the free-agent market. His reasons for staying in Pittsburgh reflect his thoughtful nature. "It was about quality of life," he said over lunch last week. "Do I want to find a new home, with unrealistic expectations for what I am at this point in my career? Wherever I went, they'd be expecting the 2001 Jerome Bettis, who led the league in rushing at one point, and not the 2003 Jerome Bettis, who wasn't a full-season starter. I could have given someone 380 carries, but they might have been my last 380 carries. I'm realistic enough to know that.
"And I studied football history," Bettis continued. "Look at the great backs who went somewhere and their careers ended ugly: Earl Campbell in New Orleans, Tony Dorsett in Denver, O.J. in San Francisco, Franco Harris in Seattle. I love this town. Too often, guys let their pride get in the way."
In the middle of this conversation the waitress inched toward his table. Politely she asked, "Can I show you a picture of my daughter?"
"Sure," Bettis said. "Let's see."
"She's eight now," the waitress said, showing him the little girl's school photo. "Her name's Brianna. Do you know that the first words out of her mouth were? 'The Bus! The Bus!' She just loves you. We are so happy for your season!"
"Oh, wow!" Bettis said. "Come on, I've got to sign something for her." On a blank restaurant check Bettis wrote, BRIANNA. KEEP CHEERING FOR ME! JEROME BETTIS, 36.
After last Saturday's game, Staley looked back on his first season as Bettis's teammate. "It's been a joy playing with him, watching how he handles himself and how he handles this team," Staley said. "People look at us and, because we've gotten along so well, think it [the friendship] must be phony. I guarantee you, it's genuine."
During the season the running game was never more impressive than on Oct. 31, when Staley and Bettis helped Pittsburgh end New England's NFL-record 21-game winning streak. They did most of their damage in the second half, when the Steelers protected a 31--13 lead by controlling the ball for more than 20 of the last 25 minutes. During that stretch Pittsburgh threw only three times as Staley and Bettis combined for 22 carries that produced 118 yards. The frustrated Patriots even went to their goal line defense for six or eight plays. "I didn't even realize they had their goal line defense out there till I watched it on film," Bettis says. "I was like, Are you kidding me? We're running against that?"
Tackles Marvel Smith and Oliver Ross, guards Alan Faneca and Keydrick Vincent, and center Jeff Hartings kept opening holes. "That game was a dream for any lineman, especially because it was against the Super Bowl champs and a team we had so much respect for," recalls Hartings, who is going to his first Pro Bowl. "That's one of the games I'll look back on at the end of my career and marvel at."
In 2004 the Steelers ran the ball on 61% of their snaps, an NFL high. However, in the playoff against the Jets, they relied more on the pass because New York played so many eight-man fronts and because Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt believed his unit created matchup advantages by spreading the field and throwing short passes. After 43 minutes of play the Steelers' run-pass ratio was 50-50, and the Jets led 17--10; over the last 17 minutes, plus overtime, running plays were called on 22 of the team's 31 snaps, and Pittsburgh won on Jeff Reed's 33-yard field goal.
Three months ago the Steelers weren't worried about matchups. They just lined up and overpowered teams like New England. This time the Patriots will bring a power back of their own, Corey Dillon, who missed the first meeting with a bruised foot. In 16 games this season he ran for 1,779 yards, including 144 on Sunday in a 20--3 divisional playoff win over the Indianapolis Colts. "If Dillon's running well, it's a long day for anybody," Steelers linebacker Larry Foote said on Sunday, after the AFC title-game matchup had been set.
For the first time since the merger in 1970, the teams in the AFC Championship Game will have a combined winning percentage of more than .900 (31--3, .912). The Patriots will be gunning for their third Super Bowl in four years. The Steelers, who haven't been to the big game since losing in January 1996, will need a better performance from Roethlisberger than he had against the Jets. "Ben struggled tonight, and he's a little down," Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher said on Saturday night. "It's good for him. He'll come into the championship game really focused, and when he's really focused, he plays well. I'm not worried about him."
That's because Bettis and Staley can make life easier for a rookie quarterback about to play in the biggest game of his life. --Peter King