INDIANAPOLIS -- To pull off one of the most thrilling upsets in NFL playoff history, the Pittsburgh Steelers needed a hit by their quarterback and a miss by the game's most accurate kicker.
Moments after Ben Roethlisberger made a touchdown-saving tackle off a fumble recovery, Indianapolis Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt badly missed wide right on a 46-yard field goal with 17 seconds remaining, enabling the Steelers to escape with a pulsating 21-18 triumph at the RCA Dome yesterday.
The heavily favored Colts stood in disbelief as their season came to an abrupt close just about one month removed from flirting with a perfect season. The Steelers were equally jubilant and relieved, surviving a frenetic finish and a seesaw of emotions to become the team advancing into uncharted territory.
As the first sixth seed to make a conference championship game, Pittsburgh (13-5) faces the Denver Broncos (14-3) on Sunday for another shot at an elusive Super Bowl.
Asked whether this ranks as his most special victory, Steelers coach Bill Cowher said with a smile, "Nah. Hopefully, it's yet to come."
There's no telling what lies ahead based on yesterday's unpredictable ending that featured tide-turning plays from a surprising call that overturned an interception to an uncharacteristic fumble to a jaw-dropping missed field goal.
Leading 21-18, Pittsburgh appeared to have its sixth straight victory secured with 1:20 left in the game when a fourth-down sack of Peyton Manning gave the ball back to the Steelers at the Colts' 2-yard line.
On the next play, Pittsburgh's sure-handed back Jerome Bettis fumbled for the first time this season and Indianapolis cornerback Nick Harper picked up the loose ball with just one Steeler to beat.
But Roethlisberger, who jump-started Pittsburgh to an early lead with two touchdown passes in the first quarter, came up even bigger at the end by tackling Harper at the Colts' 42 and preserving the dwindling lead. Harper wasn't at full strength because he had been stabbed in his right knee by his wife a day before the game.
"It's once in a blue moon that Jerome fumbles and once in a blue moon I'm going to make that tackle," said Roethlisberger, who was 14-for-24 for 197 yards. "They just happened to be in the same game."
Said Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend, "Big Ben's an honorary safety now."
The top-seeded Colts still had a chance to tie the game and moved into field-goal range after Manning completed passes of 22 and 8 yards. The drive ended on a debatable call on third-and-two with 25 seconds left, when Manning misfired on a throw to the end zone rather than gain a first down on a higher percentage pass.
Left with a 46-yard attempt, Vanderjagt shanked the kick about 10 yards wide right, marking his first miss in seven postseason attempts at home.
Vanderjagt angrily threw his helmet down in the middle of the field. Colts coach Tony Dungy stared at the miss with a horrified look, saying quietly to himself, "He missed it." And the Steelers erupted on the sideline, celebrating their second straight trip to the AFC championship game.
It marked the first time a top-seeded team lost its opening playoff game since the Tennessee Titans lost to the Ravens after the 2000 season.
"I'm somewhat in shock that I'm standing here after a missed field goal," Vanderjagt said. "I never thought in a million years I would have missed it. It wasn't close. I have no idea what the heck happened. I guess the Lord forgot about the football team."
The unforgettable finish began on an apparent interception by Steelers safety Troy Polamalu with 5:26 left in the game. Polamalu dived to catch the ball before fumbling it when he got up to run.
The Colts challenged the play, which was reversed by referee Pete Morelli even though it appeared Polamalu had possession.
"I had the defender catching the ball. Before he got up, he hit it with his leg with his other leg still on the ground," Morelli said. "Therefore, he did not complete the catch."
Manning then drove the Colts for a touchdown and a two-point conversion to make it 21-18, the closest Indianapolis would come.
"The refs obviously wanted [Manning] to win the game; they tried their best to give it to him," Steelers linebacker Joey Porter said. "But we've waited long enough; it's our turn."
Searching for its first Super Bowl since 1995, Pittsburgh had to sweat out its latest journey.
Summing up the swing of emotions from overturned interception to the field-goal miss, Pittsburgh receiver Hines Ward said, "It went from an all-time high to an all-time low back to an all-time high."
Before that dizzying final quarter, the Steelers controlled the game from the opening series and took a 21-3 lead behind a strong start from their passing game and a nonstop pass rush from their defense.