PITTSBURGH (AP)—The Pittsburgh Steelers’ greatest season since the 1970s was all but lost, Ben Roethlisberger’s unbeaten rookie streak seemed to be over. Then Doug Brien missed the biggest kick he’ll likely ever try.
Jeff Reed did what Brien couldn’t do—make a game-winning field goal—and the Steelers somehow beat the New York Jets 20-17 Saturday in a remarkable overtime playoff game filled with wild swings in momentum and emotion.
Roethlisberger overcame two huge interceptions—one for a touchdown and another that appeared to doom the Steelers late in the fourth quarter—to lead a decisive drive that began at their own 13 and sent Pittsburgh to next Sunday’s AFC championship game at home against New England or Indianapolis.
Reed’s 33-yarder with just more than 12 minutes gone in overtime won it and was his 19th successful conversion in a row, tying Gary Anderson’s team record.
The loss will go down as one of the most excruciating in the Jets’ star-crossed history. Brien’s twin misses were doubly stunning disappointments for a gutty team on the verge of its biggest upset since Broadway Joe’s guaranteed win over the Colts in the January 1969 Super Bowl.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Steelers linebacker Larry Foote said. “I’m not going to say it was a miracle, because that’s crippled people getting up and walking, the blind seeing. But that’s the closest thing to it I’ve ever seen.”
Steelers center Jeff Hartings felt much the same way, saying, “God gave us another chance.”
Brien’s 47-yarder with 1:58 remaining hit the goal post, but Roethlisberger gave the Jets the ball right back when his off-line throw was intercepted by David Barrett—just the kind of mistake rookie quarterbacks are supposed to make in the playoffs, but Big Ben had rarely made during his 13-0 rookie season. The Jets then drove cautiously from the Steelers 37 to the 25, giving Brien a 43-yarder to win it on the final play of regulation.
But the kick sailed far to the left, not even close, and the given-a-reprieve Steelers danced joyously on their sidelines—Roethlisberger right in the middle.
“I tried to hit it a little harder because I was real surprised I didn’t have the distance,” Brien said, referring to the 47-yarder. “The second one I missed. The first one didn’t go in.”
Brien’s 28-yard kick in overtime beat San Diego last week—yes, by the same 20-17 score—and he hit a 42-yard FG to halt Pittsburgh’s early momentum and make it 10-3 Pittsburgh early in the second quarter. He was 24-of-29 during the season.
“I had confidence in him, he made the one last week and I thought he could make it,” Jets coach Herman Edwards said. “We were kind of in a spot, there was nothing else we could really do, we had to kick the field goal. He’s been a good kicker for us. It was just a tough day.”
The Jets became the first NFL team to play three consecutive overtime games, including their regular-season ending loss in St. Louis. They dropped to 0-7 in Pittsburgh and 2-16 all-time against the Steelers.
The Steelers are 1-3 in AFC title games under coach Bill Cowher, losing all three at home as big favorites, but linebacker Joey Porter senses this season will be different—and not just because they have won a team-record 15 in a row. They were only the fourth NFL team in 26 years to go 15-1 during the regular season.
The Steelers won four Super Bowls in six seasons from 1974-79, but they have returned only once since, losing to Dallas after the ’95 season.
“After what we went through today, I think it’s our time,” Porter said. “The way these circumstances played out, it’s our time.”
The Jets will wonder for years why they’re not going to the AFC title game.
“This is about as frustrated as I’ve ever been in my career,” said NFL rushing champion Curtis Martin, who was outrushed by Jerome Bettis 101-77 in a matchup of two of the NFL’s top five career rushers. “Right now I feel there is no end to my anger. … We left our hearts out there today.”
And they left with a loss that might take more than an offseason to forget.
“I just feel bad for the team. I’ll be fine,” Brien said. “I just feel bad for the guys that played so well, played so hard and came up short.”
The Jets turned two long touchdown returns, Santana Moss’ 75-yard punt return and Reggie Tongue’s 86-yard interception, into 17 consecutive points and a 17-10 lead in the fourth quarter that stunned nearly everyone in a jammed Heinz Field except the Jets.
After the Jets’ 17-6 loss there Dec. 12, defensive lineman Shaun Ellis predicted they would win if they returned to Pittsburgh in the playoffs. Last week, it didn’t appear anyone in the Steelers’ locker room took him seriously.
When Bettis fumbled at the Jets 24 early in the fourth quarter—his first fumble in 353 carries or receptions this season—Ellis’ confidence was looking like more than empty talk. Shades of Broadway Joe Namath?
But Roethlisberger then directed two pivotal scoring drives, just as he did last month against the Jets, with the first ending on his 4-yard scoring flip to Hines Ward. Roethlisberger finished 17-of-30 for 181 yards and two touchdowns.
“I did everything I could to lose the game,” Roethlisberger said. “I’ve got to play better. That was terrible. The game we played today is not going to cut it.”
Roethlisberger is only the fourth rookie to win his first playoff start since the 1970 NFL merger—two others had prior pro experience in different leagues—and he said he wasn’t nervous.
“Maybe I should have been. I came out calm and relaxed and took it like a regular game,” he said. “Maybe next week I need to be a little more stressed.”
The Steelers, who haven’t lost a divisional playoff game in seven tries under Cowher since 1993 and are 9-0 at home this season, surged to the 10-0 lead in the first quarter after Troy Polamalu’s interception of Chad Pennington’s pass. Bettis powered in from the 3 on the fifth play of the 25-yard drive following Roethlisberger’s 9-yard completion to Ward.
Reed had given Pittsburgh a 3-0 lead with a 45-yard field goal.
The Jets appeared to be in big trouble, down 10-0. They scored only six points in each of their last two games against the Steelers and hadn’t scored more than 10 points against them since 1988.
Pennington, whose arm strength and decision-making were questioned following his three-interception performance in Pittsburgh on Dec. 12, went 21-of-33 for 182 yards and an interception against the NFL’s top-ranked defense.
Moss’ 75-yard dash down the sideline was the first punt return for a touchdown in Jets playoff history and was a big jolt to the Steelers’ normally strong special teams, which allowed only one punt return longer than 10 yards in their last 11 games.