By Tom James
INDIANAPOLIS — A slow start and exciting finish proved to be all the Indianapolis Colts could ultimately offer a sellout crowd of 57,449 Sunday in the RCA Dome. Unfortunately, all but a few hundred hearty Pittsburgh Steelers fans went home disappointed for a third consecutive postseason.
Indianapolis — despite an NFL regular-season best 14-2 record, a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs — suffered yet another early exit in January, this time dropping a 21-18 AFC divisional-round decision to a Steelers team that has now won five straight games heading into next week’s AFC Championship game at Denver.
Mike Vanderjagt’s 46-yard field goal attempt with 21 seconds remaining in regulation, which could have sent the game into overtime, sailed wide right as the Colts failed to finish what could have been one of the most miraculous come-from-behind wins in franchise history.
A 35-yard fumble return by cornerback Nick Harper with 1:20 left in the game put Indianapolis in position to win a game that belonged entirely to the Steelers for the better part of three quarters. In fact, everything was going Pittsburgh’s way until the final six minutes of the game.
Middle linebacker Gary Brackett’s helmet-on-ball tackle of Pittsburgh running back Jerome Bettis at the Colts’ 2-yard line put Tony Dungy’s team in position complete a rally that saw Indianapolis fall behind by as much as 21-3.
Harper’s attempt to return the fumble for a go-ahead touchdown was thwarted by a diving tackle by Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger at the Colts’ 42-yard line.
Consecutive sacks of Peyton Manning on third and fourth down by Pittsburgh outside linebacker Joey Porter inside the Colts’ 5-yard line set up the situation that resulted in the Bettis fumble.
Throw in an apparent interception by Steelers safety Troy Polamalu that, after a replay review, was overturned. Four plays after the review, and after a 20-yard pass from Manning to Marvin Harrison, the Colts scored on a 3-yard run by Edgerrin James with 4:24 left in the fourth quarter to cut the lead to 21-16.
A 2-point conversion pass, that came from seven yards out after a motion penalty on Indianapolis, from Manning to Reggie Wayne narrowed the margin to 21-18, setting up the late-game heroics that eventually came down to Vanderjagt’s missed field goal attempt.
“I have no idea why it went where it went,” the Colts kicker — who came into the 2005 season as the league’s career leader in field goal accuracy — said afterward. “I hit it hard enough and I hit it right where I wanted to.
“But the last six minutes or so of the game went like that. Extreme disbelief. From the Polamalu interception that clearly looked like an interception to the sack of Peyton on fourth down and the next play they fumble. Nick runs it back All the cards seemed to be lining up in our favor. I guess the Lord forgot about the field goal team.”
Pittsburgh scored on its initial possession of the game, marching 84 yards in 10 plays, as Roethlisberger fired an 8-yard touchdown pass to former Indiana University quarterback-turned-receiver Antwaan Randle-El.
The Steelers made it 14-0 with 3:12 left in the first quarter, Roethlisberger hitting rookie tight end Heath Miller with a 7-yard pass. A 20-yard Vanderjagt field goal late in the second quarter cut the Pittsburgh margin to 14-3 at halftime.
A 1-yard run by Bettis near the end of the third quarter gave the Steelers a seemingly comfortable 21-3 lead. Indianapolis regained some life early in the fourth quarter when Manning and tight end Dallas Clark combined on a 50-yard pass and run that brought the Colts to within 21-10.
“We just didn’t play quite as well as we wanted to,” Dungy admitted later. “I think you have to give Pittsburgh a lot of credit. They picked up their tempo. They played very hard and they made the plays to win it.
“I was proud of our guys for hanging in there and fighting all the way through. We just didn’t play well enough. [Pittsburgh] played better than we did. They deserved to win the game. We played hard and we have ourselves a chance to win. But we just didn’t make enough plays there at the end.”
Manning got off to a slow start, completing just 8 of 15 passes in the first half, as compared to Roethlisberger’s totals of 12 of 19 for 172 yards and two touchdowns. The Colts’ signal caller ended the day by hitting on 22 of 38 passes for 290 yards and a touchdown.
Pittsburgh’s blitzing defense sacked Manning five times — three times in the second half — while limiting James to 56 yards on 13 carries. Wayne had seven catches for 97 yards while Clark added four receptions for 84 yards and a TD.
“[The Steelers] came in here and played well,” Manning said. “You have to give them credit. We had some problems in [pass] protection. But I’ll give Pittsburgh credit for their blitzes and their rush. I thought we had some chances, but we just didn’t have the best execution [Sunday].”
The Indianapolis defense got to Roethlisberger, who completed 14 of 24 passes for 197 yards, twice and had a first-quarter interception by outside linebacker Cato June. But too many big plays — five of 12 or more yards — proved to be the Colts’ eventual undoing.
“You know, it’s disappointing to have a regular season like we had and put yourself in position and then not finish it off,” Dungy said. “I think we’ll look back and see we did some good things and made some progress.
“But when you don’t finish it the way you’d like, that makes it rough. It’s very disappointing right now. We’ll get a chance to look back and reflect a little bit as we now will have some time off.
“But, again, I’m proud of this team. They handled every trial that came upon them. We have some special guys and I’m very proud of them. From my standpoint, it’s disappointing. And its my job to get this team to play well. We didn’t quite do that [Sunday]. But I know we’ll bounce back.”