Steelers' backups get the job done

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Sixteen handoffs, one carry (for 2 yards and a fourth-quarter fourth-down conversion, thank you very much), one pass attempt (high and incomplete), and three knees taken to end the game.

Not quite the way Brian St. Pierre envisioned the part he'd play in his first NFL victory. But it'll do.

"I never thought it would be a game where I didn't complete a pass and handed off so much," said St. Pierre, Pittsburgh's third-string QB, who, in his first game as a pro, relieved starter Tommy Maddox with 1:49 left in the third quarter and rallied the Steelers to what goes in the books as a come-from-behind, 29-24 victory over the Bills.

It was on the road, amid a hostile crowd at Ralph Wilson Stadium. And what's more, St. Pierre played hurt: He has an ingrown nail on his right big toe.

Hey, just trying to help the kid out here.

Buffalo needed a win and help from either the Colts (against the Broncos) or the Rams (at home against the Jets) to become the second team in league history (1992 Chargers) to begin a season with four losses and make the playoffs. The Rams did their part, beating New York 32-29 in overtime.

The Bills were 27:31 from taking care of business on their end, Nate Clements having given them a 17-16 lead with a 30-yard interception return for a touchdown. On their next possession, the Bills drove 86 yards in 12 plays, but kicker Rian Lindell missed a 28-yard field goal that would have put Buffalo ahead by four.

Enter St. Pierre, added to the active roster from a six-game stint on the practice squad just last week because the plan was for Ben Roethlisberger to sit and rest his bruised ribs. A fifth-round pick in the '03 draft out of Boston College, St. Pierre served as the third quarterback for all 16 games last season. He's been released and signed to the practice squad three times this year, been inactive for one game, and the backup QB for six.

So of course, he came in with history, a winning streak, and another team's playoff future on the line. And not just any team, but one quarterbacked by one of his boyhood heroes growing up in Danvers, Mass., ex-Patriot Drew Bledsoe.

"I turned to Tom [Maddox] and said, 'Welcome to the NFL for me, huh?' " said St. Pierre, who promptly directed a five-play, 61-yard march to Jeff Reed's 37-yard, go-ahead field goal. "Being in a playoff atmosphere and down, I appreciate the opportunity to get in there, and Willie Parker ripped off a big run that changed field position for us. It was just exciting to be a part of it."

So many Steelers played a part in what was an improbable victory, even for a team that finished the regular season with 14 straight wins en route to become the first AFC team to go 15-1. That's because Jerome Bettis, Plaxico Burress, and Roethlisberger sat this one out, and James Farrior, Troy Polamalu, Joey Porter, Aaron Smith, Duce Staley, Kimo von Oelhoffen, and Hines Ward saw limited action. The day belonged to the Steelers' reserves, guys most people outside of Pennsylvania probably never have heard of.

Guys like St. Pierre, who checked to about half the runs when he was in the game. Guys like Ricardo Colclough, this year's second-round pick whose sack of Bledsoe and forced fumble that James Harrison, starting his third straight game in place of regular left outside linebacker Clark Haggans, caught and returned 18 yards for a touchdown that put the Steelers up, 26-17.

Guys like Ike Taylor, the backup right corner, who recorded a team-high six tackles and recovered Buffalo's onside kick attempt after it had pulled to within five with 1:05 left. Guys like offensive linemen Chukky Okobi and Max Starks, who helped create running room against what was the league's fifth-best run defense. Guys like Tyrone Carter, Kendrick Clancy, Alonzo Jackson, Travis Kirschke, Clint Kriewaldt, Brett Keisel, and Russell Stuvaints, defensive subs who played like anybody but scrubs.

And then there was the star of the game, some joker named Willie Parker, an undrafted rookie out of North Carolina. The Steelers' fourth-string running back, Parker was so unknown prior to Sunday that someone from Athens, Texas, who played his college ball at Northwestern (La.) State had the nerve to never hear of him.

Speaking for most of us, Bills cornerback Terrence McGee said after Parker (102 yards on 19 carries) joined Corey Dillon and Rudi Johnson as the only backs to hit triple digits against Buffalo this year, "I still don't know who that is. Who is this Willie Parker?"

Well, he's 5 feet 10 inches and 209 pounds. He started five games in four years at North Carolina. But Steelers scout Dan Rooney, son of team chairman Dan Rooney, loved him coming out. Pittsburgh signed him for two years with a $4,000 bonus. With the Steelers, Parker saw an opportunity to gain invaluable experience.

"There were a few teams looking at me, but what made me come here was Bettis and all them [running backs]," Parker said Sunday. "I've been learning a lot from him, even though we're different kinds of runners. That's what I've been doing, learning. There's a saying, turn lemons into lemonade. And that's what I say all the time, turn lemons into lemonade."

Sunday's game turned on Parker's 58-yard scamper on the first play following Lindell's aforementioned miss. The play was "H 45 Base," a draw, and Parker found a hole off the left side and took it up the Steelers' sideline before Clements caught him at the 22.

"When he gets into the secondary, he has another gear," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. "He's the fastest back we have."

Only he didn't have anything left on that particular run.

"I knew I wasn't going to score. I was tired," said Parker, who, in anticipation of a heavy workload, turned in early last week after a few sets of push-ups. Twice on the Steelers' 14-play, nearly nine-minute drive, Parker carried on six consecutive plays.

"It happened when I was a rookie in college," he continued. "I broke like a 60-something-yard run and a guy came and got me. If it happens again, they won't catch me."

The Ravens could have been trying to catch him Sunday had the Dolphins managed to pry Parker from the Steelers before the season. Before eventually dealing for the Rams' Lamar Gordon, Miami tried to trade for Bettis, Verron Haynes, Parker, or even former Steeler Dante Brown, now a Bill. Pittsburgh wasn't trading the Bus, and the Dolphins are said to have offered sixth- and seventh-round picks for the others.

It looks like the Steelers made the right choice to pass. This year, it seems, they can do no wrong. Their motivation for Sunday's game, while the outcome meant nothing to them with regard to the playoffs (they're the AFC's top seed), was to finish with the best record in the league. Mission accomplished, by what ordinarily would be the cleanup crew.

"It shows the selflessness of this team, that anybody can step up at any time," Roethlisberger said. "It's great to know, as a starter, that if something should happen to anybody at any position, we've got guys that can step up and fill the void. That's key. Teams that have won Super Bowls in the past, like the Patriots, have showed that they have versatility and depth."

"We just know how to win," said St. Pierre, close friends with Patriots center Dan Koppen, his former teammate at BC. "When you get on a roll like that, like you saw last year with the Patriots, it's scary how similar it is to what they did last year. They just found ways to win, and that's what we've done this year, find ways."

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.