Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback
"I remember thinking,
'Jerome can't go
out like this.'"
There was no question what was supposed to happen when Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger trotted to his team's huddle with 80 seconds remaining in an AFC divisional playoff game at Indianapolis on Jan. 15, 2006. The ball was at the Colts' 2-yard line. The Steelers led 21-18, and fans inside the RCA Dome were streaming toward the exits. All Pittsburgh had to do was hand the ball to running back Jerome Bettis, watch him plow into the end zone and start making plans for the AFC title game the following week.
Roethlisberger had seen the Steelers clinch so many games in that fashion that he believed it was a done deal. "That was the smart play," Roethlisberger said. "We had a future Hall of Famer in a big game. He was a guy who never fumbled. He was a big back who could get you in and we were down there close. It was a no-brainer."
All the confidence vanished as soon as Roethlisberger handed the ball to Bettis on a simple counter play. First, guard Alan Faneca stumbled while pulling to his right to make a key block. Then, Colts linebacker Gary Brackett charged into the open space Bettis had expected to cruise through on his way to the end zone. When those two bodies collided, hope suddenly emerged along the Colts sideline. When the football shot into the air, victory was up for grabs as well.
Roethlisberger said a million thoughts raced through his mind in that split second. "I remember thinking, 'Jerome can't go out like this,'" he said. "We all knew that it would probably be his last year. Mostly, I was in a state of disbelief."
A moment later -- after the Colts' Nick Harper scooped up the football and raced upfield -- Roethlisberger found himself in desperation mode. Harper first headed toward the sideline, then cut back to the middle of the field as Roethlisberger backpedaled to slow him down. That one cut was enough to give Roethlisberger the opportunity he sought. Though he stumbled and fell to the turf, he was able to extend his arms and grab Harper's right foot, tripping up the cornerback at Indianapolis' 42-yard line.
The Colts still had time and Peyton Manning, but that tackle turned out to be the biggest play of the game. "I knew as the play was going, he's [Harper] a better athlete than I am; he's faster than I am," Roethlisberger said. "My thing was try to outsmart him if I can. I kept spinning and making him turn. Then it was, 'OK, it's now or never.' You have to take a chance, because he's close enough to you. I just went to grab for whatever I could grab, and his foot was the closest thing I could get to."
The Steelers ultimately held on to win after Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt missed a potential game-tying 46-yard field goal with 21 seconds left. To this day, Roethlisberger still considers that game a sign of the Steelers' destiny. They wound up winning three games on the road that postseason before beating Seattle in Super Bowl XL. They also gave Bettis the send-off he was seeking -- winning the championship in his hometown of Detroit. He retired from the NFL after that 2005 season.
But Roethlisberger also jokes that the Steelers could've made that Indianapolis game much easier on themselves by letting him run the quarterback draw. "It's crazy for a quarterback to be remembered for a tackle," Roethlisberger said. "Everyone knows about the Immaculate Reception around here, and I've heard things like 'the Immaculate Tackle.' If he scores, the game was probably over. It was definitely the most memorable play I made to that point. Obviously, the touchdown pass to Santonio [Holmes in Super Bowl XLIII] can go up there with it. But that's one [play], no matter what I do in my career, that will always be at the top."
Gary Brackett, Cato June, Ben Roethlisberger, Nick Harper, Kendall Simmons, Jerome Bettis
"I thought it was over.
I was going crazy."
"The next day,
we still couldn't believe."
"There was a
chance of him
making that tackle."
"That play was the turning point. ...
I told myself, 'We're going to the Super Bowl."
"Our game plan
was to seal the deal
and get out of there."
Ben Roethlisberger's tackle of Nick Harper didn't just save a game.
It ultimately saved a championship.
Photo by Steve C. Mitchell