Bettis feared he might have fumbled away last chance to win a Super Bowl

Updated: January 15, 2006, 9:43 PM ET
Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS -- For a moment, Jerome Bettis must have felt exactly like the Oakland Raiders did after the Immaculate Reception in 1972.

With the Steelers looking to close out their 21-18 playoff upset of Indianapolis on Sunday, they put the ball in Bettis' hands at the Colts 2 with 1:20 remaining. There may be no safer hands in football than The Bus' -- he once went 220 consecutive carries without a fumble.

But Gary Brackett's hit loosened the ball and Nick Harper scooped it up and took off in a zigzag pattern toward the Steelers' goal line. Only quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's ankle tackle at the Colts 42 saved a game-winning score.

Think that Bettis didn't see his career flash before his eyes right then?

"Of course it crosses your mind," said Bettis, the fifth-leading rusher in NFL history. "I was on the ground and I just saw people running. I fumbled the football, and that's a no-no, something I can't do. I was mad."

Wide receiver Hines Ward was sick. The Steelers know Bettis is ready to retire after this season, and Ward could not believe such a great career might end on the blunder of a lifetime.

"We score there and the game's over," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. "And you certainly don't question that."

Luckily for the Steelers, Mike Vanderjagt missed a potential tying 46-yard field goal and the Steelers held on for their biggest playoff upset since a 1984 second-round win at Denver.

"It was just deflating," Ward said. "He rarely fumbles the ball and if this had been his last game, you would have hated to see him go out like that. ... I truly believe the man up above had something to do with that."

Or kind of like the Immaculate Reception, right?

If the Colts had won, the Steelers' blunder would have eclipsed that famed 1978 game-winning return TD by the Eagles' Herman Edwards of Giants quarterback Joe Pisarcik's fumble in 1978.

But the Eagles-Giants game was in the regular season. This would have been an out-of-nowhere loss to match Pittsburgh's out-of-nowhere playoff win against the Raiders in 1972 on Franco Harris' miracle catch of a wildly ricocheting Terry Bradshaw pass on what looked to be the Steelers' last play of the season.

Afterward, Bettis was thankful for Roethlisberger's tackle -- and so was Ward, who said, "Ben saved the year for us with the tackle."

He wasn't being glib, either. The Steelers had their tight end-filled offense on the field, and Roethlisberger was the only player with appreciable speed in their lineup. If he misses Harper ...

"I turned to watch him get in the end zone," Roethlisberger said. "All of a sudden I see the ball just go flying. My first reaction is just to go get it, but I knew I wasn't going to get there in time, so then it's let's try and slow him down. I think I turned him enough times that he got close to me and he couldn't decide which way to go, so now I just saw his leg and grabbed it, and luckily he went down."

Asked if he considered taking a knee, Roethlisberger said the Colts had three timeouts remaining.

"I think the smart play was to give Jerome the ball. I guarantee to you if we got that chance 100 times, we'd do it every time," he said.

Roethlisberger laughed when it was suggested the tackle might be remembered more than his excellent game: 14-of-24 for 197 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

"That's sad when a quarterback is remembered for a tackle," he said. "It's one of those things where once in a blue moon Jerome fumbles and once in a blue moon I'm going to make that tackle."

And the Steelers, for the first time in 21 years, will play an AFC championship game on the road Sunday in Denver. That puts Bettis one more victory away from closing out his career in the Super Bowl in his Detroit hometown, the reason he came back at age 33 to play this season.

"But it's going to be a tough game at Denver," Bettis said. "We're not looking at Detroit, we're looking at Denver."

After Vanderjagt's miss, Bettis and Cowher found themselves looking directly at each other. Not surprisingly, the coach gave Bettis a hug.

"He said, 'It's not over yet," Bettis said. "We've got another opportunity and it's up to us to make it right."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press

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