- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 16, 2005

PITTSBURGH — The NFL’s best team in the regular season survived a couple game-winning field-goal attempts, two touchdown returns and three second-half turnovers yesterday to advance to next weekend’s AFC Championship game.

The Pittsburgh Steelers scraped into overtime and pulled out a 20-17 victory over the New York Jets at Heinz Field for the chance to play the winner of today’s New England Patriots-Indianapolis Colts contest.

Already rebounding from a 6-10 record in 2003 to become just the third 15-1 team in league history, the Steelers now head into their fifth conference title game of the Bill Cowher era with a sense that this might finally be the year.

“I don’t know about destiny,” defensive end Aaron Smith said. “I don’t want to use that word. But this is a special team.”

Steelers kicker Jeff Reed connected on the winning 33-yard field goal eight minutes into overtime after his Jets counterpart, Doug Brien, missed potential game-winners from 47 and 43 yards in the final two minutes of regulation.

Brien’s first attempt, at the two-minute warning, bounced off the crossbar. His second, as time expired in regulation, was pulled well to the left. With the latter sailed the best chance at victory for scrappy New York (11-6), a nine-point underdog.

Reed had no such problems. Although he pushed the game-winner a bit to the right, it sailed through for his 19th straight connection, no mean feat considering many of those tries came on the muddy surface and in the windy confines of notorious Heinz Field.

“I’m still shaking from it,” Reed said. “I’ll enjoy it, but tomorrow’s a new day, and the next kick’s more important.”

Under Cowher, Pittsburgh previously reached the AFC title game following the 1994, 1995, 1997 and 2001 seasons. In the second of those appearances, the Steelers advanced to Super Bowl XXX but lost to the Dallas Cowboys.

This year’s team won its final 14 games of the regular season, thanks in large part to the precocious play of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the AFC offensive rookie of the year. But Roethlisberger stumbled a bit yesterday, throwing two second-half interceptions and completing just 17 of 30 throws for 181 yards.

The first of those picks, on a poorly thrown lob in the vicinity of wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, was run back 86 yards by Jets safety Reggie Tongue. New York took a 17-10 lead with 3:52 left in the third quarter and seemed poised for an upset.

But the Steelers’ offense was relentless, piling up 264 yards after halftime. Wide receiver Hines Ward (10 catches, 105 yards) tied the game on a 4-yard shovel pass with six minutes left in regulation, and Pittsburgh’s 72-yard drive in overtime set up the winning kick.

“We just wanted to get back on the field, get back out there and put some points on the board,” guard Alan Faneca said. “That was the attitude in the huddle.”

Shouldering the offensive burden was Pittsburgh’s running back duo of Jerome Bettis (27 carries, 101 yards) and Duce Staley (11, 54). Bettis started, scored in the first quarter and powered the offense through most of three periods, while Staley provided a vital late spark.

Roesthlisberger, meanwhile, kept his composure despite a number of bad throws. His second pick came just one play after Brien missed at the two-minute warning. But the rookie hit three of four throws in overtime, including a 17-yarder to Ward that converted a third-and-6 and pushed Pittsburgh to midfield.

“He’s always come right back from [mistakes],” Faneca said. “He’s been steady all year long, and he continued that today.”

Pittsburgh’s defense, the league’s No.1 unit, gave up several strong drives — including four of 38 or more yards — but ultimately held the Jets to just 275 yards and without an offensive touchdown.

The closest New York came to scoring on offense came in the second quarter, when wide receiver Santana Moss dropped a 39-yard pass in the end zone. Pittsburgh’s good fortune, though, was short-lived; just 3 minutes later Moss returned a punt 75 yards to tie the game 10-10.

But even such plays couldn’t undo a Pittsburgh squad that already has beaten New England, the No.2 seed and defending Super Bowl champion, and would match up well with the potent offense of Indianapolis. The Steelers’ resilience has them playing at least one more weekend.

“Bad things happen,” linebacker James Farrior said. “That doesn’t mean the game’s over. Until that clock says 0:00, you’ve got to keep playing.”

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