- The Washington Times - Monday, January 23, 2006

DENVER — As the final seconds ticked down in Pittsburgh’s loss to New England in last season’s AFC Championship game, Steelers rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger turned to Jerome Bettis and asked, through their mutual tears, the veteran running back to return for one more attempt to reach a Super Bowl.

Bettis, who was pondering retirement, ultimately agreed, knowing Super Bowl XL was in his hometown of Detroit. Yesterday, Roethlisberger helped Pittsburgh fulfill that goal, delivering a nearly flawless performance and lifting the Steelers to a 34-17 upset of the favored Denver Broncos in the AFC title game.

“This makes everything I’ve had to endure through the course of my career worth it,” said the 33-year-old Bettis, who scored a touchdown and led all rushers with 39 yards.

Pittsburgh (14-5) will meet NFC champion Seattle (15-3) on Feb. 5 at Ford Field for the Lombardi Trophy.

“That’s been my driving force all year,” Roethlisberger said of his promise to Bettis. “I’m just glad that I didn’t have to cry and apologize to him that I couldn’t get him there.”

In becoming the youngest starting quarterback to earn a Super Bowl berth since Miami’s Dan Marino 21 years ago, the 23-year-old Roethlisberger completed 21 of 29 passes for 275 yards and two touchdowns and also ran for a score.

“A lot of people said that if we had to throw the ball, we can’t win,” Roethlisberger said. “Myself, the line, the receivers, we kind of took offense to that. We’ve kind of proven that’s not the case.”

And how. Pittsburgh — ranked fifth in rushing and just 24th in passing this season — passed for 92 more yards than its season average while running for 62 fewer yards than usual.

“Our young quarterback didn’t play young,” said Steelers coach Bill Cowher, who won for just the second time in six AFC title games. “He’s much more mature than his age would indicate. He’s very much in control. Ben’s very composed. He’s got a great feel for the game. He’s got a lot of self-confidence. This kid has been successful all his life.”

A season after their 15-1 regular season was ruined by that 41-27 AFC title game loss to the Patriots, the Steelers became the first team in 20 years to win three playoff games on the road and the first sixth seed to reach the Super Bowl.

“We kind of traveled the hard road, but in the course of it, we probably grew as a team,” Cowher said. “It was tough to do what we had to do, but this is a very resilient, a very grounded group of guys.”

While the Steelers knocked off the AFC’s top three seeds — Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver — in succession, the Broncos (14-3) lost at home for the first time in more than a year, eight days after eliminating the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Patriots. Mike Shanahan, who coached the Broncos to back-to-back Super Bowl titles in the 1997 and 1998 seasons with Hall of Famer John Elway at quarterback, fell to 1-4 in postseason since.

“We didn’t complete the mission, and it’s frustrating,” said Denver linebacker Ian Gold, whose team committed four turnovers and couldn’t stop Pittsburgh on third down in falling behind 24-3 at halftime. “They deserved to win. They totally dominated every facet of the game.”

Indeed, once the call on running back Willie Parker’s fumble was reversed 8:22 into the game — giving the ball back to Pittsburgh at the Denver 46-yard line — the Steelers were unstoppable the rest of the half. They completed that drive with a 47-yard Jeff Reed field goal, then needed just five plays on their next possession to go up 10-0 as third receiver Cedrick Wilson torched perennial Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey for a 12-yard touchdown on third-and-8.

After Jason Elam closed the gap to seven points with a 23-yard field goal, the Steelers marched 80 yards. Bettis capped that 14-play drive by bulling in from the 3. Cornerback Ike Taylor picked off Denver quarterback Jake Plummer on the next play, and Roethlisberger needed just four plays to find Hines Ward in the end zone for a 17-yard touchdown, which made it 24-3 with seven seconds left in the half.

The Broncos put together touchdown drives of 80 and 72 yards midway through the second half to make a game of it. But when they got the ball back, trailing 27-17 with 6:12 left, they turned the ball over after losing 3 yards. And with that, Cowher was headed back to the Super Bowl for the first time in 10 years.

“A lot of guys that went through last year didn’t want to go through that same feeling again,” Cowher said. “I want to make sure that they remember that from now until two weeks from today because no one remembers the loser of the Super Bowl.”

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