3:00 PM ET, January 22, 2006
Pittsburgh (13-5) at Denver (14-3) Sunday 3:00 pm EST AFC Championship
DENVER (Ticker) -- Maybe Bill Cowher is better off playing the AFC championship game on the road. Mike Shanahan is glad to be at home.
The coaches meet in the conference title game for the second time on Sunday when the Pittsburgh Steelers face the Denver Broncos at Invesco Field at Mile High.
The winner will play the winner of the NFC championship game between Seattle and Carolina in Super Bowl XL in Detroit on February 5.
The Steelers are in the AFC championship game for the sixth time in 14 years under Cowher. The first five were all at home and they lost four of them, including a 24-21 defeat to Shanahan and the Broncos in the last postseason game ever played at Three Rivers Stadium on January 11, 1998. Two weeks later, Denver upset the Green Bay Packers, 31-24, in Super Bowl XXXII.
The Broncos last hosted an AFC championship game the following year and defeated the New York Jets, 23-10, before beating Atlanta, 34-19, in Super Bowl XXXIII.
That was the last postseason win for Shanahan before last week when the Broncos ended the championship reign of the New England Patriots with a 27-13 victory in the divisional playoffs. Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey returned an interception 100 yards - the second longest in postseason history - to set up Mike Anderson's second touchdown run of the game and the Broncos forced four other turnovers.
Denver probably expected to play the top-seeded Indianapolis Colts in the championship game. That would have been quite a daunting task for the Broncos, who lost by a combined score of 90-34 to the Colts in the last two postseasons.
Instead, the Broncos get to stay at home, where they are 9-0 this season, and face the Steelers, the first sixth seed to reach the championship game.
But the Steelers looked like anything but a sixth seed in a 21-18 win at Indianapolis last week. Pittsburgh scored touchdowns on its first two possessions, took a 21-3 lead into the fourth quarter and held on for the victory.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, a first-round pick in 2004, will make his second trip to the conference title game in as many seasons. He was 14-of-24 for 197 yards and two touchdowns and the Steelers sacked Peyton Manning five times in the win over the Colts. But Roethlisberger's most important play was a tackle of Colts cornerback Nick Harper on a fumble return.
Indianapolis rallied for 18 points in the fourth quarter, but turned the ball over on downs after Manning was sacked on a fourth-down play by linebackers Joey Porter and James Farrior at the Colts 2 with 1:27 left.
Cowher then put the ball in the hands of Jerome Bettis, who had not fumbled all year. But Bettis did the unthinkable - he fumbled after being hit by linebacker Gary Brackett and Harper recovered the ball. Harper ran 35 yards and could have gone all the way if not for a lunging tackle by Roethlisberger.
The Colts eventually drove into field-goal range, but Mike Vanderjagt, the most accurate kicker in NFL history, missed the potential game-tying 46-yard field goal in the final seconds of regulation.
But the win would have come easier for the Steelers if not for a controversial call that the NFL admitted was a bad one. Referee Pete Morelli made a mistake when he overturned an apparent interception by Steelers safety Troy Polamalu with 5:26 left in the fourth quarter.
On the play, Polamalu made a diving catch of a pass by Manning, rolled over with the ball in his hands and got up to run. The ball then slipped out of Polamalu's hands and he pounced on his own fumble.
It was ruled as an interception before Colts coach Tony Dungy challenged the call. Replays clearly showed Polamalu catching the ball, then fumbling as he got up to run. But Morelli reversed the call and the Colts went on to score a touchdown and a two-point conversion on that drive to pull within 21-18.
The Steelers are now trying to become only the second team to win three road playoff games en route to the Super Bowl. Only the 1985 New England Patriots have accomplished that.
Ironically, Pittsburgh was 0-3 on the road in the postseason under Cowher before beating Cincinnati in the wild-card round and Indianapolis this month.
Cowher reached the Super Bowl for the only time in January 1996 after the Steelers beat the Colts, 20-16, in the AFC championship game. But they lost to Dallas, 27-17, in Super Bowl XXX.
Last year, the Steelers had the NFL's best record but lost to the Patriots, 41-27, in the conference title game. Roethlisberger passed for 226 yards and two touchdowns, but was intercepted three times.
Bettis played on the Steelers team that lost to Denver in the 1997 AFC championship game. Wide receiver Rod Smith, center Tom Nalen, defensive end Trevor Pryce, special teams standout Keith Burns and kicker Jason Elam are the Broncos that remain from that team.
Cowher and Shanahan met just once since then - a 17-14 victory for the Broncos on October 12, 2003 as Elam kicked a 47-yard field goal as time expired. But the quarterbacks in that game were Tommy Maddox for Pittsburgh and Steve Beuerlein for Denver. Smith caught an 11-yard touchdown pass.
Jake Plummer missed that contest due to injury. He completed 15-of-26 passes for 197 yards and a touchdown with an interception in last week's win over the Patriots.
Matchup to watch: Smith, who had six catches for 96 yards and a touchdown last week and finished with 85 for 1,105 this season, matches up against Steelers right cornerback Deshea Townsend.
Series: The Broncos lead, 14-8-1, including 3-2 in the postseason.
Next game: The winner will play the Carolina-Seattle winner in Super Bowl XL in Detroit on February 5
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Broncos, Steelers have common goals
Before the Steelers upset the Colts in the divisional round, a No. 6 had never beaten a No. 1 seed in the playoffs. They did it with excellent game plans on offense and defense, and much like the San Diego Chargers in December, Pittsburgh was more physical than the Colts. Denver played a physical game of its own in a over New England and capitalized on five key turnovers.
Both of these teams take a lot of pride in running the football, and both believe in controlling the clock and playing great defense, especially versus the run. This is not a game for the faint-hearted. It will be physical, there will be some trash talking and both defenses will be creative in their blitz packages. Can the Steelers win three tough games on the road to get to Detroit?
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|Avg Points Allowed||17.3||23.5|
Team Averages & NFL Ranks
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|Pass Yds Allowed||PIT|
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Head to Head Matchups (Since 2001)
|Series tied 1-1|
|Oct 12, 2003||PIT 14, @DEN 17|