January 7, 2012
DENVER (AP)—Champ Bailey had the interception in his grasp and the end zone in his sights as Hines Ward began to fall and the fluttering football hung in the air along with the fortunes of two of the NFL’s most storied franchises.
Ward somehow came down with the deflected pass from Ben Roethlisberger,holding on despite a jaw-jarring hit from John Lynch. Bailey pounded the ground with his fist in disgust and the Pittsburgh Steelers commenced with their 34-17 dismantling of the Denver Broncos in the AFC title game following the 2005 season.
That watershed afternoon of Jan. 22, 2006, sent the Steelers and Broncos on divergent paths, and they meet again Sunday in an AFC wild-card game at Sports Authority Field in snowy Denver.
“That game catapulted us to a Super Bowl victory,” Pittsburgh defensive end Brett Keisel said.
It sent the Broncos on a nosedive that would take them through three coaches, four quarterbacks, six defensive coordinators and a whole lot of misery before returning to the playoffs this year.
The Steelers are 69-35 since that fateful contest, winning two titles and narrowly missing a third in a 31-25 loss to Green Bay in last year’s Super Bowl, rivaling their run in the 1970s.
The Broncos have gone 44-52 with just one winning season and no playoff appearances.
“You can look at the direction we both headed after that. They went up, we went down,” Bailey said. “We haven’t been back, they’ve won two since then. It’s funny how it played out. But that was then, this is now. We have a chance to turn things around here and that’s what we expect to do this weekend.”
The Broncos, who won the middling AFC West at 8-8, host the heavily favored Steelers (12-4), who lost the AFC North on a tiebreaker to Baltimore, on what’s expected to be a snowy Sunday afternoon in Denver.
Memories of the pivotal `05 conference championship are fresh in the minds of the 16 Steelers and two Broncos—Bailey and linebacker D.J. Williams—who are still on their respective rosters.
“We started getting hot in the playoffs, wasn’t nobody that was going to stop us,” Steelers linebacker Larry Foote recounted. “When we beat Indy, it didn’t matter who we were going to play, we were going to get to the Super Bowl. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Bailey laments his lost shot at a Super Bowl that has eluded him throughout his stellar 13-year career that includes 11 Pro Bowls, a record for cornerbacks.
“I remember it, but at the same time, it’s a new day. That was a long time ago,” Bailey said. “We’re just trying to move on from here and see what we can do with this team.”
Lynch has long since retired, so he has no chance to assuage the anguish of that afternoon six years ago. Now an analyst for Fox Sports, he said he still looks back on that lost opportunity more than he does on the Super Bowl title he did win.
Early in the game the crowd was going crazy.
“I remember a big third down, it appeared right when Ben threw it that Champ was going to the house,” Lynch recalled. “Hines Ward made a great play to get his hands on the ball. The ball was hanging up there in slow-motion, and I knew what a competitor and tough player Hines was, but I was sure I was going to knock the ball out. And I put a lick on him like all licks. He got up smiling at me, first down. He also stuck his knee right up my quad, so I was gimpy the rest of the game, I could barely run.”
The Broncos would never lead and three hours later, they trudged off the field heads down while the Steelers celebrated their return to dominance.
“It was a tough game, because, gosh we had a great opportunity and I believe to this day that if we get through that game, we go beat Seattle and go win the Super Bowl,” Lynch said.
Now, it’s the Steelers who are coming to town with all the experience, momentum and pedigree and the Broncos who are the young, untested, just-glad-to-be-here bunch.
“Yeah, same thing, different team, right?” Bailey said. “Just kind of flipped it a little bit. And what did they do? They came here and beat our butts, so who’s to say what’s going to happen Sunday?”
The oddsmakers have installed the Steelers as 8 1/2 -point favorites despite an injury epidemic in Pittsburgh that has claimed tailback Rashard Mendenhall(knee) and could sideline All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey (ankle). The Steelers’top tackler, safety Ryan Clark, is sitting out as a precaution because of a blood disorder that’s exacerbated by altitude.
A sprained left ankle won’t keep Roethlisberger on the sideline, though.
Several other members of the league’s best defense are banged up as they prepare for the Broncos’ throwback offense. Asked when he last defended the option, Steelers defensive guru Dick LeBeau cracked, “Probably when I was playing.”
The Broncos may have the league’s top ground game, but they’ll be without their best run blocking in right guard Chris Kuper, who broke his left leg last week and will be replaced by Russ Hochstein and maybe Ryan Harris, who was re-signed Tuesday. Austin Sylvester is in line to get his first NFL action with fullback Spencer Larsen (knee) doubtful.
And strong safety Brian Dawkins was ruled out of Denver’s lineup with a nagging neck injury that might ultimately spell the end of his illustrious 16-year NFL career.
Bailey doesn’t mind being the dismissed team this time around.
“It keeps the distractions away a little more,” he said. “People aren’t hyping you as much and patting you on the back. People are whispering behind our back and telling us we (stink), and I’d rather live like that than any other way.”
After all, nobody thought the Broncos would reach the playoffs after they started 1-4 and Tim Tebow supplanted Kyle Orton, then won seven of his first eight starts before losing his last three.
During the skid, Tebow has completed just 30 of 73 passes (41 percent) with one touchdown, four interceptions and 10 sacks to go with three lost fumbles.
A two-time national champion at Florida, Tebow is looking to bounce back in a big way in the playoffs.
“The kid does have some special qualities and he rises to the challenge on the big stage, and that’s what the playoffs are all about,” Lynch said.“Here’s his opportunity.”
AP Sports Writer Will Graves contributed to this report from Pittsburgh.
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