Imagine for a second how easily things could have changed back on January 15th, 2006. The Pittsburgh Steelers were in the midst of one of the greatest runs to a Super Bowl title in the history of the National Football League.
Just over a month earlier, the Steelers sat at 7-5 and faced the prospect of having to win their final four games just to get into the playoffs. The run began with a victory in Heinz Field over the Chicago Bears which was sparked by the iconic trucking of Brian Urlacher by the Steelers’ Jerome Bettis.
Flash back to the AFC Divisional Playoff Game in Indianapolis against the heavily-favored Colts led by Peyton Manning. The Steelers had gone into Cincinnati the week before and knocked off the rival Bengals to reach this point yet were given little chance of victory. The Colts had beaten the Steelers handily in a prime-time game earlier in the season.
In this game, the Steelers again came out throwing behind second-year QB Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers grabbed a 14-0 lead in the first quarter and would eventually take a 21-3 lead late in the third. With the Colts scrambling in the fourth quarter, they pulled to within three points at 21-18 and that’s when Jerome Bettis’ bus route to Detroit was nearly destroyed.
The Steelers had just sacked Manning to end a drive and had the ball deep in Colts’ territory. The strategy employed by Head Coach Bill Cowher and Offensive Coordinator Ken Whisenhunt could easily be questioned with the ball at the Indianapolis’ two-yard line with 1:20 to play.
They could have easily taken knees, forcing the Colts to use their final two timeouts and kicked the field goal for the 24-18 lead. This would have forced the Colts to score a touchdown in order to win. Personally, I was fine with the strategy. I’d rather go for the touchdown and a commanding 28-18 lead especially when I have Jerome Bettis needing just two yards.
That’s when Bettis’ fate could have ended with a tragic thud and no Super Bowl bus trip to Detroit. On the first play, Gary Brackett nailed Bettis perfectly knocking the ball out and into the hands of Colts’ defensive back Nick Harper.
As Harper broke from the pile near the goal line, the only thing between him and a touchdown was a quarterback who while athletic, had to find a way to stop a much more athletic Harper who had a head start on him. As you know, Roethlisberger made the play which became known as the “Immaculate Tackle.”
But Bettis’ future was far from being saved. The Colts had two timeouts and plenty of time to, at the very worst kick a field goal to tie the game. Indy kicker Mike Vanderjagt had been nearly perfect all season and the 48-yarder almost seemed automatic. But it wasn’t…
Ben Roethlisberger finally took those knees and the Steelers had again shocked the football world with an upset. Their fate remained in tact and the fate of Jerome Bettis remained on course.
As Bettis goes into the Hall of Fame tonight, I can’t help but wonder how easily things could have turned out differently. With a loss in that game, there would have been no Super Bowl. There would have been no homecoming in Detroit and perhaps there would have been no Hall of Fame.
The ‘what-ifs’ of history have always intrigued me and Bettis’ story is but another one that could have changed so dramatically were it not for the nimble footwork of Big Ben and the poor relationship between the ball and Vanderjagt’s foot.
It really would have been such a horrible and demoralizing way for such a great player and great man to go out but it didn’t go that way. Thankfully, we can enjoy what really happened tonight.
Congratulations Jerome Bettis, Hall of Fame 2015.
photo courtesy steelers.com