Tuesday, January 17, 2006

A truly great football game

The Immaculate Tackle

I just love the game of football. Whether playing, coaching or watching, to see the game played as it is supposed to be played is a thrill, a joy. It brings back those fall days in western PA, drawing up plays on the ground and running through the fallen leaves to touchdown glory. Or, in throwing the perfect pass downfield, hitting a receiver in stride. In the inimitable words of Dan Marino: "There's no defense for the perfect pass!"

With the joy of football in my veins, I just have to talk about Sunday's game between the Steelers and Colts. What a game!

Pittsburgh definitely showed up to play football. There was a lot of talk before the game about how Pittsburgh didn't stand a chance against Peyton and the boys. All my Indiana friends were talking trash, and all the talking heads on TV were pretty much in agreement: Pittsburgh was going to lose, the only question was by how much, lol. The Las Vegas line was around 10 points -- which just goes to show how much the bookies were willing to put their money on the line that Pittsburgh was gonna get creamed!

Well, excuse me, but "sudden slip between the cup and lip" and all that, lol.

Pittsburgh arrived and smashed Indy in the mouth: A perfect offensive game plan and a manly defensive game plan, I must say. The Steeler defense took full advantage of Peyton's dummy calls and late adjustments at the line of scrimmage...disguising their blitzes and coverages, showing one thing and switching off at the last second, showing the very same thing on the next play and then keeping it...it was masterful.

But, as neat as the entire game was, the ending is something that will stick in Pittsburgh lore for years to come. Not since the ancient "Immaculate Reception" has a game reflected so much destiny and so little probability!

The weirdness started with about 5:26 left in the game.

Pittsburgh was leading by 11 points, and the Colts were in hurry-up offense, desperately driving, trying to score and get back in the game. Peyton dropped back to pass and tried to connect with Reggie Wayne in the middle of the field. But Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu dove in and picked it off: an awesome, athletic interception. His momentum carried him to the turf, where he rolled over and then jumped up to run. But as he jumped up to run, his left knee came up and knocked the ball out of his own hands. Instead of running for a TD, now he simply had to fall on the ball and cover it for possession. The ref tossed the beanbag for a fumble: Pittsburgh ball! Ruling on the field: Interception and fumble recovery, Pittsburgh ball. Game over.

All Pittsburgh had to do was run out the clock, sit on the ball and nurse their 11 point lead. Everyone in the football world knew: game over.

But wait!

Indy coach Tony Dungy threw the challenge flag...hoping that the replay would show no possession by Troy [therefore incomplete pass and still Colt ball]. And really, it was the only thing he could do! It was a wise coaching move, but everyone knew: it was an interception. There was no way in Hades that this call was getting overturned. Sorry, Dungy -- nice guy and all, but replays were beyond clear: Troy had possession and only lost the ball as he got up to run, knocking it out of his own hands.

Pittsburgh players celebrated on the sideline. They knew!

But then, inexplicably, referee Pete Morelli came back on the field...he mumbled some incoherent stuff about the right knee being on the ground while left knee knocked the ball out, therefore, voila! Indy ball. Just like that, a magic hat new life for Indy! No interception, no harm no foul!

I was stunned. Simply, no other way to put it...stunned. I couldn't believe my eyes.

In all my football years, I've never seen something so clear be suddenly erased. But there it was: Colts ball and new life, and this time they made it count. Three plays and a TD. Then a two-point conversion. Just like that, three-point ball game!

From being out of the game and out of the playoffs, to three points down with plenty of time left! Now that is something...

In the back of my mind, I'm thinking: "How much are the bookies paying this guy?"

But wait! The weirdness was just starting.

The Colts defense forced Pittsburgh to punt on the ensuing possession, and the punt went into the endzone. So Indy was starting on their own 20 yard line, with around 2:45 left in the ball game. Plenty of time! All they needed was a field goal to tie and a TD to win. And, give that offense 2:45 and shoot! In the Colts' minds, they were thinking TD, not field goal.

But the Pittsburgh D had gas left in the tank, lol! They forced Peyton into short, bad throws and sacked him twice: double sacks by Joey Porter, and see ya later at the two yard line! Butt-kicking time, says Porter, lol. Ball goes over on downs to Pitt.

Game over.

1:20 left, Pittsburgh first down on the two yard line.

Are you thinking what I'm thinking? Yep. Hand off to "The Bus" and ride into the AFC Championship with a 10 point win.

But wait! Are you ready for the ultimate weird ending?

Jerome "The Bus" Bettis takes the handoff, and as he turns to the endzone, LB Gary Brackett smashes his helmet against the ball. The ball pops up in the air, is caught on a bounce by Colt cornerback Nick Harper. Fumble return!

Again, I couldn't believe my eyes. Horror of horrors, what was this?

Harper is racing for a TD...no one to stop him! Tragic ending for Pittsburgh!

But wait! Out of nowhere is Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh QB. He stumbles, falls over himself trying to stop Harper...falling backward he reaches out a right arm and catches his right knee. It was just enough. It tripped up Nick at the 42 yard line. Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburg Post-Gazatte relays the action well:

Linebacker Gary Brackett slammed into Bettis and put his helmet on the ball. The man who rarely fumbles fumbled for the first time this season.

The ball popped backward. Cornerback Nick Harper, playing with three stitches in his right knee where his wife allegedly stabbed him Saturday, picked it up. He had one man to beat to run 93 yards for the go-ahead touchdown -- Roethlisberger.

Now this story is layers of bizarre, isn't it? Nick Harper was just out of the hospital emergency department with an inch deep stab wound in his right knee, inflicted by his wife. Some people say he couldn't have been tackled has his knee been 100 percent! Bizarre, huh?

[Mini-moral of the story: Guys, treat your wives well or it could cost you like you never know, lol.]

But now, here it is, Indy ball at the 42, three time outs left, all the time in the world to move into field goal range...tie the game and go into overtime, at home, with all the momentum. They quickly moved into field goal range at the 28 yard line and then went for the TD. Only an awesome defensive play by Steeler cornerback Bryant McFadden kept Wayne from catching the TD.

But that was no problem for Indy. They merely called on their kicker, Mike Vanderjagt, to kick the 46 yard field and send it to overtime. This is the guy, mind you, by his own admission, is the best kicker in the NFL! The most accurate kicker in the NFL to make what for him is a chip shot field goal...

You guessed it.

He missed.

He not only missed the field goal, but missed it by about 3 goal post lengths!

All those crazy, weird things that seemed to hand the game to the Colts...nope! The day belonged to Pittsburgh. And not the refs or the other team could take it away.

Add up the probabilities:

  • Troy Polamalu's interception being mysteriously overturned.
  • The multiple sacks and over on downs at the 2.
  • The fumble by Bettis at the 2 [the guy who never fumbles].
  • The recovery and run by Nick Harper [the very guy with the stabbed knee].
  • The improbable tackle by Roethlisberger.
  • The defensive play by McFadden to save the TD.
  • The missed field goal by Vanderjagt.
All in the last 5:26 of the game!

But, game over. Pittsburgh win. And well-fought. A truly great football game!

They'll be talking about this game in Pittsburgh for years to come -- those last five, thrilling minutes, a "wild finish made of missed opportunities, gut-wrenching twists and one unimaginable, tide-turning play after another." From the Immaculate Reception to the Immaculate Tackle!

After the game I thought about the man who passed away last year...and left orders that he was to be laid out in a recliner, with a remote in one hand, brew in the other "watching" Pittsburgh Steeler highlights on a big-screen TV.

Yes, they'll be talking about this for years in western PA!

Hines Ward: "It went from an all-time high to an all-time low back to an all-time high."

And speaking to the mysterious, overturned interception, Joey Porter had someting to say:

"I felt they were cheating us. When the interception happened, everybody in the world knew that was an interception. Don't cheat us that bad. [I felt] when they did that, they really want Peyton Manning and these guys to win the Super Bowl. They are just going to straight take it for them. I felt that they were like 'We don't even care if you know we're cheating. We're cheating for them.' "

"The way the refs were going, I wouldn't have trusted them in overtime," Porter told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. "If we hadn't won, they would have cheated us in overtime."

No doubt Porter will be fined for those comments, but he only said what many people felt...no other way to explain some of the calls. Especially with the benefit of slow motion, every-angle replay. Following the game, NFL Today analysts Boomer Esiason, Shannon Sharpe and Dan Marino actually said on air that it would have been the greatest robbery of all time had the Colts been granted the win.

True that. Just to show how blatant the overturned interception was, the league came out Monday and admitted the "mistake." Which happens about as often as Islamic terrorists have a conscience! Mike Pereira, the league's vice president of officiating, issued a statement saying that Morelli should have let the call on the field stand.

"He maintained possession long enough to establish a catch," Pereira said.

"Therefore, the replay review should have upheld the call on the field that it was a catch and fumble."

The craziness was summed pretty well by Ben Roethlisberger:

"It's one of those things that once in a blue moon Jerome fumbles, and once in a blue moon I'm going to make that tackle."

And once in a blue moon to see a game like this! :-)

Great game...a truly great game.

Enough to give a person football fever!

Go Steelers! :-)

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