PITTSBURGH – Jeff Reed did what Doug Brien twice couldn't do, and imperfect but still unbeaten rookie Ben Roethlisberger (search) and the Pittsburgh Steelers saved a season that twice seemed to be gone.
Reed made a 33-yard field goal, his 19th successful conversion in a row, and the Steelers somehow beat the resilient New York Jets (search) 20-17 in overtime Saturday in a remarkable divisional playoff game filled with wild swings in momentum and emotion.
Roethlisberger overcame two huge mistakes — an interception for a touchdown and another that appeared to doom the Steelers (search) late in the fourth quarter — to lead a decisive drive that began at their own 13 and sent Pittsburgh to next Sunday's AFC championship game against New England or Indianapolis.
The loss will go down as one of the most excruciating in the Jets' star-crossed history, with Brien missing not one but two makable field-goal tries in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter. The misses were doubly stunning disappointments for a gutty team on the verge of its biggest upset since Broadway Joe's guaranteed win over the Colts in the January 1969 Super Bowl.
Brien's 47-yarder with 1:58 remaining hit the goal post, but Roethlisberger gave the Jets the ball right back when his off-line throw was intercepted by David Barrett — just the kind of mistake rookie quarterbacks are supposed to make in the playoffs, but Big Ben had rarely made during his 13-0 rookie season. The Jets then drove cautiously from the Steelers 37 to the 25, giving Brien a 43-yarder to win it on the final play of regulation.
But the kick sailed far to the left, not even close, and the given-a-reprieve Steelers danced joyously on their sidelines — Roethlisberger right in the middle.
Brien's 28-yarder in overtime beat San Diego last week — yes, by the same 20-17 score — and he hit a 42-yarder to halt Pittsburgh's early momentum and make it 10-3 Pittsburgh early in the second quarter. He was 24-of-29 for the season.
The Jets became the first NFL team to play three consecutive overtime games, including their regular-season ending loss in St. Louis. They dropped to 0-7 in Pittsburgh and 2-16 all-time against the Steelers.
The Steelers won their team-record 15th in a row to advance to the AFC title game for the fifth time since the 1994 season — they are 1-3 under coach Bill Cowher there — but the Jets will wonder for years why they're not going.
The Jets turned two long touchdown returns, Santana Moss' 75-yard punt return and Reggie Tongue's 86-yard interception, into 17 consecutive points and a 17-10 lead in the fourth quarter that stunned nearly everyone in a jammed Heinz Field except the Jets.
After the Jets' 17-6 loss there Dec. 12, defensive lineman Shaun Ellis predicted they would win if they returned to Pittsburgh in the playoffs. Last week, it didn't appear anyone in the Steelers' locker room took him seriously.
When Jerome Bettis (search) fumbled at the Jets 24 early in the fourth quarter — his first fumble in 353 carries or receptions this season — Ellis' confidence was looking like more than empty talk. Shades of Broadway Joe Namath?
But just when it appeared as if Roethlisberger was being exposed for the rookie he is, appearing confused at times by the Jets' ever-changing blitzes and fronts, he put together just the kind of drive that has marked the most remarkable season by a rookie quarterback in NFL history.
He sprinted for 20 yards on a first-down scramble, then mostly fed the ball to Bettis and Duce Staley on a 66-yard drive that ended with Roethlisberger's 4-yard scoring flip to Hines Ward — one of only three Roethlisberger completions on the all-important drive. He finished 17-of-30 for 181 yards and two touchdowns.
That drive was reminiscent of last month's game, when the Jets held the Steelers to a 3-all tie for three quarters before the Steelers wore them down with two Bettis-led scoring drives in the fourth.
Bettis outgained the Jets' Curtis Martin (search) 101-77 in a matchup of two of the NFL's top five career rushers. Bettis has rushed for at least 100 yards in all seven starts this season.
The Steelers, who haven't lost a divisional playoff game in seven tries under Cowher since 1993 and are 9-0 at home this season, surged to the 10-0 lead in the first quarter after Troy Polamalu's interception of Chad Pennington's pass. Bettis powered in from the 3 on the fifth play of the 25-yard drive following Roethlisberger's 9-yard completion to Ward.
Reed had given Pittsburgh a 3-0 lead with a 45-yard field goal.
The Jets appeared to be in big trouble then, down 10 points on the road to a Steelers team riding a franchise-record winning streak and coming off its first 15-1 season. The Jets scored only six points in each of their last two regular-season games against the Steelers, including last month's loss, and hadn't scored more than 10 points against them since 1988.
But Pennington, whose arm strength and decision-making were questioned following his three-interception performance in Pittsburgh on Dec. 12, then showed the same resiliency he had in San Diego.
Despite being sacked twice on the drive and dodging a strong rush on nearly every play from Pittsburgh's top-ranked defense, Pennington (21-of-33 for 182 yards and an interception) halted Pittsburgh's momentum by hitting Anthony Becht for 13 yards and Justin McCareins for 11 to set up Brien's 42-yard field goal early in the second quarter.
With the Jets' defense effectively controlling Roethlisberger, just as it did for three quarters last month, Moss found a seam down the sideline and sailed to his tying 75-yard return with three minutes left in the half.
The first punt return score in Jets postseason history was a big jolt to the Steelers' normally strong special teams, who allowed only one punt return longer than 10 yards in their last 11 games.