January 22, 2011

2006: Steelers Beat Broncos for AFC Title with Third Straight Road Win

The AFC Championship game on January 22, 2006 at INVESCO Field at Mile High featured the host Denver Broncos, champions of the AFC West with a 13-3 record, against the Pittsburgh Steelers, an 11-5 wild card team that had finished second to the Bengals in the AFC North.

The Broncos, under Head Coach Mike Shanahan, did well in 2005 with veteran Jake Plummer at quarterback, who in his third year with the club had thrown for 3366 yards and 18 touchdowns and, most notably for the often-erratic passer, tied his career low with just seven interceptions (he had led the NFL with 20 in ’04). Denver had become best known for its ground game during the Shanahan era, and running backs Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell combined for a total of 1935 yards and 20 touchdowns. 35-year-old Pro Bowl WR Rod Smith caught 85 passes for 1105 yards. MLB Al Wilson, CB Champ Bailey, and FS John Lynch were among the best in the league at their positions.

Pittsburgh, led by Head Coach Bill Cowher for the 14th year, had dropped from 15-1 in 2004, suffering during the ’05 season when second-year QB Ben Roethlisberger (pictured above) missed time due to injury. But they won their last four games to close out the regular season and then went on the road to beat division-rival Cincinnati in the Wild Card round and the Colts at the Divisional level, thus eliminating the third and first seeds, respectively, in the AFC postseason. While 33-year-old RB Jerome Bettis was fading in his last year, RB Willie Parker ran for 1202 yards. Reliable WR Hines Ward caught 69 passes for 975 yards and 11 TDs. C Jeff Hartings and G Alan Faneca were Pro Bowlers on the offensive line, and NT Casey Hampton, LB Joey Porter, and SS Troy Polamalu were feature players on the tough defense.

The Broncos had the game’s first possession and punted. Pittsburgh put together a long, 12-play drive that included a Roethlisberger pass to WR Antwaan Randle-El for 20 yards, a pass to Ward on a third-and-three play that was nearly intercepted by Bailey but picked up seven yards instead, and a successful challenge of what was initially ruled a fumble by Parker to keep the drive going. After all that, Jeff Reed kicked a 47-yard field goal to give the Steelers the early 3-0 lead.

On the third play of Denver’s next possession, Plummer fumbled when sacked by Porter and Hampton recovered for Pittsburgh at the Broncos’ 39 yard line. On the first play of the second quarter, Roethlisberger threw to WR Cedrick Wilson in the back of the end zone for a 12-yard touchdown.

Reed kicked out of bounds on the ensuing kickoff to give the Broncos the ball on their own 40 and they moved 55 yards in 12 plays that resulted in a 23-yard field goal by Jason Elam to cut Pittsburgh’s lead to 10-3.

However, the Steelers again put together a long drive of 80 yards in 14 plays, converting three third downs along the way. Bettis finished it with a three-yard touchdown run with two minutes remaining in the half. Plummer was immediately intercepted on their next play from scrimmage by CB Ike Taylor to give Pittsburgh another possession at the Denver 38. The Steelers made the most of it with a 17-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to Ward and had a formidable 24-3 lead at halftime.

Midway through the third quarter, the Broncos put together a scoring drive of 80 yards in five plays, featuring a Plummer pass to Smith for 32 yards. Plummer completed a 30-yard touchdown throw to WR Ashley Lelie and the Pittsburgh lead was cut to 24-10.

The Steelers drove to a 42-yard Reed field goal early in the fourth quarter, and once again Plummer was intercepted on Denver’s next play following a 47-yard kickoff return by WR Charlie Adams. Pittsburgh went three-and-out and this time the Broncos drove 80 yards, with Plummer completing a pass to Lelie for 38 of that total, and RB Mike Anderson ran for a three-yard touchdown. Denver was down by ten at 27-17 with under eight minutes to play.

Pittsburgh again went three-and-out, but the Broncos couldn’t move when they got the ball back and on a fourth-and-ten play, Plummer fumbled when sacked and DE Travis Kirschke recovered for the Steelers at the Denver 17. Five plays later, Roethlisberger ran the ball in himself for a four yard touchdown that provided the final score of 34-17.

The statistics seemed closer than the score as the Steelers led in total yardage (358 yards to 308) and first downs (20 to 16). However, while Pittsburgh didn’t turn the ball over, the Broncos did four times, and all directly attributable to Plummer, who fumbled twice and was intercepted twice - three of those turnovers directly led to scores by the Steelers.

Ben Roethlisberger completed 21 of 29 passes for 275 yards and two touchdowns, and of course wasn’t intercepted. Cedrick Wilson caught 5 passes for 92 yards and a TD and Hines Ward also had 5 receptions, for 59 yards and a score. Jerome Bettis gained 39 yards on 15 carries with a touchdown and Willie Parker contributed 35 yards on 14 attempts.

For Denver, Jake Plummer (pictured at left), beyond the turnovers, was successful on 18 of 30 passes for 223 yards and a TD against the two interceptions; he also ran for 30 yards on 7 attempts. Rod Smith and TE Jeb Putzier caught 4 passes apiece, for 61 and 55 yards respectively, while Ashley Lelie gained 68 yards on his two receptions. Mike Anderson was the team’s leading rusher, gaining 36 yards on 9 carries that included a TD, and Tatum Bell added 31 yards on five attempts.

“We did not complete the mission and it's frustrating,” said Denver LB Ian Gold. “But anytime you make it to the AFC championship game and you lose, you hope to lose to a team like that.”

In beating the Broncos in Denver, the Steelers became the first team to win three playoff games on the road since the New England Patriots in 1985, and defeated each of the top three seeded clubs in the conference in doing so.

“If you look at our ownership, Mr. (Dan) Rooney is a football guy and he understands how hard it is to do this,” Bill Cowher said. “Nothing would be more satisfying to me than to hand him the Vince Lombardi trophy in two weeks.”

Coach Cowher got his wish as the Steelers went on to beat Seattle in the Super Bowl, which also gave them a fifth Super Bowl victory (still well short of Green Bay’s record of 12 NFL championships, going back to 1920).

For Jake Plummer, the turnover-filled loss in the AFC title game was the beginning of the end for both his tenure in Denver and career. He was benched in favor of rookie Jay Cutler during the 2006 season and was dealt to Tampa Bay, choosing to retire instead. While he could be an exciting performer, his erratic tendencies ultimately curtailed his effectiveness.