You can go another 20 years and never see a final six minutes of football like that again. In fact, it was more theater than football, from the bizarre officiating blunder on a Pittsburgh Steelers interception to the irony of the Indianapolis Colts' "idiot kicker" (to quote Peyton Manning) missing his first field goal of the year at home to leave the NFL's best team a forlorn loser.
The Patriots' five-turnover loss in Denver less than 24 hours earlier — a loss that leaves the NFL without its two most glamorous teams going into the championship round — was pedestrian compared to the Colts' stunning loss to the Steelers.
The sight of place kicker Mike Vanderjagt trying to save the Colts' season, with 21 seconds left and his team down 21-18, was a study in irony. It was Vanderjagt who said a couple of years ago that the Colts would never win with Tony Dungy as coach and Peyton Manning as quarterback, a remark that led Manning to call Vanderjagt an "idiot kicker who got liquored up and ran his mouth off."
Vanderjagt made sure the Colts had no chance to advance to the AFC championship game when he missed the 46-yard kick, his first miss this season at home. And to think it wasn't even the most memorable play of the game, the quarter, or even the final few minutes.
It's an unimaginable recipe that went into the final minutes of Colts-Steelers, right down to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger perhaps winning the game for the Steelers by making, of all things, a tackle on a Colts cornerback, Nick Harper, who had been cut in the knee the night before, reportedly in a domestic accident, and couldn't finish what could have been a game-winning, 93-yard return of Jerome Bettis's first fumble of the entire season.
On some level, the NFL is probably lucky the Steelers won, considering that with minutes to play and the Steelers ahead 21-10, the officials made an unforgivably bad call, even after having the benefit of replay, to take away a clear interception by safety Troy Polamalu that should have effectively ended the game, what with the way the Steelers were running the ball with a lead.
Yet, that was only the beginning of the drama because Manning, who was absolutely terrible for much of the game, pulled himself together long enough to lead the Colts to another touchdown, plus the two-point conversion that got the Colts within 21-18.
But the Colts, except on the drive to get within three, hardly ever approached the early- and midseason form that led them to a 13-0 mark and made them the betting favorite to reach the Super Bowl going into the playoffs. The San Diego Chargers' successful game plan of pressuring Manning relentlessly was essentially a blueprint for the Steelers. And it made Joey Porter's midweek assessment that the Colts were a finesse and timing team that doesn't like to be roughed up ring true. Twice in the final two minutes, on second and fourth downs, the Steelers manhandled the Colts' line and sacked Manning in situations we've grown accustomed to seeing him master.
Manning hinted after the game that the Colts had protection breakdowns, but the fact is Manning wasn't close on many of his passes, and he helped contribute to false starts by changing plays at the line. As great as Manning is — he holds the NFL record for passing touchdowns in a season — he again was a big failure in a big game, just as he was for four years against Florida when he was at the University of Tennessee, and just as he has been in the NFL, losing in various ways to the Patriots before beating them this season.
What must make this defeat even more deflating is that the Colts were the most compelling story in the league because of their long undefeated run, and the sentimental favorite because so many people were rooting for Dungy, whose 18-year-old son died in December, just days after the undefeated run ended. It's hard to figure any coach and quarterback having had more disappointing big-game losses than Dungy, who had his share as Tampa Bay's coach, and Manning.
And it's hard to see the playoffs moving ahead to the championship round next week without the two-time defending champion Patriots and the Colts. The Steelers and Broncos are familiar championship teams, but few people figured the Patriots and Colts would exit this weekend, and leave the playoffs so wide open to teams we mistakenly thought were lesser challengers.