The Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks are both two wins away from forcing a rematch of Super Bowl XL. But that matchup might never have happened if not for a wild play that changed the course of NFL history.
That play took place exactly 10 years ago today.
So much went into it, so let’s summarize.
The game: 2005 divisional playoffs, sixth-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers at the 14-2 Indianapolis Colts
The situation: Pittsburgh leads 21-18 with 1:20 remaining in the fourth quarter.
The lead-up: Colts quarterback Peyton Manning has just been — of all things — sacked at his own 2-yard line on fourth down, turning the ball over to the Steelers, who merely need to punch it in to extend their lead to two scores.
The characters: Hefty young Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger takes the field in front of legendary 33-year-old running back Jerome Bettis, who everyone knows plans on retiring after the season. On the other side of the goal line, a cornerback named Nick Harper is covering the right side of the end zone in case Roethlisberger surprises the football world by throwing instead of handing off to Bettis. Oh, and it should be noted that at that very moment, Harper’s wife is locked up in a county jail due to the fact she — apparently accidentally — stabbed poor Harper in the right knee with a filet knife 24 hours before this game. Meanwhile, watching from the sideline — just hoping for a miracle turnover in order to get a shot to tie the game — is Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt, who for a large chunk of his career was the most accurate kicker in NFL history.
The play: Bettis runs to the right and has the ball knocked out of his hands by Colts linebacker Gary Brackett. It ricochets backward, bounces twice and is scooped up on the run by Harper, who takes off for what many expect to be a sure game-winning touchdown. He has one man to beat, but that man is Ben Roethlisberger. And somehow, someway — maybe because Harper isn’t as nimble after, you know, being stabbed — Big Ben makes an incredible shoestring tackle at the Indy 42-yard line.
What ensued: But the fumble is still a fumble, and Indianapolis has the ball at the 42-yard line with 1:01 to play and all three timeouts. All the Colts have to do is kick a field goal and they’ll head to overtime with all of the momentum at home. They immediately pick up 30 yards on two plays, call a timeout and then Manning throws two incomplete passes, bringing up a game-tying Vanderjagt field-goal attempt on fourth down with 21 seconds left. And he completely shanks the 45-yard kick, missing right by about 15 yards.
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Four days after the game, Vanderjagt embarrassed himself and burned any bridges he had left by going on the Late Show With David Letterman and re-kicking the 46-yarder outside Dave’s studio. He made it.
We’ll never forget the Roethlisberger tackle of Harper (or the possible reason for it) or the ridiculous miss from Vanderjagt, but we should keep in mind that had either not happened, we’d likely forever remember that choke-worthy fumble as Bettis’ last significant carry. And the Steelers would likely have only five Lombardi trophies instead of six.
Vanderjagt never attempted another kick in Indy, Harper was gone within a year, Bettis rode off into the sunset and Roethlisberger is well on track to one day join him in the Hall of Fame. One tackle from a quarterback cemented several legacies, just like that.