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Broncos, Steelers ready for matchup

2006-07-28 14:39

  Thanks to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Denver Broncos, the AFC has a championship game nobody expected to see.

  The indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots were both knocked off this weekend in improbable fashion.

  Pittsburgh beat Indianapolis 21-18 in one of the wildest finishes in recent memory on Sunday afternoon, ending what appeared to have been the best chance yet for Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy to finally reach the Super Bowl

  “There is no question we were in good position with home field and having the bye,” Manning said. “At this point, it is hard to swallow.”

  The steelers head on the road once again to play Denver, which defeated the defending champion Patriots on Saturday night, 27-13. It was the Broncos' first playoff win since John Elway retired in 1998.

  In the NFC championship, No. 1-seeded Seattle will host Carolina.

  The panthers also won on the road, beating the upstart Bears 29-21 on Sunday. The Seahawks advanced with Shaun Alexander on the bench, handling Washington 20-10 on Saturday behind Matt Hasselbeck.

  The most intriguing matchup is in the AFC, where the Steelers are playing in their sixth conference title game in 12 years. Pittsburgh is 1-4 at home in those previous championships, so maybe another road game will do it good. The Steelers also are the first sixth-seeded team to reach a championship game since the NFL went to the current lineup of six playoff teams from each conference in 1990.

  But what looked to be a sure win turned crazy in the end.

  All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu made a diving interception at the Pittsburgh 48 with 5:26 remaining. He got up to run and fumbled the ball, but recovered - only to have it mysteriously overturned by referee Pete Morelli.

  The call infuriated linebacker Joey Porter.

  “I know they wanted Indy to win this game; the whole world loves Peyton Manning,” Porter said. “But come on, man, don't take the game away from us like that.”

  Indianapolis took advantage, scoring on Edgerrin James' 3-yard run and a 2-point conversion pass to Reggie Wayne to make it 21-18. Then, the surehanded Jerome Bettis fumbled late in the game when it appeared Pittsburgh had it won.

  Nick harper, whose knee was cut with a knife on Saturday in an apparent domestic dispute with his wife, grabbed the ball and headed toward a highly improbable winning touchdown. But Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, brilliant all game with his arm and head, tumbled, reached out a hand and made a saving tackle at the Indy 42.

  Two passes got the ball to the Pittsburgh 27, and Mike Vanderjagt lined up for a 46-yard field goal to send it to overtime.

  Wide right. Game over.

  In chicago, Steve Smith had 12 catches for a career-high 218 yards and two long touchdowns to lead Carolina into the NFC championship game for the second time in three years.

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