PITTSBURGH, Jan. 15 -- Even when rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers do plenty wrong, it turns out right. The NFL's best team during the regular season needed all the good fortune it could muster Saturday at Heinz Field to advance to the AFC championship game, as the Steelers watched New York Jets place kicker Doug Brien miss two field goal attempts in the final two minutes of regulation and escaped with a 20-17 triumph on a 33-yard field goal by Jeff Reed in overtime.
"I thought we won," defensive end Shaun Ellis said in the Jets' somber locker room. "I really thought we were going to win this game."
Maybe it's a deal with the devil. Maybe it's just good clean living. But Roethlisberger remained unbeaten as an NFL starter even on a day when he threw two costly, rookie-like interceptions. The Steelers won their 15th straight game and will host the winner of Sunday's Indianapolis-New England matchup in the title game next weekend.
"It wasn't me out there today," Roethlisberger said. "I did everything I could to lose the game. . . . I've got to play better. That was terrible."
The Steelers (16-1) grabbed a 10-0 lead in the second quarter on a touchdown run by tailback Jerome Bettis, set up by safety Troy Polamalu's interception of quarterback Chad Pennington's pass. But the Jets (11-7) roared back with a succession of big plays, getting even on a 75-yard punt return by Santana Moss in the second quarter and grabbing a 17-10 lead on safety Reggie Tongue's 86-yard interception return late in the third quarter.
Ellis forced a fumble by Bettis deep in Jets territory early in the fourth quarter, but the Steelers got even with six minutes left in regulation on a four-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to wide receiver Hines Ward.
Brien won a dramatic first-round playoff game at San Diego last weekend with an overtime field goal, and had two potential game-winners Saturday. But his 47-yard try bounced off the corner of the crossbar and left upright with 1 minute 58 seconds remaining and, after Roethlisberger was intercepted by cornerback David Barrett, he yanked a 43-yarder wide left as time expired to send the game into overtime.
Brien said that when the first of his two kicks was airborne, he thought it was headed through the uprights.
"I thought it was in," he said. "I was really surprised. I don't know if the wind got it, but I thought I hit it enough. It was cold out there, and that ball just didn't go. . . . I tried to hit [the second kick] a little harder because the first one didn't go. The second one, I missed. The first one just didn't go in. . . . It's going to be hard. It's going to take a while to get over."
The Jets won the coin flip in overtime but punted, and the Steelers used 13 plays to march downfield to set up Reed's game-winner with 3:56 left. It was Reed's 18th straight successful attempt.
The rocky Roethlisberger was returning to the lineup after sitting out the Steelers' victory at Buffalo in the regular season finale because of bruised rib cartilage suffered the week before against the Baltimore Ravens. He jammed his thumb during pregame warmups and had a shaky opening series in which the Jets nearly intercepted each of his first two passes. But he steadied himself, and the Steelers moved in front on Reed's 45-yard field goal.
Pennington put a throw right into the chest of Polamalu, giving the Steelers possession at the Jets 25-yard line. Pittsburgh needed five plays to get into the end zone. Bettis took a pitchout and bulldozed his way to a nine-yard run to the 3 and then, on third and one, followed a block by center Jeff Hartings to get the touchdown.
But the Jets didn't wilt. Brien's 42-yard field goal got them to within 10-3 early in the second quarter. They nearly got the equalizer on their next drive when Moss got a step on cornerback Willie Williams on a deep pattern and Pennington put his throw on target. Williams made a good recovery, though, and knocked away the pass at the last moment.
No matter. The Jets punted but quickly forced a Steelers punt. Moss hauled it in at his 25-yard line and began moving to his left. He made a quick cut inside Pittsburgh's Sean Morey, accelerated past Larry Foote and easily outmaneuvered punter Chris Gardocki along the sideline to move into open space. Moss coasted into the end zone, and Brien's extra point tied the game at 10.
Things got worse for the Steelers in the third quarter, just as Roethlisberger seemed to be directing them toward a go-ahead score. He moved to his right to avoid some pressure and had wide receiver Antwaan Randle El open. But Roethlisberger, throwing on the run, threw far short of Randle El. His pass landed in the arms of Tongue, who had little trouble racing to the end zone.
The Steelers put together another long drive, moving to the Jets 22. The Jets' defense had been on the field for 16 straight snaps, but it came up with another big play. Bettis took a first-down handoff from Roethlisberger and began to move past Ellis, who was being blocked by tight end Jerame Tuman. But Ellis reached in and knocked the ball loose, and safety Erik Coleman made the recovery for the Jets.
But New York went three plays and out, and the weary defense couldn't hold off the Steelers again. Roethlisberger scrambled for 20 yards and kept the drive going with third-down completions to Plaxico Burress and Ward. Bettis pushed back the pile on a third-and-one carry for a first down at the Jets 7. On second down from the 4, Roethlisberger took a shotgun-formation snap and shoveled a pass to Ward, who scored.
"We had our opportunities to win, but we didn't," Ellis said. "It's real disappointing right now, but we did a lot of good things this season. I guess we feel like San Diego felt."