By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 6, 2006
DETROIT, Feb. 5 -- The Pittsburgh Steelers completed one of the more remarkable turnarounds in the history of the National Football League on Sunday, capturing Super Bowl XL with a 21-10 victory over the Seattle Seahawks that earned one of the game's most storied franchises a record-tying fifth championship.
Two months after the Steelers were reeling with a 7-5 record and in jeopardy of not even making the playoffs, they came back from a dreadful first half performance and defeated the Seahawks at Ford Field, an indoor stadium that was filled mostly with black-and-gold clad Steelers fans who had made the five-hour drive from Pittsburgh to Detroit.
It was the Steelers' eighth straight victory and fourth in a row in their run through the playoffs. They entered the postseason as the sixth seed in the American Football Conference, then went on the road to eliminate Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver. No sixth seed had won the Super Bowl since the NFL instituted a 12-team playoff format in 1990.
It was not the best game in the 40-year history of the Super Bowl, which over the decades has become a U.S. institution -- an unofficial national holiday in which tens of millions of Americans gather around their television sets to watch the NFL championship. Millions more view the broadcast around the world.
After a lackluster first half, the first real energy of the evening came in a halftime performance by the Rolling Stones, who -- as lead singer Mick Jagger pointed out -- were kicking out hit singles even before the first Super Bowl in 1967.
"Here's one I could have done before Super Bowl I," Jagger told the crowd before the band launched into "[I Can't Get No] Satisfaction," which the Stones premiered in 1965, two years before Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers beat the Kansas City Chiefs in what became the first Super Bowl.
In winning Sunday, the Steelers accomplished their goal of allowing Jerome Bettis, their 275-pound running back and inspirational leader, to end his career in his home town as a Super Bowl champion.
Bettis, known affectionately as the Bus because of his massive bulk and battering running style, announced on the podium after the game that he had played his last game for the team he joined 10 years ago following a trade from the St. Louis Rams.
"There's always a time when it's time to call it quits," said Bettis, the fifth-leading rusher in league history, as confetti rained down around him. "I'm a champion. I think the Bus's last stop is here in Detroit."
For the Steelers, the emotional victory also provided the first Super Bowl triumph for Bill Cowher over his 14-year career as the longest tenured head coach in the league. Cowher was in tears as he hugged his wife and daughters on the Steelers' sideline just after the final gun sounded. He had come into the 2005 postseason with a 1-4 record in conference championship games, but Steelers owner Dan Rooney had never wavered in his support for the jut-jawed Pittsburgh native.
"It's surreal right now," Cowher said. "It's a rewarding feeling to give that trophy to Mr. Rooney. That's what he brought me here to do. It really does complete a void that's been there. This team has been resilient all year, one guy after another."
Rooney's faith in Cowher also paid off with the Steelers fifth Super Bowl triumph, tying San Francisco and Dallas for the most victories in the NFL's marquee game. The Steelers hadn't won a Super Bowl since January 1980 when the dynasty was known as the Steel Curtain, and several key members of that team -- including former Super Bowl MVPs Franco Harris and Lynn Swann -- were in attendance Sunday.
The Seahawks will leave Detroit on Monday knowing they had several chances to win this game, only to have passes dropped, crucial penalties called that negated several big gains and scoring opportunities, a killer fourth-quarter interception thrown by quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and a controversial play on which Ben Roethlisberger, the youngest winning quarterback in Super Bowl history, scored Pittsburgh's first touchdown.
That score came with 1 minute 55 seconds remaining in the first half when it appeared the football never crossed the goal line as Roethlisberger dove toward the end zone. But a replay review by referee Bill Leavy upheld the touchdown, much to the chagrin of Seattle Coach Mike Holmgren, who yapped at game officials as he headed to his team's locker room at intermission.
The Seahawks were the No. 1 seed in the National Football Conference, and had eliminated the Washington Redskins in the second round of the playoffs. Holmgren was attempting to become the first coach to win a Super Bowl with two different teams. He coached the Green Bay Packers to a Super Bowl victory in 1997.
He could at least take some comfort in the Seahawks advancing to the first Super Bowl in their 30-year history.
"We wasted some great opportunities that would have made us world champions," Seattle running back Shaun Alexander said, adding that Holmgren told the team "he was proud of us this year and what we accomplished. We took Seattle to a place we've never been before."
Steelers running back Willie Parker also explored virgin territory Sunday, just when the Steelers needed him most. Overshadowed all week in the pregame buildup by both Bettis and Alexander, the league's offensive MVP in 2005, Parker had been the forgotten running back of Super Bowl XL, at least until the second play of the second half.
But Parker, a second-year man who gained over 1,200 yards this season, pushed the Steelers to a 14-3 lead when he popped through a hole on the right side of his offensive line, dashed away from a diving tackle attempt at midfield and ran 75 yards to a touchdown, the longest scoring run in Super Bowl history.
The best pass completed on the field Sunday night was not launched by either starting quarterback at Ford Field. Instead it came on a 43-yard touchdown throw from wide receiver Antwaan Randle El to wide open fellow receiver Hines Ward on a reverse play the Steelers have used often all season. The pivotal play actually began with Parker taking a handoff from Roethlisberger and heading toward the left side before the running back handed off to Randle El.
A former quarterback at Indiana, Randle El then rolled out to his right and hit Ward, also a college quarterback, with a perfect spiral several steps ahead of Seahawk cornerback Marcus Trufant for a touchdown and a semi-breathe-easy 11-point lead with 8:56 left in the game. Neither team scored again and Ward was named the game's most valuable player.
Bettis finished his final game with 43 yards on 14 carries and said afterward, "it's been an incredible ride." At the half, with his team holding a slim 7-3 lead, he said his teammates were determined to overcome their own stumbling performance in the first two quarters. "We had played a terrible first half," he said, "and we knew it was only a matter of time before we started clicking."