There aren't many safer bets in the NFL than Jerome Bettis.
But a rare fumble by Bettis triggered a bizarre sequence of plays that produced a wild finish in Pittsburgh's stunning 21-18 upset of the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday in the AFC semifinals. It marked the first time a sixth seed has beaten a top seed in the postseason.
Steelers coach Bill Cowher described the ending as unbelievable. And it was.
With Indianapolis trailing by those three points with 1:27 remaining and facing with a fourth-and-16 at its own 12, the Colts had no choice but to go for it. But Joey Porter and James Farrior sacked Colts quarterback Peyton Manning at the 2-yard line, turning the ball over to the Steelers on downs.
The Colts had all three timeouts left so Cowher opted not to have quarterback Ben Roethlisberger take a knee. The Steelers wouldn't be able to run out the entire clock that way. So Cowher did what he considered the next best thing - hand the ball off to Bettis.
Bettis has touched the ball 3,695 times over his 13-year career and lost only 41 fumbles. That's one every 90.1 attempts. Of the 14 NFL backs who have touched the ball 3,000 or more times in a career, only Curtis Martin (one fumble every 138.5 touches) and Marshall Faulk (one every 100.5) have taken better care of the football.
And Bettis hadn't fumbled the ball the entire 2005 season.
"If we score, the game is over," Cowher said. "I was of the mind-set to win the game. The last thing I thought we'd do was fumble with Jerome in there."
But as Bettis tried to power his way into the end zone off right tackle, linebacker Gary Brackett met Bettis in the hole - and his Colts helmet met the football. It popped loose, cornerback Nick Harper scooped it up and took off.
Which brings us to bizarre play No. 2.
Harper raced untouched for 30 yards and had only one defender to beat for what would have gone down as the most bizarre touchdown since the Miracle of the Meadowlands in 1978. In that one, with the Giants trying to run out the clock, Eagles cornerback Herman Edwards returned a fumble by quarterback Joe Pisarcik 26 yards for a game-winning touchdown in the closing seconds.
The one defender Harper had to beat was Roethlisberger. Many an NFL quarterback would trot off in the opposite direction after a turnover, wanting no part of any physical contact. But not Roethlisberger, who scrambled to get in Harper's path. He twisted and turned with every move by Harper and finally got an arm wrapped around his leg, tripping him up for his first NFL tackle.
"Ben's an unbelievable athlete," Cowher said. "It would take someone with his athleticism to make a play like that."
Which brings us to bizarre play No. 3.
Harper set the Colts up at their own 42 with 61 seconds to play. Manning quickly completed passes to Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison, moving the Colts to the Pittsburgh 28. Two unsuccessful deep shots by Manning at the end zone denied Indianapolis a chance for victory, and it appeared the game was headed for overtime.
Mike Vanderjagt of the Colts is the most accurate field goal kicker in NFL history, having converted 87.5 percent of his attempts in an eight-year career.
Vanderjagt was even more automatic this season. He was 20-for-20 at home in the RCA Dome when the Colts sent him out for points, converting all six of his field goal tries and all 20 of his extra points.
Vanderjagt faced a 46-yarder this time, normally a chip shot for him. But he pushed the kick wide right. Way wide right.
And Bettis breathed a sigh of relief. He almost retired at the end of the 2004 season and is almost certain to retire at the end of this one. He's 33, and 3,696 career touches are enough for any body. But he didn't want the final touch of his career to be a fumble that would end his final season.
"Fortunately, it's not," said Bettis with a smile.
It took Steve Smith and the Carolina Panthers just 55 seconds to skewer the outstanding defense which led the Chicago Bears to their first playoffs in four years.
Smith had 12 catches for a career-high 218 yards and two long touchdowns, including the 58-yard scoring reception on the second play from scrimmage in the Panthers 29-21 win.
After the fast strike, Carolina let its defense challenge Chicago quarterback Rex Grossman, who was starting his second game of the season because of a broken ankle.
Grossman was decent once he settled down. He led the Bears on two second-half scoring drives to rally them out of a 16-7 halftime deficit.
Grossman was driving the Bears again late in the fourth quarter when they trailed 29-21, but he was intercepted by Ken Lucas - Carolina's big-money offseason acquisition - with 2:27 to play, then was incomplete to former Panthers receiver Muhsin Muhammad on fourth-and-1 to seal the win.
After Grossman opened the second half with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Desmond Clark to make it 16-14 and sent the Soldier Field crowd into a frenzy, Smith replied with a 39-yard touchdown to stretch Carolina's lead to 23-14.
But Grossman engineered another scoring drive, capped by Jason McKie pushing the ball in from 3 yards.
No matter for the Panthers and Delhomme, who improved to 5-1 in the playoffs. He led yet another drive and sealed it with his third touchdown pass of the game - a 1-yard pass to Kris Mangum. John Kasay missed the point after, but it still gave Carolina the cushion it needed.
Delhomme finished 24-of-33 for 319 yards. He threw one interception and was sacked only once.