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2004-05 NFL Playoffs

Steelers Struggle, Falcons Fly to Conference Championships

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It’s been a fairy tale season for rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, but the clock nearly struck midnight on the Pittsburgh Steelers and their young signal-caller Saturday as the New York Jets gave them all they could handle in a 20-17 overtime thriller. The Atlanta Falcons, on the other hand, had little problem running over the St. Louis Rams to the tune of 47-17 behind a devastating ground attack.

In Pittsburgh, despite numerous miscues and a performance you would expect out of a rookie QB in his first playoff performance, the Steelers slipped by in overtime, thanks largely to a nightmarish finish by Jets placekicker Doug Brien. Roethlisberger got off to a horrible start, completing just four of his 12 pass attempts in the first half. And while he did bounce back for a less-than-impressive 17-of-30 for 181 yards on the day, it was his two critical interceptions that should have cost the Steelers the game.

The first came late in the third quarter with the Steelers driving and the score tied at 10. On a second-and-ten pass play, after buying some time with his feet before breaking out of the pocket under pressure, Roethlisberger rolled to the right, and throwing on the run --something he has done very well all year-- he under threw his intended receiver and was picked off by safety Reggie Tongue, who returned the ball 86 yards for a touchdown.

The Steelers appeared to be on the verge of scoring, and possibly tying the game, on their ensuing possession as they marched to the Jets 22-yard line. But future Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis fumbled the ball, and defensive end Shaun Ellis recovered it for the Jets. To the credit of Roethlisberger and Bettis, they did pull it back together the next time the offense took possession of the ball. The Steelers did most of their damage on the ground before Roethlisberger connected with Heinz Ward on 4-yard shuffle pass to tie the game with just over six minutes remaining in regulation.

New York quarterback Chad Pennington quickly worked the Jets into field-goal position right before the two-minute warning, but a 47-yard attempt by Brien hit the crossbar and bounced back, keeping the score tied, 17-17.

Roethlisberger’s second critical mistake came on the Steelers first play after the kickoff when he was picked off at the Jets 39-yard line by cornerback David Barrett, who took it back to the Steelers 37, putting New York in great position to set up the winning score. But this time, Brien’s 43-yard field goal attempt went wide left as time ran out in regulation.

In overtime, the Jets won the toss, but their drive stalled at their own 41. And after a Toby Gowin punt pinned the Steelers back at their own 13-yard line, Pittsburgh put together a game-winning drive behind the strong running of Duce Staley, capped by a 33-yard Jeff Reed field goal.

In Atlanta, there was far less drama as the Falcons rolled over the Rams with an incredible 327 yards on the ground and an amazing 8.2 yards per carry. Michael Vick showed just how devastating he can be as an offensive weapon right away as he set up an 18-yard TD pass to tight end Algae Crumpler with a 47-yard scramble on a third-and-2 from his own 32-yard line.

The Rams showed early signs of life by bouncing back with a 57-yard strike from Marc Bulger to Kevin Curtis, but it was short lived as Falcons running back Warrick Dunn ripped off a 62-yard touchdown run less than a minute-and-a-half later.

The Rams defense struggled to stop the run all day, while the Falcons defense did a good job containing the explosive St. Louis offense. Dunn stretched the lead to 14 early in the second quarter with an 18-yard TD gallop, and the Rams tried to fight back with a score of their own on the ensuing drive. But a 68-yard punt return by Allen Rossum once again opened a 14-point spread. The Rams closed out the first half with a field goal, making the score 28-17, but they also closed out their scoring for the day and would never seriously challenge the Falcons in the second half.

Atlanta tacked on two more touchdowns by the middle of the third quarter, effectively ending the game and solidifying a spot in the NFC Championship game.

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