DENVER – Champ Bailey had the interception in his grasp and the end zone in his sights as Hines Ward began to fall and the fluttering football hung in the air along with the fortunes of two of the NFL’s most storied franchises.
Ward somehow came down with the deflected pass from Ben Roethlisberger, holding on despite a jaw-jarring hit from John Lynch. Bailey pounded the ground with his fist in disgust and the Pittsburgh Steelers commenced with their 34-17 dismantling of the Denver Broncos in the AFC title game following the 2005 season.
That watershed afternoon of Jan. 22, 2006, sent the Steelers and Broncos on divergent paths, and they meet again today in an AFC wild-card game at Sports Authority Field in snowy Denver.
“That game catapulted us to a Super Bowl victory,” Pittsburgh defensive end Brett Keisel said.
It sent the Broncos on a nosedive that would take them through three coaches, four quarterbacks, six defensive coordinators and a whole lot of misery before returning to the playoffs this year.
The Steelers are 69-35 since that fateful contest, winning two titles and narrowly missing a third in a 31-25 loss to Green Bay in last year’s Super Bowl, rivaling their run in the 1970s.
The Broncos have gone 44-52 with just one winning season and no playoff appearances.
“You can look at the direction we both headed after that. They went up, we went down,” Bailey said. “We haven’t been back, they’ve won two since then. It’s funny how it played out. But that was then, this is now. We have a chance to turn things around here.”
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