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 Sunday in an AFC wild-card game at Mile High 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 and that's what we expect to do this weekend."
The Broncos, who won the middling AFC West at 8-8, host the heavily-favored Steelers (12-4), who lost the AFC North on a tiebreaker to Baltimore, on what's expected to be a snowy Sunday afternoon in Denver.
Memories of the pivotal '05 conference championship are fresh in the minds of the 16 Steelers and two Broncos — Bailey and linebacker D.J. Williams — who are still on their respective rosters.
"We started getting hot in the playoffs, wasn't nobody that was going to stop us," Steelers linebacker Larry Foote recounted. "When we beat Indy, it didn't matter who we were going to play, we were going to get to the Super Bowl. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Now, it's the Steelers who are coming to town with all the experience, momentum and pedigree and the Broncos who are the young, untested, just-glad-to-be-here bunch.
The oddsmakers have installed the Steelers as 81/2-point favorites despite an injury epidemic in Pittsburgh that has claimed tailback Rashard Mendenhall (knee) and could sideline All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey (ankle). The Steelers' top tackler, safety Ryan Clark, is sitting out as a precaution because of a blood disorder that's exacerbated by altitude.
A sprained left ankle won't keep Roethlisberger on the sideline, though.
Several other members of the league's best defense are banged up as they prepare for the Broncos' throwback offense. Asked when he last defended the option, Steelers defensive guru Dick LeBeau cracked, "Probably when I was playing."
AFC WILD CARD GAME
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) at
Denver Broncos (8-8)
Sunday, 2:30 p.m. MT
TV: CBS Radio: 1320 AM
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