The Pittsburgh Stealers.

The stadium scene.
Feb. 6 2006 3:11 AM

Stealers

How the referees handed Pittsburgh the Super Bowl.

Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward. Click image to expand.
Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward

A media meme emerged late in the long, two-week march to the Super Bowl: Since everyone had basically handed the game to Pittsburgh, Seattle was sure to shock everyone and win. Unfortunately for underdog lovers, no one briefed the refs about this scenario. Remember all that screaming about the Troy Polamalu pick that wasn't against the Colts a few weeks ago? Well, the Steelers got so much payback last night that I'm sure Steelers fans have found it in their hearts to forgive the men in black and white.

Four critical calls stood out. A rinky-dink offensive pass interference flag wiped out an early touchdown pass from Matt Hasselbeck to Darrell Jackson, forcing Seattle to settle for three instead of seven. When Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger lunged for the goal line near the end of the first half, replays indicated a close play but a clear stop by the Seahawks. Nope—touchdown, Steelers. Then came the pivotal double shot that ended all hope for Seattle. With the Seahawks trailing 14-10, a phantom holding call negated a completion that would have given Seattle first and goal at the one yard line. Three plays later, Hasselbeck was picked off by Ike Taylor, a mistake he partially made up for by tackling the Steelers CB. Sadly for Seattle, tackling now brings a 15-yard penalty—the zebras somehow called Hasselbeck for a "block below the waist." The last call set up Pittsburgh for the clinching score.

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Even John Madden, as reliable an apologist for the NFL as there is, started questioning the calls. The videogame pitchman sounded especially miffed after the phantom hold/illegal tackle sequence. He wasn't quite as persistently loud and angry as Billy Packer in the 2001 NCAA basketball finals, sounding off on a series of laughably pro-Duke calls. But this was eye-opening stuff coming from the usually see-no-evil Madden.

Before I start sounding like some embittered Seahawks fan—for the record, I'm an embittered Bengals fan—let's go through Seattle's flurry of mistakes and near-misses. Several key drops by Jerramy Stevens, who the bored media (and the bored Joey Porter) inexplicably cast as Terrell Owens after an innocuous "we'll win" comment. Two bombs caught just out of bounds by Darrell Jackson, who might have been MVP but for a few inches. Grant Wistrom tripping over his own feet rather than sacking Roethlisberger on a third-and-28 heave to eventual MVP Hines Ward.

Give the Steelers some credit. For sublime blocking on Willie Parker's record TD run. For Chris Gardocki's excellent punting. For speedy pursuit from the linebackers that kept Shaun Alexander to a quiet 95 yards. And, of course, for continuing their remarkable streak of successful trick plays. For at least one play every game—when Antwaan Randle El flicks a perfect pass downfield as the defense reacts just a few seconds too late—the Steelers look like the boldest, smartest team that's ever laced them up. As for those other 100 plays ...

Maybe Randle El should have played quarterback the whole game. Ben Roethlisberger played like he knew the game was fixed, completing a mere nine passes for 123 yards and throwing a critical interception when a touchdown would have iced it. He also got clobbered during that Kelly Herndon interception return, a sad irony after his memorable, game-saving tackle against Indy.

Then there was the Most Valuable Backup. It may not be Jerome Bettis' fault that he became the centerpiece of this storyline-deprived Super Bowl. Nevertheless, his self-absorption was astonishing. First, Das Bus turned the player introductions into a dig-me moment, waddling out a few seconds ahead of everyone else. Unfortunately for him, ABC missed the memo, and its cameras stayed on the team. Four hours later, Bettis turned the Lombardi Trophy presentation—which was held atop a bizarre, teacup-shaped, UFOlike structure—into a self-love session, essentially saying the team won it all for the glory of Jerome.

Seattle's role as afterthought to the pre-ordained Pittsburgh coronation was confirmed when ABC didn't even bother with the traditional losing-coach interview. But perhaps Seattle brought this on themselves by coming out of the tunnel to The Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony." Note to the Seahawks: That's probably not the best choice of pump-up tunes. Next time, why not just play Beck's "Loser"?

Also absent was any mention of the industry gossip that Madden and Al Michaels will be reunited at NBC next season. Michaels is expected to weasel out of the contract he signed with ESPN to broadcast the cable network's Monday Night Football package—apparently, Sunday night is now the bigger stage. My favorite moment of the broadcast came at the very end, when the two glumly shook hands in a bit of network blazer kabuki, as though they would never see each other again. Here's hoping that when the long-lost pals meet again to call the Super Bowl for NBC, the officiating won't be the only thing worth talking about.

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