PITTSBURGH -- As the ball rolled off cornerback Randy Fuller's fingers onto the stomach of Indianapolis receiver Aaron Bailey and finally onto the end zone turf with time expired, two teams and a nation's football fans were frozen in those moments.
"I thought he caught it, and I was ready to take out a referee until I saw the replay," said Colts offensive tackle Will Wolford.
"Everything you've worked for as a player flashed before my eyes," said Pittsburgh free safety Darren Perry. "I got a knot in my stomach. I almost died. Then when the ball hit the ground, I said a prayer."
And then euphoria broke loose.
With five seconds remaining, Colts quarterback Jim Harbaugh lofted the desperation pass from the Steelers' 29 to the right corner of the end zone and into a crowd of five Steelers and three Colts.
Fuller was the last Steeler to tip the ball before it rolled onto Bailey's stomach only to fall along with the Colts' Super Bowl hopes.
But even as the announcer yelled out incomplete pass, there was a stunned silence from the partisan Steelers crowd of 61,062, who had watched the team come up 3 yards short in last year's conference championship.
And then the Steelers started dancing. Pittsburgh's tough and menacing coach Bill Cowher tried to hide tears. Steelers guard ++ John Jackson and running back Bam Morris ran into the stands to celebrate with fans. Quarterback Neil O'Donnell brought his wife onto the field and posed for pictures. And then Steelers owner Dan Rooney was presented with the conference championship trophy near midfield.
"This is beautiful, isn't it?" said veteran linebacker Kevin Greene amid the fans' standing ovation. "I know we scared them. I know for that brief time they said, 'Oh no, this nightmare can't be happening again.' "
Cowher said of the final play: "Maybe it was poetic justice, having been there again with the ball in the air, and an opportunity to win a championship. Now I'm 1-1. It was a great feeling."
It was a bitter end to an incredible playoff ride for the underdog Colts (11-8), who tried to become the first team to win three road playoff games since New England in 1985.
Indianapolis had taken a 16-13 lead on a 47-yard pass from Harbaugh to receiver Floyd Turner with 8:46 left in the game.
But Pittsburgh (13-5) answered with some resiliency of its own on an eight-play, 67-yard drive that started with 3:03 left, and ended with Morris going up the middle for 1 yard and the winning touchdown with 1:38 left.
The drive was highlighted by two plays, the first a 9-yard completion to Andre Hastings on fourth-and-three from the Colts' 47, and a 37-yard pass to Ernie Mills down to the 1.
"That was one big, big, big play," said Morris.
The Steelers call the play Move & Go. On the playground it's called Out & Up. O'Donnell pump-faked to Mills on a short pattern, and Colts cornerback Ashley Ambrose came up and slipped. Mills blew by him, and did an excellent job of getting both feet down.
"I just told someone in the huddle, 'You know they're going to take a chance deep into the end zone to win,' " said Ambrose. "I wound up being the victim."
"They were aggressive the whole day," said Mills. "So I knew we had one shot."
It was one of the few times the Steelers were aggressive on offense. Before the long throw to Mills, O'Donnell's longest pass was 15 yards.
The Steelers' only touchdown in the first half came when O'Donnell scrambled to his right, and threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Kordell Stewart. Replays showed that Stewart had stepped out of the back of the end zone during the play, which VTC gave Pittsburgh a 10-6 lead at the half.
"Well, I can't see from where I was, but you people who had the television, you know that he came out of bounds," said Colts coach Ted Marchibroda. "It's a touchdown that should have never been a touchdown. I didn't get an explanation from the officials. They didn't know. We had to tell them."
Referee Bernie Kukar said: "Obviously, there was no flag thrown, so nothing happened. Nobody saw him step out of the end line. If they did, it would have been a penalty."
Marchibroda could be second-guessed himself a couple of times yesterday, especially after he ran Lamont Warren on a pitch right for a loss of 2 on a third-and-one from the Steelers' 28 with 4:17 left in the third quarter.
Why did he try to run outside against one of the fastest defenses in the league? Why when only four plays earlier Harbaugh had run a sneak for 2 easy yards on third-and-one?
"I don't know about that play," said Harbaugh.
Cary Blanchard then missed a field-goal attempt from 47 yards.
He hit three others, but Pittsburgh won because the Steelers made the big plays.
The Steelers know how that works. A year ago in the AFC championship, they lost to San Diego, 17-10, because Chargers Tony Martin and Alfred Pupunu made big plays, and Dennis Gibson may have made the biggest when he knocked a fourth-down pass away from Barry Foster, stopping a Pittsburgh drive at the Chargers' 3.
Now the Steelers are forgiven. It's off to a fifth Super Bowl appearance for the franchise.
"The demons are gone, and the monkey is off our back," said Perry. "Even now, I can't believe we won this thing. I'm numb. I think tomorrow it's going to sink in. Tomorrow, I'm going to wake up and realize we're going to the Super Bowl."