PITTSBURGH — Jerome Bettis slammed the ball to the turf to celebrate his 5-yard touchdown run that put the Steelers ahead for good in their 31-17 playoff victory in Cincinnati on Sunday, then looked to hug someone. Within a moment, he realized he had committed a major gaffe. The touchdown was his. The souvenir ball wasn’t. Immediately, Bettis scurried to recover the ball, which he proudly toted off the field and later stuffed into his travel bag as he rushed to leave the stadium. Did Bettis realize the ball might be the last he carries across an NFL goal line, and thus wanted to make sure it didn’t get lost in some Bengals ball bag? “Nah,” he said. “It was a playoff touchdown ball. I’ve never kept any, so it was one of those things where I needed to get that one.” This Sunday, the NFL’s fifth-leading rusher hopes to depart Indianapolis with an even better parting gift: the Steelers’ first divisional playoff road victory in his 10 seasons with them, and one of the biggest upsets in franchise history. The Steelers have won on the road past the wild-card round only once in 30 years a 1984 upset in Denver. They’ve had only one other road victory so late in the postseason in their 73-year history, the franchise-altering AFC championship game upset at Oakland in January 1975 that led to the first of four Super Bowl titles. But Bettis isn’t caught up in what might seem like ancient history even if the soon-to-be 34-year-old is ancient himself by NFL running back standards. Bettis knows that if the Steelers can somehow finagle a victory in Indianapolis, as improbable as it might seem against what is widely seen as the NFL’s No. 1 team, he would buy another week. And then he would be within one more victory of what this season was all about: ending his career by playing in the Super Bowl in his hometown of Detroit. “Anything can happen once you get to the playoffs,” he said. “That’s why we had to get there.” Bettis is a role player now, a wear-’em-down back who comes in and punishes defense with his 255-pound bulk once the Steelers get a lead. The eight-time 1,000-yard rusher gained only 368 yards during the season, barely nudging his career total of 13,662 yards. Yet he is as responsible as anyone for getting them into these playoffs. In what became the Steelers’ biggest game of the season, Bettis stepped out of his handyman role to run for 101 yards in a 21-9, win-or-else victory over Chicago on Dec. 11. That game ended the Steelers’ three-game losing streak, the Bears’ eight-game winning streak and preserved Bettis’ chance for that hometown Super Bowl. The Steelers haven’t lost since. Their players haven’t publicly hopped on this Let’s-Win-One-For-The-Bus crusade; rather, it is low-key and understated, almost like Bettis himself these days. Once the most interviewed player in their locker room, he often is invisible now during media periods, preferring to let brand-new 1,000-yard rusher Willie Parker have the attention. Parker, as a way of showing his respect and thanks, wore a throwback Bettis Rams jersey to the Steelers’ final home game Jan. 1. That day, thousands of fans in Heinz Field chanted, “One more year! One more year!” when Bettis was pulled after matching his career high with three touchdown runs. (The opponent? None other than those hometown Lions.) “That was an amazing feeling,” Bettis said. “If it is the end of the line, then it’s been incredible.” Bettis’ unselfishness was most visible when he refused to complain after being benched at the start of the 2003 season for Amos Zereoue. Wide receiver Hines Ward credits it for setting the tone of the Steelers’ locker room ever since. To Ward, Bettis’ gesture represented what the Steelers are all about. The unselfish attitude that no one player is bigger than the rest. A blue collar work ethic a cliched theme but, considering the Steelers’ practice field sits on the site of a former steel mill, a fitting one. Bettis’ value to the Steelers was illustrated when Ward broke down in tears talking to reporters after last year’s AFC title game loss to New England. Ward was upset because he feared Bettis would retire then, and, “he deserves to go out a champion.” Coach Bill Cowher agrees. “I have so much appreciation for him it seems like he’s always been there,” Cowher said. “When the day comes that he’s not there, there’s going to be a void there because it seems like he’s always been there every week. I can’t express what he stands for as a football player and as a person. “For every yard he’s gained on the field this guy, in my mind, has exceeded that off the field. I’ve never been around too many guys like that.” 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!