PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Jerome Bettis is often a broken-down Bus by now, weary and worn out after all those games of 20-plus carries and all the contact that goes with being an NFL power running back.
But with the Steelers' long winning streak in danger of ending Sunday against the Jets, Bettis began romping around Heinz Field as if he were a rookie rather than the No. 6 career rusher in NFL history. The Bus was fast enough even for the passing lane on the day he surpassed 13,000 yards in rushing.
Bettis' touchdown toss, the third of his career, and his 12-yard run both in the final 13 minutes keyed a 17-6 victory that ran the Steelers' franchise record-tying winning streak to 11.
As much as Bettis' running was pivotal to the win, so was the unmistakable emotion and energy he brought to an offense that, until the fourth quarter, was slogging along in a 3-3 tie during rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's worst game.
The 32-year-old Bettis isn't accustomed to being this fresh in mid-December. But after being used mostly as a short-yardage backup to Duce Staley for weeks, Bettis is emerging as one of the most valuable players of a Steelers season that gets more surprising with every victory.
``It is good to have him healthy, the way he is right now going down the stretch,'' coach Bill Cowher said Monday.
The Steelers (12-1) have wrapped up the AFC North for the third time in four seasons but, unlike 2001 and 2002, they might have an injury-free Bettis for the playoffs. If Staley fully heals from the hamstring injury that recently forced him to sit out a month, the Steelers could hit the postseason with their most productive running game since the 1970s.
Usually at this point of the season I am pretty banged up,'' said the 255-pound Bettis, who was limited by injuries to four postseason carries in 2002 and nine in 2001.But my body feels as if it were Week 7 or 8 because I have not taken a big beating. I went through a stretch there (when Staley was hurt) when my tongue was hanging out. But, for the most part, I have been healthy and it has been paying dividends for the team.''
Bettis began the season on the bench, just as he did a year ago when the Steelers long the NFL's most run-heavy offense began a dreadful one-season experiment with a passing-based system that contributed to their 6-10 flop in 2003.
Even after the Steelers brought in Staley, Bettis didn't get discouraged. So when Staley was hurt before the important Nov. 7 game against the then-unbeaten Eagles, Bettis stepped in to run for 149 yards in a 27-3 victory _ the first of his four consecutive 100-yard games.
That Bettis has been so productive 187 carries for 684 yards, a 3.8 average and 12 touchdown runs is a testament to his loyalty, and the Steelers' foresight in keeping a player whose career seemed to have peaked several seasons ago.
It's hard to (describe) what he's done because it's so unbelievable,'' Roethlisberger said.You can't say enough about what Jerome means to this team. If he's not on the field, it's his leadership. When he's on the field, it's his hard running.''
Another player might have ended his career elsewhere after the Steelers unceremoniously benched him to play Amos Zereoue in 2003. He also could have sought more money with another team once the Steelers asked him to trim his base salary from $3.6 million to $1 million to stay under the salary cap. But, again, he didn't.
You can look at it as if you were demoted, and everything is negative ... and they are trying to get me out of here,'' Bettis said.Or you can look at this and say it gives me an opportunity to stay fresh and when I get the opportunity, take advantage of it.''
It also helped that Bettis and Staley quickly developed a friendship that accelerated Staley's transition to his new team and kept Bettis from feeling rejected.
I've gone to practice excited about what I'm doing,'' Bettis said.When I get in, I am practicing as if I'm going to get 30 carries. If it doesn't happen, then it doesn't. But if it does, I am ready for it.''
Bettis isn't entirely comfortable with being a backup, especially after being one of the NFL's top running backs for a decade and one of only six to gain 13,000 yards rushing. But he has never criticized Cowher for his reduced role.
I would be lying if I said I love this role,'' said Bettis, whose 57 yards Sunday pushed his career total to 13,037.My whole career, I have been the feature back. This is something that I have grown to work within, in terms of understanding what my role is and excelling in it. I am finding a way to flourish in it.''