Pittsburgh Steelers: Top 10 Most Heartbreaking Plays in Playoff History
Steelers Country can be found anywhere hearts bleed Black and Gold, and the "City of Champions" harbors a diehard fan base that has witnessed more than its share of success. The Pittsburgh Steelers have won six Super Bowls, and they continue to vie for an elusive seventh Lombardi Trophy that has been just beyond the franchise's reach in the past two seasons.
While Terrible Towels have waved joyously in celebration of such riches, more than a few postseason moments have caused fans to stop that twirl, creating a true "from riches to rags" scenario, literally and figuratively.
Just like the hottest fire makes the hardest steel, the agony of defeat has made the thrill of victory all the sweeter in the 'Burgh.
Adding to the moments most Steelers fans would rather forget, Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow continued his amazing 2011 story into overtime of the Wild Card Playoffs this past Sunday, torching the Pittsburgh secondary for an 80-yard touchdown strike to Demaryius Thomas in the sudden death session.
Where does Tim's "Te-throw" rank among the most heartbreaking postseason plays in franchise history?
Like a lesson in humility, this countdown ranks those painful plays. If the beauty of sports lies in the gamut of emotions, consider these ill moments as self-preparation for experiencing the bounty of riches during future Steelers seasons.
For those who need balance in their lives, you can always check out my list of great Steelers playoff moments afterwards.
While the vast majority of Pittsburgh's playoff history is concentrated to the modern era, I will mention that this countdown only represents the time range from 1972 until current day.
Dishonorable Mentions: Fitz, Floyd and Fate
Before breaking into the official countdown, here are a few dishonorable mentions that didn't quite make the cut. Included in these runners-up are a pair of plays that broke Steelers fans' hearts to an extreme degree in the moment but didn't cost the Steelers a victory. Because the Steelers overcame those plays, they miss the list.
The first was a 47-yard touchdown pass from Jim Harbaugh to Floyd Turner in the 1996 AFC Championship Game at Three Rivers Stadium. One year earlier, the Steelers led over the underdog Chargers by a 13-3 score, before Stan Humphries hit two deep touchdown passes in the second half to give San Diego the eventual 17-13 victory.
Fast-forwarding one year later, the 9-7 Colts were the heavy underdogs, and the Steelers had blown a lead on the deep touchdown bomb to Turner, trailing 16-13. The shocking play came in the fourth quarter, causing fans to wonder if the afternoon would become déjà vu in the Steel City.
Ultimately, the Steelers rallied to win the game 20-16 and the Lamar Hunt Trophy.
In Super Bowl XLIII, a holding call in the end zone gave the Arizona Cardinals gift points, and they received the ball trailing 20-16. With mere minutes left in the contest, Kurt Warner pulled off big-game bravado, hitting star receiver Larry Fitzgerald over the middle of the field. The former Pitt Panthers star rocketed past the secondary for a surprisingly easy six points.
Steelers Country had its collective heart in its throat.
Coach Mike Tomlin steadies his troops in one of his finest coaching moments, stating that the Cardinals' scoring so quickly could become a blessing. In the end, Ben Roethlisberger rallied the Steelers to a stunning 27-23 win.
The final honorable mention was not a particular play at all but merely a circumstance.
In 1976, the Steelers fielded what many describe as their greatest team ever. In the Divisional Playoffs, they traveled to Baltimore to play Bert Jones and the Colts, whose offensive prowess was no secret around the NFL. One week earlier, Jones and his squad defeated the Bills by a 58-20 final score.
Pittsburgh sent a message to the floundering Colts, winning 40-14. However, the success came with payment, as both running backs Rocky Bleier and Franco Harris fell to injury. Both missed the AFC Championship Game in Oakland one week later.
Without their dynamically talented pair of backs, the handicapped Steelers fell to the Raiders, 24-7. Since the game, Jack Lambert has recalled the game frequently, stating, "Give us a six-pack, and we'll go out and play again."
10. Stock Dropping in Mile High
Everything was stacked against the 1989 Steelers.
After boasting the dynasty of dynasties in the 1970s, the '80s Steelers continued to win, yet that success came with greater infrequency as the decade progressed and key talent aged or left the team. A losing record in 1988 left most experts skeptical of Pittsburgh's chances to compete in 1989, and they confirmed analysts' concerns with an auspicious start.
On Opening Day at Three Rivers Stadium, the team lost to the Browns, 51-0. That's not a typographical error.
One week later, the Steelers fell 41-10 to the Bengals. A 92-10 combined start left the team reeling, but they responded weeks later with a vengeance win over the Browns, 17-7 in Cleveland.
Despite the bounce-back, the Men of Steel were merely 4-6 after 10 games. However, in one of Chuck Noll's finest coaching jobs, the Black and Gold put their chinstraps on and went to work, rallying to a 9-7 finish and an AFC Wild Card.
After a huge upset win over the Houston Oilers in overtime, the Steelers traveled to Denver. Pittsburgh upset the heavily favored Broncos at the same setting and time in 1984, preventing an Elway-vs.-Marino AFC Championship Game. Now, they would attempt to go 2-for-2 in the category of Mile High upsets.
In the end, despite a valiant effort, the final plays of the season would leave fans feeling a "Mile Low."
While John Elway was the star of the orange show, Denver's run defense was elite. They had not allowed a 100-yard rusher all season.
Merrill Hoge eclipsed the mark in the first half. His hard running gave the 'Burgh a 10-0 lead, but the magnificent number 7 (no, not Big Ben) rallied Denver, cutting the deficit to 10-7 on a touchdown pass. Bubby Brister answered with his own scoring strike to regain the 10-point lead before Elway's successful two-minute offense cut the halftime gap to 17-10.
Carl Mecklenburg and Greg Kragen forced a Tim Worley fumble, and Denver capitalized by tying the score at the start of the second half.
After running with such authority in the first half, Hoge was held to 20 rushing yards after intermission. With Denver stacking the line in an effort to slow him down, the Steelers altered their strategy. Hoge contributed with 60 receiving yards, beating Denver pressure on the outside.
Ahead 20-17 later in the half, Thomas Everett intercepted an Elway pass and returned to midfield. Despite the chance to end the game in the fourth quarter, the Steelers drive ended after two first downs, and another kick gave them a 23-17 advantage.
Then, it happened. Elway magic.
And before anybody assumes...his scoring drive is not the play.
With seven minutes left, the Steelers had a third-and-1 past midfield, failing to convert the first down. Punting to Elway proved fatal.
He led the Broncos on a nine-play, 71-yard drive, capped by a touchdown pass to Melvin Bratton, putting Denver ahead 24-23.
Nevertheless, with 2:20 left to play, the Steelers got the ball back. Having moved the football on nearly every possession, hope was still high for an upset. One week earlier, Gary Anderson had kicked a 50-yard field goal to win, so the Steelers only needed to get the football beyond midfield for a chance to win in the thin Colorado air.
On first down, Brister dropped back, looked downfield and targeted a wide-open Mark Stock beyond the Pittsburgh 40-yard line. The beautiful spiral was right on target, and Stock looked ahead at the 15 yards of open field in front of him.
THE PLAY: STOCK DROPPED THE BALL
On second down, a pass attempt to Louis Lipps was incomplete. Third down saw a bad snap, and Denver recovered the football.
Elway took a knee to end the contest, and the Steelers season ended painfully short of a stunning trip to the AFC Championship Game against the team that had beaten them 51-0 to start the season—the Cleveland Browns.
9. Jacksonville Injustice
After taking a 7-0 lead on their opening possession of Mike Tomlin's first playoff game as head coach, the Pittsburgh Steelers couldn't seem to do anything right against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The new coach had admittedly worked the players hard during the season, and wear and tear may have contributed to the lackluster effort. No matter the excuse, Jacksonville led 28-10 on the strength of various Steelers killers bringing their game to Heinz Field.
Maurice Jones-Drew pulled a "Joshua Cribbs" impression, returning the ensuing kickoff after Pittsburgh's early lead to the 1-yard line, where Fred Taylor—who bullied the Steelers during his career—finished a short drive.
Then, Rashean Mathis intercepted Ben Roethlisberger, returning the turnover for a touchdown to give Jacksonville the lead.
By the time Jones-Drew scored on a 43-yard pass and also a 10-yard run, the Steelers stared up at the scoreboard and realized the uphill battle ahead.
Then, momentum happened, and it started on one key play to start the fourth quarter. The frustration of a cold Pittsburgh night transformed into the warmth of possibility. The chance for a comeback began when Ben Roethlisberger hit Santonio Holmes with a 37-yard touchdown on a desperate fourth-down play. On a down that fans hopes would merely extend the drive into Jacksonville territory, the Steelers dug deep and come up with a huge play.
In the NFL, any moment can open the floodgates.
In this instance, the Steelers play amplified exponentially. Heath Miller and Najeh Davenport both scored in the fourth quarter, capping a 19-0 Steelers run. Both touchdowns preceded failed two-point conversion attempts, and the Steelers led 29-28.
The Jaguars needed to rally in the final minutes to avoid a historic postseason collapse.
THE PLAY: QB DAVID GARRARD'S RUN ON FOURTH-AND-2
From the Pittsburgh 43-yard line, the Jacksonville quarterback took the snap from center, unable to find anyone open. However, a receiver proved unnecessary, and Garrard used his legs to pick up 32 yards.
Suddenly, deep in Steelers territory, a field-goal attempt was all too easy. Pittsburgh fell 31-29.
Adding insult to the loss was the NFL's apology, coming in the days after the loss. On the infamous "clutch" run, the Jaguars held on the play, a penalty that would have forced a fourth-and-12 back past midfield.
Instead, Pittsburgh's season ended. Ultimately, this play may have ranked higher if not for one key factor: The Steelers were unlikely to have gone much further in those playoffs. They were fortunate to have already rallied from a seemingly insurmountable deficit, and their admitted fatigue ultimately caught up to them.
8. The Fake Punt to Perfection
December 31, 1972 was one of the darkest days in the history of Pittsburgh sports.
The afternoon began with the perception of tragedy. It ended with real tragedy.
One week earlier, the Steelers sent John Madden into a conniption over the "Immaculate Reception," when Terry Bradshaw's desperate downfield heave glanced off of Jack Tatum (physics, baby) and backwards before the feet of Franco Harris. The running back snagged the football before it hit the turf (as per official NFL ruling) and ran up the left sideline for a miraculous touchdown.
The Steelers had their first ever playoff win, 13-7.
Due to the cyclical nature of postseason scheduling, which was based on host divisions opposed to team records, the undefeated Miami Dolphins traveled to Three Rivers Stadium for the AFC Championship Game. On a day where the Steelers could have changed history, the team came closer to starting their dynasty two years earlier than most fans may remember.
After stuffing the Dolphins' opening possession, the Steelers took the ball down Miami's throat to secure an early 7-0 lead. The crowd was raucous, momentum clearly favored Pittsburgh, and the Dolphins offense was unable to get any sort of positive energy in the first half.
In the second quarter, the boisterous crowd erupted when Jack Ham intercepted Earl Morrall, but Dwight White was called offsides on the play, negating the turnover.
Amplifying the aggravation of having a key takeaway taken away was the following play, which changed the momentum in the game entirely.
THE PLAY: PUNTER LARRY SEIPLE'S FAKE PUNT
Just when it seemed the Steelers would lead 7-0 at halftime in a dominating showing, punter Larry Seiple caught the special teams napping.
As he ran, the crowd screamed, but the unaware Steelers had no idea he was on the move until it was far too late. From behind midfield, the punter scampered nearly 30 yards before the special teams of Pittsburgh started pursuit. By the time his trickery ended, the Dolphins had possession deep in Pittsburgh territory.
They tied the game, and their momentum carried over the the second half. Bob Griese came into the game, hitting Paul Warfield with a 52-yard strike to set up Miami for a 14-10 lead. Later, they extended the advantage with another touchdown.
While the Steelers attempted to rally, two Terry Bradshaw interceptions in the fourth quarter sealed their fate. Leading 7-0, the Steelers could have been ahead by more before Seiple changed history.
As deep as the pain of missing Super Bowl XII seemed, Pittsburgh mourned the loss of Roberto Clemente that same day when the heralded outfielder died in a helicopter crash during a humanitarian effort.
7. Tebow Time
THE PLAY: Have you forgotten already?
There are a few reasons that the loss in Denver stung Steelers fans so badly.
First and foremost, the 2011 squad was thought by many fans to have the capability to go to another Super Bowl (particularly prior to a few key injuries), but the window of opportunity is closing for the core veterans that boosted the franchise to the league lead in Lombardis.
Secondly, many fans felt that this contest, pitting the scrutinized Tim Tebow against the league’s top-ranked defense, was soundly in the favor of Pittsburgh. Experts predicted the Broncos would be exposed and that Tebow’s three-game losing skid to end the season would continue.
In the game itself, momentum turned on the Steelers when the Denver quarterback began to hit on a number of big plays downfield, but the Black and Gold rallied. This created the feeling that the Steelers were not going to allow themselves to fall victim in a game they were “supposed” to win.
Finally, the suddenness of the play in overtime was breathtaking for both fan bases, but it added a punch to the gut of the Steel City. With one decisive throw, the element of the game that was supposed to favor Pittsburgh failed them in the worst way, and the hype and mania of “Tebow Time” continued in ending the Steelers season.
Here is a recap of that Sunday's events, from my own article after the game:
After dominating the early play, the Men of Steel were caught in a whirlwind of Denver momentum in the second quarter. Downfield strikes by former Florida Gator Tim Tebow and stagnation on offense by the Steelers were catalysts for a complete role reversal, and Pittsburgh’s early 6-0 lead evaporated into a two touchdown deficit at intermission.
The Black and Gold rallied in the second half, cutting the score to 20-13 on an end-around run by receiver Mike Wallace. After exchanging field goals, the tying touchdown was set up courtesy of a Willis McGahee fumble in the final minutes. Ben Roethlisberger capitalized with a magnificent touchdown strike to receiver Jericho Cotchery, tying the score at 23-23.
With thousands of Terrible Towels whipping in the stands once again, Pittsburgh had an opportunity to win the game at the end of regulation. However, on that final drive into Denver territory, questionable clock management, pressure on Ben Roethlisberger, an inopportune delay of game penalty and a quarterback fumble showcased the lack of clutch play that ultimately separated these Steelers from their championship prestige.
The setbacks served as a microcosm of Pittsburgh’s recent miscues on the road, as well as their challenges in 2011, and the opportunity to win would not present itself again.
Following the last in an evening of touchbacks, Denver took control from their own 20-yard line. Tim Tebow received the game’s final snap from center J.D. Walton after the Steelers defense crowded the box. As the football whistled over the middle of the field from southpaw to receiver, it nestled perfectly into the hands of Demaryius Thomas, who was behind Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor with only green grass ahead of him.
As Thomas’ perfectly timed stiff arm sprung himself loose for the walk off score, fans in Pittsburgh realized that the Steelers’ 2011-12 season had just been effectively “Tebow’ed.”
When Tommy Maddox fell in Baltimore during Week 2 of the 2004 season, Steelers fans had every right to temper their internal enthusiasm going forward—at least temporarily.
After all, rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was a promising prospect, but what were the odds that the youngster out of the University of Miami (Ohio) could put the Pittsburgh Steelers on his back and lead them to a successful year?
In his first start in amidst hurricane conditions in Miami, Roethlisberger made the game clinching throw with a touchdown to sliding Hines Ward. Then, coming home to play the Bengals and Browns, he continued to show aplomb, leading Pittsburgh to a 4-1 record.
A trip to Dallas ended with a 24-20 comeback victory that saw the rookie finish with 21 completions on 25 pass attempts. If there were any questions about Big Ben’s potential as the franchise guy, those concerns were allayed from the Steelers beat the undefeated Patriots and Eagles in consecutive weeks at Heinz Field.
On Halloween evening, Pittsburgh’s defense jumped on Tom Brady early, and two touchdown passes to Plaxico Burress followed by a Deshea Townsend score gave the ‘Burgh a 21-3 lead. Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley ran over the New England defense, with 49 attempts and 221 yards.
The formula was perfect: run hard, play great defense, trust your quarterback to make key throws (a luxury missing under years with Kordell Stewart behind center) and just win. The Steelers reeled off 14 straight wins to end the regular season 15-1.
Then in the Divisional Playoffs, the bubble appeared to burst when Big Ben threw two late interceptions in a tied game in the fourth quarter. Jets kicker Doug Brien missed two makeable field goals, and New York was stunned when the Steelers pulled off a miraculous 20-17 victory.
The New England Patriots decimated the Colts to earn a return trip to Western Pennsylvania. After their narrow escape one week earlier, the Steel City was split: pessimism came after a poor performance, while others were optimistic about the good fortune.
Early in the game, Bettis fumbled. The Steelers, already behind 3-0, fell victim to the magic of Brady, whose perfect deep pass to Deion Branch gave the Patriots a 10-0 lead. After exchanging a field goal for a touchdown, the Steelers stared up at a 17-3 deficit.
Near the end of the first half, Pittsburgh’s offense began to gain momentum, driving into New England territory. If they could cut the Patriots’ lead to 17-10, they would get possession after halftime with a chance to tie the score.
Unlike other plays that rank higher, the dagger in this game didn’t effectively end the contest. However, the 2004 Steelers were more than capable of winning the Lombardi Trophy, and one play before halftime sent notice to the Steel City’s championship dreamers: dream on!
THE PLAY: A Ben Roethlisberger pass into the flats was intercepted by Rodney Harrison. After driving toward a critical touchdown, Harrison returned the ball 87 yards and stole the seven points from Pittsburgh.
Instead of trailing 17-10, the Steelers now trailed the defending champions 24-3 before a home crowd all too used to losing AFC Championships at home.
After the play, the Steelers were too far behind to get back into a competitive phase with New England. Every time the offense gained momentum or scored, the Patriots answered right back with genius playcalling or another enormous Brady throw.
Tommy B. and the Pats celebrated at Heinz Field once again, while the Steelers, having yet to win that “one for the thumb,” were left to contemplate a magical 15-1 season that came up just short of the ultimate goal.
5. Montana Magic
If not for some lucky breaks in the week’s final season, the Steelers wouldn’t have even been a wild card in the 1993-94 NFL season. However, with a 16-9 win over the Browns and some help in Dolphins and Jets losses, Pittsburgh went to the playoffs for the second straight season with coach Bill Cowher.
Their Wild Card assignment came against Joe Montana and the Kansas City Chiefs, a team who hadn’t won a playoff game since 1971, before any Steelers dynasty was even considered.
Montana came out sloppy, opting to wear gloves for the first time in his career and misfiring on his first five pass attempts on a cold Missouri afternoon. He later took off the gloves and settled into the game, but he never quite seemed to get into a regular rhythm.
However, great players aren’t always great. They’re great, as the saying goes, when they have to be.
That considered, it seems fourth down is a fine time for greatness, and Montana magic (and a key special teams play) would ultimately be the difference in a Wild Card Playoffs thriller.
With 4:11 left in regulation, Neil O’Donnell hit tight end Eric Green for a 22-yard touchdown to break the tie and give the Steelers a 24-17 lead. Shortly thereafter, the Steelers reclaimed possession of the football, hoping to run out the clock. The Kansas City defense was stout, forcing a punt.
Mark Royal’s punt attempt was blocked by Keith Cash at the 40-yard line, scooped up, and returned to the Steelers nine-yard line. While the key special teams play would normally be the most heartbreaking play in the series of events, the Steelers defense still had a chance to get off the field unscathed.
With first-and-goal, Marcus Allen gained two yards before a third-down incomplete pass. Facing fourth-and-goal from the seven-yard line, Montana had to make the play of the game. His ribs were sore from a hard hit earlier in the game, and his play had been affected all day.
However, the second half for “Joe Cool” saw a vast improvement in his performance, and Montana had completed 21-of-27 attempts for over 200 yards after halftime.
With one last completion, that total would become 22-of-28.
THE PLAY: Joe Montana threw a seven-yard touchdown to Tim Barrett along the back of the end zone to tie the score on fourth down.
Instead of moving on, the Steelers were left to mentally prepare for overtime. Clearly distracted, the Chiefs got the ball back in regulation, nearly driving for the win. While a missed field-goal attempt forced the extra session, Montana led Kansas City to the win, and the Steelers were left to replay fourth-and-7 for the summer and beyond.
4. And the Oscar Goes to the Kicker
After a magical comeback season for Tommy Maddox, the playoffs saw the Steelers return to the site where the former XFL MVP nearly suffered a career-ending neck injury. During an eventual 31-23 loss in Tennessee, Maddox lied motionless on the ground, and Steelers Country rallied behind their fallen quarterback.
An emotional Maddox gave his thanks to the fans during a press conference later in the week. Naturally, Steelers fans were offended to discover that a Nashville radio station asked contestants to push stretchers, complete with a partner dressed like Maddox, through the streets of Nashville in a race for playoff tickets.
While it was the Steelers quarterback who took the brunt of pain in the first meeting, it was the Steelers' defense delivering most of the hits in the postseason affair. After falling behind 14-0, the Steelers rallied to cut the deficit to a single point.
Then, at the start of the second half, a helmet-to-helmet collision with Eddie George knocked the physical running back unconscious. He fumbled, the Steelers recovered and Pittsburgh took a 20-14 lead thereafter.
As he had earlier in the evening, Steve McNair began to pick apart the Steelers secondary, leading the Titans to two touchdowns on consecutive drives to reclaim a 28-20 lead. However, in a back-and-forth classic, Maddox led the Steelers to the tying score, complete with a two-point conversion from Antwan Randle El to Plaxico Burress, and ultimately a 31-28 lead shortly thereafter.
Late in the game, tied 31-31, a Steelers possession in the final seconds entered Tennessee territory, but the approach stalled. The contest went into overtime.
Immediately, McNair diced the defensive secondary of Pittsburgh, setting the Titans up for a field goal after a long completion against Steelers corner DeWayne Washington. Joe Nedney came out to attempt the game-winning field goal.
His attempt went through the uprights, but whistles blew in the background. While fireworks mistakenly lit up the skies at Adelphia Coliseum, Nedney smirked, realizing that Steelers coach Bill Cowher had called timeout.
It would be Nedney who would have the last laugh.
THE PLAY: On the subsequent field goal attempt, the ball sailed wide right. As Steelers fans rejoiced, a flag was thrown. After mass speculation, Pittsburgh players were shown to be irate on the field. DeWayne Washington, attempting to block the kick, lightly brushed the foot of Nedney on the attempt. In a supreme acting job, Nedney twirled and fell to the ground, drawing the unnecessary flag that would ultimately end Pittsburgh’s season.
It was the ultimate prankster's pirouette.
The third time was truly the charm. The third attempt off of Nedney’s foot was a repeat of his first effort, splitting the uprights and sending the Titans to Oakland for the AFC Championship Game.
3. Not-so-Special Teams
The 2001 Steelers were heavy favorites to defeat the perceived “Cinderella” Patriots and first-year starter Tom Brady. In a time before Belichick and his Boston crew established a dynasty, their unpredictable first campaign together was viewed by many as a fluke.
In fact, even as later as two years after winning Super Bowl XXXVI, many fans in Boston questioned team management for releasing Drew Bledsoe to the Bills and continuing to start Brady.
Today, most of those questions have subsided, safe to say.
In reality, the Steelers probably should have won the AFC Championship on the fateful Sunday afternoon that the New England miracle continued. Eight days after being reprieved by “The Tuck Rule” during a snowstorm at Foxboro Stadium, the Patriots were the beneficiaries of two special teams blunders by Pittsburgh.
A punt by Josh Miller, which was actually a re-kick after his booming first effort was negated by penalty, was returned by Troy Brown for a touchdown that opened the scoring on the afternoon. New England led 7-0.
Brady was injured in the first half, and Bledsoe led the team to another score, giving the Patriots a 14-3 halftime edge.
At the start of the second half, the Steelers seemed doomed. A fumble recovery by Teddy Bruschi gave the Patriots possession, but the Black and Gold defense forced a turnover on downs.
Seeming to gain momentum from the play, the offense began a 52-yard drive. Behind improved play by Kordell Stewart and the running of Amos Zeroue, Pittsburgh drove deep into Pats territory.
Having to settle for a field goal, the special teams would make the mistake that effectively put the Steelers into too deep a hole to recover. Attempting to cut the Boston lead to 14-6, the play that gave fans at Heinz Field the sinking feeling of defeat happened.
THE PLAY: Brandon Mitchell blocked Kris Brown’s field goal attempt. Adding to the damage, Troy Brown recovered and began a return. When he was seemingly caught from behind, he lateralled to Antwan Harris, who ran the remaining 45 yards for a Patriots touchdown.
The Steelers rallied, but ultimately lost, 24-17. The blocked field goal is the play fans recall, and it epitomized a frustrating afternoon (and decade) for fans longing for what was then referred to as “the one for the thumb.”
Other plays on this countdown ended Steelers seasons in a single heartbeat. A few of them may not have decided the game at the time they occurred, but they are remembered as the ultimate reason for great Steelers teams having lost.
But few were so unexpected and sudden against such a great team. Montana’s throw was a distinct possibility on fourth down in 1993. However, like the Larry Brown interception to seal the deal in Super Bowl XXX (later on the list), this play came from out of nowhere like a swift punch to the gut.
In this case, the blocked field goal was one of many mistakes the Steelers made. However, it reflected the nature of the contest that prevented the Steelers from playing in the Super Bowl; not offense versus defense or X’s and O’s, but a seemingly fluky freak occurrence that Pittsburgh seemed cursed to endure year after year.
In this case, Steelers points became the deciding New England touchdown in a span of seconds, and a game that Steelers fans were so sure would see the franchise return to the Super Bowl ended with a feeling of emptiness, confusion and anger.
2. "Three More Yards"
In their AFC Championship season of 1995, the Pittsburgh Steelers played before fans at Three Rivers Stadium who had a single theme in their hearts and minds that was born months earlier. Some of those loyal followers even put the slogan on signs, which carried the theme to the masses who followed the Steelers’ miraculous rise from 3-4 to the Super Bowl:
“Three More Yards.”
That past January, the 1994 Steelers hosted the San Diego Chargers in the AFC Championship Game. Instead of freezing the Californians, Mother Nature gave the Steelers an unseasonably warm, wet setting for the contest, in which the Steelers were emphatically favored by two touchdowns.
Many experts questioned whether the Chargers and quarterback Stan Humphries would score at all in the contest.
When the Steelers defense made a goal-line stand early in the game, stuffing Natrone Means on fourth down, the raucous crowd grew confident. From that point forward, the Chargers struggled to sustain any offensive drives, while the Steelers seemingly drove at will on San Diego.
The Steelers gained 22 first downs to the Chargers’ 13, while accumulating nearly double of San Diego’s offensive total with 415 offensive yards. The disproportion is even worse when one considers that 86 yards of San Diego’s 226 came on the two backbreaking touchdown bombs that haunt Steelers fans even today.
Neil O’Donnell finished the game with 32 completions for nearly 350 yards, taking advantage of the Chargers secondary except for when it mattered most—near the end zone.
However, the Steelers twice settled for Gary Anderson field goals, and their high production on offense wasn’t translating to points on the scoreboard. Ahead 13-3 late in the third quarter, Pittsburgh’s lead felt like 40 points; the Chargers were accomplishing nothing.
Until the Steelers defense left the most unknown receiver on the Chargers roster completely uncovered.
Humphries hit the not so infamous (except for in Pittsburgh) Alfred Pupunu with a 43-yard touchdown bomb. The score was suddenly 13-10 late in the third quarter.
It stayed that way until there were five minutes left in the game. On third-and-long, the blitzing Steelers sent Tim McKay into man coverage with Tony Martin. Seeing the matchup advantage, Humphries put the Super Bowl hopes of his team into one perfect throw under pressure.
As if an excerpt from “Groundhog Day,” Humphries went deep over the middle for a second time, hitting Tony Martin with another 43-yard touchdown bomb in the fourth quarter. Just like that, San Diego led. You could hear a pin drop at Three Rivers Stadium.
Pittsburgh’s day of domination had become San Diego’s game to lose, but O’Donnell drove the Steelers to a goal to go situation for a berth in Super Bowl XXIX.
After three plays failed to seal the deal, it happened. The fateful down that led to 1995’s theme: “Three More Yards.”
THE PLAY: Fourth-and-3. O’Donnell’s quick pass attempt for Barry Foster hit the turf when linebacker Dennis Gibson got a hand in to deflect.
1. Larry Brown's Second Interception in Super Bowl XXX
As you will notice, none of the turnovers from Super Bowl XLV made the list. It begs the question, Why?
The answer is that the ranking is based on plays, not specific games. Otherwise, anything contributing to a Super Bowl loss would rank atop the list.
From Big Ben’s interception to Nick Collins, returned for a touchdown to give Green Bay a 14-0 lead, to Rashard Mendenhall’s late fumble, turnovers killed the Black and Gold in Dallas. While all of the giveaways, as well as the failed fourth down, could have made the list, none of them had the individual shock value or suddenness that other plays of misfortune have possessed.
In other words, while any one of those plays individually could have made the list, Super Bowl XLV was a collective failure based on the culmination of three or four critical plays. Individually, none of those plays usurps those on this list, and no one turnover could possibly compare with the game-ending giveaway against the Cowboys, who were vying to become an NFL dynasty under Barry Switzer.
"We did it, Jerry!" Replaying the sound of Switzer's voice almost single-handedly justifies this ranking!
Few fans who experienced Steelers vs. Cowboys III (this was their third meeting in the Super Bowl) will forget where they were during "that pass."
The pass. The one that conjured up broken hearts, what ifs and conspiracy theories across the Steel City.
Any fan old enough to remember knows which of the three interceptions was "that pass." It was the one that effectively ended the game, and the one that would fit with the slightly altered lyrics, "one of these things looks exactly like the other."
In Super Bowl XXX, that one play will always be remembered for quite possibly delaying the Steelers’ fifth Super Bowl championship an additional 10 years. With the momentum completely turned, who knows what may have happened if the reeling Cowboys weren't spared by Neil O'Donnell's famous blunder?
After having thrown an interception to Larry Brown along the right sideline earlier in the game, O’Donnell and the Steelers rallied in the fourth quarter. A field goal and onside kick set up the touchdown that made the Super Bowl against the heavily favored Cowboys contentious.
When Rod Woodson broke up a pass attempt to Michael Irvin fans were elated. When Levon Kirkland lunged himself at Troy Aikman, tripping up the quarterback by the tips of his toes, Steelers fans went wild. Pittsburgh would get the ball back in Super Bowl XXX with a chance to beat the Cowboys for the third time in Super Bowl play.
Approaching midfield, O’Donnell took the snap from the shotgun from Dermontti Dawson and dropped back to pass. The football floated from his right hand with Steelers fans worldwide on pins and needles. Their franchise hadn’t tasted the glory of ultimate victory for 16 long seasons, and the notion of Cowher’s talented team finally reaching their full potential had the hearts of the faithful beating loudly.
The pass reached its destination, and the hope of Steelers Country crumbled.
THE PLAY: Alone along the right sideline, another Neil O’Donnell pass was intercepted by Larry Brown. The turnover was nearly identical to his interception earlier in the half, which was also returned deep into Pittsburgh territory.
Like the first time the Steelers miscued, Dallas went to work on offense in a goal-to-go situation and made Pittsburgh pay. Emmitt Smith’s touchdown gave the Cowboys a 27-17 lead.
A final Hail Mary attempt was also intercepted, giving O’Donnell three picks in the game, which will always tarnish the legacy of what was otherwise a career defined by effective quarterbacking and great ball protection.
Ironically, O’Donnell retired with the lowest interception rate of any quarterback in history.