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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.