With one of the more painful endings in the franchise's playoff history (ranked No. 7 on my recent countdown of heartbreaking postseason plays), the defending AFC Champions and their 12-4 record fell victim to the Mile High stage in an overtime that has many fans in the Steel City feeling a mile low.
Nevertheless, while the time for mourning never fully ends, one has to keep in mind one ever so important analogy in handling the downtrodden moments that coincide with fanaticism: the darker the picture, the brighter the negative, just as it is in photography.
In other words, the hard times make all the glory that much sweeter, and no franchise has experienced more of the highest of highs than the Steelers.
For every Rodney Harrison interception, there is a Hines Ward Super Bowl MVP shortly thereafter. With each frustrating Kordell Stewart throw into triple coverage in an AFC Championship Game, there is a solid playoff campaign bolstered by the play of franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Steelers fans who are patient know that the stability and success of the franchise is not a coincidence, and the teams' focus on doing things the right way, a.k.a. the "Steelers Way," will pave the path for great playoff moments in the near future.
For now, opposed to sullying the next few minutes with moments a fan would rather forget, it's time to take a stroll down memory lane and recall the great playoff moments for a proud team.
Few franchises have this volume of classic postseason moments in their team scrapbook! To help keep you warm during a chilly offseason, here are the top 25 postseason moments in Pittsburgh Steelers history.
During the 2008 Divisional Playoffs, home teams were falling like a string of dominoes. After the Baltimore Ravens defeated the AFC's top-seeded Tennessee Titans, the Cardinals and Eagles upset the top two teams in the NFC.
Hosting the San Diego Chargers for the right to play at home in the AFC Championship Game, the Steelers hoped to prevent a clean sweep for the 2008 Wild Card contingent.
While the Californians jumped out to an early 7-0 lead, the Steelers fought back in the first half, largely buoyed by a phenomenal punt return up the left sideline by a leaping Santonio Holmes. His touchdown tied the score, and the Steelers later took a 14-10 lead into halftime.
Unable to relax, the Black and Gold defense knew its hands were full with Philip Rivers on the other sideline. In a manner of speaking, that turned out to be the key: Rivers was on the sideline for—essentially—the entire third quarter.
Pittsburgh opened the second half with a 10-play drive that took 7:56 off the clock, capped by an eight-yard touchdown to Heath Miller.
As an apparent answer, Darren Sproles returned the subsequent kickoff deep into Steelers territory. However, the Charger held possession for one play. Philip Rivers' first down pass was batted into the air and intercepted.
The Steelers went on another lengthy drive, erasing the remaining time from the third quarter before putting another touchdown on the scoreboard. Pittsburgh led 28-10 en route to a 35-24 victory thanks to their most dominant quarter of football in playoff (if not franchise) history.
San Diego ran exactly one play in the quarter. One singular snap that resulted in a key turnover.
4TH QUARTER STATISTICS
TIME OF POSSESSION: 14:43 (PIT), 0:17 (SD)
YARDAGE: 136 (PIT), 0 (SD)
TURNOVERS: 0 (PIT), 1 (SD)
FIRST DOWNS: ...well, you get the point!
The 1977-78 Steelers fell short of winning their third Super Bowl when the Denver Broncos, nicknamed the "Orange Crush," scored 13 unanswered points in the fourth quarter of the teams' Divisional Playoff. Craig Morton and the Broncos would ultimately become the defending AFC Champions, losing in Super Bowl XII.
One year later, the Broncos ventured from Mile High Stadium, the site of the previous year's match, and landed in Three Rivers Stadium. The Divisional Playoff rematch pitted the defending conference heavyweights against the potential team of the decade.
Ahead 19-10 entering the final quarter, the Black and Gold looked to secure their trip to another AFC Championship Game by avenging the previous year's defeat. Terry Bradshaw warmed up the cannon, and his two Hall of Fame receivers both said, "shoot this way!"
Lynn Swann jumped over double coverage at the goal line and came down with a beautifully thrown pass by Bradshaw, extending the Pittsburgh lead to 26-10.
Then, to put the cherry on the proverbial "Sunday," John Stallworth—covered well at the back of the endzone—leaped over the defense, caught the pigskin, and came down along the back line with both feet inbounds.
It was a marvelous effort by both men, who would each put their stamp on Super Bowl wins in addition to countless other victories in team history.
Stanford's John Elway and Pitt's Dan Marino were among the budding superstars of the NFL, and most fans foresaw the dream match between the AFC's top seeds in the 1985 playoffs.
Marino set records galore with his 48 touchdowns and a 14-2 record. Meanwhile, the Broncos and quarterback John Elway were no slouch, finishing 13-3.
If Elways had his sights on meeting Marino the next week, he should have adjusted his focus more sharply on Pittsburgh in the Divisional Playoffs.
After a Mark Malone fumble (recovered by Tom Jackson) allowed Elway to connect with Jim Wright for a 7-0 Broncos lead, the Steelers settled into the game. However, despite rallying to take the small lead, Pittsburgh's surge was answered by Denver. The Broncos led 17-10 late in the game, but Mark Malone and the Steelers refused to back down, showcased when Louis Lipps caught the game-tying touchdown late in the third quarter.
In the final quarter of play, Gary Anderson missed a field goal that would have given the Steelers a late lead, and it seemed that Pittsburgh had blown their best opportunity.
Nevertheless, with three minutes left in the game, John Elway took the field with a chance to guide his team to victory. Instead, safety Eric Wright intercepted the former Cardinal, returning the football to the Denver 2-yard line.
Frank Pollard burrowed in for a 2-yard touchdown, and Denver trailed 24-17. Elway was unable to rally the Broncos, and Pittsburgh's upset sent them to Miami for a showdown with the Pittsburgh (Panthers) kid, Dan Marino, in the AFC Championship.
At the end of his career, Elway was regarded as "the Magnificent 7." For one afternoon, Mark Malone was the proud victor, raising his arms as the all too temporarily "Magnificent 18."
Doesn't quite have the ring of truth, does it?
Super Bowl XIII was a heavyweight battle between two mighty franchises looking to prove themselves as the team of the decade. The contest featured more Hall of Famers than any other Super Bowl in history, and it was largely regarded as one of the most exciting in the game's history.
Both Steelers vs. Cowboys Super Bowls were incredibly iconic, and Pittsburgh's success makes the contests a warm memory bank for Black and Gold faithful.
As such, many great moments on the list come from their two meetings in Super Bowl X and XIII.
This first moment came directly before halftime. Mel Blount intercepted Roger Staubach, ending a Dallas drive and giving Terry Bradshaw and the Steelers an opportunity to break a tied game.
After hitting Lynn Swann with two sizable gains, Bradshaw found an unexpected target in the endzone for the lead. Leaping to make the touchdown catch was....
Indeed, the fan favorite elevated to grab the pass. Terry Bradshaw, known as the "Blonde Bomber," showed finesse, rolling out and lobbing a touch pass to the perfect spot, allowing Bleier to make the fantastic catch in the right corner of the endzone.
While fans (and teammates) have debated that Bleier's leap has been greatly over-exaggerated, the impact of the play, difficulty of the reception, and importance of the score are absolutely authentic.
Sometimes, one great game can serve as a warm moment for a legion of fans.
Sometimes, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts!
The 1994 Steelers dominated their third meeting with their arch-rival, outgaining Cleveland 424 yards to 186, 23 first downs to 10, and dominating with a 42:27 to 17:33 advantage in time of possession.
One of the game's key moments, the one that put the final hammer on the Browns early, came with less than one minute to go before halftime.
Tim McKyer, who would become a scapegoat in a loss to the Chargers (17-13) in the AFC Championship one week later, intercepted Vinny Testeverde, returning the football to the Steelers' six-yard line.
From there, Pittsburgh extended an already commanding lead to 24-3. Steelers actually waved Terrible Towels on the field, and a special day in the Steel City ended with a 29-9 victory.
After two painful opening game playoff losses under Cowher in 1992 and 1993, a postseason win was well-deserved for "the Chin."
In 2001, the Steelers and Ravens prepared for a key AFC North battle late in the season at PSINet Stadium.
Receiver Plaxico Burress commented that the Ravens had been physically beaten by the Steelers in a 13-10 Baltimore win at Heinz Field earlier in the campaign.
Shannon Sharpe took umbrage, stating, "If Hines Ward would have said that, as physical as he plays the game, OK, I could lend some credence to that. But 'Plexiglass?' No."
The Steelers stood by their receiver, who stated that Plexiglass bends but doesn't break.
After Pittsburgh beat Baltimore 26-21 to clinch the AFC North Championship, the two teams met in the playoffs.
Rod Woodson, who had his nose bloodied earlier in the season by a hard block by Hines Ward, got his face rubbed again by Burress. Or, perhaps it was Sharpe receiving the worst of it.
Ahead 20-10, the Ravens were attempting to come back from a massive deficit early in the teams' first playoff meeting. In the fourth quarter, Plaxico caught a pass from Kordell Stewart, used a stiff arm to put Woodson on the ground, and ran into the end zone for the clinching score.
After the game, Sharpe was ready to admit the Steelers had been the better team that day.
Bend but don't break, indeed.
Defending the first championship in team history, the Steelers' began their second Super Bowl run with a home playoff game against Bert Jones and the Baltimore Colts.
While Jones was one of the more underrated quarterbacks in the NFL's illustrious history, his postseason games against Pittsburgh were forgettable. Opposed to the Colts' high-octane offense making big plays, the Steelers and, more specifically, the Steel Curtain, stepped up in the biggest moments.
Ahead 21-10 in the fourth quarter, the Steelers defense saw the Colts offense driving in a desperate attempt to pull to within one score.
Then, the biggest play of Andy Russell's illustrious career happened. Jack Ham stripped Bert Jones as he hesitated to throw the football, and Russell picked the football up inside the Pittsburgh 10-yard line.
Teammates describe his lumbering 93-yard return as "a bear crawling onto his back." Nevertheless, with only green turf in front of him, Russell's touchdown return remains the longest defensive return in NFL playoff history.
On Pittsburgh's local radio broadcast of the 2006 AFC Championship Game, a woman can be heard screaming in the Denver crowd as the Pittsburgh Steelers dissect the home team for the right to go to the Super Bowl. Watching a replay of the game on DVD from the Steelers commemorative box set, the shrieking lady can be heard on nearly every play.
Unfortunately for the Denver damsel in distress, there was a lot of screaming to be had when Ben Roethlisberger put on a virtuoso performance that was in contrast to his playoffs from one year earlier.
In his sophomore season, the young Big Ben took the Black and Gold to heights not seen since the days of Bradshaw, Lambert, and Stallworth. In the 2005 AFC Championship Game, Rodney Harrison intercepted Roethlisberger at Heinz Field to give New England a 24-3 halftime lead, practically dispelling any notion of a Super Sunday in the Steel City.
One key play in Denver forced fans to take notice that a new day was blossoming in Pittsburgh, and Ben put the 'Burgh ahead 24-3, directly converse to the one season before.
After a beautifully executed draw play to Jerome Bettis for a long touchdown was called back for holding, the followup play sent a singular message: The Broncos would not be off the hook.
Ben rolled to his left, fired a pass that appeared to be headed for the waiting hands of Denver defensive backs, only to travel over outstretched fingertips and into the jersey of an awaiting Hines Ward. No. 86 caught the football at the baseline, and the Steelers sideline roared.
Ben Roethlisberger, surging with momentum, imitated a gunslinger, shooting with his fingers and putting the "guns" back in the holster. Symbolically, Pittsburgh saw their franchise quarterback at the highest of highs, and the Steel City knew they had the quarterback to usher in the second wave of championship football in franchise history.
Trailing the rival Ravens 21-7 at halftime, the Steelers entered the second half with their season on the brink.
Then, on a simple dump pass, Ray Rice fumbled, and the Steelers executed their offense on a short field. A Joe Flacco interception on first down on the following Baltimore possession led to the same result, and the game was suddenly tied.
After exchanging field goals, the Steelers took possession with a chance to take a late lead. The Ravens defense appeared game to the task, forcing a seemingly hopeless 3rd-and-19. It appeared the Steelers would have to punt to Baltimore, hoping for a defensive stance and overtime.
Then, Antonio Brown entered the Black and Gold consciousness.
On the long down and distance, Ben's strong throw to Antonio hit the receiver in stride...but it appeared he might drop the ball! Instead, the up-and-comer held the football against the side of his helmet, ala David Tyree, going out of bounds at the Ravens' 2-yard line.
As Heinz Field erupted, the offense had the opportunity to put the game away. Rashard Mendenhall scored six points, and a drop by T.J. Houshmandzadeh on a last gasp Baltimore drive secured a 31-24 win.
Ahead 9-6 in a game dominated by the Steelers defense, Terry Bradshaw began a wonderful habit: coming up with the clinching play in the biggest games.
In four Super Bowls, Bradshaw had fourth quarter touchdown passes to ice all four affairs. His first such score came in the drive that gave "the Chief," Art Rooney, his first taste of championship glory.
Eleven plays, 66 yards, 6:47 time of possession.
The drive ended when Bradshaw hit tight end Larry Brown in the back of the endzone with a bullet pass that teammates describe in "America's Game" as "sounding like a gunshot went off" as it hit Brown's breast plate.
Ahead 16-6, all that was left was to count down, and the Pittsburgh Steelers became champions for the first time.
Other plays have had more pizzazz and spectacle, and the Steelers themselves often credit the AFC Championship Game in Oakland from the prior week as their biggest catalyst.
Still, this was the play that secured that first Lombardi Trophy of what would become a record total of six...
After losing 51-0 to Cleveland on opening day, 92-10 in the first two weeks combined, and starting 4-6, the 1989 Steelers were not considered a playoff team. Obviously.
Four games. And, the 'Burgh went four for four! There was something sentimentally crazy about the '89 Steelers going to the postseason, but many fans consider the blessing fitting for Chuck Noll. The coach of the 70's dynasty would go to the playoffs for one final tournament, and many fans consider his work that season to be among his best coaching efforts....if not the top achievement!
Fittingly, the Steelers would play Jerry Glanville and the Houston Oilers. Glanville was disliked by many coaches and players in the NFL circuit, and his Oilers were a defiant, cocky, physical, fast team rife with talent and raw tenacity.
Love him or hate him, Glanville's teams won. However, years after his post-game confrontation with Chuck Noll at midfield, in which Noll informed Glanville that he would eventually get in trouble for players' cheap shots, the two coaches- studies in polar contract- squared off. And Glanville wouldn't win.
Not this time. Not with everything on the line.
Trailing 23-16 late in regulation, Merrill Hoge tied the score. Then, in overtime, Rod Woodson forced a Houston fumble near midfield, which the all-pro corner recovered.
After getting to the Oilers' 33-yard line, the Steelers put their hopes in the right leg of Gary Anderson. Anderson's 50-yard field goal went straight through the uprights, and the Steelers pulled off a monumental upset in Texas!
Ultimately, the loss soured the perception of Glanville enough that team management opted to change course. Glanville was unceremoniously dumped from Houston, and many fans attribute his firing to the great Steelers (and Chuck Noll) wild Wild Card win.
After trailing in the "Jungle" by ten points in the first half on two separate occasions, the Steelers silenced Cincinnati fans' chants of "Who 'Dey?!" by rallying to take a 21-17 lead after halftime.
The fans at Paul Brown Stadium were witnessing an eventual complete collapse. It started when their premier quarterback fell with a devastating knee injury on the team's first offensive play.
Cincinnati managed to overcome the injury early, connecting on key plays and aided by an undisciplined Steelers defense. However, as the game continued, the early mojo was dwindling.
A Steelers touchdown before halftime, a missed field goal attempt (bad snap) by the "Bungles," and a Jerome Bettis score put doubt into the tiger striped fans. However, one play in particular- a beautifully designed and executed gadget play- with like a slap to the face of Cincy's loyal followers.
A direct snap to Antwan Randle El saw the Pittsburgh receiver running toward the right sideline. Meanwhile, Ben Roethlisberger quietly moved toward the left sideline, isolated from any defenders. Suddenly, El stopped his progress nearing the right side of the field, lateraling the football across the entire field to Big Ben, standing alone.
The aggressive- and non-expectant- Bengals defense- was frozen still, realizing what was happening. Down the left sideline, moving against the direction of the play, Cedric Wilson has come free from the secondary. Wide open, Big Ben hit him with the pass downfield, and he ran into the endzone uninterrupted.
The Bengals crowd was shocked into silence; they didn't know what had just hit them.
Steelers fans barely knew either. It was a remarkable play, unlike any seen before it, and Terrible Towels waved rampantly across Steelers Country.
Every true Steelers fan knows about the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XIV. It can be summarized in five words:
Terry Bradshaw to John Stallworth.
Trailing 19-17 to the "Cinderella" L.A. Rams, Bradshaw ramped up his cannon arm for one more "Blonde Bomber" spectacular.
Two deep bombs, one for a touchdown and the other setting up the clinching score, allowed Pittsburgh to claim a fourth Lombardi Trophy, bringing to a close the success of one of the NFL's great dynasties.
The Pittsburgh passing game, especially later in the decade, was one of the more underrated elements of the Steelers dynasty. Many don't fully remember the potency of the Bradshaw-Swann-Stallworth combination.
Super Bowl XIV is a reminder of their dominance.
"It's football, not rocket science," said Bradshaw years after putting Hollywood Henderson in his place. The linebacker ridiculed the Steelers quarterback in the days heading toward Super Bowl XIII, claiming the quarterback "couldn't spell cat if you spotted him the c and the a."
Later, he admitted that he was high on cocaine during the interview. I'll bet Henderson can spell cocaine if you spot him the c and the o!
Low blow? Oh well! So was this:
Seventeen of 30. 318 yards. Four touchdowns.
After an MVP performance, it was the goofy quarterback from the Steel City who had the last laugh.
Bradshaw isn't the only one who was annoyed by Hollywood's antics. In fact, during the game, Franco Harris and Henderson are seen having a brief skirmish.
In the huddle, the Steelers running back looked fiercely at his teammates and asked for the football. Behind great blocking by the Black and Gold and White and Black (a referee obstructed the Dallas defense from a potential tackle on the play), Harris burst through the line and into the endzone.
The Cowboys trailed 28-17. Then, to cap an all-star performance, Bradshaw hit Lynn Swann with another highlight aerial catch, a touchdown that seemingly put the game away, 35-17.
While he attempted to rally the troops, Roger Staubach ran out of time, and the Steelers won a third championship, 35-31.
It was do-or-die, and it was against the arch-rival Steelers. The 2002 Cleveland Browns were the seeming reincarnation of the 1981 "Cardiac Kids."
Butch Davis' Browns defeated Atlanta in a gutty performance to secure a wild card playoff berth in the final week of the season. Cleveland booked their bus tickets, and the road to Pittsburgh saw them enter Heinz Field with momentum.
The Steelers had dominated to their arch-rival in the new millenium, though the Browns had a chance for bragging rights in the ultimate game between the squads since the franchise's return to action in 1999.
With a snowy, cold day in Pittsburgh coupled with a muddy field, the conditions were just right for a classic Steelers-Browns throw-down.
Yet, nobody saw the aerial assault coming on either side. Holcomb looked like Dan Marino, and Tommy Maddox became the Frank Reich of exactly ten years later, referencing the Bills' comeback from a 35-3 deficit against Houston in the 1993 Wild Card Playoffs.
Kelly Holcomb passed all over the Steelers' secondary, eclipsing the 400-yard mark. The Browns led 14-0 before an Antwan Randle El punt return cut their lead to seven points.
Undaunted, "Dan Marino" continued to find the great Quincy "Rice" Morgan and Dennis "Moss" Northcutt open for significant yardage. The Browns led in the second half 24-7, and the Steelers offense hadn't scored a single point.
Before long, Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox was beginning a tic-for-tac series of events with Holcomb. The teams traded scores, and the Browns scored a touchdown mid-way through the final quarter to make the score 33-21.
The Steelers drove for a third consecutive touchdown, but the Pittsburgh defense had already made like a "Steel Nap" opposed to a "Steel Trap." On cruise control for the entire day, the odds of getting the ball back from the Browns, who wisely continued to pass, seemed slim.
On a third down play, Dennis Northcutt dropped an easy catch, and the Browns were forced to punt. Anybody familiar with recent Cleveland sports lore knew then and there how the game would end.
The Steelers scored the winning touchdown, and despite a mass of yardage gained by Holcomb's passing attack in the final seconds, time ran out on Cleveland.
The Steelers fans continued to have bragging rights in the series, and it would now include a 2-0 postseason record against the Browns.
Ahead 21-3, it all seemed so under control in Indianapolis. Even with the great Peyton Manning's high-octane offense on the field, the Steelers had played so well against the Colts that even the most cynical fans had to be proud.
Then, things began to unravel. A fourth down conversion by the Colts, in which Manning waved off the punting team deep in his own territory, kept alive a Colts drive that ended with a touchdown.
On the next Colts possession, Manning was apparently intercepted by Troy Polamalu, who knocked the ball from his own grasp with his own knee when he attempted a return. Instead of keeping possession, the officials ruled that the interception was an incomplete pass.
Moments later, the Colts cut the once insurmountable deficit to 21-18. After the offense failed to run off the clock, Manning began a drive deep in his own territory again.
Angry at the transpiring events, Joey Porter and an enraged defense harassed Manning, finally sacking him back at his own 1-yard line on fourth down. With one touchdown plunge, the Steelers would finally end the season of the once undefeated (13-0) and top seeded Colts.
Then, it happened. Jerome Bettis, always so reliable, fumbled when Gary Bracket got his helmet on the football. The ball popped loose, and Nick Harper scooped up the pigskin. After having been stabbed by his wife earlier in the week, one had to wonder if he was at full speed.
He began his return with only green turf in front of him. There was actually one obstacle: Ben Roethlisberger.
Big Ben wisely began to run backwards immediately when the ball squirted loose. With any aggressive approach to the defender or the fumble, Harper would have had nobody to stop him from the game-winning score.
After positioning himself (watch as Ben looks over his shoulder on the video), Roethlisberger's shoestring tackle saved the game. Nevertheless, Peyton drove Indianapolis into Steelers' territory.
With the game on the line, Mike Vanderjagt pointed to Bill Cowher as he called timeout to ice the kicker. His cockiness did not pay off. His subsequent kick sailed wide right by a large margin, and the Steelers celebrated a huge win.
It was off to Denver for the AFC Championship Game!
One year removed from the "Third and Three" debacle, an unexpected home loss to the underdog San Diego Chargers in the '94-95 AFC Championship Game, the Steelers got retribution. It didn't come easily.
Late in the contest against Jim Harbaugh and the Indianapolis Colts, the appropriately dubbed "Captain Comeback" threw a deep touchdown pass to give his squad a 16-13 lead. After Pittsburgh held a 13-9 lead in a defensive contest, the score was reminiscent of Stan Humphries' deep pass to Tony Martin to give the Chargers their 17-13 edge a year earlier.
Indianapolis would have an opportunity later in the quarter to run out the clock, but the defense held stout.
With the ball back in the hands of O'Donnell, a deep pass down the right sideline to Ernie Mills resulted in a fan-ruption of epic proportions. As the stadium shook, Bam Morris burrowed into the end zone to give Pittsburgh a 20-16 lead.
After an emotional rally past midfield, Harbaugh threw a hail mary pass into the right corner of the endzone. It felt like the quarterback had forever to set his feet and toss the perfect lob. With everybody at Three Rivers Stadium on pins and needles, the ball batted around a crowd of players, and fell toward the turf....
....and nearly into the stomach of Aaron Bailey for the game-winning score.
Truly, with every fan so emotionally vested, it is impossible to imagine the magnitude of the reaction had Aaron Bailey caught the football that rested on his chest that Sunday afternoon.
In Super Bowl X, the Steelers trailed the Cowboys, 10-7. Roy Gerela missed a game-tying field goal attempt.
Who knows what Cliff Harris was thinking? The jubilant Cowboy walked over to Gerela, patting him on the helmet and clearly taunting the Pittsburgh kicker.
Jack Lambert saw the events transpiring, and he inserted himself into the situation. Tough guy Cliff vs. the little kicker became Jack Lambert vs. the little Cliff. Lambert tossed Harris to the ground, sending a clear message that succinctly summarized Steelers football to this day:
Nobody intimidated the Pittsburgh Steelers. They bring the intimidation.
Years later, this event remains a profound illustration of the Steelers, representing everything from standing up for others to defense and toughness to physicality.
With the adrenaline from Harris' foolish antics, the Steelers defense took control of the game, slamming the door shut on Staubach and the Cowboys almost the rest of the way.
Toward the end of the game, another iconic moment from Super Bowl X makes the list coming up!
After taking a 13-0 lead on a breath-taking throw from an off-balance Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes, who weaved to the endzone through the Ravens' defense, Baltimore regrouped.
In a game that became largely defensive, Willis McGahee scored a touchdown to cut the deficit to 16-14 in the second half. With the opportunity to sweep their bitter division rivals by beating them three times in one season, the 2008 Steelers would have to play their best football in the fourth quarter.
When the offense stalled, Baltimore regained possession. In "America's Game," Troy Polamalu talks about every NFL season and game as a story making the game of football so special. He references great players, noting that they have a sensitivity to the biggest moments, a sort of gut feeling that allows them to make the key play.
In the AFC Championship, Troy Polamalu gave Steelers fans something they hadn't witnessed since 1996: a home victory to secure a Super Bowl berth. After so many conference title losses in the Steel City, Polamalu gave the fans something to cheer.
A pass from Joe Flacco was intercepted by No. 43, who began his style of cutback running on the return, clearly not ready to be denied. As he made his way downfield, the anticipatory crowd became louder until Troy crossed the goal line.
Terrible Towels dominated the fan scape at Heinz Field, and the crowd erupted. Pittsburgh was headed to Super Bowl XLIII.
Ahead 14-10, the Steelers had possession near midfield during the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XL. The Seattle Seahawks, who had recently been intercepted with a chance to take the lead, needing a defensive stop to give Matt Hasselbeck and the offense a chance to win.
Instead, Pittsburgh pulled out old faithful- the gadget play- in an effort to secure the "one for the thumb" that had eluded the Steel City since 1980. So many opportunities to win a fifth championship had escaped great Steelers teams.
The 2005 Steelers refused to add their names to the list. Finally, "Cowher Power" was about to become Lombardi No. 5!
Every Steelers fan knows the play. They can replay it in their minds, along with the setting, smells, and emotions that coincided with it.
Ben pitched to Willie Parker, who handed off to Antwan Randle El, reversing the field. The college quarterback threw a perfect spiral pass- the best throw of the night- to Hines Ward, who was behind the Seattle defense.
The Super Bowl MVP leaped in the endzone, his famous smile unmistakeable, as a champion!
As Bill Cowher handed the Lombardi Trophy to Dan Rooney in the postgame, the confetti fell over Jerome Bettis. I can only imagine he was rehearsing his famous line:
"The Bus stops here in Detroit."
Joe Greene tells fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers' determination before the 1974-75 AFC Championship Game, speaking about the term "the zone" in "America's Game." (See 35:10)
They talk about being in the zone. They don't know what the hell the zone is about! Because you don't get there, you don't live in the zone. You visit the zone probably once in your life. I don't want to trivialize it because it doesn't happen. And I played thirteen year, and I was in the zone one time. And I think our team was in the zone.
Entering 1974, Steelers fans had never experienced Super Bowl glory. An entire history of championship tradition was only getting started, and the team didn't yet realize its potential.
A win over O.J. Simpson and the Buffalo Bills in the Divisional Playoffs set up a conference championship bout in California with the Oakland Raiders. Fans at Three Rivers Stadium, excited with the win over the Bills, began a familiar chant:
"We've got a feeling....PITTSBURGH'S GOING TO THE SUPER BOWL!"
During the same Divisional Playoff weekend, John Madden pronounced the Raiders win over the defending champion Dolphins as Super Bowl 8.5. Chuck Noll got wind of the proclamation, telling his team they were the best in football.
On that fateful day, when the Steelers secured their first-ever Super Bowl berth, they proved it.
Behind the blocking of Ray Mansfield, Sam Davis, Larry Brown, and others, Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier gashed the Raiders for over 200 yards. Oakland ran for a total of 29 yards.
While Terry Bradshaw's passing was on point, Ken Stabler fell apart, throwing three interceptions. The most important came in the fourth quarter after Franco had just tied the game, 10-10. A pick by Jack Ham was returned deep into Oakland territory.
On play action, Terry Bradshaw found Lynn Swann with a beautiful bullet pass into the back of the endzone.
Later, ahead 17-13, Franco delivered the final knockout punch to the Silver and Black, scoring on a 21-yard touchdown that put the game out of reach for Oakland.
Trailing 10-3 entering the fourth quarter in Oakland, the Black and Gold played arguably the best quarter of football in team history.
With the 24-13 win, a victory many Steelers argue as the most important in team history, a once laughingstock franchise was on its way to becoming the greatest football team of all time.
Ahead 20-7 in the fourth quarter, the Steelers' championship dreams hit the brink. A sudden burst by the Cardinals, aided by a safety when Pittsburgh was called for holding in the endzone, ended with a long touchdown strike to Larry Fitzgerald.
The receiver's second touchdown of the quarter happened when Kurt Warner hit him over the middle, and the former Pitt Panthers star burst down the middle of the field like a comet, past the Steelers secondary and into the endzone.
What happened? Suddenly, the Steelers were losing. A record sixth Super Bowl championship was in doubt.
"Time to be great!"
These words were repeated by Santonio Holmes....over....and over.
Thankfully, he was right.
The drive began with a holding call, setting up 1st-and-20. How fitting!
Ben Roethlisberger hit Santonio Holmes on a number of key passes, including a pump fake and throw to the right sideline. With a defender having slipped, Holmes went to the races down the right sideline, setting up first and goal for Pittsburgh.
A first down pass went directly through the receivers' hands. On second down, a much more difficult reception became the highlight of the careers of Big Ben and Santonio.
With a pass barely over the outstretched arms of the Cardinals' defense, Santonio made the catch in the back corner of the endzone, his body stretched to its maximum limit with both feet inbounds. After tapping his second foot on the turf, falling to the ground, and maintaining possession, Holmes had made one of the greatest plays in franchise history.
Many consider Super Bowl XLIII the best of all time, and Steelers fans were able to celebrate a sixth Lombardi Trophy atop the NFL once again!
In Super Bowl X, Lynn Swann put on a display of aerial artistry, the type of dynamics the NFL had not ever seen at the receiver position.
With speculation that the Steelers star could miss the game after an injury against the Raiders, Cliff Harris, who would get thrown to the ground by Jack Lambert during the contest, said:
I'm not going to hurt anyone intentionally. But getting hit again while he's running a pass route must be in the back of Swann's mind. I know it would be in the back of my mind.
Inspired to play, Swann dominated with a display for the ages. The effort resulted in Super Bowl MVP honors, and the dazzling defiance of gravity remain among the most visceral images in Steelers history.
Who can forget the sideline catch, an athletic feat that still defeats my understanding of physics.
On the game-winning touchdown, Swann caught a deep pass from Bradshaw. The quarterback made the ultimate sacrifice, as a helmet to helmet collision in the backfield left the gunslinger lying on the turf, allegedly concussed and out of sorts.
In addition to defending their own championship, the satisfaction of beating the perceived "finesse" and "ritz" of the Dallas Cowboys, labelled as "America's Team," was incredibly gratifying for the Black and Gold.
It was the greatest defensive play in Super Bowl history from the league's Defensive Player of the Year on the team most renowned for its historically great defenses.
Notice a theme?
Defense wins championships (per the classic saying), and the biggest play in Super Bowl history (in my opinion) was the turning point that allowed the Steelers to seize victory over the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.
Kurt Warner, convinced the James Harrison was coming on a rush, threw a quick pass on a goal to go situation. The sly linebacker actually dropped into coverage, putting himself in perfect position to intercept the Super Bowl's all-time leading passer.
The linebacker rumbled from endzone to endzone, with the aid of good luck and fantastic blocking in the ultimate display of effort and team play.
Every Steelers fan remembers where they were when they saw the most breathtaking, adrenaline-pumping, and shock inducing play in team history.
Watch the video. You know you can't resist enjoying it again, but be warned: it will never quite feel like it did in that moment, watching the return for the first time!
The first play chronologically on the countdown is the top play in the playoff history of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The miracle that started it all, giving the team its first postseason victory, ends ours list.
Could it be any other?
Ken Stabler's scramble on a broken play nearly negated a sublime defensive effort by the Steelers, giving the Oakland Raiders a 7-6 lead in the fourth quarter.
With one last chance for a miracle, the Steelers Terry Bradshaw rolled right, ran out of time, and attempted a desperate heave downfield.
The football, intended for Frenchy Fuqua, deflected off of Jack Tatum. For those debating this fact, consider the trajectory of the ball and a basic scientific principle: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Which play was headed in the direction that would cause the football to fly backwards? The answer is Jack Tatum.
Then, as the ball fluttered through the air, the debate continues: did Franco Harris catch it cleanly, or did the pigskin hit the Three Rivers Stadium turf?
No clear visual evidence exists to show whether or not Harris made the reception. The running back scooped up the ball, ran down the left sideline, and into the endzone for the winning touchdown.
Three Rivers Stadium turned into bedlam as fans stormed the field in a scene unlike any other in team history. As pandemonium ensued, the delirious Steelers couldn't believe what had happened. Nobody could believe it.
Did the Steelers really just beat the Raiders? With an incensed John Madden angrily debating with officials, the Black and Gold had secured a spot in the AFC Championship Game.
Nothing was left but the crying for Oakland.