Pittsburgh Steelers: The Forgotten Classics; 1997, Steelers vs. Patriots

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Pittsburgh Steelers: The Forgotten Classics; 1997, Steelers vs. Patriots
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a number of great nicknames for great moments in team history. 

They're from games that everyone remembers vividly: The Immaculate Reception, Harbaugh's Hail Mary, The Tackle.

Yet, few people clearly remember the amazing play that a little-known defender made in Massachusetts on a Saturday night in December of 1997. 

The theme of the 1990s in the Steel City was "Cowher Power."  The juxtaposition of Bill Cowher with winning football caused the city to embrace the successor of legendary coach Chuck Noll, and fans joined together at Three Rivers Stadium to vociferously cheer on "The Chin" to wins starting in 1992.

Immediately upon his arrival, the players bought into the philosophies of their fiery coach, who had infused a new attitude and brand of physicality that blended well with the city's blue collar image. 

The benefits and improvements stemming from the energetic young coach yielded results immediately. The Steelers hosted a home playoff game for the first time in a decade on January 9, 1993.  Unfortunately, they ran into the Buffalo Bills, quarterbacked by Frank Reich only one week after their miraculous comeback win (from a 35-3 deficit) over the Houston Oilers.

Cowher's inaugural season ended with a 24-3 loss, but fans were optimistic about the future.  Unfortunately, the hope they felt after the loss to Buffalo would get replaced with more and more despair with each passing year that saw them fall just short of their goals.

In 1993, Joe Montana's fourth-down touchdown pass forced overtime, where the Steelers fell to the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium in the Wild Card playoffs.  One season later, Pittsburgh came up three yards short of the all-important goal line, losing 17-13 in the final seconds to the underdog San Diego Chargers.  Lastly, after getting over the hurdle and winning the AFC, the 'Burgh's bubble burst when Larry Brown intercepted two passes to anchor the Dallas Cowboys to victory in Super Bowl XXX.

Following the Super Sunday loss, key players left the franchise.  Neil O'Donnell joined the New York Jets, who hoped O.D. (overdosing on Super Bowl charity, of course) would become a savior to their floundering franchise.  Kevin Greene joined the newly christened Carolina Panthers.

In 1996, a season in which Cowher began with quarterback Jim Miller under center before switching to Mike Tomczak, Greg Lloyd was lost on opening day with a devastating injury in Jacksonville.  Despite huge scale changes, the Steelers finished 10-6.

Then, in the Divisional Playoffs, they traveled to Foxboro Stadium, where Curtis Martin ran roughshod over them. The Steelers defense got blasted for 166 yards and three touchdowns by the eventual Hall of Fame running back, losing 28-3.  The game was essentially "The Fog Bowl II," a sea of fog blanketing the game so thickly that it served as the perfect symbolism for Pittsburgh's altogether haziness that afternoon.

Unceremoniously, it was the last game for all-century player and dominant cornerback Rod Woodson—a team icon and town favorite. 

With so many players having left, fans were left with regrets and concerns about how long the team could continue its winning ways with losing so many key players. 

Vying to tie an NFL record by making the playoffs in each of his first six seasons, Cowher's "Power" would have to withstand its toughest coaching challenge yet in 1997.  Considered a risky, albeit welcome, move by most, the electrifying and athletic Kordell Stewart would take over at quarterback.

It was a year of transition for the Steel City's proud football franchise, who hoped that the affectionately nicknamed "Slash," labeled for each of the roles he played on the team prior to his anointment under center, could be developed into a serviceable, consistent NFL passer.  While nobody questioned his athletic prowess, many were incredibly curious to see his acumen as a team leader and field general.

The early results left grave concerns across the Western Pennsylvania landscape. 

On opening day, the Dallas Cowboys came to Three Rivers to play the 'Burgh for the first time since the fateful Super Bowl XXX.  Instead of a day of Black and Gold vengeance, the afternoon turned into a "Black and Blue" vanquishing for the Steelers, losing 37-7.

One week later, the offense struggled to find any offensive momentum.  Despite being relatively outplayed by Gus Frerotte and the Washington Redskins, key turnovers by the opposition coupled with a timely drive in the final minutes allowed the Steelers to win, 14-13.

The momentum was short-lived.  The Steelers lost to the pesky Jaguars, 30-21, on Monday Night Football, falling to 1-2.  The loss stung, but the team showed their first signs of true offensive capability in the second half.

Two weeks later, Kordell Stewart was the resounding force that carried the Steelers to a comeback win over the Baltimore Ravens, from a 21-0 deficit to a 42-34 victory.

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The huge shift in momentum was a springboard for a roller-coaster ride of a season that saw more topsy-turvy scoreboard action than arguably any other season in team history.  Two overtime victories included a huge comeback win, after trailing 10-0 at halftime, over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Like the wins over the Ravens and Jaguars, the Steelers' games began to follow a mysterious patten: the offense would appear stagnant in the first half, the team would fall into a deficit at halftime, and "Slash" would rally the troops in the second half to an emotional win.

The trend continued with a comeback win over the Denver Broncos.  After trailing 21-7 early, the Steelers rallied, downing John Elway and his herd, 35-24.

Winners of 9-of-11contests, the 10-4 Pittsburgh Steelers prepared to travel to Foxboro for a rematch of their playoff loss to the New England Patriots.  The Week 16 contest against Drew Bledsoe's defending AFC champions would essentially determine which team secured the second seed and a bye week in the conference playoffs.  The Pats entered play with a 9-5 record.

Looking to avoid another trip to Massachusetts in the postseason, the Steelers knew the time to take care of business was right there and then.

In the colossal playoff failure the previous January, Curtis Martin abused the Pittsburgh defense; as such, when his questionable status officially changed to "out for the game," fans in the Steel City were not regretful to avoid the Taylor Allderdice High School and Pitt Panthers alum.

Still, there were concerns o' plenty heading into the key AFC bout, not the least of which was the readiness of Kordell Stewart against the likes of Ty Law, Lawyer Milloy, Willie McGinest, Ted Johnson, Chris Slade and Willie Clay.  The Patriots entered with one of the more underrated defenses in the game—a unit known for its ability to force key turnovers from careless quarterbacks. The Pats finished fourth in the NFL with a plus-10 turnover differential.

Sure, "Slash" was having a great season, but he would ultimately lead the AFC with 17 interceptions—the clear weakness to his game.  And, few fans had completely forgotten his performance in relief of Mike Tomczak in the playoff loss. 

Ten passes attempted with zero completions.

Yet, unlike his performance from months earlier, Kordell Stewart was about to play a starring role in a riveting comeback that would leave Patriots linebacker Todd Collins describing the game as "more painful than the Super Bowl (loss to the Packers)."

After rallying from double-digit deficits against the Ravens, Jaguars and Broncos, the Steelers took the first big blow from the Boston bullies early in the second quarter.  They would have to do the same thing again at Foxboro Stadium. 

Drew Bledsoe hit star tight end Ben Coates with an 18-yard touchdown pass, giving Pete Carroll's squad a 7-0 lead early in the quarter.  Then, the quarterback hit Sam Gash to "gash" the Steelers for six more points, giving the Patriots a commanding 14-0 lead.

While the word commanding may have seemed daunting to any other group of players, the Steelers had proven a penchant for playing their best with their backs against the wall.  As it timed to a cue, Pittsburgh came to life after falling behind by two touchdowns.

A one-yard touchdown run by Kordell Stewart capped scoring in the first half, and the Steelers trailed headed to the locker rooms at halftime of the Saturday night tilt, 14-7.

With momentum gained from their score at the end of the first half, the Pittsburgh offense—engineered by Kordell Stewart and running back Jerome Bettis—began to matriculate the ball down the field, systematically picking up first downs and positive yardage.  Meanwhile, the Black and Gold defense, labelled "the Steel Trap" by team fans during the era, began to contain Bledsoe and the Patriots, who were hindered without runner Curtis Martin.

Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Darren Perry and Kevin Henry, who would enter Pittsburgh lore later in the game, both put the hammer down on Patriots drives with sacks.  Coupled with the offense's momentum, the Steelers overtook the Patriots in total first downs and yardage by the end of the third quarter.

However, they could only muster a Norm Johnson field goal in the period.  After another drive resulted in a second Johnson conversion, the Steelers only trailed 14-13 less than midway through the fourth quarter.

The script was following the 1997 guidebook to perfection: trail by double digits, fight your tail off and win in the end.

Then, on a strange passing play that was clearly not the result of great design, New England threatened to take command of the game and completely squelch the momentum Pittsburgh fought so hard to obtain.

Bledsoe threw a desperation pass down the middle of the field that was well-covered by the Steelers.  It appeared an incompletion, at best, was to be the result.  Then, Dave Meggett adjusted his route, breaking off his assignment and coming across the field, snagging the high pass in front of its intended target and racing past the Steelers and Patriots into the end zone. 

With only 4:29 left in regulation, it appeared the unbelievable play by Meggett could be the backbreaker, even against this particular Pittsburgh team.

The Patriots led 21-13 on an unlikely adjustment from a running back.

Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Matters only got worse when New England reclaimed possession with 3:33 remaining when the Steelers offense completely sputtered.  Bledsoe and the Pats secured a first down, forcing the Steelers to burn their timeouts. 

Any fan who says with confidence that some part of them wasn't getting ready to accept defeat is a liar!  The shocking switch in momentum back to New England felt entirely complete.  Dreams of a tough-nosed 16-14 win were punched in the gut with Meggett's amazing score and the New England defense's dominant response.

With 2:10 left, the Patriots faced 3rd-and-7.  The Steelers had no way to stop the clock except for the two minute warning.  One first down would ice the game and Pittsburgh's hopes for a bye week.  In fact, a loss for the Steelers had the potential to cost them the AFC Central Championship.  The Jaguars were breathing down their necks in a tight division race. 

The circumstances were simple: the Steelers defense had to make a stop.  Period.

Yet, instead of a period, the defense gave the Steel City an exclamation mark!

Drew Bledsoe had not thrown an interception in over 15 quarters of football.  Flushed to his right, the quarterback decided to attempt a pass to running back Dave Meggett across the field and to his left.  Throwing back to his left was not Bledsoe's strong suit.

It turned out to be a fatal competitive mistake.

The throw into the flats was foolhardy, and Kevin Henry anticipated the gamble.  Henry jumped in front of the pass, intercepting the throw and rumbling down the sideline.  With the Patriots in hot pursuit, Henry attempted a lateral to Orpheus Roye, and Steelers fans erupted in glee when Roye crossed the goal line!

Brian Bahr/Getty Images

However, the officials appropriately ruled the play as a forward lateral.  Nevertheless, the Steelers had possession of the football deep in New England territory with a chance to tie the game!

The play is unofficially remembered by fans as "The Immaculate Interception."

Still, in the truest fashion on the '97 Steelers, the drama was not nearly over.

Kordell Stewart and the offense faced fourth down at the New England 15-yard line with 1:32 left.  The quarterback dropped back and slung the football to Yancy Thigpen, who made a wonderful catch along the sideline, keeping his toes inbounds before falling to stop the clock.

It was one of a number of heroic moments for Thigpen.  The 1997 season saw the underrated wide receiver have a career year, setting a team record that still stands with 1,398 receiving yards.  His two touchdowns a week earlier propelled the Black and Gold to a win over Elway and the Broncos.

With a first down from the four-yard line, the Steelers hoped for another comeback against Bledsoe and the Patriots.  It wasn't until 3rd-and-goal that Stewart found tight end Mark Breuner for the touchdown.  Pittsburgh trailed 21-19.

With just a half minute remaining, a two-point conversion attempt would almost certainly decide overtime or a Pittsburgh loss.  Kordell took the snap and began to roll to the right.

Then, he fired a pass into the end zone.  At first glance, it appeared that his attempt would end up dreadfully low, hitting the ground and all but securing the New England win.  However, in a season where nothing could come without a heart palpitation, Yancy Thigpen made a sliding catch to secure two critical game-tying points.

Brian Bahr/Getty Images

The stunned Foxboro crowd watched as their offense could do nothing with the pigskin in the final seconds.  Then, one wonders how many of them mentally conceded when Pittsburgh won the toss to receive the football in overtime.

The number of conceding fans surely increased exponentially when Kordell Stewart hit Courtney Hawkins with a screen pass at the start of the sudden-death session.  The receiver raced 41 yards to set the Steelers up in immediate field goal range.

Moments later, Norm Johnson's 31-yard field goal gave the Steelers a stunning 24-21 victory over the Patriots in New England.  With snow flakes lightly falling from the sky, an icy chorus of boo's reigned down from the stands as hopes for a bye week ended for the home-town Patriots.

As a result of the win, the Steelers entered the playoffs as the second seed in the American Conference.  Their opening playoff bout was a rematch against the New England Patriots, who traveled to Three Rivers Stadium.

Pittsburgh's only points of the afternoon came on a quarterback bootleg run down the left sideline.  Kordell's six-point jaunt was answered by two New England field goals. 

The home crowd watched apprehensively as Bledsoe and company approached midfield in the final minute of the fourth quarter, trailing 7-6. 

The game ended when a rookie linebacker stripped the football from Drew Bledsoe.  Jason Gildon recovered the fumble.

In a bit of irony, the player that forced the fumble from the quarterback's hand is one that Boston fans know all too well.   His name...?

Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Mike Vrabel. 

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The Pittsburgh Steelers have blessed their fans with an abundance of exhilarating games. The "Catalog of the Classics" runs deeper for the Black and Gold than most other NFL teams, especially in the modern era.  For that reason, many of the team's greatest games are easily lost within its rich history, a lengthy volume that spans six Lombardi Trophies and an absurdity of spoils!

Every week of the team's 2012 offseason, we will look back at one of the great Steelers games that many fans may not remember.  In this way, the epic bouts will no longer be...

The Forgotten Classics!

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