Pittsburgh's Forgotten Classics: Raiders vs. Steelers, 2000

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Pittsburgh's Forgotten Classics: Raiders vs. Steelers, 2000
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The Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the Oakland Raiders on December 3, 2000, rematching old, bitter rivals who had blasted each other down to bone and sinew in their blood-thirsty battles of the 1970s.

The first iconic moment in the decade-long war between the Chuck Noll and John Madden-led squads is an image that any football historian worth their salt can replay vividly in their mind, finishing with Franco Harris gallantly scoring in heroic fashion. That "Immaculate Reception" gave the Steelers a stunning 13-7 playoff win in front of stunned fans at Three Rivers Stadium—their first in franchise history.

Afterwards, the teams met in three consecutive AFC Championship Games. Pittsburgh won two of the meetings, including a 16-10 victory at Oakland's apparent "House of Horrors." Before the game, attempts to keep the field protected from inclement weather conditions failed, and the tarp placed over the turf ripped, causing the sidelines to freeze over almost entirely with ice. 

The Raiders, feeling the mystique of this new seemingly potion-plagued palace (how else could such good fortune be conjured up?), cried foul, convinced that the Steelers purposely orchestrated the conditions to slow down receivers Fred Biletnikoff and Clifford Branch. 

Even when they won, the Black and Gold were often forced to pay a heavy price for success. Oakland safety Jack Tatum, aptly nicknamed "The Assassin," used his forearm to twice strike a blow (1976-77 AFC Championship and the 1977 opener) to receiver Lynn Swann, who was not expecting contact away from the play. On both occasions, Swann missed playing time with concussions.

It was a brutal, nasty and unforgiving war waged between the renegade Raiders and intimidating Men of Steel.Yet, sadly, fate would prevent the Steel City from witnessing the pairing for 20 years.

After a Monday Night Football loss to Oakland in 1980, the Steelers would not host Oakland again until the new millennium. The Raiders would win their last Super Bowl to-date in 1983. Afterwards, both teams would flirt with championship potential, only to fall short of the ultimate goal in various seasons.

Not having to go through each other like rabid, hungry animals to get that tasty hunk of meat at the NFL summit, the two savage beasts' rivalry seemingly tamed. However, fans in Pittsburgh and Oakland were about to learn that their ability to abhor the other was not lost.

In a battle that saw flagrant disrespect, nasty hits, tons of injuries and a game-ending controversy, December 3, 2000, in the Steel City, turned into a throwback afternoon, recalling the iconic battles of two proud franchises two decades earlier. The overdue return of the Raiders to Pittsburgh came with little time to spare...

After all, months after the contest, Three Rivers Stadium would be imploded, making way for Heinz Field. If ever there was a fitting time to renew a far too dormant rivalry and setting, the next-to-last game was certainly the next-to-best time to rekindle the flame. 

The grand venue simply couldn't retire without one last go-round with a familiar foe!

The Black and Gold were fighting for their playoff lives, which was a welcome reality, considering their pitiful 0-3 start. 

The team regrouped to get back into playoff contention. Struggling quarterback Kent Graham was benched, and Kordell Stewart appeared to be rediscovering his 1997 groove. The defense was suddenly reborn from lackluster campaigns the previous two years, not allowing a touchdown in four straight games in the middle of the season. The stretch included consecutive home shutouts over the Bengals and Browns.

Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images

Yet, exiting this particular afternoon with a winning record would require victory over a 10-2 Raiders squad that was firing on all cylinders, especially offensively.

Obviously, this would be no easy feat. Jon Gruden's third season in Oakland was certainly the charm, befitting of the classic saying. After two .500 campaigns, the Silver and Black finally found its groove. "Chucky" and journeyman quarterback Rich Gannon developed a strange, feisty chemistry. 

While Gruden brought his West Coast offensive background to the West Coast, the real meat and bones of the Oakland attack in 2000 was the running game, led by Tyrone Wheatley's 1,046 yards and nine touchdowns. Along with Zack Crockett, Napoleon Kaufman, and others, the backs also contributed largely in the short passing game, a staple feature of the West Coast offense, where quick passes are an extension of the running game synonymous with long hand-offs.

Joined with an opportunistic and talented defense, Gruden's Raiders were every bit as capable as their 10-2 record would indicate. Home-field advantage was at stake, so the Steelers knew they would get Oakland's best effort.

Pittsburgh got off to a fast start.

That start began when the defense stopped the Raiders on their opening possession, and it continued with a 22-yard run by Dan Kreider on the Steelers' first offensive play of the game. 

Next, Jerome Bettis took a short dump from "Slash" Stewart 13 yards. It was the start of a dominant afternoon for "the Bus," who would also finish with 128 rushing yards.

Kordell, who had been seemingly playing out of body since reclaiming his job weeks earlier, started the contest with a similar (foreign) aplomb. He completed a second pass to Courtney Hawkins for 17 yards. 

Then, Stewart capped the lightning fast and deadly efficient four-play drive with a beautiful pass deep down the left sideline. The perfect spiral lobbed over the hands of two Raiders' defenders and fell into the waiting arms of Bobby Shaw, as if snugly into a basket, in the deep left corner of the end zone.

The Steelers led 7-0. Terrible Towels torqued with a temper, and fans aggressively cheered the adrenaline-pumping start!

After an intentional grounding penalty on Rich Gannon thwarted the Raiders' hopes of answering Pittsburgh's points, the Steelers reclaimed possession. 

The Silver and Black defense had been a historical nuisance to the Steelers, dating back to the days of Jack Tatum delivering brain-battering blows to the cranium of Lynn Swann. A Raiders-Steelers game didn't truly count without an injury or two. 

Carrying over their old tradition of abusing the opposition, the 2000 Raiders entered play having already removed seven quarterbacks from starting roles for varying amounts of time due to injuries sustained in their contests.

Kordell Stewart would become the eighth signal-caller to fall victim to the Silver and Black attack.

With a few minutes left in the first quarter, defensive tackle Darrell Russell hit Kordell high on second down, while Upshaw (Regan, not Gene) went low. Both delivering punishing blows, but No. 10 proved to be tough as nails, getting up from the extreme contact to take on 3rd-and-long.

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On third down, defensive end Lance Johnston would seemingly finish the job. Re-aggravating an existing calf injury, "Slash" also appeared to severely sprain his knee on another sack. After lying on the field and being assisted to the sideline, fans watched in dismay as Stewart was carted into the locker room.

Enter: Kent Graham.

The Raiders' scored on a 40-yard field goal by the Polish Cannon Sebastian Janikowski. While they still trailed 7-3, their deficit would soon turn become a stunning lead.

Graham, who was entirely inadequate during a stead at quarterback earlier in the season, had completed less than half of his pass attempts in 2000. Still, he had managed to keep the Steelers in games by avoiding interceptions.

Naturally, his first pass against Oakland was picked. Eric Allen, who led the team with six interceptions for 145 yards, followed Graham's eyes. Kent looked to his right and turned quickly back to his left, obviously focused on his hot read Hines Ward. Allen stepped in front of his gift, returning the football 27 yards for the touchdown.

Early in the second quarter, Graham's inexcusable miscue gave the renegade Raiders their first lead of the game.

Graham wasn't finished with his own personal football follies reel, and his next three drop-backs resulted in the following sequence: sack, sack, incomplete pass.

The Steelers offense was suddenly stagnant, and the Raiders simply collapsed on the Pittsburgh running attack.

Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Oakland's running game found its best footing of the game, and the Gannon-led offense matriculated its way down the field. The Raiders would finish with 111 rushing yards, 30 yards less than their league-leading average. Many of those yards came before halftime.

Wheatley gained five or more yards on five consecutive runs while Rich Gannon found Tim Brown twice in soft spots of Pittsburgh's zone pass coverage. Brown would lead all receivers with seven catches for 99 yards.

As time wound down in the first half, the once-boisterous crowd attempted to reclaim its lost energy to boost the defense. As Oakland approached the red zone, it appeared the defense would step up as the pocket began to collapse on Rich Gannon.

Yet, the crafty veteran found running back Randy Jordan on a sly and well-timed screen pass, and Jordan jaunted in the end zone for a 21-yard touchdown. Gannon's 20th touchdown pass of the season gave the Raiders a 10-point cushion at intermission, 17-7.

At halftime, things certainly seemed bleak at the confluence of the three rivers. There was a strange hush that overcame the crowd. If silence could speak, the words would have been, "Three Rivers cannot go out this way."

Two months later, there would be a similar quiet heard along the river banks of Pittsburgh. Many long-time fans would carry heavy hearts atop Mount Washington on February 11, 2000, cheering for their soon-to-be old friend, before becoming overcome by an eerie silence. Amidst explosives detonating and loud popping giving way to the crumbling of cement and mortar, Three Rivers Stadium was officially imploded that cold, 21-degree morning at 8:03 a.m.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Halftime against Oakland had an eerily similar ambiance. Fans roared at the start of the game, only to give way to an eerie, uncertain silence brought about by shock. After all, before their eyes, the 6-6 Steelers seemed to be experiencing their storied stadium's fate: implosion.

In the locker room, Levon Kirkland gave an impassioned plea to his teammates to leave everything on the field in the second half. While the defender would demonstrate his point with words, Kordell Stewart would use his right body.

The quarterback, who was listed as doubtful to return to action, gave Pittsburgh a "Big Ben" moment, just a few years early. Limping on his one good leg, Stewart replaced Graham at quarterback. The inspiration provided to his teammates was obvious.

On first down, Stewart was sacked. Having been forced to start inside their own 10-yard line, the loss of yardage put the pigskin ominously close to the goal line. 

Disaster appeared to be unfolding on the next play,  Kordell Stewart rolled right, and he dropped the football. A 24-7 Raiders advantage was that close to being a reality...

...when "Slash" scooped up the football, avoided middle linebacker Greg Beikert and tackle Grady Jackson, and ran—bum leg and all—17 yards for the first down on 2nd-and-16.

The sudden change of fortunes in one play was the momentum infusion that the Steelers needed.  Instead of "Men of Still" who were going nowhere fast, the team began to play like "Men of Steel!"

Completing 6-of-8 pass attempts on the drive, the injured Stewart led the team on a 16-play, 91-yard drive that spanned over nine minutes. Two of the completions were third-down conversions, and Kordell's fine drive led to a goal-to-go scenario.

Third down from the 6-yard line saw a critical meeting of willpower. A short pass to Mark Breuner was hauled in by the tight end at the 1-yard line. Safety Calvin Branch slammed into Breuner, driving him back to the 4-yard line, but Mark kept his feet.

Breuner collided again with the safety and began driving his legs toward the end zone. Branch did everything in his power to force Bruener out of bounds. As the tight end headed toward the sideline, he lunged for the pylon when he came within a yard of the end zone. 

Driving the safety in with him, his tremendous effort pulled the Steelers to within 17-14.

Gannon and the offense responded, driving to midfield. However, Tyrone Wheatley fumbled, and the Steelers recovered the football.

Unable to score, punter Josh Miller's beautiful spiraling kick landed at the 1-yard line. Bouncing into the end zone, Deshea Townsend saved the play, batting it back to Hank Poteat at the 2-yard line.

Backed up in their own territory, the Raiders were unable to secure a first down. Kevin Henry and Kimo von Oelhoffen met while slamming into Wheatley on third down, one yard short of the necessary marker.

Pittsburgh reclaimed possession at the Oakland 47-yard line. This time, they would not allow their surging momentum to be denied.

A first down delayed handoff to Jerome Bettis was eye candy for all witnessing the play. Underrated for his quick feet and nimbleness, the bruising back shimmied his hips enough to make blitzing safety Marquez Pope miss the tackle.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

After running over safety Anthony Dorsett and dragging corner Eric Allen for five yards, Bettis finally went down with a 30-yard gain to the 17-yard line.

Two plays later, Kordell Stewart scored on a 17-yard touchdown run. Pittsburgh led 21-17.

Some pushing and shoving did not escalate further than a mild skirmish, but it was obvious that the old animosity of two bitter rivals was beginning to find life on that cold, strikingly sunny December afternoon.

Gannon and the Raiders put together their first true response drive of the second half, cutting the lead to 21-20 on a 44-yard Janikowski kick.

If emotions hadn't bubbled over earlier, they would after the Steelers' subsequent offensive drive failed. The hate-fueled adrenaline that caused so many watching the game to salivate caused one player to share his saliva at the oddest time.

A punt by Josh Miller resulted in a touchback. Regan Upshaw and Miller appeared to exchange words before Upshaw spit in Miller's face—an act he admitted to after the game. With no officials observing the infraction, no penalty was called.

With both teams' tempers reaching a boiling point, the hits became harder and the post-play jawing picked up intensity on both sides. In a battle for respect, both teams displayed that "being respectful" was at a premium. Additionally, the high stakes only increased the negative emotions on both sides.

As the clock wound down to inside of four minutes to play, Rich Gannon had efficiently engineered a drive to the Steelers' 27-yard line. Sebastian Janikowski, whose powerful leg was the envy of most NFL kickers, would attempt to give his team the late lead.

Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images

The attempt sailed both short and wide of the goal posts, and Three Rivers Stadium erupted. As the offense took the field again, hopes were high that the Steelers could kill the clock and clinch a statement win over their old rivals.

However, the football gods have a unique sense of humor, and they intervened, causing Pittsburgh to lose three yards on 3rd-and-1 from the Oakland 31-yard line. Not wanting to risk bad field position, the Steelers wisely punted.

The "pigskin powers that be" knew a Steelers-Raiders game at Three Rivers Stadium—especially the finale—could not end without controversy!

On the same field where Jack Tatum collided with Frenchy Fuqua (and possibly the football), forcing the ball to ricochet backwards where Franco Harris caught it (or didn't, either legally or illegally, depending on whether Fuqua made contact with the ball), the final battle to determine between Silver and Gold would muster up its own unique ending.

Taking over from deep in their own territory with 1:10 remaining, the Raiders drove to the Pittsburgh 41-yard line. Trailing 21-20, they only needed a critical field goal to win the game, and it appeared that Janikowski would receive a chance at redemption.

The scoreboard read "third down," and the Raiders claim at least one of the down markers was the same. With some confusion regarding the play call and circumstances, Rich Gannon threw incomplete to Jon Ritchie.

The officials signaled that the Steelers had the possession.  The incensed Raiders were enraged, pointing out that the scoreboard read "third down." Whether intentionally or accidentally, it didn't matter. 

Referee Tom White conferred with the press box, specifically NFL observer Charles "Ace" Heberling, to determine the down via the play-by-play. Heberling confirmed with White that the incomplete pass truly came on fourth down.

The Men of Steel had stopped the Men in Black, who wouldn't "Just Win, Baby!" Instead, the Steelers essentially told the Raiders to "just go home."

Pittsburgh had rallied to defeat Oakland in a contest eerily reminiscent of the rivalry's prime years. Al Davis and company would finish their Three Rivers Stadium saga just as they began it, crying foul and apparently cursed by whatever mysticism the venue possessed.

Three Rivers Stadium, for all of its flaws, was a cherished dynastic den that saw teams' finest seasons, serving as home to champions of both the NFL and MLB. It deserved a great ending.

In a far more anti-climactic finale, the Steelers closed the book on their beloved home proudly, defeating the Washington Redskins 24-3. It was an afternoon that saw many Steelers greats, most of whom had experienced the peak of the Raiders-Steelers rivalry, on site to pay a fond farewell to the legendary structure.

****************************************************************************

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! 

Please enjoy these previous installments:

Vol. 1: The Immaculate Interception; 1997, @ New England Patriots

Vol. 2: Streak Busters; 1982, @ Dallas Cowboys

Vol. 3: Rookie Quarterbacks Collide; 2004, @ New York Giants

Vol. 4: The Jinx Survives Sudden Death; 1978 & 1979, vs. Cleveland Browns

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