The Pittsburgh Steelers were filled with anxious adrenaline as they prepared to host the Miami Dolphins on November 20, 1994. After all, the two squads were mutually regarded among the list of favorites to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XXIX.
Beyond the hype and high expectations headed into the battle, who ever really could get a lick of sleep the night before dueling with legendary quarterback and Pittsburgh's own native son Dan Marino? This was no mere mortal quarterback, particularly prior to January.
For both 7-3 squads, the game had huge implications. Either could catch the San Diego Chargers in the race for the American Conference's best record, while the Steelers trailed the 8-2 Cleveland Browns in the AFC Central. Pittsburgh would have to catch their arch-rival in the standings despite an early season win over Bill Belichick and crew, 17-10 at Municipal Stadium.
If optimism was high in the Steel City, a conservative and often defunct offense certainly tempered local joy. Like the 2000 Ravens, who won consistently despite an offense that couldn't score touchdowns for long stretches, the Steelers entered play having gone 10 quarters without an offensive touchdown.
Adding to the concern was the loss of starting quarterback Neil O'Donnell six days earlier against the Buffalo Bills—a 23-10 Pittsburgh win that featured two defensive touchdowns and a legendary performance by Rod Woodson. Backup quarterback Mike Tomczak would make only his second start in 27 games with the Black and Gold and his first since a lopsided opening-day loss to the San Francisco 49ers to kick off 1993.
Conversely, the Miami Dolphins' faithful were enjoying the return of Dan Marino from a devastating injury in Week 5 of the '93 season. The future Hall of Fame passer jump started the '94 campaign with a five-touchdown performance in an electrifying duel with (and win over) Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe. Marino would come back from a horrendous ACL tear with another 30-touchdown campaign, leading Miami back to the playoffs as an AFC favorite.
So, immediately, the lauded "game of the week" seemed inherently stacked against the Steelers.
How many "Dan Marino vs. Mike Tomczak" posters would catch an eye? Few, if any.
On a day in which the Steelers grew from an improving roster under Bill Cowher and into true championship believers, the team would rally around their backup quarterback. The "Steel Trap" defense of Chad Brown, Kevin Greene, Rod Woodson, Levon Kirkland, Greg Lloyd, and crew would play their standard stand-out game, complete with hard hitting, blitzing, and overall chaos. Against Marino and the Dolphins, the Black and Gold defense would give a standout performance.
However, what few could have predicted would be the toe-to-toe nature of the quarterbacking duel on the field. Against two stingy defenses, both quarterbacks would find a way to come through in the clutch despite constant duress.
"Marino vs. Tomczak" would makes the headlines, indeed!
On the Steelers opening drive, Tomczak stepped away from pressure in the pocket and coolly delivered a pass to the outstretched hands of Ernie Mills, who sprinted from the left hash marks and down the left sideline toward the end zone. However, his angle was cut off at the 4-yard line.
In their standard fare, the Steelers offense crumbled as the goal line beckoned. Questionable play-calling (a third-down draw from the 3-yard line?) continued in the red zone, causing fans to wonder if their local offense was either overthinking or underthinking its strategy.
Kicking field goals after goal-to-go situations can just as easily be considered losing four points opposed to gaining three, and in pivotal contests against quarterbacks like Dan Marino, foregoing touchdowns for kicks is a great way to get kicked... you know where!
Marino entered play having been sacked only 10 times on the season, but the acclaimed pressure of the Steelers would result in four key sacks on the day. The first of two sacks by Chad Brown stuffed one of Miami's drives in the first quarter.
However, despite the early success of the fifth-ranked (though everybody knew they were better than their ranking) defense in football against Miami, the Pittsburgh offense was not as efficient. They would gain some yardage and stall as a matter of pattern for most of the game.
This tendency allowed fans to hear the internal clocks ticking as a matter of certainty, knowing that unless things changed, their successes from previous weeks would not continue this time. After all, "Dan the Man" wasn't going to stay down for long...
At the start of the second quarter, Marino validated the concerned crowd of over 59,000 strong at Three Rivers Stadium.
After a stagnant quarter-and-a-half, thwarted by blitzers, dropped passes and awkward throwing positions, a confident Marino "zinger," that beautiful laser-lob that spiraled perfectly over a defender and into the breadbasket of his receiver, leading the race down the sideline by an inch (hell, Marino ought to have patented that particular throw), nailed Irving Fryar.
Rod Woodson, beaten by the pin-point pass, tripped up the receiver, who skidded just shy of the end zone at the 4-yard line. Two plays later, a play fake by Marino was followed by a perfect out pass to Keith Jackson, who scampered into the end zone for a 7-3 Dolphins lead.
Before halftime, another Miami drive was thwarted on a nice pick by Levon Kirkland, ending a hot hand by Marino in the second quarter. Afterwards, Tomczak and the offense moved awkwardly into field goal range.
The ever-reliable Gary Anderson nailed a 48-yard attempt, and the Steelers trailed 7-6 at intermission.
In the NFL, teams are expected to act as whole units, despite being compartmentalized within their tasks. The offense plays 11 different players than the defense, and vice versa. And, while a team wins and loses games together, the reality is that results often come in spite of—or because of—a particular unit.
When an offense or defense tends to outperform their counterpart—especially when the difference is decisive—the chance for internal animosity grows.
The Steelers were a vastly improved squad under young and fiery coach Bill Cowher, and many felt they were growing into future champions. However, if the risk of a locker-room war or intense animosity was ever going to divide the team or be overcome completely, the answer to the issue was clearly going to be settled in 1994. And, more specifically, the game against the Dolphins, particularly in the second half and beyond, served as a cornerstone for this issue.
An opening drive by the Dolphins ended when pressure got to Dan Marino, causing a fluttering pass to fall incomplete and thus thwarting a scoring threat. The series of events ultimately resulted in a missed field goal by Pete Stoyanovich.
The Steelers offense stalled dramatically. A chorus of boo's never truly manifested from the stands, but the murmurings for an eruption, much like the soft groan of a volcano prior to a massive eruption, could certainly be detected, both in the crowd and on the Pittsburgh sideline.
Marino continued to fling the pigskin around, particularly to Irving Fryar, who finished the game with six receptions for 113 yards. The Dolphins entered the red zone on Marino's arm, which represented the whole of a Miami offense that could only muster 40 total rushing yards.
In the red zone, Jason Gildon got pressure on a key third down, grasping No. 13 as he desperately attempted to leave the pocket and flinging him to the ground.
Pete Stoyanovich's 34-yard field goal extended the Dolphins lead, 10-6.
The third quarter ended, and the Steelers offense had only gained 21 yards since intermission. The ball was back in the hands of Dan Marino and company, who led the game despite being physically throttled by the relentless Pittsburgh defense.
Nearing the start of the fourth quarter, Lloyd was vociferous in his criticism of the offense on the sideline, voicing his displeasure at their performance. Team harmony was on the balance, and the message was clear: get into gear!
After another key stop by the defense, Tomczak and the offense took possession at their own 27-yard line with just over 12 minutes remaining in the game.
On 2nd-and-11, he threw a 40-yard lob down the left sideline—a pass that seemed to float forever before dropping perfectly into the breadbasket of Ernie Mills. Mills finished with three catches for 98 yards, arguably none bigger than this reception which jump-started the previously offensive (and, not in the good way) offense.
If Marino had his patented sideline "zingers," Pittsburgh's backup could take claim of the unexpected, yet timely, "floater."
On the very next play, Tomczak threw a pass toward the right sideline with more "zip." Despite the pepper or mustard (or whichever condiment you prefer) on the pass, it couldn't get by safety Michael Stewart, who got a hand on the pass.
If not execution, sometimes offenses need a little luck...
The deflection traveled right into the waiting arms of Eric Green—a remarkably fortunate catch that gave Pittsburgh possession in the red zone.
After an afternoon of short chunks and few sustained drives, the back-to-back miraculous plays gave the team new life.
Two plays later, Barry Foster rumbled on 1st-and-goal for 10 yards and a touchdown, giving the Steelers an improbable 13-10 lead. Rushing 31 times for 88 yards, an afternoon of tough sledding finally showed Foster a sliver of daylight, and he used it to give the team a charge.
The psyched-up defense responded in turn, battering Marino and his receivers on a key stoppage. Getting the ball back for the offense, the unit watched as Foster was unable to run out the clock.
A Royals' punt near midfield landed perfectly inside the 5-yard line, and the Dolphins were in the shadow of their end zone with only two minutes remaining in regulation.
Sometimes, the game of football can be cruelly deceptive and uncertain. After all, the fourth quarter had belonged to Pittsburgh, and the opposing offense had to travel 60 yards for the least likely of field goals and nearly a whole field for the win.
Yet, this was Dan Marino, a man who had made a living off of a reputation for being clutch, particularly (and, this is not meant as a slight) in the regular season.
A first-down run gave the offense some breathing room. Second down saw Marino step up into the pocket and launch a laser throw down the middle, caught on a sliding grab by Scott Miller.
After a pass deflection forced second down, Marino zipped a pass along the sideline, screaming past Rod Woodson and into the waiting hands of Irving Fryar for a 15-yarder to the Miami 47-yard line.
Next, Marino rifled his big, brown bullet to Fryar again, 17 more yards that brought the football to the Pittsburgh 36-yard line with time running out.
Finally, the masterful drive last-minute drive ended on the final throw of Marino's aerial assault. The football snapped from Marino's wrist and made its way like a slingshot to Michael Williams.
The series set up Stoyanovich's fourth field goal attempt of the afternoon. His third conversion tied the score, 13-13.
For the third time in four games, the Steelers would be playing overtime. It was the first sudden-death affair at Three Rivers Stadium since September 19, 1982, when Terry Bradshaw defeated the Bengals with a touchdown pass.
The Steelers won the coin toss. With first dibs at a victory, everyone wanted Tomczak to summon up his inner-Bradshaw.
The focus was misdirected. They needed to also summon Barry Foster's inner-Franco.
The unit traveled to the Miami 39-yard line but faced 4th-and-1. Cowher decided it was time for a winning gamble. Foster was stuffed.
Zing. Zing. Zing.
That was the sound heard through the air on three consecutive laser strikes from Marino, a trio of quick, decisive completions that brought the football to the Pittsburgh 39-yard line.
With a game-tying masterpiece and a masterful start to sudden death, it seemed the Pitt Panthers star was making himself right back at home. Could he do any wrong?
A first-down, four-yard loss by Bernie Parmalee gave the crowd a bit of renewed vigor, but if Marino's right arm couldn't be contained, it wouldn't matter.
On second down, the defense prevented a Marino throw again and nearly won the game.
Joel Steed got to Marino in the pocket, wrestling him toward the ground and Levon Kirkland came into the action and forced the football from the quarterback's hand. Kirkland scooped up the football as the Three Rivers Stadium crowd became deafening.
As Kirkland rumbled into the end zone for the apparent game-winner, bedlam ensued. Joy would soon become tempered with sobering reality whenever referee Tom White turned on his microphone.
"The whistle had blown prior to the fumble. The ruling on the field is that the quarterback was in the grasp of the defender. Third down."
If the Pittsburgh sideline had ever wanted instant replay in the NFL, that passion would only be outdone by Miami's yearning for replay one play later.
If any group of fans know 3rd-and-19 is no guarantee, particularly with a quarterback like Big Ben, it's Steelers fans. Unfortunately, it's no sure thing against Dan Marino either.
Ray Seals had pressure right in Marino's face. Like other greats, things seemed to slow down for Dan, who ignored the oncoming defenders, planted his foot in the nick of time, looked his target down the field and launched an amazing throw.
With Carnell Lake on coverage against O.J. McDuffie, Marino threw a physics-defying, pin-point accurate, laser pass through the outstretched Lake and directly into the numbers of the in-cutting McDuffie, who appeared to make the reception at the Steelers' 20-yard line.
As the players fell to the ground, the ball sprang loose. Pittsburgh defenders fell on the ball, claiming it was a fumble recovery.
Miami's sideline exclaimed the opposite: DOWN BY CONTACT!
Tom White decided both parties were wrong, ruling McDuffie didn't have control of the football prior to hitting the ground, thus resulting in a call of an incomplete pass.
Instead of a chance to win with their kicker, the incensed Dolphins had to punt on 4th-and-forever. Players and coaches, including Don Shula, hollered about the wrong call, evoking an ire and using it as a demonstration for the need for instant replay. Ironically, for the Dolphins, it was as though the Steed-Kirkland play had never happened, which was easily as controversial.
Once again, Tomczak and company had a chance to win. On a day in which the offense struggled in many key moments, the backup quarterback went deceptively toe-to-toe with his Hall of Fame quarterbacking combatant.
Marino would finish 31-of-45, gaining 312 yards with a touchdown and one interception.
Tomczak would complete 26-of-42 passes, throwing for a career-high 343 yards. Charles Johnson and John L. Williams led the passing offense with seven receptions each for a combined 146 yards.
Like Marino at the end of regulation, Tomczak faced an uphill battle from the shadow of his own goal line. The stress was alleviated when his opening screen pass to Barry Foster netted 30 yards.
Next, a quick toss to John L. Williams gained 23 more yards.
And, saving arguably his best for last, Tomczak rolled to his right, stepped up to avoid pressure and fired a 20-yard strike to tight end Eric Green, setting the Steelers up for the winning field goal attempt.
On a day when the running game could not find large gains and the offense was inconsistent at best, Tomczak saved the day with huge chunks of yardage on a few distinct plays.
Gary Anderson lined up for the game-winner. He had converted 14 straight field goals from distances of less than 40 yards. This time, his 39-yard attempt was true.
Sailing right down the middle, the kick won the game for the Steelers, 16-13.
"Guys were congratulating each other on a tremendous game, and we were telling each other, 'We'll see you again!'"
Rod Woodson's post-game comment demonstrated the enthusiasm of a huge win and the mutual respect between the two squads.
Cleveland and San Diego both lost, giving the Steelers a share of the AFC lead with an 8-3 record. In their eyes, this gave the Steelers confidence that they had a real shot at a truly Super Sunday.
Bill Cowher spoke to the emotion of a huge game between the big-league combatants:
"I've been here two and a half years, and I can honestly say it may have been one of the best victories I have been associated with. To be down, to be counted out, to show the resiliency we showed today..."
Both perennially winning squads from the early to mid-90s began the season as favorites. Sadly, their endings would be remarkably similar, as an unexpected foe from the far west had their eyes on the prize that most expected would be delivered to one of the these two squads, who both truly expected to meet again.
In the divisional playoffs, the Miami Dolphins traveled to San Diego. They led the game, 21-6, only to fall in the final moments, losing by one point.
One week later, the seemingly overmatched Chargers were statistically dominated in the Steel City. Pittsburgh's Super Bowl dreams were becoming a reality as "Cowher Power" had a 13-3 lead late in the second half.
Then, the bottom fell out. San Diego rallied again, and two unexpected touchdown bombs from the arm of quarterback Stan Humphries felt like heavyweight punches to the collective gut of "Steelers Country."
The two AFC favorites would spend an offseason reflecting not on their classic November battle, but on their epic January fall from grace.
Both passers, Marino and Tomczak, would meet again in 1996 on Monday Night Football in Miami. Pittsburgh rallied from a 14-3 deficit, and Tomczak won again in another forgotten classic, 24-17.
Look for it in an upcoming installment of "Pittsburgh's Forgotten Classics."
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!
Periodically throughout 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 and check out my writer profile for Volumes 1-7:
Vol. 12: Buffaloed Bills; 1974 & 1996, vs. Buffalo Bills