While the setting may have been different both times, gridiron wars waged at Texas Stadium and Heinz Field respectively, the series of events that culminated in both Black and Gold wins was eerily similar. Twice, the oft-proclaimed "America's Team" had the Steelers dead to rights, and the men with the stars about their heads were on the precipice of victory.
Both times, that precipice became the edge of a cliff that Dallas fell from, falling from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows with unexpected late game collapses.
On each occasion, 2004 and 2008 more specifically, the ultimate engineer of "Big D's" ultimate train wreck was the Pittsburgh defense and the final conductor was Big Ben Roethlisberger.
Adding to the exhilaration of fans in the Steel City, violently torquing Terrible Towels and boisterously cheering at the conclusion of both games, was the history of the rivalry. Dating back to the 70s, the two franchises battled for the rights to be named "Team of the Decade," and the blue-collar Steelers earned those bragging rights over the hated "white-collar" Cowboys.
Fast-forwarding a decade-and-a-half, Dallas defeated Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XXX, becoming the second team to secure five Lombardi Trophies, surpassing the proud Steelers total of four.
By 2004, that count remained the same. With the ire of championship battles serving as the foundation for extra adrenaline during any scheduled game between the teams, Steelers Country vehemently desired a win over Bill Parcells' squad, which featured easy to disdain athletes in the Steel City, such as Keyshawn ("Me-shawn") Johnson, Terry Glenn, and ex-Browns quarterback Vinny Testaverde.
Adding to the dislike of Dallas was the hype and hysteria emanating from the return of "the Tuna" in 2003; after a return to the playoffs in his initial season, expectations were sky high for the 2004 Cowboys, who entered the game against Pittsburgh with a 2-2 record.
While such expectations were not in place for the Steelers entering the year, the team was suddenly confident against all odds. Their starter under center, Tommy Maddox, fell to an elbow injury during Week 2, and Ben Roethlisberger took over at quarterback. The rookie displayed an aplomb unlike other first-year signal-callers—a certain poise that served him well in three straight wins to start his career.
This, the fourth consecutive start for young No. 7, was billed to be his most difficult to that point. Yet, if the Steelers could find a way to win, they would improve to 5-1 with an opportunity to overtake the undefeated (and winners of 20 straight) New England Patriots the very next week.
On the opening drive of the game, Vinny Testaverde completed 5-of-6 passes, while Eddie George (yes, that Eddie George, Steelers fans) ran two times for a mere two yards. However, where the former Buckeyes and Titans star runner failed, young Richie Anderson succeeded, tormenting the Steelers defense with an all too easy first score.
With the Steelers in a dime formation to defend the pass, Anderson ran through a gaping hole up the middle on 3rd-and-6 from the Pittsburgh 21-yard line. Unimpeded, he gave Dallas the early lead, 7-0. The more premature fans at Texas Stadium had a quick reason to harass the mass of Steelers fans that had migrated to Irving for the game.
If the absurd total of Pittsburgh loyalists in attendance was in question early, the Steelers quickly made the impressive dynamics of the nomadic fan base evident with a pair of great plays to tie the game.
Answering with a 75-yard march, Ben dropped back and floated a pass deep down the middle of the field on 3rd-and-5. Against Terence Newman, Plaxico Burress created a lone step of separation, extended his right arm high above his head and palmed the pigskin. His one-handed snag was a thing of beauty, and adding insult to the result was a five-yard, face mask penalty against Newman—his only recourse for stopping the lanky, playmaking wideout.
After a 15-yard pass set up a goal-to-go scenario, Big Ben and Plax continued their first-quarter magic act, connecting with one another in a manner that seemed like magnetism. On second down, Ben was flushed from the pocket, forced to step up and roll right. Just as defensive end Marcellus Wiley prepared to catch the razzle-dazzle rookie from behind, Roethlisberger showed off his ability to throw accurately on the run.
A laser throw was placed perfectly for Plaxico Burress, who dove for the catch while coming back to the football. The defender had no play on the football, and the receiver frustrated the Cowboys again, scoring along the sideline and knocking over the pylon.
With both teams answering tit-for-tat, an explosion of Terrible Towels spotted the stands like yellow blobs against a blue backdrop.
After the game, many Cowboys fans and players spoke about their disapproval of the phenomenal Pittsburgh presence. Dexter Coakley made his impressions clear:
"For a minute there, I thought we were in Pittsburgh. It felt like a home game for them."
The next few drives for both offenses were snuffed out by defensive stars.
For the Cowboys, James Farrior proved to be the bane. On consecutive drives, the linebacker forced third-down fumbles, both recovered by Dallas. The first strip came against Jason Witten, forcing a punt. The next drive ended just the same, only this time, Farrior victimized Testaverde in the pocket.
Meanwhile, in an evenly matched contest, the Cowboys defense responded in kind. Huge sacks by La'Roi Glover, Greg Ellis and Tyrone Williams stopped three straight Pittsburgh drives in that order.
Still, Pittsburgh managed a field goal on the second of those drives, thanks largely to Duce Staley's 24-yard burst to begin the series. Jeff Reed connected from an impressive 51 yards out, giving the Steelers a 10-7 lead.
Before halftime, Dallas answered. The biggest play of the tying drive came on a strike to former Pitt Panthers receiver Antonio Bryant, and Billy Cundiff's 47-yard effort was true.
Both teams had work to do at intermission. Big Ben was under siege, having been sacked three times, and Dallas was unable to convert critical third downs to sustain drives.
The third quarter saw Dallas seize every ounce of the momentum. Pittsburgh's opening drive was stopped when a completion to Antwaan Randle El yielded no gain. Then, the Dallas offense made a huge series of huge plays.
First, after driving into Pittsburgh territory, Testaverde lost eight yards on a sack by Deshea Townsend on 2nd-and-9. Facing third down and needing 17 yards, the Steelers' secondary embarrassingly allowed Terry Glenn a free release down the middle of the field. Glenn cut into the center of the secondary, a dangerous spot for receivers, and made a diving catch unimpeded for 20 yards.
The proud Pittsburgh defense stiffened, forcing a Cundiff field goal.
Down 13-10, the Steelers offense went three-and-out, and the tired Black and Gold defense came back onto the field, sucking wind. This time, instead of facing a dozen plays, they allowed Dallas to take full control of the game in three snaps.
First, Terry Glenn continued a huge afternoon with a wide open 48-yard grab, giving Dallas possession deep in Steelers territory. Glenn would lead all receivers on the day by far, snagging seven passes for 140 yards.
Next, ReShard Lee lost two yards.
Finally, the defensive secondary was victimized once more, and making matters worse was the recipient on the other end of a Testaverde strike. Keyshawn Johnson got open down the middle, splitting Deshea Townsend and Troy Polamalu. A phenomenal throw hit Johnson perfectly at the back of the end zone for a 22-yard score.
The stunned Steelers trailed 20-10.
If momentum was turning against them, Ben Roethlisberger would prove to be the perfect tonic. So far in his young career, a trio of games saw No. 7 in the lead, comfortably managing the offense. Now, the rookie was about to face his first stiff test, carrying the team on his back.
How did he respond? He completed his final 12 passes of the game, spread across the end of the third and entire fourth quarter, rallying the team to a momentous win.
Two passes to the reliable Hines Ward brought Pittsburgh into Dallas territory. Ben hit Jay Riemersma, Ward twice more and Duce Staley to bring the football to the Cowboys' 13-yard line.
Then, on 3rd-and-3, Roethlisberger dropped back and delivered his patented one-handed pump fake, holding onto the pigskin with his massive digits, before reloading and firing a strike to Jerame Tuman along the back of the end zone. Locked up in a favorable man-to-man coverage with linebacker Dexter Coakley, Big Ben wisely took advantage of the odds to pull within 20-17.
A huge Larry Foote sack upended Dallas's next possession, but the Steelers were disheartened when a huge holding call stopped their subsequent drive. Forced to punt back to the Cowboys, the defense would be tasked with getting the football back to Big Ben, despite only five minutes remaining.
On 3rd-and-3, Vinny found Jason Witten for 13 yards, and odds of a Pittsburgh win decreased dramatically. Moments later, it was 3rd-and-13, and the Cowboys had a decision to make: run and force the Steelers to kill clock or burn timeout OR pass and try for the first down.
Testaverde dropped back, attempting the latter. As he pump-faked, his hand brushed against James Farrior, who rushed unimpeded into the backfield. The football—in a miracle of miracles—simply fell from his grasp, and Kimo Von Oelhoffen scooped it up. The defensive end rumbled down the sideline for 21 yards, deep in Dallas territory.
The shocked Cowboys looked on as Ben hit Plaxico for 11 yards, then Jerame Tuman for six more. After a Duce Staley first down, the Steelers called in their big goal-line heavy back Jerome Bettis.
While known for his brute force and physicality, Bettis showed the great footwork and agility that separated him from other power backs. Tripped at the line of scrimmage, Bettis regained his balance and managed to stumble into the end zone, giving Pittsburgh the lead with 1:40 to play.
Desperately, the Cowboys attempted to rally. A quick pass to Richie Anderson and lateral to Terry Glenn covered 30 yards. Amazingly, Glenn got out of bounds with one second left. Nevertheless, a final heave to the end zone was broken up by James Farrior, and the Steelers escaped Texas with a 24-20 win before thousands of Terrible Towel-waving fans.
In a sublime and composed performance, even against a steady Dallas pass rush, Roethlisberger completed 21-of-25 passes for two scores, avoiding any turnovers. Bill Parcells reflected on the maturity shown by a young Big Ben after the game:
"He's simply got great poise. I think he's going to be outstanding."
Bill Parcells and the city of Pittsburgh, admirers of their young phenom, proved to be prophets.
The game was an obvious turning point for both teams, breeding confidence and collapse into opposed locker rooms. The Cowboys finished 6-10.
Meanwhile, the Steel City reveled in astonishment, astounded by Roethlisberger's 15 consecutive wins, including the playoffs.
Ben may not have won the Super Bowl in his rookie season, ultimately succumbing to Tom Brady and the Patriots on another exemplary night for No. 12.
Yet, by December 2008, Ben was already a champion, leading Bill Cowher's Steelers to a long overdue Lombardi Trophy in February 2006. Fast-forwarding three years, the Steelers were in the midst of another eventual championship season, only this time, the man with the headset was Mike Tomlin.
The 8-4 Cowboys came to Pittsburgh with hopes of matching records with the 9-3 Steelers. Faces had changed in Dallas, and a few were also new in Steeltown.
At the helm for the Cowboys was lady's man Tony Romo, who was attempting to overcome a stigma of being unable to win the big games, particularly in December and January. Dallas was about to foster that reputation exponentially.
In almost eerie fashion, the contest would turn out eerily similar in tone and outcome to the set of events that had unfolded in 2004 at Texas Stadium.
However, while the circumstances were similar, the setting was very different. Warm-weather Dallas was visiting at the worst possible time, a 24-degree evening in the Steel City, featuring 20 mile per hour winds and a nine-degree wind chill.
Being at that particular game myself, I can speak to biting cold—a wintry night that bit the tip of your tongue with every word spoken or beer sipped. It was like touching your taste buds with battery acid every time your mouth opened.
Okay, so maybe I'm exaggerating a bit...
Clouds of smoke rose from every man, woman and child at Heinz Field during that contest, though nobody would confuse a damn cold night with the inhumane temperatures the Dallas franchise endured during the "Ice Bowl" against Green Bay.
Still, it was icy enough for me, and it was also a bit too cold for a few Dallas players. Notably, Tony Romo came out without long sleeves, his bare, pale arms showing in stark contrast to those of his peers on the field.
I remember my exact thought being, "What stupidity..."
Certainly, this would indicate a sort of toughness, if it were not for Romo running to the ventilated heaters along the side of the bench, even blocking fellow players or squeezing between them to get to the unit. Any bravado intended by the lack of covering was lost when Romo was seen shivering like lost mountain-climber during every break in his offense's action.
Even as early as pregame, I saw his activity along the sidelines, and thought to myself, "Yes, this is exactly where we want them. We have them beaten!"
If my initial confidence was high, it only increased when the Cowboys turned the ball over in rampant succession throughout the first half.
On only his second pass of the game, Tony Romo completely missed his intended target, Terrell Owens, and Troy Polamalu intercepted the football.
From midfield, Big Ben threw a strike to Santonio Holmes for a 23-yard gain. The offense gained no more yardage, and I cringed as Jeff Reed trotted onto the field to attempt a 45-yard field goal in such conditions.
His kick confirmed my apprehensions as warranted, sailing wide and blowing a golden early opportunity to seize momentum.
If any member of the Cowboys most frustrated the Pittsburgh defense, it was Tashard Choice, who finished with 88 rushing yards and 78 receiving yards on five catches. He was easily the most productive Dallas player.
Choice picked up moderate gains on Dallas's next drive, and Romo settled after an 0-for-3 start by hitting Jason Witten for eight key yards on 3rd-and-6. The Cowboys methodically drove, bit by bit, into Pittsburgh territory. On 3rd-and-2, an end-around effort to Terrell Owens gained only one yard, and the legendary '08 Steelers defense blasted Deon Anderson for no gain on fourth down.
The teams traded possessions without success. To nobody's surprise, the elements were making for a gritty, low-scoring affair.
Romo seemed locked into the controversial T.O. early, forcing passes to him that were borderline irresponsible (at best) but failing to connect every time.
After being pinned at their own 6-yard line, the Steelers were forced to punt. Mitch Berger's kick was muffed by Tra Battle and recovered by Lawrence Timmons near midfield. Yet, more of the same stagnation occurred, and the Steelers merely punted again from far better field position than before.
Ultimately, the benefit of Battle's fumble, namely the change in field position, was about to be realized.
Instead of taking over at midfield, Tony Romo and the Cowboys took control of the ball from their own 8-yard line. Once again, Romo had little for open options to deliver a pass, and he threw to a seemingly open Terrell Owens.
For Rome, there was one big problem: he was baited! Ike Taylor quickly leaped for the football and made a magnificent interception in front of T.O. with time winding down in the first half.
The Steelers earned a 1st-and-goal after starting on the Dallas 22-yard line, but the drive stalled on two incomplete passes. This time, Jeff Reed's shorter kick was right down the middle, and the Steelers led 3-0.
On their subsequent drive, Dallas answered. Instead of focusing on Owens, Romo began to find his Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten down the seam. Witten caught three passes on the two-minute drive, covering 41 crucial yards. Most notably, Witten's 22-yard reception with 1:35 to play set Dallas up deep in Pittsburgh territory.
Impressively, Nick Folk nailed a 44-yard attempt, and the game was tied at intermission, 3-3. The stunned crowd surely didn't anticipate the sudden offensive output before halftime, and they especially didn't expect to be tied with a Cowboys team that committed four first half turnovers.
At the start of the second half, with ice crystals forming atop my golden beverage, the Steelers did not get off to a golden start.
The offense sputtered, and Tashard Choice became the Jason Witten of the Cowboy's first drive. Instead of Witten dominating the offensive series for Dallas, Choice rumbled for 22 of his own yards, giving Dallas possession deep in Steelers territory.
This time, the restraints of the game clock did not force a tying field goal. Instead, after another first down run by Choice, Tony Romo made his finest play of the game.
Feeling pressure from the Pittsburgh 12-yard line, Romo left and turned right, essentially pirouetting in the pocket to niftily avoid a sack. A pump fake froze the safeties, and Tony floated a high-rising pass toward the back of the end zone that seemed destined to hit the crossbar or go out of bounds.
Instead, Terrell Owens, with whom Romo had no chemistry in the first half, sprang from the ground and rose for a mighty catch over Ike Taylor. The stunned Steelers crowd looked on in exasperation as the Cowboys led, 10-3.
After another failed drive by Pittsburgh, Nick Folk added a field goal. Like 2004, the Cowboys dominated play in the third period to take control of a formerly tied game, this time leading 13-3.
Adding to the frustration in the Steel City was a solid answering drive by the Steelers, starting in the third quarter and lasting into the fourth. It appeared the Steelers would at least cut the lead. However, on 4th-and-goal and needing one yard, Mike Tomlin decided to go for the six points instead of a chip shot field goal.
Gary Russell was emphatically driven back on a run up the middle by Keith Davis and Bradie James, resulting in the Dallas goal line defense leaping for joy and charging to their sideline, arms raised as if they had just won a game in January.
The Steelers were about to teach "America's Team" a hard lesson: it isn't over until it's over.
Just like deja vu, the Cowboys were about to engage in a huge collapse against Big Ben and the Steelers.
Everybody knows that great players come through when the game is on the line, namely in the fourth quarter. On 3rd-and-5, Troy Polamalu recharged the Pittsburgh crowd by torpedoing into the backfield and nailing Tashard Choice for a loss.
Then, Sam Paulescu's punt was returned 35 yards by Santonio Holmes, deep into Dallas territory. The Steelers didn't even manage a first down, but Jeff Reed connected on a critical 41-yard field goal, bringing the score to 13-6.
Travis Kirschke sacked Tony Romo to derail Dallas's following drive, and the Steelers offense got the opportunity for redemption with little time having elapsed.
2004 was about to happen all over again. And, just as the letdown resulted in a Texas-sized meltdown that season, the '08 Cowboys were about to begin a December decline that resulted in them missing the playoffs.
Ben completed two passes for 35 huge yards to Nate Washington. His next two passes missed their mark, setting up 3rd-and-10. On third down, Ben ran for nine yards.
On 4th-and-1, it was a key play, and Roethlisberger lumbered over the middle to convert.
On a virtuoso drive for the receiver, Nate Washington's next catch covered 16 yards, moving the football from the 22-yard line and ever so close to the tying touchdown.
Then, the collective lump in the throat of every Dallas fan grew a bit more jagged when Ben hit tight end Heath Miller in the flat. Miller turned up the sideline, dragging a Dallas defender with him toward the end zone and impressively reached the football out over the pylon! Touchdown!
Jeff Reed tied the game. And, one play later, Tony Romo lost it.
With everything falling apart and the game breaking down all around him, the great quarterback collects himself and carries his team. Until he can prove this capability, Romo will never be considered among the game's elite field generals.
A pass intended for Jason Witten sailed well high over the target, and Deshea Townsend was there to collect his early Christmas gift. The intercepting defenders ran down the left sideline and dove into the end zone, much to the delight of the frenzied Pittsburgh crowd.
From the jaws of defeat to the thrill of victory, Pittsburgh had rallied, now leading 20-13! Dallas defenders, who had emphatically celebrated following a goal line stand earlier in the quarter, could only watch from the sideline as the game fell from their grasp.
Tony Romo's response was quite anticlimactic. Four incomplete passes ended the football game.
Romo and the Cowboys headed to the warmth of the locker room; meanwhile, Steelers fans fittingly all felt warm, despite the freezing temperatures and a wind chill approaching zero.
While Dallas imploded late in the season to finish 9-7 and miss the playoffs, the Steelers continued their momentum through to February, where they finally passed the Cowboys (and 49ers) as the all-time leading Super Bowl winner with six Lombardi Trophies.
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 1-8: