For the last 40 seasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers have demonstrated a consistent excellence, resulting in more playoff appearances, AFC Championships and Lombardi Trophies than any other team in the modern NFL.
Before that, the franchise, celebrating its 80th birthday in 2012, was a laughingstock. Barring a few isolated and rare winning seasons, the Black and Gold had difficulty figuring out that bloodied lips and bruised ribs didn't produce points on the scoreboard, as their opponents would often leave the field battered, beaten and victorious.
How anemic were the Steelers in the win column? Consider the plight of two bad decades of Pittsburgh Pirates baseball.
Then, multiply by two!
In the late 60s, head coach Chuck Noll was brought on to create the first consistent winner in franchise history. Remaining was the physical play and lost was the losing. Finally, the team was able to shake its infancy after 40 years!
Since the Steelers dynasty of the 70s, high expectations have remained a trademark of Black and Gold football.
Names like Ben and Bradshaw, Antonio and Santonio and Greenwood and Greene come to mind when recounting the last four decades of proud Pittsburgh play, an era comprised of great teams whose fates may have varied but whose bond with Steeler Nation never wavered.
Beauty, a noun defined by the eye of the beholder, is the Lombardi Trophy for any proud Pittsburgh fan. Whether hoisted by Art Rooney himself, his son Dan or beloved grandson Art Jr., these seasons, which the real fans can name out loud without missing a beat—1974, 1975, 1978, 1979, 2005, 2008—had the most fitting endings. The Steelers achieved their goal of winning the Super Bowl.
To ask many fans about the best Steelers season in history is to effectively ask for a ranking of the six campaigns listed above.
However, many of the best teams in franchise history did not finish with the Lombardi Trophy in hand, a disappointing reality.
When considering the 10 best teams in Steelers history, winning the NFL championship is a factor, but it is not an exclusive determinant. As such, many fans will be surprised to discover a few hardware-lacking squads breaking into the top handful of all-time Steelers installments.
Conversely, it is likely no surprise to most that the list is comprised exclusively of teams that played no longer ago than 1972.
Across the board, considering all phases of the game, the 2001 Steelers may have been a better team than the Super Bowl winning Pittsburgh squads that would fulfill the dreams of Steeler Nation later in the decade.
However, the difference between now and then was as simple as one word: Roethlisberger.
If No. 7 had played for the '01 squad, a solid team along both lines and with skill talent all over the roster, I shudder to imagine how dominant they may have been.
The 2001 Steelers entered play having missed the playoffs in each of the three previous seasons.
With a brand new field to christen and a momentous finish to their previous season, in which the Steelers narrowly missed the playoffs, Pittsburgh hoped their first year at Heinz Field would be marked by a return to January's sudden death NFL action.
Things looked grim on opening weekend; the Steelers traveled to Jacksonville and played their typical road game against the Jaguars, losing 21-3.
The offense was anemic, Kordell Stewart looked unsettled, the defense allowed huge plays to the Jags offense (particularly receiver Jimmy Smith) and optimism was certainly quenched.
The loss proved to be a mere aberration.
In his second of two career years (the other was 1997), Kordell Stewart rekindled the electrifying game he had entertained millions of fans with years earlier. By limiting his bad decisions, particularly turnovers, and using his arms and legs to rank among the finest passers in the 2001 NFL season, Kordell and the Steelers exploded back onto the NFL landscape. They reentered the championship discussion.
The Steelers finished 13-3 and they were the odds-on favorite to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XXXVI.
While Stewart, Bettis, Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward, the offense helped engineer a rebirth of sorts, both for "Slash" and the Steelers, it was the defense that truly anchored Pittsburgh back to the status of an elite NFL team.
The "Big, Nasty D" featured leading tackler Earl Holmes, Kendrell Bell, Chad Scott, Kimo von Oelhoffen, Joey Porter, Jason Gildon and all-star run stuffer Aaron Smith.
Chad Scott led the unit with five interceptions, resulting in a whopping 204 return yards and two touchdowns.
However, the true surprise of the season was rookie Kendrell Bell, who electrified Steelers fans with nine of the team's 55 sacks. Jason Gildon led the onslaught on opposing passers with a dozen sacks.
The return to contention was also marked with the rise of a new NFL rivalry.
In 2001, the defending champion Ravens surrendered the last-ever AFC Central Division crown to the Steelers. While historians would mark this as a fitting achievement (the Steelers won the division for most of the previous three decades), Baltimore believed they were better than their division counterparts.
Tensions escalated, as the Ravens championship mettle and the Steelers statistical dominance of the two regular season games gave both teams a swagger they refused to yield. Eventually, as all word wars that are waged do, the battle took to the field and real football was played. Or, should I say, real football was delivered by the Steelers and to the Ravens.
On his first throw (and the Ravens' first offensive play), Elvis Grbac (who was chosen to replace champion Trent Dilfer at quarterback in the offseason by Brian Billick) was hit, threw a duck and was intercepted. A tone was set.
The Steelers jumped out to a 20-0 lead. Turnovers accumulated on the purple side of the ball and the black and gold continued to capitalize. The Ravens eventually fought back, and a Jermaine Lewis punt return for a touchdown (special teams was the Steelers' bane in the early decade) cut the score to 20-10. That is when Plaxico "Plaxiglass" (according to Shannon Sharpe) Burress proved his "bend but not break" credentials, hauling in a late touchdown to draw the game to its final score of 27-10.
In the Divisional Playoffs, the Steelers looked like champions.
In the AFC Championship Game, they looked like the exact same team that surrendered the Lamar Hunt Trophy to the Denver Broncos in January 1998.
This time, they were heavily favored to defeat the Patriots. However, ill-timed turnovers and special teams gaffes ended a magnificent season, and the Steelers fell to the Boston bunch, 24-17.
It was an incredibly disappointing ending to a wildly successful 2001 season.
Sadly, instead of "One for the Thumb," the rise of Tom Brady was right around the corner.
The Steelers dynasty began winning championships in 1974-75. Their era of glory should have begun two years earlier in 1972.
From hearing Myron's call of "Yoi and double yoi!" during the radio broadcast to carrying on with other fans at the local sports bar, any loyalist can tell you where they were during some of the most key moments.
For those blessed enough to have experienced the one play that crossed pigskin and prayers, this was one of those moments:
The Immaculate Reception.
The most utterly iconic of all memorable plays gave the Pittsburgh Steelers a dramatic victory in the final seconds, their first ever playoff win. Everyone knows the play:
Bradshaw rolls right, unleashes a desperate heave over the middle toward Fuqua, Jack Tatum collides with the intended target, the ball flies backwards in a directly opposed direction to Tatum's momentum (physics, anyone?), and Franco snags the pigskin before it hits the ground.
Harris ran to pay dirt as the Oakland Raiders cried foul, but the play stood as called. The controversy sparked a new rivalry and began a new era in Steelers football.
If finally winning games served as the foundation for bigger things ahead, this classic contest, which rests in disdain for Al Davis and John Madden, served as the first post for a house of champions.
The exciting Steelers, built on the image of Chuck Noll, were supremely talented, welcoming in a level of excitement to a city that had previously only known the thrill of the World Series pennants.
In baseball terms, Pittsburgh would ultimately strike out to the undefeated Miami Dolphins in the following week's AFC Championship Game. Yet, the pieces were in place for a dynasty, and an amazing draft in 1974 would finally propel them to the top of the NFL.
1972 was the starting point for the franchise's success.
Perhaps the community sensed change when the Steelers beat the Raiders on opening day, 34-28. Surely, after years of being exposed to losing efforts, a 15-10 loss to the Bengals the following week came as no surprise, merely bringing an expectant fan base back down to Earth.
Winning back and forth in the early going, mediocrity was the expectation. Until Pittsburgh said, "No more!"
Finally adding a splash of gold to counter their black past, the Men of Steel beat four straight opponents by at least 17 points before defeating the 5-3 Kansas City Chiefs by a margin of 16-7.
The 7-2 Steelers lost a close affair, 26-24, in Cleveland. A very good Browns squad evened their record with Pittsburgh at 7-3 after having dominated their rival for much of the 60s.
Two weeks later, Pittsburgh evened the score with a 30-0 shutout win over the Browns at Three Rivers Stadium. The Steelers would not lose another game, thus assuring themselves the AFC Central Championship.
Following a defensive battle of the field goal kickers, a 9-3 win over Houston, the Steelers' finale resulted in a 24-2 victory over the San Diego Chargers. The rising Steel Curtain had allowed only five total points in the final three games of the regular season.
The defense finished fifth in the NFL in points surrendered, and their penchant for gathering up turnovers—including 28 interceptions (team leader Jack Ham had seven picks)—allowed a developing, inconsistent offense some leeway.
Terry Bradshaw's dozen touchdowns matched his dozen INT's, though top targets Lynn Swann and John Stallworth would not arrive until the "immaculate" (there's that word again!) 1974 NFL Draft class. Franco Harris buoyed the offense, eclipsing 1,000 yards, scoring 10 touchdowns and averaging 5.6 yard per carry.
Fan excitement grew as the 11-3 Steelers entered the playoffs for the first time in seemingly forever, doing so playing their best football in years and harboring momentum.
Steelers Country was ready for the intensity of playoff football in their newly christened Three Rivers Stadium. When Kenny Stabler scored on a long touchdown run on a broken play, Pittsburgh suddenly trailed 7-6 with little time left.
Then, it happened...the play.
Grandfathers still tell grandchildren about the greatest play they have ever seen by the greatest dynasty they have ever seen.
The only difference between then and now is that at the time, they simply didn't know about that "dynasty" part just yet.
While the season ended one week later in a narrow, mistake-riddled 21-17 home loss to the eventual undefeated Miami Dolphins, the up-and-comers served notice to the rest of the NFL that a young new challenger to the throne was rising in Western Pennsylvania, a region where the local football team hadn't ever matched the local homegrown talent.
The rich Steelers tradition of excellence now spans generations. The expectation for excellence originated in this winning campaign, and it shows in everything the franchise has become. Six Lombardi Trophies and only a rare losing season are proud marks of the best team of the Super Bowl era.
By 1974, the improving Steelers had finally begun to put the pieces of a dynastic puzzle together.
Steadily rising in the NFL rankings, many had their fingers on the pulse of Pittsburgh potential, but few truly expected the '74 squad to finally produce the final punch!
Their season started with a quarterback controversy between Terry Bradshaw and Joe Gilliam. The team was losing games it should have been winning. Players were angering in the midst of not meeting their potential. Joe Greene reflects on these frustrations in the team's installment of "America's Game."
After Gilliam's offense began to sputter after showing so much potential in the season's first two games, Terry Bradshaw took over the helm.
Most point to this decision as unlocking the cuffs on the dynasty. Bradshaw took ownership as starting quarterback and the culmination came when he threw the game-clinching touchdown pass in Super Bowl IX. It was a welcome habit that the quarterback would repeat three more times.
His pass to Larry Brown put Pittsburgh ahead 16-6 late in the fourth quarter. The sheer force behind the throw caused a rifle-like pop to explode throughout the Tulane Stadium as pigskin met pads.
In the big game, an ill Dwight Clark and stout Steelers defense dominated Fran Tarkenton and the Vikings. The acclaimed quarterback finished 11-for-16 with three interceptions. The Vikings were only able to muster 119 offensive yards and merely nine first downs.
Though hindsight is truly 20/20, reflecting back on the '74-75 playoffs reveals a key truth: Super Sunday was a lackluster challenge compared to what the Black and Gold had faced one week earlier.
Trailing 10-3 in Oakland at the start of the fourth quarter, Joe Greene and the Steelers entered a zone, determined to drop the cocky Raiders at home in the AFC Championship Game.
After beating the two-time champion Miami Dolphins in the "Sea of Hands" game one week earlier, John Madden jubilantly called the game Super Bowl 8.5, figuring that defeating the defending champions was their stiffest challenge on the road to the big game. He was wrong (see video above).
Franco Harris and Lynn Swann scored to give the Steelers a late lead. Then, ahead 17-13, Franco finished off the Silver and Black, breaking into the end zone to give Pittsburgh a 24-13 statement advantage.
The Raiders played in Super Bowl 8.5, but they never made it to Super Bowl IX.
Tommy Maddox fell to injury in Baltimore and the Steelers season hinged on the play of their first round draft pick: rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Fitting for a player thrown into the storm of starting in his first month of professional action, the quarterback's first start came in a hurricane.
As Hurricane Jeanne pelted the Florida coast, the first-year phenom threw a late touchdown to Hines Ward to secure a 13-3 win over the Dolphins.
Fifteen consecutive wins later and Ben Roethlisberger was the "stuff of legends." Or, at least, rookie legends.
After wins over the AFC North's Ohio contingent, including a great throw on the run against the Browns in a sort of coming out party before the home fans at Heinz Field, the league's biggest story traveled to Texas Stadium.
If things are bigger in Texas, Roethlisberger proved the adage, playing one of his finest career games in a comeback win.
The burly QB completed 21 of 25 pass attempts while shaking off constant Dallas pressure, rallying the Steelers from a 20-10 deficit. Vinny Testeverde committed his regular critical turnover against Pittsburgh, a late fourth quarter fumble that prevented the Cowboys from finishing out the game, opening the door for a 24-20 win and an ongoing win streak.
Next, the 5-1 Steelers used their momentum to annihilate consecutive undefeated teams at Heinz Field.
Tom Brady and the New England Patriots fell first, ending an NFL record 21-game win streak of their own Next, Hines Ward mocked Terrell Owens T.O. (twice over) with his own touchdown celebration, spreading his arms and flapping his wings during a 27-3 demolition of the Eagles that wasn't even that close.
If the word fluke was being passed around with regard to Roethlisberger's performances, the rookie silenced doubters by outplaying two of the game's finest quarterbacks on consecutive weeks: Tom Brady and Donovan McNabb.
The rest of the campaign saw three comebacks, proving Roethlisberger's performance in Dallas was not the result of a young man unaware of the stage.
The Steelers defeated the Bengals 19-14 after trailing 14-10, though the defense could be as largely credited for that particular win.
Roethlisberger himself engineered a comeback drive to defeat the Jaguars, 17-16. Later in the season, a duel with Eli Manning, another rookie quarterback from his draft class, resulted in a shockingly competitive affair. The Steelers won a 33-30 shootout.
Football is a team game, and the performance of the squad was magnificent all around. In fact, the season finale saw the backups playing against Drew Bledsoe and the Buffalo Bills. A victory by the opposition would secure a playoff spot for Buffalo—but the Bills lost the game to a more determined roster of first-time starters, athletes hungering for first dibs at a 2005 roster spot.
Yet, while the team excelled, the story of 2004 was clearly Ben Roethlisberger. Unfortunately, the quarterback hit a wall in the playoffs, the result of fatigue and simple odds.
A terrible performance against the Jets translated to escaping with a victory. One week later, the dynastic Patriots and the bane, Tom Brady, ended Pittsburgh's season decisively.
Many questioned if long-time team icon Jerome Bettis would return for the 2005 campaign, causing many emotional fans and players to respond to the New England loss as a missed opportunity to bestow a championship on the deserving "Bus."
Fortunately, Bettis returned. Though the team struggled for much of the '05 regular season, they bookended two great seasons with another masterful run.
Bettis's final moment in Black and Gold was coupled with the "sticky Lombardi."
If one could squeeze together the historic winning streak of 2004 and the dominant postseason from the winter of 2006, the combined dominance would catapult the make-believe season right to the top of the list.
However, as it stands, the two campaigns stand tied as the mutual 10th finest seasons in team history.
The proud defending champions were an NFL dynasty, winners of three of the previous five Lombardi Trophies. By 1979, rules changes allowed great talents such as Lynn Swann and John Stallworth to explode onto the scene, alongside the exciting "Blonde Bomber," Terry Bradshaw.
Despite rule changes serving as a handicap for defenses, greats like Jack Lambert, Joe Greene, Jack Ham, L.C. Greenwood and Mel Blount continued to dominate. The "Steel Curtain" was still among the best defenses in football.
With time, however, the Steelers dynasty was beginning to see the downward trend of its sheer dominance. Not helping was the erratic play of Terry Bradshaw, whose offensive potency could be equally measured by offensive impotency at random times.
For example, the Steelers lost to the San Diego Chargers, 35-7, in a contest that saw the gunslinger throw five interceptions.
Despite the inconsistency, Pittsburgh's offense led the NFL in scoring. The defense dropped to "fifth" in points allowed, a ranking that would be gladly embraced by most NFL squads, but which was like an underachievement for the great "Steel Curtain."
Thinking of greatness in terms of "shades of gray," the '79 Steelers were still dark grey, but the color depth was just a bit less saturated than it had been during previous seasons.
Despite the slight statistical decline, the12-4 Pittsburgh Steelers still had enough gas left in the tank for one more great run.
After defeating the Dolphins and Oilers in the AFC playoffs, Bradshaw and company trailed to the surprising Rams, 9-7 in the regular season, heading into the fourth quarter.
Down 19-17, the Blonde Bomber began an aerial assault with receiver John Stallworth. The clutch receiver hauled in two gorgeous bombs over the deep middle.
Years of Swann seeing the "Super spotlight" meant that it was Stallworth's turn to be the hero, and he was. While his two touchdowns in Super Bowl XIII were all the difference, these two critical Super Bowl XIV receptions were his time to shine in the clutch (see video).
Serving as an ending for one of football's great dynasties, the 70s Steelers put the final stroke on their masterpiece with a 31-19 win.
Many will argue that this generation of teams is ranked too high, having fallen just short of the ultimate goal.
Skeptics, bear in mind that they played in an era dominated by NFC teams that ranked among the best football squads of all-time. As such, they simply had the misfortune of encountering a dynasty in Super Bowl XXX. Frankly, they should have won anyway.
Quite frankly, the 1994-95 Steelers couldn't pick and choose their opponent. Are you really going to try telling me they couldn't have beaten the '05 Seahawks or '08 Cardinals? And, no, I'm not trying to take anything away from the '05 or '08 championship Steelers.
The Black and Gold of the early Cowher era may not have won Super Bowls; the coach had much left to learn about winning in the playoffs, the franchise had yet to find their quarterback of the future.
Frankly, the team would have won Super Bowls (plural) with a Roethlisberger or a Bradshaw.
Still, the team was loaded in many other areas and Neil O'Donnell was certainly a competent quarterback (minus one particularly important game).
They had a mack offensive line. Their defensive front was, for a lack of desire to use a more sophisticated word, studly. The secondary featured potential Hall of Fame talent.
The run game got the job done, particularly during Barry Foster's 1994 rampage. And, while the passing game took time to develop, it eventually became a full-fledged offensive threat.
Few will debate that they had the roster to win the big game. Falling three yards and an inexplicable interception short of potential championship greatness in back to back seasons, it was clear that the star-studded roster of the mid-90s was a mere piece short of Super Bowl glory.
The first painful playoff exit came against the Chargers in January '95.
The emptiness felt by Steelers fans was illustrated as they exited Three Rivers Stadium at the conclusion of 1994-95 AFC Championship Game.
Walking the endless circular ramp out of the old bowl was to be among virtual zombies who happened to be garbed with Terrible Towels, drones of the men, women and older children that moments earlier were rife with optimism.
Now, the sickening silence spoke volumes about the state of mind in Steelers Nation.
With time, the wound resulting from a 17-13 meltdown loss to the San Diego Chargers in the AFC title tilt began to heal. For Steelers Country, Super Bowls were not regular occurrences of these times. This opportunity was the first true Super Sunday shot in many seasons, and fans prayed it would not be the last.
After that last pass to Barry Foster skipped off the turf, the theme for 1995 was already engraved in gold letters of the black and blue hearts of Steelers fans:
Three. More. Yards. It was the exact distance the team was from the end zone and the Lamar Hunt Trophy.
For their sheer resilience in the face of heartache and early season adversity, the '95 Steelers rank among the franchise's best teams ever.
An era known as "Cowher Power" took its biggest step in this campaign, and great generation of teams that featured the likes of Greg Lloyd, Chad Brown, Levon Kirkland, Kevin Greene, Carnell Lake, Ernie Mills, Yancy Thigpen, Rod Woodson, Bam Morris, Neil O'Donnell, John L. Williams and other memorable names would be best represented in 1995.
This selection in the countdown is for those guys, representing the "Steel Trap" era in Pittsburgh Steelers history, a time when the zone blitz was being master in the Steel City, causing a new nickname to catch like a wildfire: Blitzburgh.
In truth, the Steelers defense's vaunted pressure packages took a step back from '94 to '95, dropping from 55 QB drops to 42. While turnovers remained consistent, the unit surrendered nearly 100 more points in 1995, dropping from second to ninth in points allowed.
However, the factor that would ultimately give the '95 squad the nod on this list was the sudden surge of the offense, able to run the ball with great effectiveness and—in a new wrinkle—throw with explosiveness.
The start of the campaign looked promising. The defense allowed Barry Sanders to rush for 100 yards on opening day, but the Steelers managed a 23-20 victory over Detroit. The special teams put away the Houston Oilers to bolster the squad to a 2-0 record.
Then, the invisible roof above Three Rivers Stadium collapsed.
An opening day injury to Rod Woodson began to take its toll on a secondary adjusting to life without the all-pro defensive back. The offense was sputtering and the entire team seemed out of sorts.
A 2-0 record fell to 3-4, including home losses to Cincinnati (27-9) and Minnesota (44-24). The low point came in Jacksonville, a 20-16 loss to the expansion Jaguars.
At this point, sensing a teetering point for a team rapidly losing its confidence, coach Bill Cowher brought the players together in an impromptu meeting. He announced the beginning of a brand new nine game season.
In that season, the Steelers would go 8-1, finishing just a wee bit of Lambeau Luck (a Yancy Thigpen drop of a game winning touchdown pass on the final play on the last regular season game at Lambeau Field) from a perfect record.
The victories did not all come easily, as a mix of nail-biters, comebacks and highlights made the '95 season one of the most dramatic years in team history.
In Soldier Field, the Steelers trailed a wild contest to the Bears, 34-27. After a late interception gave Chicago the lead, Neil O'Donnell rallied the offense to the tying touchdown, a fourth down strike to Ernie Mills that sent the game into overtime. From there, Norm Johnson kicked the game winner through the uprights and the Pittsburgh Steelers reclaimed a winning record of 5-4.
One week later, the team would host the "actual" Cleveland Browns, one of their former and bitter rivals, for a Monday Night Football contest at old Three Rivers. Fans wore orange arm bands in respect for the rivalry, their disgust with Art Modell for moving the team from Cleveland evident.
The contest may be as much remembered for a wonderful play by rookie Kordell Stewart, a back and forth scurry behind the line of scrimmage lasting seemingly forever. By the time "Slash" made his way back toward the left side of the field, he threw a wide open touchdown to blow the game open. The Steelers won 20-3.
The high emotion of 1995 would continue six days afterwards. Trailing the same Bengals who had destroyed them in Steel town, Pittsburgh rallied from a 31-13 deficit with 36 unanswered points. A touchdown bomb to Stewart gave the team a 35-31 lead it would not relinquish.
Three more secured a bye week for the squad, and their first playoff opponent was all too familiar.
The Buffalo Bills, former AFC Champions for four consecutive seasons, entered Pittsburgh for a 40-21 beating, setting up another opportunity to represent the conference in the big game.
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. 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, Harbaugh threw a Hail Mary pass that was nearly caught for a game-winning touchdown. Truly, with every fan on pins and needles, it is impossible to imagine the magnitude of the reaction had Aaron Bailey caught the football that rested on his chest that Sunday afternoon.
Instead, Pittsburgh would represent the AFC in Super Bowl XXX, an evening many in the Steel City wold rather forget.
Facing the hardest schedule in NFL history (based on opponents' winning percentage), the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers responded to the challenge like true Men of Steel.
A huge turning point occurred during Week 4.
The team trailed on Monday Night Football at Heinz Field to the Baltimore Ravens, 13-3. During halftime, Roethlisberger pleaded with his offense to work harder and step up its game, pointing out the defense's dominating play in recent weeks.
To that point, the offense had struggled mightily, having gone eight quarters without a touchdown and being only a week removed from an embarrassing nine sack loss in Philadelphia.
In a moment that many members of the team remember as a turning point, the Steelers came back in the second half to take the lead. Roethlisberger fired a laser pass over the middle, which found the waiting arms of Santonio Holmes for a nifty touchdown.
Next, James Harrison stripped Joe Flacco of the football and Lamarr Woodley recovered, rolled, and sprang to his feet, skipping into the end zone for six more points.
The Ravens continued to hang tough, scoring a late tying touchdown. Yet, the Steelers proved to be the team with slightly more mettle on that important night, winning in overtime, 23-20.
Trailing 21-20 to the Jacksonville Jaguars just six days later, Roethlisberger again rallied the Steelers. Avoiding sacks with his brute physicality, No. 7 practically willed the offense down the field, culminating in a beautiful game-winning touchdown lob to Hines Ward.
It served to bring notice to the mental fortitude the team would display all season.
Whether defeating Washington on a Monday Night with backup quarterback Byron Leftwich, losing winnable games to the Manning brothers in consecutive home contests, or driving 92 yards in a hostile environment against a tough division rival, the Steelers never lost their poise and found a way to get it done.
This performance was most notably illustrated by the defense. James Harrison had 16 sacks, iconic safety Troy Polamalu snagged six interceptions, and the unit ranked atop the NFL by leaps and bounds in one of the most dominant years in their history.
Their fortitude and ability to solidify a win was never more apparent than in the AFC Championship Game. Having swept the Ravens in the regular season, Baltimore and rookies John Harbaugh (essentially) and Joe Flacco sought vengeance. After falling behind 13-0, the Ravens cut the deficit to 16-14 early in the fourth quarter. Then, they had possession of the football with an opportunity to win in the fourth quarter.
With the Heinz Field crowd masking anxiety with their boisterousness and rampant towel waving, their determined screams transformed into a vocal eruption when Troy Polamalu intercepted Flacco and began his patented cutback running. Weaving through the field of players, Polamalu got into the end zone to send Pittsburgh to the Super Bowl.
In Super Bowl XLIII, the Cardinals and quarterback Kurt Warner overcame a late 20-7 deficit to take the lead. Two soul-crushing touchdown catches by Larry Fitzgerald added a local flavor of the entirely wrong kind to Super Sunday.
Ben Roethlisberger and the offense showed that the defense didn't have the lone resolve to win in critical junctures, driving the field with the strong play of Santonio Holmes.
Everyone remembers his odds-defying touchdown catch in the back corner of the end zone, capping arguably the greatest Super Bowl in NFL history.
Pittsburgh was now Six-burgh.
As the defending champions for the first time in their history, the 1975 Pittsburgh Steelers proudly kept their crown.
Up until the prior season, men with mettle were fighting to become true Men of Steel, and the same question riddled the '74 Steelers as it does all soon-to-be but not quite yet champs: Can we truly win the big one?
ARE. WE. CAPABLE?
Proving that the answer was an emphatic yes in a dominant performance over the Vikings, the Steel Curtain entered 1975 free from the shackles of doubt that imprisoned the beleaguered franchise for four decades.
As a franchise quarterback cemented behind center and no longer battling for prestige with Joe Gilliam, Terry Bradshaw led an offense that ranked fifth in scoring, largely aided by the real Italian Stallion, Franco Harris.
While the Steelers were known for a potent running attack, a standout young receiver electrified the NFL. Lynn Swann showcased the talent that would soon make him the Super Bowl MVP, scoring 11 touchdowns and finishing with nearly 800 receiving yards on 49 receptions.
Still waiting to fully come into his own as a productive force, John Stallworth averaged over 21 yards per reception.
And, well, that Steel Curtain defense...it simply was. The unit ranked second in points allowed.
Mel Blount had 11 interceptions, notable due to rule changes that would be forthcoming from the NFL due to his domination of receivers who couldn't handle his bump-and-run physicality.
Glen Edwards, Mike Wagner, Jack Ham and Jack Lambert all made the Pro Bowl.
A talented offense and dominating defense carried themselves with a champion's swagger.
Most surprising for the 1975 Steelers was the manner by which they won in the playoffs, overcoming 12 (not a typographical error: 12) turnovers in two home AFC playoff games to win the Lamar Hunt Trophy.
First, they defeated the Colts in the Divisional Playoffs, a game remembered historically as the unveiling of the Terrible Towel.
The turnovers increased one week later.
Pittsburgh's seven turnovers on a sheet of ice didn't prevent a win over the Raiders, 16-10. John Madden and the Raiders felt the grounds crew intentionally allowed the field to freeze to give the Steelers an advantage in that AFC Championship. They argued that an intentionally iced field slowed down their vertical passing game and potent receiver Cliff Branch—one of the few wideouts who gave Blount fits.
A win best served on a cold, icy turf preceded a Super Bowl played on warm, lush grass.
In Super Bowl X, the Steelers trailed the Cowboys before Cliff Harris taunted Roy Gerela after a missed field goal attempt.
A fiery Jack Lambert threw Harris aside, using the events as an impetus. Psyching himself and his teammates over the final minutes of the contest, the Steelers played possessed in the final quarter.
With a touchdown bomb to Lynn Swann, the Steelers iced the game, winning Super Bowl X 21-17.
By 1978, the Steelers great defense was finally complimented by a truly powerful offense.
Terry Bradshaw had 28 touchdown passes, but the most significant beneficiaries of new NFL rules making life easier on pass catchers were Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.
The two combined for 102 receptions and 20 touchdowns, no easy feat at the time. In fact, few receiving combinations snag 20 scores today.
A recognizable name, beyond those heard commonly as a who's who of Hall of Fame defenders on the Steelers defense, was Tony Dungy, who led the team with six interceptions.
The defense allowed the fewest points in the league, once again sending Pro Bowlers galore to the NFL's version of an All-Star Game. Among the Pro Bowl players were Donnie Shell, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Joe Green, Mel Blount and L.C. Greenwood.
Blount was still dominant despite the aforementioned rule change named after him: the Mel Blount rule.
In the playoffs, Pittsburgh avenged a postseason loss from one year earlier at Mile High Stadium, beating up on the "Orange Crush" at Three Rivers and winning by a commanding score of 33-10. John Stallworth and Lynn Swann both caught beautiful, skillful, deep touchdown passes in the fourth quarter to put away the Broncos.
The AFC Championship Game saw a colorful division rival come to the Steel City. Bum Philips and the "Luv Ya Blue!" Oilers played Pittsburgh in horrendous field conditions. On a cold, wet day, the only think murkier than the weather for Houston was the end result, a 34-5 defeat.
The win sent Pittsburgh to Super Bowl XIII, where they faced the defending champion Dallas Cowboys. The game was slated as a battle to become the team of the 70s, and if featured the greatest cast of Hall of Fame talent in Super Bowl history.
Bradshaw, Harris, Swann, Stallworth, Webster, Greene, Lambert, Ham, Blount, Staubach, Dorsett, White, Wright, Jackie Smith, Landry and Noll are all Hall of Fame NFL players or coaches who participated in Super Bowl XIII.
After falling behind 14-7, great execution and good fortune allowed the Steelers to roar back, pulling ahead 35-17 in the fourth quarter. Roger Staubach valiantly attempted to rally Dallas, but two touchdown drives only narrowed the final deficit, 35-31.
Before the Super Sunday showdown, Terry Bradshaw was antagonized by Thomas Henderson of the Cowboys. "Hollywood" had mentioned to reporters that the quarterback, often labeled in the media as being "stupid," would not be able to spell cat if spotted the letters "C" and "A."
Bradshaw's four touchdowns and career-first 300-yard performance garnered MVP honors, allowing the Blonde Bomber to spell a much more important word.
The 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers spent two and a half months playing brutally dominant football. If the team of the 70s was indeed the best football unit ever assembled, the '76 season was their crowning jewel, even if it didn't end with the type of real jewelry the team was becoming accustomed to earning.
The Steelers were the toast of the town by the mid-1970s. The Pirates and Steelers were championship ball clubs and the Steel City was dubbed "City of Champions."
Consecutive Super Bowl wins put forever to rest the notion that Art Rooney's franchise was a competitive afterthought, erasing the notion of the owner as a lovable loser.
Like their fine owner, Mr. Art Rooney, the Steelers name demanded respect. The new Steelers were an aggressive unit, executing with machine-like strength and precision, and nobody would be allowed to take them lightly.
Jack Lambert had proven his stance on the matter months earlier, tossing Cliff Harris of the Dallas Cowboys to the ground during a Super Bowl altercation regarding a missed field goal by Roy Gerela.
After that second straight Super Sunday victory, the Steelers took some time off from title-winning, only to come back strong and win two more Lombardi Trophies in '78 and '79.
However, the best Steelers team ever was sandwiched between "back-to-back bread," those two sets of Super Bowl seasons.
The newly intimidating crew began their second straight championship defense season in 1976 with a contest against a team they had frustrated in two straight AFC Championship Games, the Oakland Raiders
John Madden and his swashbuckling (or is it knee-buckling?) band of bullies erased a late 28-14 deficit in a comeback victory that seemed to starve the Steelers swagger.
This strike at their ego may have been a factor for their 1-4 start, begging the question: where were the great Steelers?
Where was the Blonde Bomber? Did the defense disappear?
As if returning after faking their own death, the Steelers were back and better than ever effective the fifth game of the '76 season.
Shutout, shutout, shutout.
The Steel Curtain finally closed, turning the opposition's wonderful chorus from earlier weeks into the proverbial fat lady choking on her own flat note.
The defense of 1976 was the greatest NFL defense ever (yeah, I said it), applauded for surrendering only 28 points in the final nine games.
The play of the unit is made more impressive when factoring out a 32-16 win over the Houston Oilers in Week 11.
Aside from that contest, the team held seven straight opponents to either zero points or a lone field goal, including five shutouts. They held eight enemy offenses touchdown-less. They didn't allow an offensive touchdown for 22 consecutive quarters during the stretch.
It was the greatest run of statistical dominance in the history of the franchise...and the most dominant defensive stretch in NFL history.
The excellence continued into the start of the playoffs, where the team destroyed Bert Jones and the top seed, Baltimore. The 40-14 blowout saw a disproportion in two distinct categories:
First downs: 29-12
Yet, there was a price paid. Running backs Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier were injured in the blowout win and unable to play the next week in Oakland. Even with their efforts, the team may have still lost to a determined effort by the vengeful Raiders and coach John Madden.
The day was December 26, 1976. It was the day that the finest team in Pittsburgh Steelers history lost its final game, 24-7, to the AFC Champion Oakland Raiders.