Pittsburgh Steelers: Top 10 Opening Day Games
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The 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers kick off their regular season schedule on Sunday, Sept. 9 against the Denver Broncos. Returning to the site of January's heartbreaking ouster, the Men of Steel will look to avenge the playoff loss, thus relegating the boisterous and optimistic Sports Authority Field at Mile High crowd to the role of the "mile low men."
If they can succeed in this goal, finding a way to thwart the distracting combination of a prime-time spotlight, media hoopla and best laid plans of John Fox and Peyton Manning, the contest could easily be remembered among the most memorable opening games in team history.
There's a special feeling that coincides with Kickoff Weekend, a sort of "kid at Christmas" excitement that bonds the most passionate gridiron gurus. The sensationalized emotions on opening day make the highs all the sweeter and the lows even more sour, an exaggerated gamut of emotions that can be credited to the universal optimism (for all fanbases) of a new season and the anticipated return of high-stakes NFL games!
The Black and Gold have given fans plenty to cheer about during Week 1. Focusing the countdown on the Super Bowl era (1966-current), these are the top 10 opening "day" games in modern team history.
No. 10: vs. Miami Dolphins (2006)
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"One for the Thumb" had been realized in Pittsburgh, and the new goal of the Black and Gold was to turn the city into "Six-burgh."
Celebrating a fifth Lombardi Trophy, the newly appointed champions, the first sixth-seeded team to accomplish the feat, kicked off the NFL season in grand style during prime time on NBC. They would begin their championship defense against the Miami Dolphins, who featured popular coach Nick Saban and X-factor quarterback Daunte Culpepper.
Though it seems silly today, many people had picked the Dolphins in the '06 offseason as their favorite to win the AFC, if not the Super Bowl.
Ben Roethlisberger had arguably his most dramatic offseason, which is saying something in light of 2010. First, he wrecked his motorcycle and almost died. Then, after becoming violently ill before a Sunday practice, he had an emergency appendectomy days before the game.
As such, Charlie Batch would be the team's starter for NFL Kickoff 2006.
As memorable for the events surrounding the game as the contest itself, fans enjoyed the grandiose nature of the celebration, from the fireworks to the odd entrance of Jerome Bettis via a bus pulling onto the field from the players' entrance tunnel. OK, so some of the night's events lacked creative inspiration...
Rascal Flatts performed in Pittsburgh, Diddy had the honors in Miami (site of the upcoming Super Bowl XLI), and Martina McBride performed the national anthem.
Then, after all of the pomp and pageantry, a game was finally played! And it was an entertaining opener to boot, the type of close win that would normally propel a team, particularly a champion who can fully expect the opposition's best effort weekly.
The contest started well for Pittsburgh. Charlie Batch rolled right before throwing a beautiful lob pass down the sideline for Nate Washington, whose superb reception opened scoring.
Hines Ward continued a dominant second quarter of offense for the Steelers, scoring on a 7-yard pass. Yet, at halftime the Steelers only led 14-10, despite Miami's anemic offense and a mostly dominant effort by their own.
A little-known little receiver named Wes Welker, whose ridiculous night on special teams (153 combined return yards) and receiving (he led the Dolphins with 67 yards) caused fans in the Steel City to ask, "Who is this miniature dude messing everything up?!"
By the fourth quarter, the Dolphins actually led, 17-14, and the Steelers offense had become stagnant. It appeared that an opening night win was in jeopardy. Then, after almost three quarters of waiting, the team finally got the explosive play it needed.
Batch found an absurdly wide open Heath Miller, and the tight end narrowly beat pursuit to the end zone, giving the team a 17-14 lead—or did he?
Replays showed Miller's foot went out of bounds at the 2-yard line, which would have nullified the score and forced the Steelers' short yardage offense onto the field. Nick Saban gingerly threw his red flag onto the field, fully expecting that the referee would see the challenge with those alleged eyes in the back of his head.
Instead, Walt Coleman, watching closely as the extra point was kicked, didn't see the flag or challenge, prompting Saban to ask:
They said they didn't see it. Whose fault is that? We can't challenge something until we see it. When we saw it, I threw the flag. It was well before the kicker kicked it. The official said he didn't see it, and when he said he didn't see it, there was nothing he could do. That shouldn't happen.
In fact, it was Saban's own fault, as it was his responsibility to ensure that the official was alerted to the challenge, opposed to just dropping the flag and presuming that it would be noticed.
With the lead, the Steelers defense went off on Daunte Culpepper. Troy Polamalu intercepted a pass with five minutes to play, but Jeff Reed failed to take advantage on a missed field goal.
If the issue was unresolved, Joey Porter ended it. An attempt to Welker over the middle was intercepted by the linebacker, who rumbled 42 yards for the game-clinching score.
Porter exuberantly raced toward the Pittsburgh sideline, kissing Cowher on the cheek. Pittsburgh won 28-17 to kick off a season that wouldn't be so positive as its opening act.
No. 9: vs. Houston Oilers (1980)
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The Steelers were an official dynasty, the greatest team in pro football, defending champions and record-holders with four Lombardi Trophies. All was right in the Steel City.
The 1979-80 AFC Championship Game was an AFC Central Division rematch between the Steelers and Houston Oilers, and the Black and Gold beat Bum Phillips' "Luv' Ya Blue" bunch by two touchdowns in a game marked by controversy.
Though the Steelers would miss the playoffs in 1980, a year marked as the start of a steady decline, fans surely still felt that the team was going strong. In fact, entering the '80 season, the perception of Pittsburgh remained that of a dynastic squad vying for an attainable fifth championship.
In their four title runs, Pittsburgh beat Oakland and Houston, twice each. Now, at the start of 1980, the Steelers would face off against a strange blend of both. Having lost two straight AFC Championship Games in the Steel City, scoring an average of nine points on offense, Houston traded signal-caller Dan Pastorini for the Raiders' Ken Stabler. He was the alleged missing ingredient.
Likewise, both former Oakland stars Jack Tatum and receiver David Casper played with the Oilers, making the '80 Houston squad a strange hybrid of two Pittsburgh rivals.
The two teams met on opening day, and Pittsburgh seemed in control at halftime. After all, the Houston offense, particularly Stabler, looked awful, and the Steelers 17-point first quarter outburst appeared to be all that was needed to win.
If the issue was settled, star running back Earl Campbell had other ideas. The Hall of Famer, who would finish with nearly 2,000 yards and over five yards per carry in 1980, took the team on his back. Strangely, the rally started with his arm, a 57-yard pass to Billy Johnson cutting the gap to 17-10.
Next, Campbell capped the comeback, lunging into the end zone for a 1-yard score that tied the game. The bitter division rivals were deadlocked headed into the fourth frame.
Nevertheless, the undaunted Steelers—still with the mettle of a champion in their mind and hearts—took control of the contest in the final 15 minutes. A 1-yard touchdown run by Bradshaw preceded a 50-yard scoring bomb to John Stallworth, one of the most underrated receivers of all-time, who snagged five passes for 125 yards in the game.
Despite Campbell's bravado, Pittsburgh won the game, 31-17. Conversely, Ken Stabler finished with five interceptions. On the season, Stabler would combine for no touchdowns and six picks against Pittsburgh, but he would also be the quarterback under center for the Men of Steel's most painful regular season loss in nearly a decade.
Newspaper headlines read "Steelers-Oilers: Who'll Survive?" preceding the 14th game between both 8-5 teams. With a number of winning teams in the AFC, it appeared obvious that the winner of the contest would be a lead dog in the wild card race—while only trailing Cleveland by one game in the AFC Central—and that the loser would be effectively outside of the playoff picture.
In the trip to Houston, the Black and Gold lost, 6-0. Frustratingly, considering one play could have been the difference, Terry Bradshaw threw three interceptions, including a critical turnover before halftime that could have prevented the 0-0 intermission tie.
For the first time in nine years, Pittsburgh missed the playoffs, a far cry from the high note that began the '80 campaign.
No. 8: vs. Oakland Raiders (1972)
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In 1972, the Raiders and Steelers were two great teams, though one of them didn't know it quite yet. In fact, the Silver 'n' Black and Black 'n' Gold were soon-to-be bitter rivals, but Pittsburgh would have to earn its stripes to be taken seriously, especially after decades of mediocrity and disappointment.
On Sept. 17, exactly 97 days before "The Immaculate Reception" would skyrocket certain men's names into timeless infinity, the Steelers would make their first mark as perennial winners. If the '72 season kicked off the "golden years" of Steel City football, then this contest was the first played outside of the "black years," an era that earned Art Rooney and his team the sobriquet of "lovable losers."
Three quarterbacks—Terry Bradshaw, George Blanda and Ken Stabler—struggled against a pair of fierce defenses. In fact, the Steelers finished with a mere 247 yards and four turnovers. However, the team was opportunistic, finding a way to win a game that they'd have dropped mercilessly in the past.
A young "Blonde Bomber," with his head still full of hair, made up for three interceptions with three touchdowns, two of those courtesy of his legs. Pittsburgh's defense obliterated Stabler and Blanda in the first half.
After Henry Davis blocked a punt for a five-yard touchdown return, Bradshaw completed first quarter scoring with an athletic 20-yard jaunt into the end zone.
Sandwiched between two Roy Gerela field goals was a touchdown pass from George Blanda to Raymond Chester, the lone sign of life exhibited by the Raiders before intermission.
Bradshaw's second touchdown run in the third quarter appeared to seal the fate of Oakland, but the "Mad Bomber" answered the blonde one, as Daryle Lamonica nearly produced a historic comeback to open the season.
Living up to his namesake, Lamonica finished 8-for-10 with 172 yards and two touchdowns, both to Mark Siani for a combined 94 yards. Likewise, after entering the game behind 27-7, the Oakland quarterback's "Commitment to Excellence," which was at a premium prior to his entrance, resulted in a third touchdown on a long drive. Lamonica's offense accounted for 21 points, enough to win the game.
However, preventing the comeback was Terry Bradshaw, who answered with his own touchdown bomb, 57 yards to Ron Shanklin to give Pittsburgh a 34-14 lead. As such, the final two Oakland scores merely made the game closer than anyone would have thought it could have been at halftime.
Lamonica replaced Ken Stabler in the game, who had an awful 5-for-12 effort with three interceptions. Months later, in the Divisional Playoffs, it would ironically be Stabler coming off the bench in relief of an injured Lamonica, and his amazing touchdown run in the final minutes off of a broken play stunned Three Rivers Stadium. Despite the setback for Pittsburgh, the mad dash by "The Snake" only set up the most odds-defying play in NFL history.
Coach Chuck Noll was building a winner in the 'Burgh, but few fully realized it at the time. After all, the Steelers were 12-30 in his first three seasons ('69-71). Yet the Black and Gold would finish 11-3 in 1972. Their opening day win over the Raiders, an established perennial winner in the midst of a stretch that would finish with 17 winning seasons in 18 years, certainly bred an early confidence that allowed them to turn the corner.
No. 7: vs. Atlanta Falcons (2010)
The hullabaloo of the 2010 NFL offseason was the type of frenetic circus that would fragment most teams. Harsh allegations threatened the career of Ben Roethlisberger, who was suspended for 4-6 weeks by commissioner Roger Goodell for his unsavory behavior.
Coming off the heels of an uncertain 2009 campaign, in which the defending champs lost five straight games, there was rife pessimism. A statement by Hines Ward seemed to undermine Ben's character and leadership, and many wondered if the squad still had the talent and ability to make the playoffs, never mind reach a Super Bowl.
The team walked onto the synthetic grass of Heinz Field without their field general, and in his place was an unproven commodity: former Oregon Duck Dennis Dixon, a quarterback who played decently in his lone start a year earlier at Baltimore. Though he wasn't the team's first choice to backup Big Ben, Byron Leftwich was injured in the preseason, prompting the team to announce Dixon as the starter.
The Steelers had a huge challenge to face against the Falcons, who had made the playoffs the previous season. Matt "Matty Ice" Ryan was the catalyst under center for an Atlanta team that also featured a solid run game and able defense.
Dixon played decently, showing a mixture of aplomb and hesitation that resulted in a couple of sustained drives but few points. An inability to convert key third downs resulted in field goals. Hines Ward finished with 108 receiving yards, including a pair of catches for a combined 49 yards to set up the team's third field goal.
The Steelers defense bottled up Michael Turner, putting the game into Ryan's hands. He completed 27-of-44 attempts for 252 yards and an interception. The turnover was nearly costly, as Troy Polamalu cut in front of an attempt to the right sideline, making the pick while keeping his feat in bounds. It was an amazing athletic play.
Tied at three field goals per side, Jeff Reed's 40-yard attempt sailed wide to end regulation.
In overtime, the defense slammed the door on Atlanta, and the Steelers took possession after a mediocre punt by Mike Koenen. After picking up yardage in small doses all game, Rashard Mendenhall grew tired of quibbling with the Falcons.
Strafing to an open hole along the right side of the offensive line, Mendenhall sprang unimpeded into the secondary and ran untouched for the game winning 50-yard touchdown in overtime. Heinz Field erupted.
"Life without Ben" began 1-0, and it would finish 3-1, serving as a huge catalyst for a balanced team that would reach Super Bowl XLV.
Intermission: Shutouts in the '70s
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Among the many statistics, records, trends, trivia tidbits and accomplishments of the great Steelers defense of the '70s, one of the notable feats for the crew was shutting out opponents on three separate occasions during the decade.
Lambert, Greene, Blount, Ham—well, we all know the names and the many adjectives that loosely translate to "downright mean" that aptly describe them. Opening day was rarely an exception, and the four-year span from 1974-77 saw the unit begin with a bang thrice.
While the 10 games on the countdown all qualified ahead of this trio—whether for the stakes, emotion, opponent or obstacles overcome—any of these three contests could easily be argued as the most dominant effort for the Steelers during a Week 1.
All three goose eggs came against teams that were on the precipice of turning the corner to greatness.
In 1974, the Men of Steel shut down the awful Baltimore Colts who were a couple of years away from becoming a playoff contender 30-0. Soon-to-be great passer Bert Jones (one of the most underrated quarterbacks in league history) completed 8-of-17 passes for a measly 100 yards and two turnovers.
In 1975, the Black and Gold struck down lightning with a little bit of their own, outgaining the San Diego Chargers in total yards, 443-146, en route to a 37-0 victory. A few seasons away from the record-breaking phenomenon of the "Air Coryell" offense, Dan Fouts struggled, completing 6-of-13 passes for 36 yards and an interception.
Lastly, after a disappointing opening day loss in '76, the Steelers regained their first week swagger with a demolition over the San Francisco 49ers. A trio of passers, including Jim Plunkett, completed 4-of-18 attempts for 56 yards and a pick. Just around the corner in the Silicon Valley were Bill Walsh and Joe Montana. Efforts like opening day of 1977 were soon to become a thing of the past for the 49ers.
In all three games, the opposing ground games ran into a brick wall, leaving the associated signal-callers on an island against the greatest defense in league history—hopeless, hapless and helpless during a harrowing hell of an opening day.
No. 6: vs. Indianapolis Colts (1985)
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Though the Steelers were no longer confused with the dynastic squad of the previous decade, the team was still a viable playoff contender into the mid-'80s.
In fact, Mark Malone's effort at quarterback in the 1984-85 AFC Championship Game was worthy of the Lamar Hunt Trophy, but his and Pittsburgh's misfortune was meeting the Miami Dolphins and Dan Marino at their record-breaking best. While both field generals put up huge numbers, the Steelers lost 45-28 to a more polished club.
Still, there was reason for optimism. Mark Malone was showing flashes of possibly becoming the replacement to Terry Bradshaw that many expected, and the team was mostly returning intact after upsetting Denver in the playoffs, thus preventing an Elway vs. Marino AFC title tilt.
With the right master strokes in '85, it seemed as though the Black and Gold could be a dark horse. They weren't, but nobody would know it on opening day.
The ragtag Colts didn't remotely resemble their proud teams of the past, a patchwork outfit that didn't win a single game in '82 (largely dismissed because of the strike) and whose losing ways since the late '70s surely factored into their departure from Baltimore.
Opening up their second season as the Colts from Indianapolis, the squad showed every bit of its ability in a humiliating loss at Three Rivers Stadium. The Steelers were Goliath to Indy's David, but there were no slingshots to skew the end result this time around.
Few pieces of the former dynasty remained, but those couple of players still around were wildly celebrated as productive (albeit aging) veterans. Taking the snap from Mike Webster, Mark Malone dropped back and found John Stallworth on a six-yard scoring strike to start the second half.
Only minutes into the third quarter, Malone already had thrown his fourth touchdown, and the Steelers led 31-3.
In the fourth quarter, the offense put up even wilder numbers. Malone connected with Louis Lipps for six more points, the receiver's third touchdown of the game, capping the scoring in a dominant 45-3 contest. Lipps' 154 receiving yards nearly matched the total yardage for the Colts.
Malone finished with five touchdown passes, a total that would have been higher if he had not decided to run into the end zone for his sixth credited touchdown on the afternoon. Was it an aberration?
Well, consider this.
Malone threw five touchdowns that day to start the '84 campaign blissfully. Yet, after 10 games played that season, Malone would achieve 13 total touchdowns, making this easily the most dynamic performance of his season and career. Certainly, the quality of the team you are playing counts for something.
Along with two interceptions, the Colts' Art Schlichter failed to complete half of his passes. The ground game fared no better. Defensively, the secondary seemed completely out of sorts, playing out of position all game and being unable to even moderately contain Malone.
Altogether, Pittsburgh dominated to the tune of 21 more first downs and nearly 300 more yards than Indianapolis.
No. 5: vs. Chicago Bears (1967)
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The Steelers were still two years away from the coach that would help them to turn the corner, and they were still a half decade from serious contention. However, a misnomer related to Pittsburgh football is the notion of the team being "losers" for 40 years.
In reality, much of their first four decades was spent in mediocrity, on the precipice of winning but not too far departed from losing ways. It was a true see-saw act for 40 years, and the team just wasn't able to sustain an identity—good or bad—much of the time.
In 1967, the Bears had a winning record, aided greatly by the presence of great running back Gale Sayers. Conversely, the Steelers slumped to a 4-9-1 finish, continuing a losing trend that disappointingly followed winning seasons in 1962 and '63.
Nevertheless, on opening day, the squads underwent a role reversal, and it was Pittsburgh who appeared the able winners. Though it was a mere aberration, fans at Pitt Stadium were still gleeful to have something to cheer about to start the new campaign.
Things looked grim early, particularly whenever Gale Sayers did his damage on special teams, erasing an early deficit with a 103-yard kickoff return touchdown. Then, Chicago's Rosey Taylor scooped up a dislodged pigskin, returning it 37 yards for a score.
The Steelers trailed 13-3. As if replaced by cyborgs or enhanced by an undocumented government experiment, the team immediately changed face, scoring 38 unanswered points in a sheer demolition over the Bears.
Bill Nelsen connected with receiver John Hilton to cut the deficit to three points, and Willie Asbury plunged into the end zone on a one-yard rush to give Pittsburgh a halftime lead.
The rally was followed by a 24-0 second half route, which included domination by Pittsburgh in every phase of the game.
The final statistics were brutish:
Total yards: 393-95 (PIT)
First downs: 23-6 (PIT)
Turnovers forced: 6-2 (PIT)
Final score: 41-13 (PIT)
Larry Rakestraw finished 7-for-13, while Gale Sayers was stuffed for TWO total yards on seven carries, one of the worst rushing games of his career. Adding to the Chicago offense's ineffectiveness was their marginal time of possession, which included 27 total snaps to the Steelers' 57 plays.
Though it didn't inspire any radical transformation (Pittsburgh would lose its next five games), the effort has to be remembered as one of the most dominant in team history, and not just on opening day.
No. 4: vs. San Francisco 49ers (1987)
Many NFL historians regard the 1987 49ers as a better team than the champions of '88. Largely forgotten due to an upset loss in the Divisional Playoffs, the 14-2 49ers of that season were heavy favorites to win the Super Bowl entering the postseason.
Joe Montana was nearing the peak of his precision, Jerry Rice was taking NFL secondaries to task, and the defense was nearly equaling the offense's domination, holding opponents to the third fewest points in the NFL.
Yet, if '87 was to become one of the greatest regular seasons in franchise history, nobody would have discerned the result from Week 1.
Everyone predicted a blowout victory by San Fran. After all, in the battle of Malone vs. Montana, there was little doubt that Joe Cool, going up against a far more questionable defense than that which was featured on his own team (Ronnie Lott and company), gave his team a marked edge.
In fact, he did. And, at the same time, he didn't...
The Steelers had missed the playoffs in each of the previous two seasons. Walter Abercrombie and Earnest Jackson anchored the run game, and the defense- though no longer dominant- played respectably.
The real issue was the consistent regression of Mark Malone as a quarterback, a downward spiral in quality that would continue in 1987, where he finished with a touchdown to interception ratio that was worse than 1-to-3.
The quarterback comparison between the two teams serves as the biggest factor as to why the Steelers' opening day upset of the 49ers was so shocking.
A look at the game's passing statistics further befuddles the analyst's heart.
Malone finished 9-for-33 (not a typo!), and leading receiver Louis Lipps was held to three catches for 44 yards.
Conversely, Joe Montana connected on 34 of 49 passes for over 300 yards, while Jerry Rice snagged eight receptions for over 100 yards and a touchdown. In fact, Roger Craig outperformed Lipps by air, with 10 grabs for 61 yards.
However, even with a great like Montana at the helm, the stats above- as starkly different as they seem- are not the end all. In fact, the gap between the two isn't as extreme as it appears upon first glance.
Malone avoided turnovers, while Montana committed three.
Likewise, beyond a +4 turnover differential, Pittsburgh's defense stuffed the run game and prevented big plays in the passing game. In contrast, Earnest Jackson's 103 yards gave the Pittsburgh offense some semblance of stability that it would have otherwise lacked entirely.
The end result was a seemingly overmatched Steelers team avoiding mistakes, staying composed within their gameplan, and upsetting the heavily favored 49ers on opening day. Not every win is pretty, and often the key to victory is simply discipline. For San Francisco, the mistake-filled afternoon was starkly out of character, and deficits of 20-3 (halftime) and 30-10 (fourth quarter) ultimately resulted in a 30-17 loss.
In fact, the victory marked the second win by Chuck Noll's Steelers over Bill Walsh's enterprise, the first serving as the lone loss suffered by Montana and company in 1984.
No. 3: @ New England Patriots (1979)
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Entering 1979, the New England Patriots were expected to vie for the franchise's first-ever championship, and an opening game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday Night Football would provide an early litmus test.
After years of great regular seasons and playoff heartaches, the nation looked on as the defending champions struggled to score points at Schaefer Stadium, the name for Foxboro Stadium from 1971-83.
Whenever Russ Francis scored on a four-yard strike from Steve Grogan in the first quarter, everything seemed in order for the Patriot offense. From the 37-yard opening kickoff return to Grogan's fine blitz pickup resulting in the touchdown toss to the 6'6" tight end, momentum clearly favored the Pats.
Grogan was 3-for-5 on the opening possession. The Patriots defense held stout, and New England took control of the football again. This time, Grogan would give the first true prelude to his final body of work on that Monday Night, firing an interception to Jack Lambert. The Steelers capitalized with a Sidney Thornton touchdown, but Matt Bahr missed the extra point.
The Steelers trailed 7-6.
In the second quarter, Terry Bradshaw was sidelined with a foot injury.
Next, the paralyzed Darryl Stingley, whose days as an NFL receiver ended after a vicious collision during the 1978 preseason, returned to New England. His appearance sent the already raucous crowd into a heightened frenzy.
The Steelers offense clearly had trouble communicating. Being shutout for a thirty minute span of game time, Pittsburgh looked on as its defense desperately tried to keep the contest within reach. The unit forced two John Smith field goals, turning back the New England offense during its rare threatening marches. In fact, Steve Grogan completely collapsed after the opening drive, finishing 11-for-33 with two interceptions.
Sometimes, however, it's not the dominance of a team that makes a win so exhilarating. Sometimes, against all odds, a group of men check their gut and somehow find the heart to pull through.
Thus began the story of the champion '79 Steelers.
Bradshaw, who returned to the game after missing a quarter of play, engineered a methodical game-tying march, capped by a 21-yard strike to Sidney Thornton. Matt Bahr's extra point split the uprights, and the game was tied.
In overtime, the stunned Patriots, whose defense suddenly collapsed in the final minutes, were clearly mesmerized by the turn of events. Three downs resulted in no success, and they had to punt the ball back to the suddenly confident Pittsburgh offense.
Bradshaw drove the Steelers 69 yards, setting up a 41-yard game-winning field goal by the redeemed Matt Bahr. The Steel City celebrated their 1-0 record on that late Monday Night, while the Patriots wondered about what could have been. New England fell short of expectations, finishing 9-7 and missing the playoffs.
This contest reminds of a great sports truism: "Great teams aren't always great. They're just great when they have to be."
Intermission: Why the '99 Opener Misses the List
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When the Cleveland Browns claimed to be an NFL-quality team, returning to play after a three-year hiatus from action, it was a lie. As mentioned in slide five, sometimes the quality of an opponent must be considered when assessing a blowout win. The 1985 Colts were a 5-11 team: pretty bad but capable of winning.
The 1999 Browns were 2-14, and they were damn lucky at that. In truth, they were, in my opinion, the worst team of the modern era NFL along with the '76 Buccaneers. I wouldn't have included a victory over IUP or Clarion colleges on the list, and I won't include a win over the turn of the century Browns either.
An, while critics of this decision will cite that they ultimately defeated the Steelers in that same season, that serves as more of an indictment on Kordell Stewart's ugly side than the Browns' ability to win games.
On Sept. 12, 1999, comedian Drew Carey spoke to the crowd at Cleveland Browns Stadium during pregame, firing up the fans for the return of NFL football to the city that lost its beloved franchise in '95.
With positive energy and excitement rife throughout the venue, the Steelers completely and utterly annihilated Cleveland, squandering the optimism of the faithful who had to now ask, "Could we be as bad as any team to ever play the game?"
Certainly, the '99 Browns were not the worst team ever; they even won a couple of games. Yet for one bittersweet night, fans in northeast Ohio had to wonder where the team would go.
After all, Kordell Stewart and company outgained Cleveland 33-2 in first downs and 464-40 in yardage. Likewise, the Browns' four turnovers further enabled the annihilation, a 43-0 laugher that seemed unfair and painful to everyone who cringed in witness of the event.
The Browns would get the last laugh, defeating the Steelers in Pittsburgh, 16-15, that many fans cite as the worst home loss in modern team history—even worse than the 51-0 debacle at the hands of the Browns in 1989!
Still, on that opening night, ESPN Sunday Night Football featured a game between an NFL team and, well, I'll spare the indignity of a further description.
Though they grew into a team that would eke out a couple of wins (courtesy of a hail mary pass in New Orleans and a Kordell Stewart fourth-quarter implosion in Pittsburgh), the '99 Browns should have been 0-16.
To rank that win on a list of top openers would be the equivalent of a 5-year-old bragging about sucker-punching an infant on a list of rebellious acts.
No. 2: @ Dallas Cowboys (1982)
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In Pittsburgh, Bradshaw, Harris, John Stallworth and Jack Ham were journeying through the final days of their careers. Men like Dwight White, Joe Greene and Greenwood had left football, and the Men of Steel had missed the playoffs in two consecutive seasons following their last Super Bowl win.
The Black and Gold hoped 1982 would bring a renewal of fortune.
With so many members of their defensive front gone from the "Steel Curtain," the team decided to switch defensive philosophies at the start of the new season.
Indeed, Monday, Sept. 13, 1982 would see the Steelers unveil their 3-4 defense for the first time, a tradition that continues through the current day.
The Dallas Cowboys still had the “man with the funny hat” patrolling their sidelines, but they were led by a quarterback named Danny White. Under White’s leadership, the star-studded franchise continued to make deep playoff runs, a streak that would continue in 1982.
It would be the same year that the Cowboys would lose their third straight trip to the NFC Championship Game, this time to the rival Redskins. They had lost to the Eagles two years earlier, and Dwight Clark’s “Catch” gave the 49ers a key win over Dallas just months earlier.
When the 1982 schedule was unveiled, it was revealed that the year's Monday Night Football slate would begin with a battle between the Steelers and Cowboys. Excited fans couldn't help but to recall the teams' recent battle for supremacy a decade earlier, and a new pride would be at stake to start '82.
The Cowboys were rightfully favored, but Pittsburgh had its sights set on ending a few historic streaks. Consider that Dallas had won:
a) 17 consecutive home games
b) all 18 games at Texas Stadium in which Danny White had started at quarterback and
c) 17 consecutive season openers.
In a contest that would end all three streaks listed above, Terry Bradshaw would have one of the final great games of his career.
Covering 80 yards on their first possession, Bradshaw found Stallworth for an eight-yard touchdown to begin the scoring. Gary Anderson wasn't able to kick the extra point after a botched hold, but Pittsburgh led 6-0. Danny White answered with a throw to Drew Pearson, giving the Cowboys a 7-6 lead.
If the opening stanza was a tribute to iconic receivers, the second act was made for new faces. Bradshaw threw his second touchdown, a seven-yard connection with Jim Smith. The 13-7 lead was short-lived as Danny White answered with a 12-yard pass to Doug Cosbie.
With Pittsburgh trailing 14-13, the Steelers defense stuffed the Cowboys on their opening second half possession. Keith Willis blocked the subsequent punt. Bradshaw threw deep to Stallworth. A blatant pass interference call gave the Steelers a first down inches from the goal line.
Frank Pollard blasted into the end zone, giving the Steelers a 20-14 lead. To preserve their record-setting opening day winning streak, the Cowboys would have to respond. Instead, White threw interceptions on his next two drives, both resulting in Steelers points. The picks were snagged by Rick Woods and Jack Ham.
The first interception led to Bradshaw's third touchdown of the evening, finding Jim Smith to secure a 27-14 lead. Then, a Gary Anderson field goal gave the 'Burgh a commanding 30-14 advantage.
The stunned fans at Texas Stadium witnessed 17 unanswered Steelers points off of three monumental Dallas miscues. Ultimately, Anderson would hit a 43-yard field goal to start the fourth quarter.
With a 20-0 scoring run to begin the second half, the "Men of Steel" led by 19 points. To maintain their proud streaks, Dallas would need a furious rally.
The Cowboys nearly succeeded thanks to a hot hand late by Danny White. The lead shrunk to 33-28, but the Steelers still only needed a field goal late in the game to secure a win, considering that there were no two point conversions.
Gary Anderson belted a 40-yard field goal with seconds remaining, giving Pittsburgh a vital two-score lead.
No. 1: @ Houston Oilers (1992)
Image courtesy of blog.chron.com
The top game of our countdown is Bill Cowher's first game patrolling the sidelines as the Steelers' head coach. It became quickly evident that the new guy wasn't about to enter the NFL quietly, pulling out all the stops in one of the team's most memorable wins.
It was a great game between two rivals with a nasty recent history.
During the end of the Steelers' dynasty of the 1970s, their top AFC rival had transitioned from the Oakland Raiders to the Houston Oilers. The Steelers easily dispatched of their division rival in the AFC Championship Games of 1979 and 1980.
One can imagine the rest of the division's delight as the Steelers aged, lost their edge and fell from prominence in the 1980s.
The Oilers attained Warren Moon, and the quarterback continuously put up arcade-style numbers. Houston had begun to dominate their rivalry with Pittsburgh when, in 1989, Chuck Noll had a last great "hurrah." The Steelers made the playoffs and upset heavily favored Houston in the Wild Card round on a Gary Anderson 51-yard field goal in overtime.
The loss cost Houston coach Jerry Glanville his job.
Naturally, with the defeat still fresh on the Oilers' minds, the opening day matchup of 1992 between these squads was rife with animosity.
Early on, it appeared as though Houston, the favorite to win the division headed into 1992, would steamroll Pittsburgh.
A Warren Moon touchdown pass in the first quarter gave the Oilers a 14-0 lead. The Steelers offense was stuffed on the next drive and forced to punt from midfield. Then, it happened.
The fake that changed the entire complexion of a game, if not a coach and his team.
The first big call from Cowher worked to perfection. The fake punt set up Pittsburgh from the Oilers 1-yard line, and Barry Foster cut the Houston lead in half.
The teams traded scores, with the Oilers leading 24-16 at halftime.
In the second half, the Steelers defense rose up, and Warren Moon's day of frustration was cemented. The Oilers were shutout after halftime, and Moon finished the day with five interceptions.
Pittsburgh cut the lead to 24-22 with two field goals before Neil O'Donnell hit Adrian Cooper (who?) with the game-winning touchdown.
In his first game at the helm, Cowher's Steelers showed a number of positive signs. The game could have become a lopsided loss, but "Cowher Power" wouldn't allow it to happen.
One gutsy call changed the momentum on opening day, and the end result was a great comeback to begin a wonderful coaching career.