When linebacker Dennis Gibson broke up Neil O'Donnell's pass attempt to Barry Foster, fans at Three Rivers Stadium fell silent. In the most heartbreaking moment in stadium history, the San Diego Chargers celebrated an AFC Championship while Steelers fans were left to wonder what could have been. The team had dominated statistically, leading 13-3 seemingly only moments earlier.
Indeed, 1994 had just been shot down by lightning bolts.
The emptiness felt by Steelers fans was illustrated as they exited Three Rivers Stadium. Walking the endless circular ramp was to be among a zombie nation opposed to Steelers Nation. With Terrible Towels soaking up the tears of the stunned, drones that moments earlier were rife with optimism were in a state of denial.
The deadening silence spoke volumes about the state of mind across Steelers Country, a numbness that is painful to recall.
With time, the wound began to heal. For Steelers Country, Super Bowls were not regular occurrences of these times. This opportunity was the first in many seasons, and fans prayed it would not be the last chance for their newly reinvigorated and talented team to attain "One for the Thumb."
The theme for 1995 began as "Three More Yards," Pittsburgh's distance from victory against the Chargers. Ultimately, the year's slogan would become the "Nine-Game Season."
The start of the campaign looked promising. Though the defense surrendered 108 rushing yards to the incomparable Barry Sanders, the Steelers held on for a 23-20 win against Detroit. The special teams was aces in the Astrodome, putting away the Houston Oilers to bolster the squad to a 2-0 record.
Then, an invisible roof hovering over 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 start became a solemn 3-4 reality nearing midseason, including blowout home losses to the pathetic Cincinnati Bengals (27-9) and Minnesota Vikings (44-24). The low point came in Jacksonville, a 20-16 loss to the expansion Jaguars.
Though the team attained a measure of revenge with a win over the Chargers, the victory was sandwiched between four defeats.
At this point, sensing the emotional sensitivity of a team that had lost its confidence, coach Bill Cowher brought the players together in an impromptu meeting. In an emotional moment, the coach announced the beginning of a brand-new nine-game season.
With a renewed focus and an unspoken anger, the team finished the year with a fury that would propel them to Super Bowl XXX.
In their "nine-game season," the Steelers would go 8-1, finishing a mere Yancy Thigpen drop away from a perfect 9-0 record. In an ultimately meaningless finale at Lambeau Field, Pittsburgh lost 24-19, though it should have won in the final seconds. Thigpen's drop allowed the Packers to win the NFC Central Division.
During the team's eight-game winning streak, 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.
At 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. It was one of the most unique game atmospheres in team history, a rare showing of unity between the rival fanbases. Fans wore orange arm bands in respect for the rivalry, showcasing their disgust toward moving the team from Cleveland.
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 highly emotional 1995 would continue the following weekend. Trailing the same Bengals who had destroyed it in Steeltown, Pittsburgh rallied from a 31-13 deficit with 36 unanswered points. A touchdown bomb to Kordell gave the team a 35-31 lead it would not relinquish.
Three more wins secured a bye week for the squad, and its 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 AFC Championship Game. Once again, the heavily-favored Steelers led in the second half, only to surrender their advantage.
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 with no time left on the clock 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 outcry had Aaron Bailey caught the football that rested on his chest.
Exorcising the demons of a year earlier, the resilient Steelers celebrated a return to the Super Bowl, though Bill Cowher would have to wait another decade before giving Dan Rooney the Lombardi Trophy.
Against the Cowboys, Pittsburgh fell, but Rod Woodson warmed fans' hearts with an impressive showing, particularly when he deflected a potential first down pass intended for Michael Irvin. He became the first player to come back from a catastrophic knee injury in the same season.