Pittsburgh Steelers: Top 10 Most Entertaining Non-Championship Seasons
For the most passionate Steelers fans, each season has a distinct identity. Every journey has a slightly different cast of characters, unique feel, and a timeless storyline that is forever etched into the annals of team history.
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.
As I write these words, I look up at the wall to view my first Terrible Towel. The letters are faded and the cloth is slightly worn, but the cheers that I screamed as it swung rampantly in the circling wind of Three Rivers Stadium during my first ever live game maintain their vibrancy. My grandfather gave me this yellow badge of honor, commemorative of my first live game day experience, in 1994.
The Steelers lost that day as Neil O'Donnell's last minute pass to Barry Foster fell incomplete.
The most loyal fans also know where they were during the heartaches.
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 or son Dan, these seasons, which the real fans can name out loud without missing a beat—1974, 1975, 1978, 1979, 2005, 2008—were the most beautiful. The Steelers achieved their goal, fanatics adorned in black and gold reveled in the glory, making new memories became wonderful moments in team history.
To ask the fans about the best Steelers season in history is to formally ask for a ranking of the six campaigns listed above.
Steelers history spans generations, however. Even to only date back to the start of the Super Bowl era would be to cross years and years of a tradition of excellence. Sometimes, we achieved our biggest goal—we, I say, for the loyal fans and team that create this phenomenon that is Steelers Country.
Yet, even when we didn't, there were great moments to be embraced. Most champion athletes, upon reflecting on their accomplishments, cite the best part of winning a title as the journey in getting to that summit. Had they lost, that journey would still be the same, only sullied by the reality of retrospect.
In that manner of thinking, the greatest Steelers seasons are not necessarily the championships; they are the journeys, only sometimes resulting in a hoist of the affectionately dubbed "Sticky Lombardi."
This is a countdown of the most exciting seasons in team history with one catch—Super Bowl winners are out of the mix! Instead of viewing this as strictly a countdown of the strength of the non-champions (which it is not), think of this ranking born from respect for the fine seasons that brought fans a lot of joy in spite of the eventual shortcomings.
Of non-Super Bowl campaigns, these were the most exciting! In their respective time, they all brought the Steelers Nation closer together.
And, as any member of Steelers Country will tell you, a nation bonded can be as strong as Steel!
No. 9: The Steel Curtain Dominated Its 1976 Opponents
The Steelers were the toast of the town by the mid-1970's. Along with the Pirates, Pittsburgh was dubbed "City of Champions."
Consecutive Super Bowl wins put to rest the notion of a franchise defined as lovable losers. 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.
The newly intimidating crew began their second championship defense 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?
A 23-6 win over the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 6 seemed more of a necessity than a springboard. Yet, following the victory, a similar result seemed to take place for consecutive weeks.
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 note.
The defense of 1976 is remembered by history as potentially the finest ever, 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 Houston 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.
It was the greatest run of statistical dominance in the history of the franchise. The excellence continued into the playoffs, where the team destroyed Bert Jones and the top seed Baltimore Colts. 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 unable to play the next week in Oakland due to injury. Even with their efforts, the team may have still lost to a determined effort by the Raiders and coach John Madden.
While many fans argue the 1976 team as the best in franchise history despite this loss, the season was exciting more for the team's potential than the actual games. A great campaign was highlighted by the team's fierce turnaround, but there were few gut checks and fewer nail-biters, preventing a higher ranking on this list.
1976: THE TOP THREE GAMES
1. @ Raiders (week 1) 28-31 L
An emotional game and unpredictable comeback changed the momentum of a great rivalry.
2. @ Colts (Divisional Playoffs) 40-14 W
The Steelers destruction of the Colts proved Baltimore was not the top team in the AFC.
3. @ Chiefs (week 9) 45-0 W
330 team rushing yards highlighted a dominant win over the Chiefs.
No. 10: Slash Sought Redemption in 2001
After three years of struggles to finish the 90's, the team formerly gauged as having "Cowher Power" had seemingly gone "Cowher Sour." Following a controversial loss in Detroit on Thanksgiving, the Steelers fell from 7-4 to their first losing season under the head coach in 1998.
As years passed, little changed.
Rookie athlete and wanna-be quarterback Kordell Stewart was known as "Slash" when he came to Pittsburgh, a description for his expansive roles with the squad. Quarterback-slash-running back-slash wide receiver-slash-rookie phenom.
By 1997, he was handed the quarterbacking reins, and he fared well. His subsequent seasons were far different results, the young Stewart unable to replicate his initial success.
By the late 90's, Kordell Stewart was a new variety of "Slash," slicing and dicing the team with turnovers so costly that even Jerome "The Bus" Bettis seemed to be on four flat tires.
Sometimes, a team has to reach the bottom before it can pick itself back up. Following the Kent Graham experiment, Stewart unsurprisingly reclaimed his starting role. The team saw a resurgence in 2000, though a slow start and midseason skid cost them a playoff spot.
The Steelers lost their opening game in 2001 at Jacksonville, a 21-3 loss to a familiar opponent that left fans wondering if anything had changed. After a long hiatus following the attacks of 9/11, the team returned to their former success.
A new era began with a move into Heinz Field, christened with a 16-7 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
Kordell limited his interceptions during the year, while making timely plays from both the pocket and via his mobility. The defense clamped down on opponents. Surprise standouts included receiver Hines Ward (93 catches) and rookie linebacker Kendrell Bell (nine sacks).
During a stretch of dominance, Pittsburgh won 12 of 13 games, their lone loss coming despite dominance over the defending champion Ravens. Kris Brown missed four field goals to secure the team's first ever loss at Heinz Field. During this winning stretch, the franchise exorcised the McNair demon, defeating the Titans twice after eight consecutive losses.
2001 marked the birth of the team's heated rivalry with division opponent Baltimore, a franchise that was largely considered an afterthought until their successes under egotistical head coach Brian Billick and a legendary defense. Using the Steelers model of defense, the Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV.
The defending champions lost to Pittsburgh in Baltimore late in the season, securing the final AFC Central Division Championship to the Men of Steel.
In the playoffs, Elvis Grbac, who surprisingly replaced Trent Dilfer in the offseason, threw an interception on his first pass of the game, and the Steelers ended Baltimore's bid to defend their title.
Though the Steelers' special teams would kick only themselves a week later against the Patriots, the Steelers return to prominence was a welcome surprise. In a season of rebirth, the team discovered a new rival, won 13 regular season games, and came within a blocked field goal (ugh!) of a trip to New Orleans, LA.
2001: THE TOP THREE GAMES
1. @ Ravens (week 14) 26-21 W
The Steelers won the AFC Central Division in its last season.
2. vs. Ravens (Divisional Playoffs) 27-10 W
A new rival was dominated, ending their championship defense.
3. @ Titans (week 11) 34-24 W
A fourth quarter interception of Steve McNair resulted in a Chad Scott game-sealing touchdown.
No. 8: 1994 Struck Down by Lightning
The Steelers and their young new coach were gearing up for a potential Super Bowl run in the summer of 1994. After the growing pains of 1993, which ended with a fourth down touchdown pass in the last seconds of regulation by Joe Montana and overtime loss at Kansas City, a matured and talented team was considered a favorite to represent the AFC in Miami's Super Bowl XXIX.
Neil O'Donnell led the offense, a quarterback who protected the ball well and made—aside from that fateful January evening of 1996—smart decisions. While his receiving corp, consisting of Andre Hastings, Yancy Thigpen, and Ernie Mills left much to be desired in the minds of most experts, Barry Foster was considered one of the league's best running backs.
Yet, fans across western Pennsylvania knew the team would only go as far as the defense carried them.
The "Steel Trap" earned its nickname by graduating from all of the comparisons to the teams of the 70's and garnering an identity with a novel strategy known as the zone blitz. Anchored by Chad Scott, Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, Rod Woodson, and a laundry list of other talented players, the Steelers defensive unit struck fear in opposing offenses.
The prize possession of the bunch was Rod Woodson, who put on a personal highlight reel against Jim Kelly and the defending AFC Champion Bills, intercepting a pass for a touchdown and harassing the great K-Gun offense for the entirety of a Monday Night Football game.
Games were tense in '94, as the defense commonly secured victories that the offense was unable to put away. Thankfully, that same offense didn't throw wins away, either. During a four week stretch, the Steelers played three overtime contests, ending with a win and 16-13 overtime thriller against Dan Marino's Miami Dolphins at Three Rivers Stadium. Mike Tomczak started the game in place of Neil O'Donnell.
One of the great stories of the season was the rivalry between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, the last time the original enemies squared off on a monumental stage. After two competitive regular season losses to the Steelers, 17-7 and 17-10, the Browns felt confident that they could come to Pittsburgh and prevent a third loss in the same season to their arch-rivals.
Instead, Pittsburgh exacted a 29-9 shellacking upon the "Frowns," sending the Dog Pound players' tails between their legs and our towels into the air!
The team prepared to host the AFC Championship Game for the first time in fifteen seasons. They had grown over the course of the '94 campaign, which started with a 26-9 loss to the Dallas Cowboys and culminated in a near return to the NFL's biggest game.
A season of close calls, magical wins, and great urgency came to a sudden halt in the AFC Championship Game.
Leading 13-3 and leading San Diego in practically every statistical category, the Steelers watched as Stan Humphries summoned the previous season's Joe Montana magic, tossing two long touchdowns in the second half.
Trailing 17-13, the Steelers drove deep into Chargers territory, only to come up three yards short of the Super Bowl. Struck by lightning, stunned fans silently exited the old "bowl."
This season served as the perfect prerequisite to 1995 (later on the list), a campaign that mirrored 1994 in every symbolically significant manner.
1994: THE TOP THREE GAMES
1. vs. Browns (Divisional Playoffs) 29-9 W
The third time is just another charm in a tri-fecta against Cleveland!
2. vs. Bills (week 11, Monday Night Football) 23-10 W
Another blowout win against Buffalo proved a 23-0 win in 1993 was no fluke and the team was capable of greatness!
3. vs. Dolphins (week 12) 16-13 W OT
Dan Marino and overtime? Sounds like compelling football...
No. 7: Chuck Noll's Last Hurrah in 1989
51-0 and 41-10.
91-10 in total.
That was the cumulative score of two whippings to open the 1989 season, losses to the Browns and Bengals.
Much of the NFL fraternity felt that the game was passing Chuck Noll, feeling his influence on modern players was dwindling and his methods were outdated.
With few stars, a lackluster quarterback in Bubby Brister, and a huge hurdle to jump over after an 0-2 start, Chuck Noll took a measure toward silencing his doubters. The campaign would prove to be Noll's last great hurrah, a fitting achievement for a fine head coach.
Upon taking the job in the late 60's, Noll told players that they weren't losing because they weren't trying- but because they were not good enough. Few people could make the mistake of thinking the '89 Steelers were anywhere near good enough.
And, before this unpredictable season, they weren't winning. At least, they weren't winning like they used to!
Nevertheless, in a surprisingly entertaining season, they came within seconds and a single point of the AFC Championship Game, which would have pitted them against division rival Cleveland.
Following the blowout losses to start the season, the team went into roller coaster mode, a topsy-turvy season that was more like the Steel Phantom than the Steelers.
One great element of the schedule was with the rematches against the Ohio squads, coming shortly after the initial disasters. Weeks later, the Steelers lost a close rematch to the Bengals, then defeated the Browns one week thereafter.
The 3-3 Steelers reclaimed a losing record with a 27-0 loss at Houston; the defeat was especially bitter for Noll, whose widely publicized rivalry with Oilers coach Jerry Glanville was tipping in the favor of the loud-mouthed, seemingly self-aggrandizing Texan. Noll had accused Glanville's players of taking cheap hits, and Jerry fired back with the same claims about Noll.
The reserved Noll was an NFL legend, a large contrast with the wisecracking Oilers ringmaster.
Losses in Denver (34-7) and Chicago (20-0) dropped the team to 4-6.
Following a win over San Diego, the Steelers trailed 14-0 in Miami. Then, it happened.
Dan Marino fell to injury, and Scott Secules replaced him. The backup quarterback threw two interceptions during a streak of 34 unanswered points by Pittsburgh.
Following another disappointing loss to Houston, the squad won their final three games to barely qualify for the playoffs.
Sometimes, fate has a funny way of evening scores, making history right, and spiting those who deserve a good spiting...
Noll's Steelers defeated Glanville's Oilers of playoff loss fame in overtime, marking the coach's final game in Houston.
A week later, the Steelers led 23-17 before the great John Elway engineered a last minute come from behind drive. The loss came in spite of a heroic performance by Merrill Hoge, who ran 16 times for 120 yards.
The major theme of 1989 was simple—Noll had his finger on the pulse of a bad football team, allowing them to play beyond their standard capabilities. While the legendary coach can cover most of one hand with championship rings, this final season of the 80's may have been his finest coaching effort.
1989: THE THREE BEST GAMES
1. @ Oilers (Wild Card Playoffs) 26-23 W OT
Bye-bye, Jerry Glanville.
2. @ Broncos (Divisional Playoffs) 23-24 L
Despite the heroics of Hoge, the mighty Elway did what he always did and rallied the Broncos.
3. @ Browns (week 6) 17-7 W
Beating the team that won 51-0 at Three Rivers Stadium on opening day cannot be overlooked.
No. 6: Injuries Couldn't Hinder a Great 2010 Season
The 2010 Steelers were provided with every reason to throw in the towel. As any fan in the Steel City will tell you, Pittsburgh is known for only one towel.
And, that will never get thrown in any situation. Through thick and thin, the only towels in Pittsburgh are the ones being waved!
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was suspended to start the season after allegations of sexual assault. At best, it was obvious he had displayed inappropriate public conduct, warranting the suspension.
The team stood tall, playing well behind starters Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch to earn a 3-1 start.
With the return of their franchise quarterback also came the growth of the pesky injury bug. It buzzed around the locker room, striking anyone and everyone that it could.
The offensive line were like bugs themselves, falling like flies, only to be reassembled throughout the year.
Roethlisberger broke his friggin' nose. On top of it all, the injuries were only part of a hectic and helter-skelter year defined by the unpredictable.
James "Silverback" Harrison became the center of a controversial league-wide crackdown on what was viewed as "dangerous hits." The star linebacker was fined more than any other player for alleged infractions, causing him to question his future in the NFL.
The low point of the season was a game against the Oakland Raiders. The Steelers were excessively flagged for penalties that almost seemed conjured from thin air by an officiating crew that either wanted to send a message or didn't know how to implement the rules. In either case, Pittsburgh was getting roughed by the refs, winning 35-3 anyway.
Incensing the players was the league's response to an event before halftime, where tackle Richard Seymour threw Ben Roethlisberger to the ground after the completion of a touchdown pass. Whistles blew, and moments later, the quarterback was flattened by Seymour's right hand.
Seymour's punishments paled in comparison to Harrison's fines for hits that could have easily been deemed acceptable.
The team overcame injuries, speculations, and controversies to win the AFC North with a 12-4 record.
Their next test was against their division rivals. Trailing the Ravens 21-7, the team overcame the deficit to tie the game. Late in the fourth quarter, the offense converted a 4th-and-19 against a defense largely regarded as one of the game's finest. The huge play allowed the Steelers to complete a magnificent comeback.
Conversely, it was the Steelers who were unable to overcome a deficit in the Super Bowl, trailing the Green Bay Packers 21-3. Aaron Rodgers played magnificently, each of his wonderfully thrown passes crucial in what would ultimately become a narrow Packers victory.
For their perseverance, pride, and fortitude, the 2010 Steelers showcased what the will to win can bring to teams with a great foundation.
The 2011 installment hopes to take it one step further.
2010: THE TOP THREE GAMES
1. vs. Ravens (Divisional Playoffs) 31-24 W
A magnificent comeback and tremendous third down conversion ousted the pesky Baltimore birds.
2. @ Ravens (week 13) 13-10 W
Troy Polamalu's late sack and forced fumble of Joe Flacco eventually resulted in a bye week.
3. @ Buccaneers (week 3) 38-13 W
A career game for Charlie Batch and great defensive effort marked a fine performance against an underrated foe.
No. 5: Tommy Maddox Became the 2002 Comeback Player of the Year
Opening losses to Oakland and New England exposed weaknesses in the defensive secondary.
Both the Patriots and Raiders were unafraid to make a clear statement by passing on as many as 30 consecutive plays against the Steelers' pass defenders. Both were successful, scoring 30 points in both contests- and the totals could have been worse!
Despite the alarming area of concern, the Browns came to Heinz Field with a balanced plan of attack. Surprisingly, they led 13-6 late in the game.
Kordell Stewart threw an ill-advised interception in the end zone late in the fourth quarter, and this seemed to seal both the fates of Pittsburgh and the maligned QB.
Then, he saved the season.
Who is he?
He was none other than Tommy Maddox, ex-XFL (that sounds odds) MVP and insurance salesman extraordinaire. After a failed stint in Denver and a bit of Arena Football League experience, "Tommy Gun" exploded onto the NFL scene, becoming the NFL's story of the season.
The comeback player of the year led the Steelers to the tying touchdown and eventual overtime win against the Browns. In a season where the defensive secondary played some of the worst football in team history, Pittsburgh saw the first signs of a wide open passing attack. Maddox was—at least in part—going to change the identity of the Steelers for a couple of seasons.
2002 became one helluva' ride!
With the sacrifice of an occasional ill-advised interception, Maddox led Pittsburgh's offense into the arcade, putting points on the scoreboard that had not been seen since the days of Swann and Stallworth.
While history now remembers the quarterback more for his shortcomings in later campaigns, fans should considering giving Maddox due credit for saving a season that was otherwise becoming a disaster.
After a 1-3 start, the Steelers won four straight games, highlighted by a 28-10 thumping of Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts on Monday Night Football.
At 5-3, the host Falcons visited Heinz Field. The Steelers led 34-17, but a furious Atlanta rally (largely buoyed by Pittsburgh miscues) in the 4th quarter forced the contest into overtime. Late in the extra session, Maddox fired a hail mary toward the endzone, and it was miraculously hauled in by Plaxico Burress- an inch short of the goal line.
The game ended in a tie.
A week later, Maddox suffered what appeared to be a career threatening spinal injury in Nashville during a game against the Titans.
Kordell Stewart came back into the lineup, and the team won two close contests, including a game in Jacksonville where kicker Jeff Reed was discovered. Having been released by the Jaguars, the priceless image of Tom Coughlin on the sidelines as he watched Reed's 6-for-6 kicking performance (most attempts over 40 yards) was satisfying for Steelers Nation.
In Maddox's return, the team played in a game that became the biggest statistical anomaly in the history of professional football. The Steelers outgained the explansion Houston Texans 442-47 in total yardage, holding the infant squad to three first downs.
The result? A 24-6 blowout loss buoyed by five turnovers, including a devastating penchant by Tommy Gun to misfire in the red zone.
The team finished the season with three wins to clinch the AFC North, including a 4th quarter comeback against the struggling Ravens.
In the Wild Card playoffs, the Cleveland Browns led 24-7 on the strength of Kelly Holcomb's 400+ yard passing effort. Nevertheless, the Steelers rallied, cutting the score to 24-14, 27-21, 33-28, and finally....
....winning on an unexpected draw to Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala in the game's final seconds. The devastated Browns ended up on the wrong side of a classic playoff affair.
The next week, Maddox and the offense continued to show an ease for putting points on the scoreboard, but the team's horrendous pass defense finally caught up to them. Steve McNair dissected the Pittsburgh secondary, toying with Chad Scott and DeWayne Washington all afternoon. Valiantly, the Steelers forced overtime before Joe Nedney ended the game with an Academy Award performance and successful kick, his third attempt after a Steelers timeout preceded a ridiculous roughing the kicker penalty.
In a unique year, the Steelers probably did more long-term damage than fans expected, getting away from their core identity. A losing campaign in 2003 resulted from the overly reliant faith in Maddox's right arm. Nevertheless, an abysmal start was saved by a heartwarming story of second chances.
It was Tommy Maddox's shining moment.
2002: THE TOP THREE GAMES
1. vs. Browns (Wild Card Playoffs) 36-33 W
Kelly "Marino" Holcomb's great passing effort comes up just short after a furious Steelers comeback.
2. vs. Falcons (week 10) 34-34 T
Vick vs. Maddox produces fireworks for four quarters.... and ends in a tie by the length of an inch!"
3. @ Titans (Divisional Playoffs) 31-34 L OT
Another furious comeback falls short as Steve McNair owns the Pittsburgh secondary.
No. 4: The Theme for 1995 Was "Three More Yards"
The emptiness felt by Steelers fans was illustrated as they exited Three Rivers Stadium. Walking the endless circular ramp was to be among zombies with Terrible Towels, drones that moments earlier were rife with optimism. Now, the deadening silence spoke volumes about the state of mind in Steelers Nation.
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.
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.
The start of the campaign looked promising. The defense clamped on Barry Sanders in 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 the emotion sensitivity of a team that had lost 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 a mere drop away 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 Kordell 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.
1995: THE TOP THREE GAMES
1. vs. Colts (AFC Championship Game) 20-16 W
An emotional game, especially on the heels of the prior season's heartbreaking loss.
2. @ Bears (week 10) 37-34 W OT
A late comeback sparks the momentum that ultimately resulted in a trip to Super Bowl XXX.
3. @ Bengals (week 12) 49-31 W
The Steelers offense proved it could win games, rallying from a 31-13 deficit.
No. 3: A New Breed of Steelers Was Born in 1972
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.
The Oakland Raiders cried foul, but the play stood as called. The controversy sparked a new rivalry and began a new era.
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. The team reached heights unparalleled in their previous years of history, decades of losing that spanned generations.
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.
Then, a win over the Rams was followed by a loss to the Cowboys.
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 evened their record with Pittsburgh at 7-3 after having dominated their rival for much of their dynastic 60's.
Two weeks later, the Browns fell 30-0 in Pittsburgh. The Steelers would not lose another game, thus assuring them the AFC Central Championship.
Following a 9-3 win over Houston, the Steelers' finale resulted in a 24-2 victory over the San Diego Chargers. The early day Steel Curtain allowed only five total points in the final three games of the regular season.
Fan excitement grew. They were ready for the intensity of playoff football in their newly christened Three Rivers Stadium. The anticipation was obvious, and the audience on hand to witness that divisional playoff game saw NFL history before their very eyes.
Grandfathers still tell grandchildren about the greatest play they had ever seen by the greatest dynasty they had ever seen.
The only difference between then and now is that at the time, they simply didn't know it yet.
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.
1972: THE TOP THREE GAMES
1. vs. Raiders (Divisional Playoffs) 13-7 W
Is this really a debate?
2. vs. Dolphins (AFC Championship Game) 17-21 L
Playing toe to toe with an undefeated team is not an easy feat; the contest proved Pittsburgh as being for real.
3. @ Bills (week 7) 38-21 W
If I were to tell you that O.J. Simpson rushed for 189 yards, would you predict a blowout win?
No. 2: Big Ben's Rookie Season of 2004
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.
This was only a small portion of a magnificent season ahead.
15 consecutive wins later, and Ben Roethlisberger was the "stuff of 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, the league's biggest story traveled to Texas Stadium.
If big things come in Texas, Ben proved the adage. The burly QB completed 21 of 25 pass attempts, rallying the Steelers from a 20-10 deficit. Vinny Testeverde committed his regular critical turnover against Pittsburgh, opening the door for a 24-20 win and an ongoing win streak.
At 5-1, the 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' touchdown celebration twice, spreading his arms and flapping his wings during a 27-3 demolition of Philadelphia that wasn't that close.
If the word fluke was being passed around with regard to Ben'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 aplomb 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—but the Bills lost the game to a more determined roster of first-time starters and athletes hungering for their first vie 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.
Since that first campaign, there has been more magic.
Ben is the franchise quarterback the Steelers had tried to obtain for twenty years since the departure of Terry Bradshaw. As such, the team has enjoyed three AFC Championships and two Super Bowl victories during the Roethlisberger era.
2004: THE TOP THREE GAMES
1. vs. Patriots (week 8) 34-20 W
Roethlisberger outplayed Brady to end New England's epic winning streak.
2. @ Cowboys (week 6) 24-20 W
A rousing comeback left fans with the feeling that something special was in the Steel City air.
3. @ Jaguars (week 13) 17-16 W
A forgotten classic in the Steelers annals that was well-played between two passionate former rivals.
No. 1: Kordell Stewart Became the Starting Quarterback in 1997
All week, the anticipation was building.
"They're not the same team they used to be!"
Fans said the same things: "It's time to do what should have been done two years ago. It's time to beat the Cowboys."
Kordell Stewart took the reins for opening day at Three Rivers Stadium. The electrifying athlete promised to make 1997 an exciting season at the very least.
Cowboys 37, Steelers 7.
The Steelers offense was entirely out of sync, ineffective on a day where the defense met a Cowboys team executing with the precision of their pristine dynasty.
The next week, local talent Gus Frerotte brought the Redskins to Three Rivers Stadium. A late touchdown rally resulted in a 14-13 Steelers win, but the team looked disheveled. In fact, if not for Frerotte's three interceptions (two in the red zone), Pittsburgh would have likely begun the season 0-3.
After all, a loss in Jacksonville hurt as much as any loss during the season. The team began to play with confidence. The offense gained a rhythm in the second half, Jerome Bettis was running with 1996 power, and the Jaguars were being pushed off the snap on most plays late in the game. A blocked field goal prevented Pittsburgh from defeating their rising young rival in the AFC Central.
Weeks of struggling finally ended for Stewart in Baltimore. After falling behind 21-0 and 24-7, the training wheels came off of the athletic quarterback and the motor was placed back on him.
With a mix of great plays in both the passing game and via Stewart's abilities as a runner, the Steelers executed the largest comeback in franchise history. The 42-34 win over the Ravens catapulted them to a 3-2 record, behind only Jacksonville in the division.
With the team finally blending together and gaining momentum, the rest of 1997 was filled with some of the most exciting contests Steelers fans have ever witnessed.
After wins over the Colts and Bengals, the team welcomed Jacksonville to Three Rivers Stadium. Both teams shared an identical 5-2 record, setting up a game for the ages. Ultimately, the contest would decide the division winner. After trailing 10-0, the Steelers rallied to force overtime. In the extra quarter, Jerome Bettis rumbled into the end zone off of a well-designed shovel pass from Stewart.
Fans exalted as the Steelers surpassed the hated Jaguars in the standings. After an abysmal start, the season of doom was becoming a classic.
Another overtime victory improved the team's record to 9-4 late in the season, a win over Jake Plummer and the Arizona Cardinals. From the desert heat to the Pennsylvania cold, the Steelers traveled back to Three Rivers for a date with Denver.
Quarterback John Elway's rocket arm had fans on the edge of their seat, but his receivers dropped passes with frequency. After taking a 21-7 lead, Denver lost its edge as Stewart hit Yancy Thigpen on two scoring strikes in the second quarter. Pittsburgh dominated the second half in another emotional comeback victory.
It would pale in comparison to the events that unfolded at Foxboro Stadium one week later.
With a bye week in the AFC playoffs likely on the line, the New England Patriots hosted the Steelers. In a weekly tradition, Pittsburgh fell behind 14-0 and fought back valiantly. Undaunted, a strange pass from Drew Bledsoe was caught by an unintended receiver, Dave Meggett, for a 49-yard touchdown.
This made the score 21-13 in the fourth quarter, and the Patriots got the ball back with a chance to run down the clock. Oddly, Pete Carroll and company decided to pass.
The result was the "Immaculate Interception" that put Kevin Henry into Steelers fame. With time winding down, Bledsoe attempted a pass into the flat that was intercepted by the aforementioned defender in athletic fashion. The turnover set up Kordell Stewart's offense.
The quarterback hit Mark Bruener with a one-yard touchdown pass and followed with a two point conversion to Yancy Thigpen. The stunned crowd watched the game go into overtime, where the Steelers won 24-21.
The impact of the events was huge, as New England traveled to Three Rivers Stadium for a Divisional Playoff with the Steelers. On the cold turf, Drew Bledsoe and the Pats offense were held in check all game, an edgy 7-6 victory.
The dream ended one week later, as Kordell Stewart's dream season faded into the obscurity that results from bad decisions and delusions of grandeur. Throwing into double and triple coverage for the rest of his career, Stewart rarely saw his success of 1997 replicated, falling short in the biggest games with predictability.
For one season, Slash's balance of athleticism and timely play making proved to be the catalyst for a Steelers team that probably should have beaten the Denver Broncos and played in the Super Bowl.
For its abundance of classic games, multitude of comebacks, magnificent stories, gut-wrenching finishes, and overall success, 1997 was the most entertaining non-championship season in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
1997: THE TOP THREE GAMES
1. @ Patriots (week 16) 24-21 W OT
Kevin Henry's improbable interception catapults the Steelers to a bye week at Foxboro.
2: vs. Jaguars (week 9) 23-17 W OT
The team with a penchant for overtime comeback wins earns an emotional victory over the rival Jaguars.
3. vs. Patriots (Divisional Playoffs) 7-6 W
A great comeback against the Denver Broncos and John Elway.