Every team has great rivals, and Steelers Nation knows that their franchise is not an exception. From the "battlin' birds" in Baltimore to the seemingly bumblings Bengals, fans wake up for games against these loathed enemies of the 'Burgh. Occasionally, however, an uncommon opponent causes competitive juices to surge.
In the case of the Atlanta Falcons, whose ire is also more focused toward their regular rivals, their trip to Pittsburgh this weekend marks a semi-renewal of a rare showdown between two franchises that have shown fans overtime fireworks in their last three regular-season meetings.
While the Falcons faithful may be surprised with the regular fifth quarter in games against the Steelers, fans in Western Pennsylvania shouldn't be too shocked. After all, the Steelers have seen overtime games with regularity, playing in at least one such contest in every season this century (including the playoffs).
In the NFL annals, the Steelers share the record for most overtime contests with the Denver Broncos. Coincidentally (and fittingly), those two franchises also played in the league's first ever period beyond regulation, a scoreless session that resulted in a tie (35-35). Ties were not uncommon at the time, as overtime had just been implemented in professional football.
However, ties were incredibly uncommon in 2002. It was during this season that the Steelers and Falcons began their penchant for delivering free extra football to fans. Michael Vick was a phenom, garnering mass attention from fans and journalists alike. He was unlike anything the league had seen before him, an enhanced version of running quarterbacks of earlier eras (such as Randall Cunningham) who took speed and arm strength to the next level.
His accuracy was questionable, and with the focus of critics on his decision making, it was common knowledge that the only way to defeat Vick was with excellent containment. To not contain the speedy Atlanta quarterback would be a recipe for disaster for any franchise. Nevertheless, the Steelers would soon learn that Georgia's football team was more than just a fast QB. Against Pittsburgh, he was a thorn, conjuring skills that he rarely flashed against much lesser opponents.
In the Steel City, seeing Vick's career passing days against the Steelers was incredibly frustrating.
Tommy Maddox had salvaged the Steelers' 2002 season after a 1-3 start, and his renewed confidence was evident by his outrageous statistical performances. To hear that Maddox would complete more than two-thirds of his passes against the Falcons for 473 yards and four touchdowns would cause any fan to rejoice with glee over a sure-fire win.
Sure, the comeback player of the year had a career (nay, astronomical) game, but the Steelers blew a 34-17 lead in the fourth quarter, largely aided by a fumbled punt-return by Antwaan Randle El. After using the break to cut the Pittsburgh lead to 34-27, Vick scurried into the end zone to tie the score. After an array of offensive fireworks through regulation, both defenses stepped up in the overtime.
On the last play of the extra session, Tommy Maddox heaved a Hail Mary pass to the corner of the end zone near the pylon. The Falcons secondary played miserable coverage, allowing the lanky Plaxico Burress to get body position and snag the pass. Yet, Burress was sent to the ground by a pack of Falcons, landing with the ball just inches short of the goal line.
The game ended in a tie. To date, it remains one of the most exciting and memorable affairs in the history of Heinz Field.
By 2006, Maddox's mid-life momentum had passed, and the starting quarterback position belonged to Ben Roethlisberger. His backup was Charlie Batch. The two men would both have magnificent performances in the Georgia Dome. Like Maddox before them, the quarterbacking wizardry of the day would not be enough to put down Vick and the Falcons.
The two signal callers combined to complete over two-thirds of their passes for over 400 yards and five touchdowns! Sound relatively familiar?
Again, the Steelers had ample opportunity to put down the Falcons. They led 17-7, but Vick also had a career passing day. This marked his second fine passing day against Pittsburgh. With his four touchdown passes, the game saw nine passing scores.
After losing the lead, Roethlisberger led Pittsburgh to another score, leading at halftime 24-21.
Charlie Batch entered the game for an injured Big Ben in the second half. Despite a valiant effort, he had to rally the Steelers from behind, hitting Hines Ward for a tying touchdown late in the game. After a tense finish to regulation, the teams were headed to overtime.
With a 2-3 record, the defending champion Steelers badly needed the win. After allowing Michael Vick to make like a much faster Steve Young, I expect most of Steelers Nation felt strongly the defense would respond in overtime. After all, this was an opportunity to overcome adversity and to mark the squad as true champions.
Atlanta drove down the field systematically, and Morten Anderson nailed a field goal to send Pittsburgh back to the Steel City defeated. For Steelers Nation, it was an infuriating loss.
After allowing the league's arguably most exciting player to dominate the field in two critical matchups, the NFL's "running quarterback" garnered some attention as a signal caller who could possibly someday own the air as well as the ground.
Then, history bit Michael Vick harder than he ever bit the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Atlanta franchise underwent a radical transformation, eventually drafting Matt Ryan as their new quarterback of the future. Yet, for all of these changes, one thing was the same: Pittsburgh and overtime.
Having overcome so much controversy at the most important position only to re-find success, it was fitting that the Falcons were the Steelers' opening opponent in 2010. Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for the first four games of the season by commissioner Roger Goodell for off-the-field behavioral issues. The team was surrounded by a media frenzy regarding the events, and the distractions were potent enough to disband most teams.
The Steelers proudly answered the call that opening day. A mediocre passing day by Dennis Dixon was answered by a swarming Steelers defense that kept "Matty Ice" contained all afternoon. The backup quarterback avoided making any harmful errors. In a matchup that saw the Steelers defense shredded by a signal caller whose passing skills were largely scrutinized, the unit stood tall against a field general whose efficiency by air was unquestioned.
In fact, Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu intercepted a Matt Ryan pass late in regulation, giving the Steelers a chance to avoid overtime altogether with a field goal by Jeff Reed, Mr. Automatic.
Overtime, take three! It was a chance for the Steelers to write a new ending to a script that had seen them on the wrong end of a scintillating finish twice.
In a battle of field goals, regulation ended with the score tied, 9-9. Despite the miss, Reed had a fine day against Atlanta.
In overtime, Rashard Mendenhall broke loose and ran up the right sideline for a 50-yard touchdown that sent Heinz Field into a frenzy on NFL Kickoff Weekend. (How many sports use capital letters for their opening days?)
Pittsburgh had avenged a heartbreaking defeat in Atlanta, and managed to kiss victory. This was a far better feeling than "kissing your sister," which is how Tommy Maddox had described the epic 2002 clash that saw his near 500-yard performance result in a tie.
Tonight, two teams face off that have given NFL fans a trio of wonderful, classic matches in their recent series. While they may pit against each other rarely, they clearly save their most exciting dramatics for the other...well, maybe not. In any case, those last three games between Atlanta and Pittsburgh have been dynamic affairs, running nearly all possibilities—from offense to defense—and gamut of emotions, from joy to sorrow.
While not nearly as much will be on the line this evening, sans for the opportunity to get better and prepare for a long season ahead, hopefully their exhibition will have some of the same provocativeness that these franchises have flashed on the same field since the start of the century.