For a decade, the Steel City, once renowned for being the first town to see four Lombardi Trophies, desperately chased the crown jewels of the NFC, who had surpassed them by winning five Super Bowls each.
In February 2006, Antwan Randle El took a reverse hand-off in the backfield, wound up his throwing motion, and put a beautiful, arching spiral into the air of Ford Field.
Whenever Hines Ward completed the most beautiful gadget play in Super Bowl history, Terrible Towels torqued with ferocity as Steelers Country welcomed itself into the elite fraternity of five-time champions.
Three years later, "Six-burgh" set a new standard of excellence, reclaiming the throne as the team with more Super Bowl wins than any other.
While there are other teams on the pantheon of 2011 contenders, the 49ers are considered by many to be vastly improved but not a true postseason threat.
If they wish to shed that status and be recognized as a squad that truly does have the capacity to even the score in the "Lombardi standings" with Pittsburgh, a win over those Steelers on Monday Night would go a long way toward that goal.
As this duo of formerly dynastic dynamos face off in prime time, the game will continue a long, storied tradition of modern-era greatness for both groups. With so much at stake, will the 49ers hang onto their second-seeded status, or will Pittsburgh keep the pressure on Baltimore in the AFC North?
Many have looked ahead to this particular game, including myself. Instead of projecting, let's reflect on the legacy of excellence left behind by both franchises.
These are the top 10 seasons for the Steelers and 49ers, a ranking that truly measures the best of the best. The list actually ranks the top 11 of those teams, as one tie-breaker was simply too hard to decide.
By 1974, the improving Steelers had finally begun to put the pieces of a dynastic puzzle together. Steadily rising in the NFL rankings, many had their fingers on the pulse of Pittsburgh potential, but few truly expected the '74 squad to finally produce the punch!
Their season started with a quarterback controversy between Terry Bradshaw and Joe Gilliam, the team was losing games it should have been winning, and players were angering in the midst of not meeting their potential. Joe Greene reflects on these frustrations in the team's installment of "America's Game."
After Gilliam's offense sputtered, Terry Bradshaw took over the helm. Most point to this decision as unlocking the cuffs on the dynasty. Bradshaw took ownership as starting quarterback, and the culmination came when he threw the game-clinching touchdown pass in Super Bowl IX. It was a welcome habit that the quarterback would repeat three more times.
Getting to the Super Bowl, where an ill Dwight Clark and stout Steelers defense dominated Fran Tarkenton and the Vikings, required one of the best Black and Gold efforts of all time.
Trailing 10-3 in Oakland at the start of the fourth quarter, Joe Greene and the Steelers entered a zone, determined to drop the Raiders at home in the AFC Championship Game.
After beating the Dolphins a week earlier, John Madden jubilantly called the game Super Bowl 8.5, figuring that defeating the defending champions was their stiffest contest on the road to the big game. He was wrong (see video above).
Franco Harris and Lynn Swann scored to give the Steelers a late lead. Then, ahead 17-13, Franco finished off the Silver and Black, breaking into the end zone to give Pittsburgh a 24-13 lead.
Any questions regarding the Steelers potential were answered in a 21-3 fourth quarter demolition of the Raiders at arguably the most important moment to that point in the history of either franchise.
Bill Walsh brought many of his offensive philosophies as a coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals to his head coaching job in San Francisco. With the Bengals, Walsh was blessed with the historically forgotten (undeservedly) Ken Anderson. After taking over the 49ers, he began to work with Joe Montana.
Not too shabby!
Montana finished the season with 19 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. While many remember Walsh's contributions on offense, defensive changes may have been the most major catalyst for championship football in 1981.
Walsh made the decision to overhaul the entire San Francisco secondary with unproven players and rookies.
Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright, Carlton Williamson and Dwight Hicks were solid in the defensive backfield. The secondary was, in fact, superb!
Lott and safety Dwight Hicks combined for 16 interceptions. Hicks had 9 picks himself in that season.
Meanwhile, the deadly efficient 49ers offense hadn't quite reached its full stride. As the team was learning, the evidence was clearly in place for a great future. After all, despite having not made many of their eventual strides, San Francisco rose from 6-10 in 1980 to the NFL Championship in 1981.
Their Super Bowl berth was secured by one of the most heralded plays in NFL history. Trailing 27-21 to the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game, the 49ers approached the Dallas end zone. "Sprint option right" was called, where Montana was hoping to find receiver Freddie Solomon for the score.
Instead, following a few seconds of running to his right that felt like an eternity to loyal fans, he found Dwight Clark, who reached up and plucked the high pass (Montana claims the throw's height was intentional) along the back of the end zone. The photograph made the cover of Sports Illustrated, a timeless image capture of a classic moment.
In the Silverdome, Montana and the 49ers would build a 20-0 lead at halftime over the Bengals. Cincinnati's quarterback was none other than Ken Anderson, Walsh's gifted field general during his tenure in Ohio.
Ultimately, San Francisco staved off a furious comeback by Cincinnati (including a timeless goal line stand that yielded zero points) to win 26-21.
Generally, should championship teams rank ahead of those that fall short? Yes.
Surely, a few of you are questioning the '87 49ers' place on this list.
Not attempting to avoid controversy, I admit that this is not the only non-champion to make the cut. Additionally, a couple of championship squads don't make the countdown.
Still, in my defense, I did limit the number of teams making the rankings who didn't finish the season with the hardware. After all, more of those squads could easily be argued as deserving of a rank.
In the early 90's, the 49ers attempted to three-peat, narrowly missing the feat when the Giants won 15-13 in the NFC title game. Furthermore, great San Francisco squads lost to a Dallas dynasty when Steve Young couldn't get the team over the hurdle of the Cowboys.
With another win (or two), something either squad was capable of accomplishing, they would likely be near the top of the list, especially a potential three-peat champion.
The best teams don't always win the Super Bowl. Ask the 2007 Patriots. Or the 1987 49ers.
Why else would Bill Walsh call their playoff loss one of the lowest points of his coaching career? Without question, one could easily argue for the '87 49ers to be ranked higher. As it stands, they're No. 8!
San Francisco began the year with four consecutive road games, and the season kicked off in Pittsburgh. In the contest, Joe Montana completed 34 of 49 passes for over 300 yards and two touchdowns.
Mark Malone, on the other hand, completed 9 of 33 attempts. It was a stark difference. However, the 49ers lost 30-17. Montana threw a rare three interceptions, and Pittsburgh's opening score on a fumble return set a strange tone.
A day of miscues saw San Francisco trailing 30-10 late before Montana found Jerry Rice for his first touchdown pass of 1987. Despite generally outplaying Pittsburgh, the team lost the game. They would only lose one more time in the remainder of the regular season.
Joe Montana threw 31 touchdowns, a career high, in just 13 games. All phases of the 49ers game progressively improved over the course of the year, and the team's final home stand reflected the culmination of a great potential champion at work.
Finishing with three home contests, the Bears (41-0), Falcons (35-7) and L.A. Rams (48-0) suffered the wrath of the machine-like 49ers precision. It was a pristine offense and understated defense that the NFL had seen before.
With predictions of a Minnesota massacre at the hands of Montana's mighty men, most fans and experts anointed the 49ers with the crown. It would prove premature.
Underachieving with consideration to their potential, Bill Walsh would describe the playoff game as "the worst loss of his professional career" during an interview for the popular NFL films program "America's Game."
Anthony Carter of the Vikings (no, not Cris!) caught 10 passes for 227 yards. His herculean effort propelled Minnesota to an unbelievable upset, 36-24. One of the great NFL teams fell to a squad not often remembered in the annals of NFL history.
And, because of the loss, the '87 49ers have suffered the same fate: greatness forgotten outside of San Francisco.
The proud defending champions were an NFL dynasty, winners of three of the previous five Lombardi Trophies. By 1979, rules changes allowed great talents such as Lynn Swann and John Stallworth to explode onto the scene, alongside the exciting "Blonde Bomber," Terry Bradshaw.
Conversely, the Steelers defense was still dominant, despite being hindered by the recently adapted "Mel Blount rule." Because of the corner's dominance, the rugged and physical bump-and-run play was a target of NFL executives looking for a way to increase scoring.
Despite this handicap for defenses, greats like Jack Lambert, Joe Greene, Jack Ham, L.C. Greenwood, and Mel Blount continued to dominate. The "Steel Curtain" was still among the best defenses in football.
With time, however, the Steelers dynasty was beginning to see the downward trend of its sheer dominance. Not helping was the erratic play of Terry Bradshaw, whose offensive potency could be equally measured by offensive impotency at random times.
For example, the Steelers lost to the Chargers, 35-7, in a contest that saw the gunslinger throw five interceptions.
Despite the slight statistical decline, the12-4 Pittsburgh Steelers still had enough gas left in the tank for one more great run.
After defeating the Dolphins and Oilers in the AFC playoffs, Bradshaw and company trailed to the surprising Rams (9-7 in the regular season) heading into the fourth quarter.
Down 19-17, T.B. began an aerial assault with receiver John Stallworth. The clutch receiver hauled in two gorgeous bombs over the deep middle.
His catches resulted in one touchdown, also setting up another. In the completion phase of one of football's great teams, the 70's Steelers put the final stroke on their masterpiece with a 31-19 win.
Facing the hardest schedule in NFL history (based on opponents' winning percentage), the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers responded to the challenge like true Men of Steel.
A week later, the team trailed on Monday Night Football at Heinz Field to the Baltimore Ravens, 13-3. During halftime, Roethlisberger pleaded with his offense to work harder, pointing out the defense's dominating play in recent weeks.
In a moment that many members of the team remember as a turning point, the Steelers came back in the second half to take the lead, ultimately winning in overtime, 23-20.
Trailing 21-20 to the Jaguars just six days later, Big Ben rallied the Steelers. Avoiding sacks with his brute physicality, No. 7 practically willed the offense down the field, culminating in a beautiful game-winning touchdown lob to Hines Ward.
It was vengeance against the team that had beaten Pittsburgh in Mike Tomlin's rookie season, and it served to bring notice to the mental fortitude the team would display all season.
Whether defeating the Redskins on a Monday Night with backup quarterback Byron Leftwich, losing winnable games to the Manning brothers in consecutive home contests, or driving 92 yards in a hostile environment against a tough division rival, the Steelers never lost their poise and found a way to get it done.
This aplomb was most notably illustrated by the defense. James Harrison had 16 sacks, Troy Polamalu snagged six interceptions, and the unit ranked atop the NFL by leaps and bounds in one of the most dominant years in their history.
Their fortitude and ability to solidify a win was never more apparent than in the AFC Championship Game. Having swept the Ravens in the regular season, Baltimore and rookies John Harbaugh (essentially) and Joe Flacco sought vengeance. After falling behind 13-0, the Ravens cut the deficit to 16-14 early in the fourth quarter. Then, they got the football back.
With the Heinz Field crowd masking their anxiety with their volume, their determined screams transformed into a vocal eruption when Troy Polamalu intercepted Flacco and began his patented cutback running. Weaving through the field of players, Polamalu got into the end zone to send Pittsburgh to the Super Bowl.
In Tampa Bay, Kurt Warner and the Cardinals overcame a late 20-7 deficit to take the lead. Ben Roethlisberger and the offense showed that the defense didn't have the lone resolve to win in critical junctures, driving the field behind the strong receiver play of Santonio Holmes.
Everyone remembers his odds-defying touchdown catch in the back corner of the end zone, capping arguably the greatest Super Bowl in NFL history.
After consecutive years of falling to the Dallas Cowboys for the NFC title, the 49ers knew 1994 was Super Bowl or bust. Equipping themselves for a battle with a new dynasty in the making, San Francisco brought in key free agents, most notably Ken Norton and Deion Sanders.
Behind their existing reputation of success and infused with a new energy, the 49ers gained a swagger that translated into wins.
Not everything started rosy. Steve Young erupted toward George Seifert after being pulled from a 40-8 loss in Philadelphia. With the intense pressures of the shadow of Joe Montana over him, Young knew his legacy desperately depended on a championship.
Having already lost to Montana and the Chiefs earlier in the year, the move in Philly was an apparent breaking point, and the "City of Brotherly Love" turned out to be an irony for the visiting 49ers.
One week later, Young was being battered by the Lions, and San Francisco trailed again. In a rallying cry effort, the 49ers came back to win the game, and the victory was a catalyst.
The team would lose only one more game, a meaningless finale against the Minnesota Vikings with home-field advantage having been already secured.
After pummeling the Bears 44-15, the 49ers welcomed the bane of their existence. It was time to "beat the star." Indeed, Dallas was simply seeing stars early.
Critical turnovers opened the floodgates, and San Francisco jumped to a 21-0 lead. Included in the scoring was a touchdown by dangerous all-purpose back Ricky Watters.
The Cowboys responded with the distinct poise of a champion, driving with efficiency to two touchdowns. Down 24-14, many fans in Dallas likely expected to get back into the game in the second half.
Steve Young and the 49ers broke their backs, driving to a 28-yard touchdown pass to go ahead by 17 points. Jerry Rice was the recipient, and this was commonplace; Rice hauled in 112 catches for nearly 1,500 yards and 13 touchdowns in 1994.
The eventual 38-28 win over Dallas was the psychological victory San Fran needed heading toward the Super Bowl. Steve Young's season warranted the trip.
After all, in one of the most underappreciated quarterbacking seasons in history, Young completed 70 percent of his passes, averaged over 12 yards per completion, and threw 35 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. His artistry of the position translated to gaudy domination.
That gargantuan set of statistics reflected itself against the overwhelmed Chargers in the Super Bowl. Young's six touchdowns secured an MVP award, and the 49ers won 49-26.
The 1984 49ers lost only one game. Coincidentally, that loss came to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
While the linked article provides an overview of the talent that dominated the NFL landscape for the 49ers in 1984, it may not give complete justice to their greatness.
By the third season after their first Super Bowl win, the 49ers had endured missing the playoffs and coming up painfully short. In the 1983 NFC Championship Game, they came back from a 21-0 deficit in the fourth quarter to tie the Redskins, only to lose on a late field goal.
The 49ers had become a well-oiled machine on all sides of the ball. Many fans don't remember the depths of their talent:
Fred Solomon, Roger Craig, Wendell Tyler (who averaged 5.1 yards per run), Joe Montana, Dwight Clark, Eric Wright, Ronnie Lott, etc.
Within inches of going undefeated (see video), the 49ers put together a dominant postseason. They beat the Giants 21-10 before shutting out the Bears in the NFC Championship, 23-0.
Finally, Dan Marino put his record-breaking talent to the test against the NFC's best team. It was a mismatch. San Francisco's young, stout secondary made life difficult on Marino's arm, while their defensive front didn't allow the former Pitt Panthers star to look himself, getting his normal zip on the football.
Conversely, while Marino may have had weapons in the "Marks Brothers," Montana proved he could beat a team in a variety of ways, going up and down the field on the Dolphins defense and continuously leaving them unbalanced.
Behind their great quarterback, San Francisco won 38-16, validating their 1981 season and proving themselves as a young team that would be in the championship chases for years to come!
The highest ranking of any non-championship team on the list, the 1976 Steelers had the makings of a lousy team early in the year.
They blew a 28-14 lead late in a loss to the rival Raiders on opening day. Then, after a win over Cleveland, three straight losses dropped Pittsburgh to 1-4.
The losing streak began with another blown lead. Ahead 20-9 against the Patriots, New England scored three unanswered touchdowns to stun Steelers fans at Three Rivers Stadium.
Weeks later, the 1-4 Men of Steel were making like "Men of Still," seemingly going nowhere. Then, something clicked.
They beat the Bengals 23-6.
They traveled to Giants Stadium and blew out the Giants, 27-0.
One week later, the San Diego Chargers fell 23-0, and the Steelers were 3-3.
Arrowhead Stadium hosted the Steelers, and the Chiefs felt the wrath, 45-0.
Miami's managed a field goal in their 14-3 loss in the Steel City.
The Oilers finally managed some scoring, though they fell 32-16.
The Steelers defense "rebounded," holding the Bengals to three points, a critical feat in a 7-3 Pittsburgh victory.
Next, the infamous Buccaneers took one on the chin, 42-0.
Lastly for the regular season, the Houston Oilers disappointed their home fans in a 21-0 shutout loss.
Nine games: Five shutouts. Two touchdowns surrendered. 28 total points against. Only one team scored more than six points. No touchdowns across 22 consecutive quarters.
And, that's not taking out the Houston game, which included a controversial touchdown bomb and a meaningless score in the final seconds. If you tabulate based on the other eight games exclusively, the Steelers surrendered 1.5 points per game, allowing no touchdowns.
Simply, the performance was unbelievable.
It was a level of domination the NFL will likely never see again, especially in today's age. In any era, the 1976 defense's accomplishments were stunning.
Terry Bradshaw was injured for much of the season, but the two-headed monster of Rocky Bleier and Franco Harris got the job done, averaging over four yards per carry.
But, nothing...NOTHING was a better tonic that the record-shattering defense.
The Steelers beat the Baltimore Colts and Bert Jones, an underrated quarterback who would have one of the greatest passing seasons ever in 1978, in the division playoffs. The loss came at a cost as the Steelers lost both halves of their two-headed running monster. Bleier and Harris went down to injuries.
Against a great Raiders team, the toll of a season came to a head. With no running game to deter the Raiders defense, Bradshaw was ineffective. Oakland's 220 yards, including 88 passing yards from Ken Stabler, were utilized with deadly efficiency in their 24-7 win.
While the end result provided a gloomy bookend to a season of dominance, the most powerful span of games for the greatest defense in NFL history will never be duplicated. If not for the team's late start and injuries, there is no doubt that a third consecutive championship was clearly in the cards.
Choosing between these two squads was far too difficult, and it's a nearly impossible decision.
As the defending champions for the first time in their history, the 1975 Pittsburgh Steelers proudly kept their crown. Mel Blount had 11 interceptions, notable due to rule changes that would be forthcoming from the NFL due to his domination of receivers who couldn't handle his bump-and-run physicality.
Most surprising for the 1975 Steelers was the manner by which they won in the playoffs, overcoming 12 (not a typographical error: twelve) turnovers in two home playoff games to win the Lamar Hunt Trophy.
Notably, Pittsburgh's seven turnovers on a sheet of ice didn't prevent a win over the Raiders, 16-10. Al Davis, John Madden and the Raiders felt the grounds crew intentionally allowed the field to freeze to give the Steelers an advantage in that AFC Championship.
In Super Bowl X, the Steelers trailed the Cowboys before Cliff Harris taunted Roy Gerela after a missed field goal attempt. A fiery Jack Lambert threw Harris aside, psyching himself and his teammates over the final minutes of the contest. With a touchdown bomb to Lynn Swann, the Steelers iced the game, winning 21-17.
By 1978, the Steelers great defense was finally complimented by a powerful offense. Terry Bradshaw had 28 touchdown passes, but the most significant beneficiaries of new NFL rules making life easier on pass catchers were Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.
The two combined for 102 receptions and 20 touchdowns, no easy feat at the time. In fact, few receiving combinations snag 20 scores today!
A recognizable name, beyond those heard commonly as a who's who of Hall of Fame defenders on the Steelers defense, was Tony Dungy, who led the team with six interceptions.
In the playoffs, Pittsburgh avenged a postseason loss from one year earlier at Mile High Stadium, beating up on the "Orange Crush" and winning by a commanding score of 33-10.
The AFC Championship Game saw a colorful division rival come to the Steel City. Bum Philips and the "Luv Ya Blue!" Oilers played Pittsburgh in horrendous field conditions. On a cold, wet day, the only think murkier than the weather for Houston was the end result, a 34-5 defeat.
The win sent Pittsburgh to Super Bowl XIII, where they faced the defending champion Dallas Cowboys. The game was slated as a battle to become the team of the 70's, and if featured the greatest cast of Hall of Fame talent in any game in history.
Bradshaw, Harris, Swann, Stallworth, Webster, Greene, Lambert, Ham, Blount, Staubach, Dorsett, White, Wright, Jackie Smith, Landry, and Noll are all Hall of Fame NFL players or coaches who participated in Super Bowl XIII.
After falling behind 14-7, great execution and good fortune allowed the Steelers to roar back, pulling ahead 35-17 in the fourth quarter. Roger Staubach valiantly attempted to rally Dallas, but two touchdown drives only narrowed the final deficit, 35-31.
The coronation of the NFL's best quarterback came in 1989, when the San Francisco 49ers saw Joe Montana dismantle his opposition at the peak of his powers.
With 26 touchdowns against 8 interceptions alongside a 70.2 percent completion rate, the quarterback orchestrated the West Coast offense seamlessly.
While injuries did creep up on "Joe Cool," Steve Young garnered the attention of his peers in relief of Montana, finishing with 8 touchdowns of his own and a gaudy average of 10.9 yards per pass attempt.
Jerry Rice caught 82 passes for 1,483 yards, 17 touchdowns, and 18.1 yards per catch. While the 49ers offense is remembered as an aerial assault by many fans, this isn't accurate. The '89 offense was deadly with its variety of options, showcased by runners Roger Craig and Tom Rathman.
Rathman had over 300 yards rushing along with over 70 receptions. Meanwhile, showcasing offensive balance and demonstrating the idea of using the pass as a long handoff in their system, Roger Craig ran for over 1,000 yards while catching 49 passes from out of the backfield.
With a deadly offense with an array of skill, the defense put San Francisco over the top. Pierce Holt and Charles Haley both had 10 sacks, while Ronnie Lott had five interceptions. Stars like Bill Romanowski and Matt Millen in their prime polished out the defensive unit.
Unlike 1988, where the team struggled to make the playoffs (10-6) before finding momentum late in the season and ultimately winning a close Super Bowl, these 49ers left no doubt about their standing as an elite, first-class champion.
In the playoffs, they trounced the Vikings 41-13.
Next, the overmatched, surprising Rams came to San Francisco for an NFC title fight. It ended up to be a mere warm-up for the 49ers, 30-3.
Lastly, John Elway and the Broncos hoped three would be the charm, having had already lost two Super Bowls.
As the video demonstrates, this was not the case, as the 49ers beat the snot out of Denver to secure their fourth Lombardi Trophy. Their 55-10 victory tied their franchise with the Steelers for the greatest number of Super Bowl victories.