When the Pittsburgh Steelers chose Ben Roethlisberger with the 11th overall selection in the 2004 NFL draft, fans in the Steel City who eagerly hoped to see "Big Ben" fall into the team's lap waved their Terrible Towels in delight.
In fact, the University of Miami (Ohio) quarterback became the highest-drafted signal-caller that season to play for the team that drafted him. After all, Eli Manning was the first selection, but the younger brother of the acclaimed Peyton Manning refused to play for the San Diego Chargers.
Eli's refusal to play in San Diego was reminiscent of another great quarterback—Stanford's John Elway, who refused to play for the Baltimore Colts during the 1983 draft. It doesn't take a league historian to vividly remember No. 7's success in Denver. Like Elway, Manning's wishes were honored.
After Philip Rivers was chosen by the Giants one pick later, the two teams swapped (along with some draft picks, but why get lost in the details?)
Eli Manning was a happy and contented member of the New York Giants.
Ben Roethlisberger also had a connection to Elway, wearing his jersey number in honor of the legendary quarterback. And, Big Ben's draft class, like the acclaimed "Class of 1983," entered the NFL with high expectations and constant comparisons.
Whether they liked it or not, the race to "finally" win a Super Bowl was the reality for John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly. Much like their trio of careers were compared against each other, the peer group of Philip Rivers, Roethlisberger and Manning were going to endure similar comparisons.
Entering 2004, the Steelers placed their hopes on the right arm of journeyman quarterback Tommy Maddox, who dazzled the NFL in the 2002 season. If Maddox came from out of nowhere, Kurt Warner entered the league from a different orbit in 1999. By '04, Warner wore a Giants jersey, and Eli Manning backed him up in the Big Apple as a backup for Big Blue.
Nobody expected either Manning or Roethlisberger to start during rookie campaigns, barring injury or lack of production from the entrenched starters. Naturally, fate would intervene. Tommy Maddox would suffer a serious elbow injury in Week 2, while Kurt Warner was benched for relative ineffectiveness in favor of familiarizing Eli with the NFL rigors. Both rookies, destined to be judged against one another from draft day forward, would replace former journeyman quarterbacks.
The similarities would end there for the two quarterbacks in the 2004 NFL season. While the court of public opinion sees both men on equal footing, if not Manning in a slightly more favorable light, in 2012, the early going for the two saw Big Ben's bravado against bamboozling times for Eli.
In the Steel City, No. 7 was the toast of the town, making key plays when necessary and showing an aplomb rare for a first year starter. With 11 consecutive victories under the young phenom's belt, the undefeated Roethlisberger—who had won 24 straight starts dating back to college—prepared to quarterback the heavily favored Steelers against the floundering Giants.
To say that Ben was living the flip side of Eli heading toward their December 18th, 2004, contest would be an understatement. If the old saying is true that "the grass is always greener on the other side," Big Ben would have had no idea why.
After all, in taking over for Warner, Manning had led the Giants to one lone touchdown in the team's previous 45 offensive possessions. New York was mired in a six-game losing streak, dropping their record to 5-8. Four of those losses came with Manning at the helm, a stretch in which Big Blue scored an anemic 37 points.
Against the Eagles, Manning completed 6-of-21 passes with two interceptions. The low point came against the Baltimore Ravens two weeks later with Eli completing 4-of-18 attempts with two more interceptions. In four starts, he had yet to complete 50 percent of his passes. Things looked grim for the upcoming game against the Steelers.
However, in life, sometimes the most dangerous animal is a wounded animal. Or, an underestimated one...
For the entire week leading up to the Saturday afternoon contest, the media raved about the record feats of the Black and Gold signal-caller, prognosticating doom for his draft peer wearing Blue. The Pittsburgh Steelers slaughtering of the New York Giants was imminent, and the first contest between the two famed rookies was destined to be shamed by an imbalance of power.
With so many fans in New York aggravated by the team's play, Steelers Country did not have difficulty in obtaining tickets to the Meadowlands affair. With nearly one-third of the stadium violently torquing their Terrible Towels, the other two-third, dressed in blue, booed their home team as they came through the entrance tunnel for introductions.
On a surprising afternoon, the host team would leave fans with a lost sense of pride that would soon reestablish itself in the Big Apple. The overreacting crowd, throwing their slurs and grievances toward the struggling team and its young quarterback, had no idea of the excitement they were in store for.
An afternoon that seemed tailor-made for the Steelers started with a stunner!
The opening kickoff sailed to Willie Ponder, stationed at his own 9-yard line. Ponder started up the middle through a huge opening before cutting to his right and completing his return down the sideline. A last-ditch effort by Troy Polamalu to trip up Ponder failed, and the New York Giants had a surprising 6-0 lead only 15 seconds into the game.
The Giants stormed onto the field to celebrate with Ponder, resulting in an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. The resulting field position gave the Steelers offense the football at their own 48-yard line.
Despite the great field position, the Steelers were only able to attain one first down. In New York territory, a Ben Roethlisberger pass was batted into the air by corner Frank Walker, who intercepted his own deflection. Filled with adrenaline, Walker ran to a bench along the sideline, waving his arms and passionately imploring fans.
A tidal wave of unexpected emotion had caught the Men of Steel off-guard. Yet, the Steelers were not 12-1 by accident.
After forcing a three-and-out by the Giants offense, Ben and the Steelers marched downfield quickly. Antwan Randle El began a huge game with a 34-yard reception to the New York 13-yard line. Shortly thereafter, "El" worked his magic again, connecting with Verron Haynes on a 10-yard shuffle pass to tie the score.
The seemingly fluky start had not shaken the Men of "Steal," who had stolen back the game's momentum...temporarily.
Another great kick return gave the Giants possession just shy of midfield. Tiki Barber began to run with authority, gaining 35 yards on the first play from scrimmage. After picking up another first down on the ground, Barber's 1st-and-goal carry brought New York to the shadow of the goal line.
With the Steelers defense stacking the box and expecting another run, Eli Manning faked the exchange with Barber before finding Jeremy Shockey for the two-yard touchdown. It was only his second touchdown pass of the season, and the Giants reclaimed the lead.
Excited fans began to drown out the large Pittsburgh contingent, surprised by the effort they were seeing. Again, the Steelers responded.
Big Ben found Randle El for 39 more yards to start the next drive, but the Pittsburgh offense stalled. A Jeff Reed field goal capped an eventful first quarter that saw the Giants ahead 14-10.
Stunned fans back in the 'Burgh watched on television as Eli Manning methodically led the Giants offense in Pittsburgh territory AGAIN. Surprising relief washed over them when the New York drive stalled, finally bringing some semblance of reason to a game that had lacked all predictability. Jeff Feagles would be forced to punt on three straight possessions.
Jerome Bettis began to run downhill, Big Ben continued to connect on big plays with his wide receivers, and the Steelers began to methodically move the chains on offense on first and second down, further aided by a personal foul call on the Giants on an apparent drive-ending sack.
Yet, it was on 3rd-and-13 that Roethlisberger made his biggest play of the game. The rookie connected with Randle El again on a beautifully arced 35-yard touchdown pass. The receiver had beaten coverage down the sideline, and the perfect throw ended with an easy six points.
The Steelers closed the half with another scoring march, catapulted by two long runs by Jerome Bettis.
Of historical note, the 140 yards gained by "The Bus" marked Jerome's 48th career 100-yard game. This eclipsed Franco Harris's team record, ranking Bettis at fifth on the all-time list for the category.
With time expiring in the first half, a Jeff Reed field goal gave the Black and Gold a 20-14 lead at intermission.
If fans felt the issue was settled and New York's momentum was squandered, there were plenty of surprises ahead in the somewhat unfairly advertised "Roethlisberger vs. Manning: Part 1" game.
The second act began with Ben's worst play of the game, an inexplicable throw to former Steeler Brent Alexander. While the Giants marched to the Steelers' 1-yard line, Tiki Barber was stuffed for a loss of three yards on 3rd-and-goal. The turnover set up only a field goal, and Pittsburgh maintained a lead, 20-17.
Jerome Bettis and Verron Haynes combined for 41 rushing yards in the response drive, but three straight incompletions by Big Ben ended the scoring threat. A third field goal by Reed reestablished Pittsburgh's tenuous six-point lead, 23-17.
With time winding down in the third quarter, Eli Manning—who had a higher quarterback rating than Ben in the contest—had hope, but it seemed obvious that Tiki Barber would have to carry the load if the Giants had any realistic shot for an upset.
Then, New York fans exalted when a connection that would someday go down in history gave a sneak preview of coming attractions. Manning faced 2nd-and-23 from his own 15-yard line, and he opted to go to an unproven backup in the desperate spot.
Against all odds, the quarterback hit David Tyree deep for a 49-yard gain, and the receiver's first catch of the season gave the Giants a first down deep in Steelers territory. The play continued a frustrating day for the Steelers defense, which was unable to sack Manning all afternoon.
Then, Tiki Barber burst through the line for a 20-yard gain, setting up a goal-to-go situation.
After a Manning checkdown to Shockey netted eight yards, the Steelers defense honored the run again. Once more, Eli Manning made them pay, connecting with Marcellus Rivers for six points.
The third quarter ended, and the Giants had a stunning 24-23 lead!
If a fourth Reed field goal allayed tensions in the Steel City, it was quite temporarily. Manning answered once again on his next possession, confidently converting a 3rd-and-8 from midfield on a strike to Amani Toomer, the first of four straight pass attempts. Connecting on three of the throws, Eli led the Giants to the 1-yard line. This time, Tiki Barber would not be denied.
Plunging in for the score, an upset in the making was well alive in the fourth quarter. With 8:15 remaining in the game, New York led 30-26. The score nearly matched their entire scoring output in their previous four games combined.
Still, the Steelers and their young field general had the mark of a champion, and that pedigree was demonstrated every time the Giants took the lead.
In 2011, Eli Manning led the league with 15 fourth-quarter touchdowns—an NFL record. He continued his penchant for late-game heroics, capping off the season by hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in another comeback.
Equally adept at the comeback, but relatively forgotten, Big Ben has also had a career highlighted by clutch play. Numerous division titles and a Super Bowl ring of his own have come in do-or-die circumstances late in games.
Roethlisberger's own "niche" for turning on the "fourth-quarter switch" was showcased as early as 2004. He had already led the Steelers from behind in Jacksonville weeks earlier, winning 17-16 in a hostile environment where the franchise had historically struggled.
Now, in the Meadowlands and trailing 30-26, Ben took over from his own 33-yard line. On four passes, including a short-yardage completion to Jerome Bettis, Roethlisberger connected for four straight completions.
Bing: He started the drive with a nine-yard completion to Hines Ward.
Bang: Ben connected for 11 more yards to Psycho No. 86.
BOOM: Another long connection with Randle El gained 36 yards to the Giants 8-yard line.
After Ben displayed his lion heart, Jerome Bettis provided the finishing punch on the ground.
Bing: Five yards brought the ball to the 3-yard line.
Bang: Two more yards put the Steelers three feet away from the lead.
BOOM: Bettis finished off the demonstration, plowing in for the go-ahead score.
Ahead 33-30, the unflappable Steelers offense had done its job. Beyond Bettis's 140-yard effort, Big Ben finished with a then career-high 316 yards, including five completions of 34 yards or more. Antwan Randle El caught five passes for 149 yards, also throwing for a score. And, Hines Ward caught nine passes for 134 yards.
Nevertheless, the surprising play of New York's offense, especially with quarterback Eli Manning, caused some anxiety in the final moments.
Taking over with just under four minutes left, Eli Manning completed two passes to Tiki Barber for eight yards. On 3rd-and-2, with good field position and needing a minimal gain to keep the drive alive, the young passer decided to take a chance.
From his own 44-yard line, Manning went deep over the middle to Amani Toomer, hoping to take advantage of man coverage by Willie Williams.
Both players got tangled, falling toward the ground, but Williams made the interception. The controversial play, which could have easily been perceived as defensive pass interference, went unflagged.
After the game, Amani Toomer reflected on the series of events:
"I was running down the field, then I don't know if I caught his leg or he pushed me. I remember hitting the ground and looking to the ref, thinking they were going to throw something. It was such a pivotal part of the game."
"There's no question I was going to catch that ball. I had him beat and he pushed me in the back. If I turned back to the ball, that's fine, if he stays in his plane. But if he's turning back to the ball leaning on me, that's illegal contact."
Coach Tom Coughlin also assessed the situation:
"At the last minute the defender's eyes evidently went up to the ball and when two people are looking up for the ball and their feet get tangled, there's no foul. Every play out there is a judgment call. I thought it was a penalty, but I understand what the rule says, too. I just think it's so hard to nail all of those things down verbally and then take the judgment out of the play. It looked to me like we were going to go get the ball and we don't get a chance to get the ball because the guy at the last second looked for the ball."
It was Eli Manning's final throw of the afternoon—a day marked by great progress. Showing the talents that so many predicted would manifest themselves into a great quarterback, Manning had just put together the first fine game of his NFL career—a journey that now sees the Giants quarterback as the reigning Super Bowl MVP. Eli finished the game completing 16-of-23 attempts with two touchdowns.
After scores on six straight possessions to start the second half, the Steelers had finally made a key stop with the lead. At last, the Black and Gold had a chance to ice a game that was far closer than anybody had anticipated.
Terrible Towels that had gone dormant for stages of the contest were now twirling relentlessly again in the whipping winds of Giants Stadium.
For the Steelers, the first priority was to burn the Giants of their timeouts. Two Jerome Bettis runs did the trick.
Next, they needed to kill the remaining clock, which would require two first downs accounting for the two-minute warning.
Great teams are great when they have to be, and the 2004 Steelers were a great team, despite falling short a month later. On 3rd-and-2, Roethlisberger connected with Hines Ward for five yards, bringing the game to the two minute warning.
Needing one more first down, Jerome Bettis capped a solid afternoon with two carries for 12 yards. As the final seconds winded off the clock, Pittsburgh knew it had survived a scare.
Statistically, the Black and Gold dominated. They outgained the Giants 469-278—the most yards surrendered by New York in the Meadowlands since a loss to Denver on Monday, September 10, 2001. Additionally, Pittsburgh held sizable advantages in time of possession (plus-11m) and first downs (27-18).
Despite the numbers, the heart shown by Big Blue was evident, but it just couldn't overcome the Pittsburgh pedigree. The Steelers would win the Super Bowl 14 months later.
The Steelers and Giants had both seen fine games from opposing passers who would develop into NFL greats. The game was hyped as a bout between two young quarterbacks with so much promise.
As it concerned Roethlisberger, the Steel City was treated with a display of quarterbacking aplomb throughout 2004.
And, on that one Saturday afternoon in December, the display was doubled, both passers showing glimmers of the greatness that would lead them to a combined four Lombardi Trophies.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have blessed their fans with an abundance of exhilarating games. The "Catalog of the Classics" runs deeper for the Black and Gold than most other NFL teams, especially in the modern era. For that reason, many of the team's greatest games are easily lost within its rich history, a lengthy volume that spans six Lombardi Trophies and an absurdity of spoils!
Every week of the team's 2012 offseason, we will look back at one of the great Steelers games that many fans may not remember. In this way, the epic bouts will no longer be...
The Forgotten Classics!
Please enjoy these previous installments: