The 1994 Pittsburgh Steelers established themselves as the predominant favorite amongst most fans and experts to represent the American Football Conference in Super Bowl XXIX.
Fifteen years removed from their last Super Sunday appearance, the team's status as an assumed shoo-in increased when the San Diego Chargers dramatically came back from a 21-6 deficit in the divisional round, defeating Dan Marino's Miami Dolphins 22-21 in the final minutes.
The "Steel Trap" defense had dominated the regular season, loaded with talent such as Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, Chad Brown and Levon Kirkland. The defensive front recorded 55 sacks, and the defense, as a whole, helped the team to a plus-14 turnover differential—best in the NFL.
With Carnell Lake and Rod Woodson anchoring the secondary, and the D-front slaughtering the rest of the AFC throughout the season, Stan Humphries and the warm-weather Chargers had the same odds as a snowman in Bermuda.
Oddly enough, typically cold Pittsburgh experienced an unseasonably warm and wet Sunday against the California crew negating the "freeze" factor.
Nevertheless, the game statistically bore out as expected. The Steelers outgained the Chargers in total yards, 415-226, and first downs, 22-13. They controlled the line of scrimmage and limited turnovers. Natrone Means struggled for his 69 rushing yards, and Tony Martin was held without a catch until the fourth quarter.
Pittsburgh led 13-3, and the advantage surely could have been greater. Super Bowl XXIX was on the horizon.
Then, it all fell apart in three acts.
Act I: Humphries found little-known tight end Alfred Pupunu down the middle of the field for a 43-yard touchdown late in the third quarter.
Act II: In an encore performance, Tony Martin's first catch of a miraculously accurate throw by Humphries—who was under heavy duress on third and long—provided a second 43-yard scoring strike.
Minus those two plays, the Steelers led by 10 points and outclassed San Diego yardage wise by a 415-140 gap.
Act III: After a valiant drive late in the game, the final play from the 3-yard line saw O'Donnell throw over the middle to Barry Foster. Dennis Gibson extended his arm and batted the ball to the ground.
The excruciating loss created the most harsh quiet I've ever personally experienced when exiting a sporting event in the Steel City.
The theme for 1995 became clear:
"THREE MORE YARDS."
If the slogan was a mark of the Steelers' desire to avenge their painful loss to the underdog Chargers by reaching Super Bowl XXX, the early stages of '95 begged for the theme to be changed to "a million more miles." Pittsburgh was sloppy in the early stages of the season, and a visit to Tempe, Arizona, in late January, seemed like a pipe dream.
A 3-4 start was low-lighted by a loss in Jacksonville to the expansion Jaguars, 20-16. Losing to Jeff Blake and the Bengals 27-9 in prime time at Three Rivers Stadium didn't inspire any confidence either.
After winning their first two games, albeit losing Rod Woodson, the team made like their fall All-Pro and came up limp. Only a miraculous turnaround would save them.
Bill Cowher gathered his team and gave them an impassioned ultimatum to refocus and treat the remaining schedule as its own season. Another theme had emerged:
"THE NINE GAME SEASON."
Three yards had become nine games. The Steelers couldn't afford to increase the odds against them any further. A 24-7 revenge win over the Jaguars brought the Black and Gold back to .500.
However, ahead on their journey still remained a few critical obstacles. The Chicago Bears represented one of the biggest hurdles, and they proved to be the bump on the road that would truly test Pittsburgh's stamina and resolve.
By the end of a cold November 5th evening, Pittsburgh's offense would find a level of performance formerly unseen in the Cowher era.
Likewise, with their backs against the wall so many times, the Black and Gold would prove to be "Back and Bold!"
If the title of the season in Pittsburgh was a few yards, the headline in Chicago would ultimately be "one-shot wonders."
The Bears were 6-2, riding a four game winning streak with head coach and Pittsburgh native Dave Wannstedt, who was leading a team seeing some of its finest individual performances in years. The hopes in the Windy City was for their heroics to translate into team success, and Chicago seemed well on the right track.
The list of unexpected seasons included:
- Erik Kramer, who threw for over 3,800 yards with 29 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, far and away his best career numbers.
- Rashaan Salaam, whose 1,074 yards marked his only century mark performance. His 10 touchdowns as a rookie showed flashed of promise for a career that never blossomed. He would only play three seasons in Chicago.
- Jeff Graham's only trip to the century mark saw 1,301 receiving yards and four touchdowns on 82 receptions.
Beyond the trio of one-shot wonders making the beginning of '95 so exciting in Illinois, fine receiver Curtis Conway's dozen touchdowns were a career high.
With a 4-4 record, the Steelers needed to win for the first time ever at Soldier Field. Otherwise, the nine-game proposition and playoff aspirations of the team would be nearly invalidated and seemingly lacking any credence. Winning in the Windy City would be the difference between a revival and mere lip service.
Sadly, Pittsburgh entered the game with an all-time record of 0-11 against the Bears in Chicago.
History would have to give. While one would have expected the defense to stand tall against an unexpectedly potent offense, it was an surprising Pittsburgh duo that would carry the Steelers to victory:
...Neil O'Donnell...and Erric Pegram.
A castaway from the Falcons, Pegram was embraced by the 'Burgh, serving as the team's leading rusher in 1995. The small frame was misleading, as Pegram could be deceptive strong and persistent when clutch yardage was needed.
Nevertheless, the start of the team's cornerstone game didn't go well for Pegram.
The Bears offense was sluggish at the start of the game, seeing Erik Kramer throw the first of three interceptions in the game. However, if Chicago would lose any early momentum on that play, Pegram gave it right back.
After driving to the Chicago 11-yard line in the first quarter, Pegram fumbled the football, and the Bears recovered, preventing a surefire Pittsburgh score.
Aside from the aforementioned plays, a relatively normal first quarter expired with the Bears leading, 3-0.
Erric Pegram went right back to work, niftily maneuvering his way through the Bears a few yards at a time. O'Donnell found Yancy Thigpen over the middle into Chicago territory, and the Steelers ultimately took a 7-3 lead on the first of three Pegram touchdowns. Sifting through a mass of bodies, Pegram squeezed into the end zone from one yard out.
On the afternoon, Pegram would gain a hard-earned 69 yards that included various key runs, but he couldn't take all the credit.
After all, the Steelers had an All-Pro offensive line, led by Dermontti Dawson and featuring talents such as Leon Searcy and Brenden Stai. The unit was one year removed from anchoring Bam Morris and Barry Foster to a combined rushing total of nearly 1,700 yards.
Pittsburgh's momentum at the start of the second quarter was quickly answered by the Bears. Erik Kramer, whose body seemed possessed by the spirit of Sid Luckman in the fall of '95, threw his first of three touchdowns.
Chicago's answer came courtesy of a Curtis Conway catch, and Soldier Field celebrated a 10-7 advantage. For Conway, his 10th touchdown of the season also pulled him to within three scores of the team's all-time record for receiving touchdowns in a season. After scoring two touchdowns the following week in Green Bay, the record book seemed destined to be rewritten.
However, just as Conway would stall in this particular game, the receiver's magical '95 campaign came to a sudden half in mid-November. He would not find the end zone again, finishing six points short of the tying the team record.
Throughout the first half, the Bears' passing attack was finding open targets all around the field, with Erik Kramer having surprisingly easy sledding in the pocket. While Chicago's offense moved the ball almost effortlessly, causing the defense to shake its head in shame with the lack of pressure on Kramer, the Bears would not allow themselves to reap the rewards of their fine play.
Another interception from Kramer and two Chicago fumbles negated the team's statistical dominance, opening up the door for a surprising halftime score.
Instead of the lead, miscues allowed the Steelers to exit the field into intermission with a surprising 17-10 lead, capped by a seven-yard touchdown pass from Neil O'Donnell to Erric Pegram his second six-spot of the game.
One couldn't help but believe that the Bears had thrown their best punch, only to short-arm the Steelers through their crucial turnovers. Pittsburgh would have the opportunity to adjust at halftime, come out onto the Soldier Field grass a more poised performer and put Chicago away.
Instead, zaniness would ensue!
From his own 22-yard line, Erric Pegram began the second half with another fumble. A hard hit resulted in a stinger that caused the running back to fall limp to the cold, muddy field. Lying on the turf in obvious duress, a few moments passed before Pegram was able to gather himself and walk off the field.
The turnover allowed the Bears to tie the game easily—a short drive capped by a 12-yard touchdown reception by Tony Carter.
Then, the Bears would sack O'Donnell twice, quickly dispatching the Steelers' ability to respond. Neil would be sacked five times on the evening. With the Pittsburgh offense stumbling after halftime, Chicago capitalized again.
Carter and Ryan Wetnight would both be on the receiving end of two Erik Kramer touchdown passes to open second-half scoring—the second score covering 14 yards. Before they could blink, the Steelers were stunned by two Chicago hay-makers trailing 24-17. It was a punch in the stomach, but it may have been the gut-check the team needed.
The extended time Kramer had to scan the field from the pocket (minus a few plays), in addition to his three touchdown strikes just over halfway into the game, were reminiscent of frustrations that had plagued Pittsburgh all season.
One year removed from one of their greatest defensive seasons, the Black and Gold defense didn't look anything like a "Steel Trap." In fact, they looked plain rusty (pun naturally intended), unable to conjure up the dominant presence that had intimidated so many of their '94 opponents.
As an example, Minnesota pounded Pittsburgh weeks earlier. Warren Moon hit Cris Carter for two scores, and the Vikings embarrassed the Steelers inside the home-friendly confines of Three Rivers Stadium, leading 37-6 and 44-18 late in the second half. Then, after falling to 3-3 against the expansion Jaguars, the Steelers were riddled at home by Bengals quarterback Jeff Blake, who completed 18-of-22 passes for 275 yards and three touchdowns in a 27-9 Cincinnati win.
Like a unwelcome version of the movie Groundhog Day, a defense that had lost its heart and soul with a devastating injury to Rod Woodson was repeating its struggles, allowing big plays and high point totals against a team that seemed containable—despite their statistical marvels. Trailing to the 6-2 Bears, the team realized it was "now or never."
Mediocrity could define their year. Or, they could take out their frustrations like rabid dogs, putting their "Bill Murray" to bed and getting back on track as a squad capable of championship football.
In a game that proved to be the catalyst for an eight-game winning streak (which included six more wins following their visit to Soldier Field), the outcome would require every ounce of the team's steely, championship resolve.
A Norm Johnson kick ended scoring in the third quarter, and the Steelers trailed 24-20 heading into the fourth.
At the time, the resolve soon to be displayed by the eventual AFC champions could not have been detected by the naked eye or gut instincts. Steelers fans were witnessing a game in which the Steelers once again seemed more than willing to fall apart at the seams, failing to rush for 100 yards, having given away three turnovers, ultimately committing eight penalties and allowing the Chicago offense to move almost effortlessly.
While both players made mistakes, Pegram and O'Donnell became the two heroic figures, along with Ernie Mills, on a roller-coaster evening that ended with the Steelers headed steadily in the right direction: up!
Through three quarters, O'Donnell had only completed 16 passes for a mere 145 yards. However, by night's end, he would finish 34-of-52 with 341 yards and another touchdown. More importantly, whenever the Steelers needed a big third-down conversion (or fourth, for that matter), O'Donnell provided it in a coming-of-age performance.
Exploiting Chicago's subpar, third-down defense, the Steelers converted 12-of-21 third-down situations in the game. In the fourth quarter and eventual overtime, O'Donnell riddled the Bears on their down of doom.
After the defense finally got a sack on Erik Kramer to hold the Bears to another field goal, O'Donnell and the offense began a statement drive to tie the game.
Erric Pegram's six-yard rushing touchdown tied the game, 27-27. The defense brought the lumber to Erik Kramer again, pressuring the suddenly bombarded quarterback and forcing a punt that pinned the Steelers deep in their own territory with just over six minutes remaining.
Seasons have tipping points, and great teams have to find ways to prevent these moments from becoming breaking points.
With 6:14 left to play in regulation, the Bears' Alonzo Spellman deflected a Neil O'Donnell pass into the air. Barry Minter caught the football and strutted into the end zone unimpeded to give Chicago a 34-27 lead.
Raucous Soldier Field was on the brink of a 7-2 record, while the soul-searching Steelers were on the verge of feeling empty inside.
The tipping point only became steeper whenever the Bears reclaimed possession inside of Pittsburgh territory less than a minute later. Kramer led Chicago inside the opposing 30-yard line, where Kevin Butler had an opportunity to effectively ice the game with four minutes remaining.
Instead, Butler missed the kick, and the desperate Steelers had dodged an enormous bullet. It would mean nothing if they could not respond to tie the game.
From their own 34-yard line, Neil O'Donnell took charge. Many fans point to this game as the moment when the ability of the passing offense to complement the run game and defense allowed the team to ultimately go further under Bill Cowher than ever before.
In other words, it was the series of events that saw the offense grow up.
After a drive that saw third-down conversions, laser throws into tight windows and that slight glimmer of hope, everything rode on fourth down from the Chicago 11-yard line.
O'Donnell dropped back from the shotgun, and the Bears brought pressure. Just as Chicago closed in on Neil, he fired a bullet pass over the middle...
That found Ernie Mills for the tying touchdown.
From the jaws of defeat, the Steelers had tied the game, leaving alive hopes for the thrills of victory.
Remember the struggles of Curtis Conway referenced earlier in the article? One of the receiver's more egregious errors came in the final moments of regulation.
With time on the clock for a last-ditch effort to win the game, Erik Kramer threw deep over the middle of the field to Conway on a crossing route. The ball hit the receiver within the jersey numbers, settling into his hands at the Pittsburgh 30-yard line. It appeared for a split second that kicker Kevin Butler would have a chance at redemption. It would have driven a stake through the Steelers' hearts.
Instead, the ball deflected off of Conway's hands and into the waiting arms of Willie Williams, whose interception stopped the Bears and forced overtime.
On a night where Pittsburgh would truly have to overcome every obstacle, they added to the list by losing the opening coin toss in overtime.
Erik Kramer commanded his troops, clearly fired up in the huddle and making a passionate plea for everybody's best. Despite squandering the lead and making a number of critical mistakes, the Bears had a chance to win on the opening possession of sudden death.
A quick gasp and exhale occurred when Kramer hit Curtis Conway with a perfect pass at midfield...only to watch the receiver drop his third critical pass of the game.
On 3rd-and-9 from the Chicago 34-yard line, Carnell Lake came off the edge on a corner blitz. With nobody blocking the charging Lake, Kramer hurried his throw, which fell innocently incomplete.
Against all odds, the Steelers would have their chance to win the game. O'Donnell, Pegram and Mills, all of whom were critical for the Pittsburgh rally, continued their role as game-changers in the extra session.
Pegram led the drive with five carries and a key reception. A 14-yard screen pass to Pegram took the football into Chicago territory. On 3rd-and-2, the troubled third-down defense allowed the shifty running back to gain the necessary distance by inches.
From their own 44-yard line, Chicago's defense had another wonderful opportunity to stop the Pittsburgh offense. The Steelers faced 3rd-and-11.
Netting the same number of yards as he did on the tying score, a grab by Ernie Mills of a fine throw by O'Donnell netted the necessary yardage by inches again.
Before long, Pittsburgh was on the doorstep of a momentous victory. Norm Johnson came onto the muddy field and eyed up the uprights, which stood 24 yards away.
Erric Pegram recalled his thoughts after the game about Johnson attempting the game-winner:
"No doubt in my mind that the game was over. That was just Norm being Norm."
Pegram and Johnson were former teammates in Atlanta. With the Steelers, Johnson rewarded Pegram's faith once again.
As the kick left his foot, there was no doubt. The Steelers exhaled and exalted, misty clouds of water vapor striking the cold air and leaving their celebratory faces like smoke from so many chimneys. It was surely better than the feeling of many fans only weeks earlier, steam exiting from their ears like tea kettles ready to explode!
While the team hadn't played its finest game, the critical victory—whether stealing one or coming through against a winning team in a hostile environment—was truly the turning point.
As the season continued, the offense continued to make big plays, while Neil O'Donnell's newly discovered confidence at big-play ability paid huge dividends. The defense learned to execute without its best player, Rod Woodson, finally getting close to the form fans enjoyed seeing in Cowher's first few seasons.
Although the game was a cornerstone for the Steelers, the keystone element of the contest wasn't just saved for the 'Burgh. For the Bears, the game had the exact opposite effect.
Chicago, exposed on third-down defense, and otherwise exasperated by the loss, went on a three-game losing skid. They were defeated in five of six weeks, falling to 8-7 and ultimately missing the playoffs.
Marking the game's impact even more starkly is the record of coach Dave Wannstedt. Coming into this key contest against his hometown team, he carried a record of 22-18 as Chicago's head coach. Including this game and beyond, Wannstedt's record was 18-38, a remarkable fall from grace that resulted in an inglorious ending to his coaching career in the Windy City.
Still, at the end of the day, things could have been worse. Just ask Cleveland Browns fans...
One day after the team's first-ever win at Soldier Field, Art Modell announced his intentions to move the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore. The day was November 6, 1995.
Exactly one week later, the Steelers hosted the Browns on Monday Night Football. In a rare showing of solidarity, Pittsburgh fans wore brown and orange arm bands and wrist bands as a statement to Modell and the NFL that the Browns should remain in Cleveland.
After all, the Steelers were going to lose their arch-rival, and in many ways, they've never reclaimed their fiery ire against Cleveland.
The 20-3 win over Modell's future nomads marked the team's third straight victory.
The Steelers won their next five games, capping an eight-game winning streak.
"NINE-GAME SEASON?" Check.
With an 11-5 record, the team hosted the Buffalo Bills in the divisional playoffs, soundly defeating Jim Kelly and company, 40-21.
Then, in an epic AFC championship game, Jim Harbaugh's Hail Mary pass deflected off the stomach of Aaron Bailey and hit the turf, securing the Steelers' spot in Super Bowl XXX against the Dallas Cowboys.
"THREE MORE YARDS?" Check.
Unfortunately, one other popular Pittsburgh theme remained unsatisfied. Two weeks later, O'Donnell's penchant for big plays translated into two career-defining interceptions. The Steelers lost to Dallas, 27-17.
"ONE FOR THE THUMB?" Unfortunately, there was no check mark to be had in this regard until February 2006.
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: