Pittsburgh Steelers: Top 10 Rivalries in Team History
As we celebrated this past Memorial Day, thoughts of the men and women who have served in combat to defend our nation should be on our mind.
Piggybacking on that theme of remembering service in battle, I thought it would be fun to look back and chronicle the 10 biggest rivals in the 80-year-history of the Steelers.
There are few NFL franchises that can claim the type of history like the Black & Gold. Over the years the Steelers have had their share of great moments against certain teams that stand out; thus the genesis of this feature.
I know that this list is subjective and could send some into a frenzy. It doesn't take much to make a Steelers fan mad, but keep in mind that I took several factors into consideration while compiling the list you are about to read. They include these four, but not necessarily in order of importance:
- How long the teams have played each other
- The impact of the games played (Ex: Big playoff meetings or 'historical' moments.)
- If the series is even or lopsided
- How many games played between the two teams
I will give you ample reason as to why the teams on the 10-6 list are there, but I will spend more time covering the teams that crack the top 5.
Again, this list is just one man's opinion.
So sit back, crack open a cold beverage and get the fire going on the grill once again. Prepare yourself properly as you digest the 10 greatest rivalries the Pittsburgh Steelers have ever had (and as always, your feedback on the list is welcome).
#10-6: Philadelphia Eagles, Indianapolis/Baltimore Colts, New England Patriots, Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos
No. 10 Philadelphia Eagles
Just cracking the top 10 is the little brother of the state. The Eagles make the list for several reasons.
The fact that they play on the other side of the state doesn't hurt, but mainly they make it for playing the Steelers 93 times over the years. Between 1935 and 1970, the two teams met at least once a season (except during the 1943 and 1944 seasons).
Many pro athletes fought to defend our nation during World War II, and some teams were forced to merge together. In 1943, the two clubs joined forces in what the NFL called the Phila-Pitt Combine. However, many have fondly referred to that team as the Steagles .
No. 9 Indianapolis/Baltimore Colts
Granted, the teams have only collided 25 times since 1957, they have met five times in the playoffs, which is the third-most the Steelers have played one team in the postseason.
Many of course remember the 2005 meeting in Indianapolis, a game won by the Steelers 21-18.
My favorite moment in the series came on January 14, 1996 at Three Rivers Stadium when the Colts lost 20-16 in the AFC Championship game on the final play. I just happen to be there for that one.
No. 8 New England Patriots
Again, there have been only 22 meeting between the Pats and Steelers, but it's the four playoff meetings that make this a top-10 rivalry for sure.
Unfortunately for the Black and Gold it's been New England who has enjoyed the postseason meetings more, winning both AFC Championship frays (2001 and 2004 both at Heinz Field)
No. 7 Cincinnati Bengals
Now I know that this AFC Central/North rivalry has been a divisional battle of the Steelers since 1970 and that you may feel they deserve to be higher on the list.
I'm here to say no way.
The Steelers own a 52-32 series lead, including the lone playoff victory between the two, coming during that magical Super Bowl run of 2005.
Of course, that playoff game will be remembered for Kimo von Oelhoffen 'falling' into the knee of Bengals QB Carson Palmer on the game's second play, leading to the Steelers winning by a score of 31-17.
The only reason the Bengals don't rank higher is because we own them, having won 32 of the past 43 meetings.
No. 6 Denver Broncos
With just 21 regular season meetings, it's hard to justify why they are so high on the list. Then you factor in the seven playoff meetings (the most for the Steelers against any NFL team) and you can see why they rank so high.
Where do you begin?
How about the 1984 playoff game in Denver vs. John Elway? The Broncos were 13-3 and had never lost a home playoff game before the Steelers beat them 24-17.
Of course, the other home playoff loss the Broncos own came during the 2005 playoffs. Again, it was Pittsburgh handing the Yonkos a 34-17 beating, moving on to Super Bowl XL.
Of course, Denver has had its share of moments. In the 1998 AFC Title game at Three Rivers, Elway got some revenge by directing the Broncos to a 24-21 win (one that would catapult them to a Super Bowl victory over Green Bay one week later).
5. Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans
There was little doubt that the Oilers (now the Tennessee Titans) would be on the list. It just became a question of where.
I gave them the nod over Denver for one main reason: the simple fact that these two teams knocked heads 70 times, and again in the playoffs an additional four.
The two AFC Championship games played in back-to-back seasons over at Three Rivers Stadium still sits fresh in my mind. As an eight-year old growing up in Pittsburgh back in 1978, the Steelers were all the rage in the NFL, but some coach named Bum Phillips wanted to change that.
Late in the 3rd with the Oilers down seven and deep in Steelers territory, Dan Pastorini lofted a pass to the back corner of the end zone, where Mike Renfro made an amazing catch.
There was just one problem.
The officials called Renfro out of bounds. Replay showed otherwise, and the Steelers went on to win their fourth Super Bowl in six seasons.
Fast-forward to the 1989 season. Phillips was out as Oilers head coach and Jerry Glanville was in.
As hard as it is to imagine, Glanville ran his mouth more than Phillips did. It didn't impress Chuck Noll, who managed to guide the Steelers back to the playoffs that year and defeat Houston 26-23 on the road in an AFC Wild Card Game. It would be the Emperor's last playoff victory.
After the Oilers left for greener pastures in Tennessee for the start of the 1997 season, things calmed down until the 2003 playoff meeting in Nashville that saw a running into the kicker penalty sink the Steelers 34-31.
Throw in Donnie Shell breaking Earl Campbell's ribs, Bill Cowher winning his 1st game as head coach in the Astrodome (calling for a fake punt no less) and the various battles here and there, and the Oilers/Titans crack the top 5 greatest rivalries in Pittsburgh Steelers history.
4. Oakland Raiders
This is where the list starts to get interesting. I wrestled with putting Houston/Tennessee in this slot.
Keep in mind that there have only been 19 regular season meetings between Oakland and the Steelers. But when you take the impact of this one particular play that happened above, while sprinkling in the six epic playoff battles both teams waged over a 12-year period of time, you start to get the idea of why the Oakland Raiders are so high
Let's start with Franco's miracle.
December 23, 1972. With under a minute to play and the Raiders leading the host Steelers 7-6, Terry Bradshaw made one final desperation throw down field. The fact that it was caught given the way the play unfolded is the stuff of legend.
Honestly, these teams met in three straight AFC Title games between 1974 and 1976. That also added to my decision to place the Raiders just ahead of the Oilers/Titans combo on this list.
I was a bit young when most of this went down, but I still remember the chatter about these games during the Super Bowl runs of XIII and XIV.
To hear people talk about the Raiders back then, the vile and vitriol that spewed out made me cringe and giggle all at the same time.
Pittsburgh coach Chuck Noll was sued because he referred to Raiders DB George Atkinson as part of the league's "criminal element." It's hard to imagine, but the Raiders were more hated than the Browns at that point, thus adding more weight to support the ranking.
Jack Tatum was another player that helped to make the series so brutally awesome. His bone-crunching hits were the stuff of legend.
Most recently, Pittsburgh native Bruce Gradkowski helped the Silver and Black to a come-from-behind win at Heinz Field in 2009.
Then you add John Madden and Raiders owner Al Davis into this cauldron and it was just too much for me to pass on making the Raiders No. 4 on the list of the greatest rivalries in Pittsburgh Steelers history.
3. Cleveland Browns
The Mistake by the Lake. Any way you slice this one up, the Cleveland Browns have provided the Steelers a great opponent to have a long, rugged series marked by both teams having long stretches of dominance against the other.
Since October 7, 1950, the Turnpike Rivals have met a total of 118 times, the most of any team against Pittsburgh. Add two additional playoff contests, and it's just the start of a great rivalry.
Things were very one-sided to begin with, as the Browns took 16 of the first 20 games. It wasn't much better over the next 20 for the Steelers, winning just five.
Then in 1970, the series began to swing in favor of the good guys, as they humbled the Brownies in 15 of 20 contests.
As it stands heading into 2012, the Steelers hold a slim 62-56 advantage mostly due to the fact the boys from Steeltown have won 20 of the past 23 regular season meetings. Despite the lopsided nature of the series, the bad blood still exists.
The Steelers have also won both playoff meetings, increasing their overall win total against Cleveland to 64.
Of course, the series was interrupted for a few seasons when the unthinkable happened in 1995: Owner Art Modell sold out the city who supported his team for so long and made a deal to take the team to Baltimore where a new stadium was promised.
On November 13, 1995, I witnessed first-hand when Browns fans and Steelers fans hugged each other as the teams met at Three Rivers for what some thought would be the last time. Steelers fans were seen wearing 'Save the Browns' armbands in what was nothing less than a surreal atmosphere at the old concrete bowl.
The city of Cleveland was crushed, but stepped up and fought to protect the history of the Browns, keeping it in tact when in 1999, the city got back to playing in the NFL at their new home against none other than the Steelers.
It was good to have the Browns back, but the result of that night was a 43-0 destruction by Pittsburgh of it's long-time rival.
Welcome back brother, and welcome to our top 10 list at No. 3.
2. Baltimore Ravens
Let the controversy begin.
Well, not on my end. The only issue I had was where to slot the Baltimore Ravens. In my mind, the Ravens belonged either in this spot or No. 3. At no point were they under serious consideration for No. 1, mostly due to the fact that the two teams have played less than 20 years against one another.
Now when you take into consideration how much hatred has built up in such a short period of time, it's also easy to see why the Ravens rank so high on the list.
You want hate? How about Terrell Suggs and his 'bounty' claim on then Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward. The league didn't find it all that funny, investigating and dropping the matter when Suggs later claimed the whole story was overblown, as he meant it as a joke.
You want teams that are even with one another? No team has won more than 5 games in a row, and each team has won at least one Super Bowl since they started playing each other on September 8, 1996.
As it stands, the Steelers own an 18-14 advantage, while going 3-0 in playoff meetings, making their overall win total 21.
The series has truly become one of the best in the history of the league over the past decade. The last three playoff games have been nothing short of epic. That is, of course, if you are a Steelers fan.
In 2010 the Steelers hosted a divisional playoff game against Baltimore, spotting the Ravens a 21-7 halftime lead. Mike Tomlin must have said something incredibly motivating, as the Steelers came out and scored 24 of the games final 27 points, winning 31-24.
Two years earlier in the AFC Title game at Heinz Field, the Steelers and Ravens battled both themselves and the poor weather conditions for the right to play in Super Bowl XLIII. It wasn't pretty, but the Steelers took a 23-14 decision that day, going to their seventh Super Bowl.
When you add it all up, it's easy to see why the Baltimore Ravens rank No. 2 in the greatest rivalries in Pittsburgh Steelers history.
1. Dallas Cowboys
Simply put, I thought this was a no-brainer, giving the No. 1 spot to the Dallas Cowboys.
You can say all you want about Baltimore and the hatred both share, or the length of the Cleveland series, but when you play somebody three times for all the marbles it's hard to not take it under serious consideration for the top spot on this list.
Face it, the Steelers dynasty was forged during the 70's when these two teams were the best in the NFL. Over a nine year period, the two combined to play in seven Super Bowls, twice against each other in X & XIII.
A few years later, a third meeting in the desert of Arizona in Super Bowl XXX allowed old foes to break the mark of most match-ups in a Super Bowl (three). Then sprinkle in a handful of other great regular season battles over the years, and you get the right mix to call Dallas the greatest rivalry in Steelers history.
Heck, the teams have met a total of 30 times over the years, with the series even at 15 games each. It doesn't get much tighter than that.
Why was this rivalry so good?
Let's start with Super Bowl X in Miami. Lynn Swann's amazing performance of four catches for 161 yards and a 4th quarter TD reception served as an appetizer. The touchdown allowed the Steelers to repeat as champs.
Fast forward three years and we are back at the Orange Bowl for another clash of the champions.
You had the Cowboys looking to repeat as NFL kings and the Steelers wanting back on top of the mountain. The winner was also going to have the claim as the first to three Super Bowls. More fourth quarter heroics from Swann and Terry Bradshaw, and a last-ditch effort by the 'Boys put a bow tie on a great game won by the Steelers 35-31.
Keep in mind all of the drama that played out before the game between Cowboys linebacker Thomas 'Hollywood' Henderson and Steelers QB Terry Bradshaw. Henderson said Bradshaw was so dumb he couldn't spell cat if you spotted him the 'c' and the 'a' first. Back then, it was hardcore smack talk and had people fired up.
Throw in the opener in 1982, the Super Bowl XXX debacle (thanks Neil O'Donnell) and the two games in the Big Ben era, (winning late in the 4th quarter his rookie year and the last minute comeback at Heinz three years ago) and you get what I think is the perfect team to slide into the top spot for the greatest rivalry in Pittsburgh Steelers history: the Dallas Cowboys.
John Phillips is the author of this article & a secret member of the Galactic Empire. A lifelong sportsfan and native of Pittsburgh, JP has covered sports in 'tahn 'n at since 1992. You can follow JP on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PGHJohnPhillips