The Pittsburgh Steelers were poised to bring back the glory of the 70's to the Steel City in 1994. Under 3rd year Head Coach Bill Cowher, the team boasted a 12-4 regular season record. And thanks to a late season victory over the hated Cleveland Browns at Three Rivers Stadium, Pittsburgh clinched not only the Central Division crown, but the number 1 seed in the AFC for the playoffs.
In the divisional round of the playoffs, the Steelers would face the Browns for the 3rd time that season. Even though Cleveland was the 4th seed and a Wildcard, most experts considered them at least the 2nd best team in the AFC that year and many regarded the divisional matchup between Pittsburgh and Cleveland as the de facto AFC Title Game. There was never any love-lost between the Steelers and old Brownies and the Cities of Pittsburgh and Cleveland have always been fierce rivals. Maybe it was because I was a lot younger and much more impressionable back then, but I don't remember as much hype for any Steelers non-Super Bowl playoff game as there was for that Steelers/Browns postseason matchup.
The Steelers knocked off the Browns twice in the regular season and the experts were wondering if they could do it for a third time. "It's tough to beat a team three times in one season," was the belief held by some people the week leading up to the game. The Steelers were still the slight favorites, but many were predicting that the third time would be the charm for the Browns and they would be the team leaving Three Rivers victorious. As it turned out, unlike the two regular season matchups, this game quickly became a lopsided affair in favor of Pittsburgh. The Steelers jumped out to an early 17-0 lead on their way to a very satisfying 29-9 victory. The Black and Gold really were the kings of the AFC Central.
After the game was over, I was out walking around my neighborhood when I came upon these kids who were celebrating and waving their Terrible Towels at passing cars. I experienced a few playoff victories in the 80's but I didn't remember seeing anything like that. It really did feel like the glory days of the 1970's had returned.
The next day, my uncle Tony and I sat down to watch the other AFC Divisional playoff game between the San Diego Chargers and Miami Dolphins. Everyone I knew was a little leery of the prospect of Pittsburgh native Dan Marino coming back to his hometown and walking away with the AFC crown. I know I wanted the Chargers to win and so did my uncle. It was a close game, but the Chargers did pull out the victory and I can still picture my uncle and me cheering pretty loudly. I was convinced that everything was falling in place for my Steelers and a trip to the Super Bowl was a mere formality.
Leading up to the AFC Championship Game, most people felt the same way. The Steelers "Blitzburgh" defense racked up 55 sacks in '94 and was ranked 2nd in the league. On offense, Pittsburgh had the number one rushing attack in the NFL and even though the team only ranked 23rd in passing, they were fairly efficient in the air and quarterback Neil O'Donnell threw only 9 interceptions the entire season.
The Chargers--led by quarterback Stan Humphries and running back Natrone Means on offense, and linebacker Junior Seau and defensive end Leslie O'Neal on defense--had a respectable year and put up solid numbers on both sides of the ball (5th in total offense, 9th in total defense) but weren't really considered that strong of a team despite their 11-5 record.
In fact, on the last week of the regular season--the week after Pittsburgh had wrapped up the number 1 seed with its victory over Cleveland--the Steelers played at San Diego. The Chargers needed to win the game to clinch the number 2 seed and a bye in the first round of the playoffs. With nothing to play for, Cowher decided to rest most of his key starters, yet, the Steelers still took the Chargers down to the wire before losing on a last-second field goal.
If the Steelers 2nd and 3rd stringers could stay with the Chargers on the road in a meaningless game when San Diego had everything on the line, how could the Chargers possibly come into Three Rivers Stadium and even make a game of it against a full Steelers squad with a trip to the Super Bowl at stake?
The oddsmakers installed the Steelers as 9-point favorites, but the way people were talking around here that week, it might as well have been 99 points. I was listening to Myron Cope's radio show and one caller appeared so confident that he asked Cope which team he thought the Steelers would have a better chance against in the Super Bowl: The Cowboys or the 49ers. I don't recall if Myron cautioned this fellow not to count his chickens before they hatched, but I know when I heard that, I got an uneasy feeling. I don't know, just seemed like bad karma.
But everyone was talking that way all week, and to be honest, I felt the same way. I didn't think the Chargers were even in the same league as the Steelers.
Even the Steelers themselves appeared quite confident that they would be heading to the Super Bowl. There was talk of a team-organized Super Bowl rap video the week leading up to the game against San Diego. I don't know if that video was ever produced, but, once again, I had this uneasy feeling. Still though, I didn't think there was any way the Steelers could lose.
A local news station went to San Diego to get a feel for how Chargers fans thought the game would go. From what I remember, they didn't seem too confident that their team would pull it out. They interviewed one guy, a store owner, who didn't give his Chargers much of a chance but did say that we Pittsburghers needed our team to win because the weather was so gloomy in our city that we had nothing else to look-forward to. Touche, sir. Touche.
I remember the morning of the game quite-fondly. My two little cousins came over and it was a nice little family gathering. My grandmother, my two uncles, my cousins and I sat down to watch our Steelers wrap up the AFC Championship and clinch a trip to the Super Bowl. It was going to be a glorious afternoon.
It was unusually warm and rainy for a January 15th day in Pittsburgh. That should have set off alarms that things might not go according to plan.
The game did start off beautifully as Pittsburgh went on one of its trade-mark time-consuming drives that ended with a Neil O'Donnell 16-yard touchdown pass to fullback John L. Williams and the Steelers appeared to be off and running. It was going to be a repeat of the Cleveland game from a week earlier. The Steelers were just going to impose their will on the sparkless Chargers and run away with the AFC title. But a funny thing happened, the Chargers stayed in the game. The Steelers clearly were the better team, but there was San Diego, hanging around, only trailing 10-3 at halftime. There was a huge Steelers defensive stand at the end of the half led by linebacker Levon Kirkland that helped preserve that lead, but the way the Steelers were moving the ball--they would ultimately out-gain San Diego 415-226 in total yards--Pittsburgh should have put San Diego away fairly early.
Regardless, everyone was still pretty confident, especially my brother who called me at halftime pretty excited about the prospects of Pittsburgh playing in the Super Bowl.
In the 3rd quarter, the Steelers continued to move the ball, but still couldn't put the Chargers away. However, they did extend their lead to double-digits thanks to a Gary Anderson field goal and were up, 13-3, midway through the 3rd quarter. It was at this point that my uncle Tony, showing confidence similar to that caller to Myron's show, screamed, "Let's go, fellas! Pick it up a notch! You're going to be facing tougher competition in a couple of weeks!" I don't know if he jinxed them, or angered the football gods, but right after that, Stan Humphries went back to pass and hit little-known tight end Alfred Pupunu for a 43 yard touchdown pass that seemed to stun everyone in the stadium.
This made the score 13-10, and I couldn't believe it. Would the Steelers ever finally rid themselves of the pesky, upstart San Diego Chargers and march onto the Super Bowl? The answer was a resounding no.
The score remained 13-10 until the 5-minute mark of the 4th quarter. Humphries, once again, dropped back from the Steelers 43 yard line on 3rd and long and hit wide receiver Tony Martin for the go-ahead score. The Steelers blitzed on the play, but San Diego picked it up and Martin was left one-on-one with cornerback Tim Mcyker, who was beaten badly on the play. I was sitting on the floor beside my cousin Erin when this play unfolded and when Martin caught the touchdown, she screamed, "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" It was like a scream from a horror movie or something.
It really was horrific. I couldn't believe that the Steelers were actually trailing in this game. How was that even possible? The Steelers had one more shot. They had moved the ball the entire day, but after their touchdown on the opening drive of the game, could only muster two Gary Anderson field goals up to that point.
A field goal wasn't going to help them now. They needed to score a touchdown and there was precious-little time remaining for them to do so.
They did get it going and started moving the ball down field quite easily and after O'Donnell hit tight end Eric Green at the 9-yardline to make it 1st and goal with two-minutes left, things were starting to look up. Funny story: when O'Donnell hit Green, I jumped up and nearly hit the ceiling and my cousins Erin and Russ got one huge kick out of it. You'd think they'd be too into this important game to gain any kind of amusement out of my antics, but they still found the time to laugh at me.
Okay, back to the game. On first down, they tried Barry Foster on a run up the middle and lost a yard. On second down, O'Donnell's pass fell in-complete. On 3rd down, Neil hit John L. on a pass to the 3 yard line. Now it was 4th and goal from 3 yards out with only 1:08 left. The Steelers called a time-out and this was it. They were either going to go to the Super Bowl or send 60,000 people home in stunned silence. Which was it going to be?
Infamously, it turned out to be the latter. O'Donnell dropped back to pass and tried to hit halfback Barry Foster on a quick pass over the middle, but Chargers' linebacker Dennis Gibson broke it up and San Diego was now in celebration-mode.
You could hear a pin drop at Three Rivers Stadium as well as my grandmother's living room. After the pass was broken-up, my grandmother said, "All that money down the drain." She was referring to all the money that people spent on signs, Terrible Towels, and helmet cakes in the weeks prior to this big game.
I was in disbelief and I walked out and back over to my mom's house, muttering, "I can't believe they lost. I'm done! I'm done!" I was still mourning the Pirates three-straight NLCS losses as well as the Steelers' overtime loss to the Chiefs in the AFC Wildcard game the year before. It was at this point that I thought I was snake-bitten as a fan and none of my teams would ever reach the Promised Land.
When I got to my mom's house, I did nothing but pace back and forth in her living room--a 22-year old man just at a loss. I spent the entire week thinking the Steelers would be in the Super Bowl and there I was, once again, in disbelief after one of my teams let me down in the Big Game.
Another funny story: While I was pacing back and forth in my mom's living room, I happened to look over at my old dog, Terry, and he was looking at me funny and cowering in the corner. He was obviously afraid of me at that very moment and probably wondering what was wrong with this raving lunatic. I didn't notice the humor initially, but after a few days, I got a good laugh out of that. If only my dog knew the importance of that game, he'd have understood why I was acting like such an idiot.
Anyway, after I finally settled down a bit and stopped my pacing and muttering, believe it or not, I turned on the post-game radio show. Myron Cope was in the lockerroom, speaking in hushed tones as he interviewed the shocked Steeler players. I don't think I ever heard Myron that subdued.
Speaking of radio personalities, the next morning, the late, great John Cigna, former host the KDKA morning show, was interviewing a psychologist to try and get some pointers on how Steeler fans could best handle the depression. After Cigna concluded his interview, he said, "I feel like I have the flu." Finally, someone else said it. I thought I was the only one who ever felt that way after a devastating loss.
It was the Chargers against the 49ers in Super Bowl XXIX and even two weeks later, I was still complaining about the loss to the Chargers. My uncle Tony told me enough was enough and that I should get over it. But how could I? Freakin Stan Humphries in the Super Bowl? That weak San Diego team against the powerhouse 49ers? The Steelers blew it, case closed. It was supposed to be the organization of the 70's going up against the organization of the 80's for all the marbles. The winner would be the first to claim 5 Lombardi trophies.
I guess someone forgot to inform San Diego of the script.
I can't believe I even watched the Super Bowl, but I did. Not surprisingly, it was a blow-out. San Diego was never in the game and lost, 49-26. They proved to be one of the weaker Super Bowl teams in history.
Weak Super Bowl team or not, they had what it took to come into Three Rivers Stadium and snatch the AFC Championship away from the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers did recover a year later and made it to Super Bowl XXX, but January 15th, 1995 will forever be remembered as the day Steeler Nation was blind-sided and knocked to the mat by a quick Pupunu straight to The Chin.