It was about as awesome a first half as any Steelers fan attending a game at Heinz Field could have possibly hoped for.
Against the AFC North rivals and first place Bengals, Pittsburgh scored three first quarter touchdowns--including a dazzling 67 yard punt return by Antonio Brown--to jump out to a 21-0 lead. It would soon be 24-0, 27-7 and then 30-7 by the end of the third quarter. Despite a couple of "Don't let anyone get behind you" fourth quarter touchdown drives by Cincinnati to make the game look closer than it actually was (Final: 30-20), the Steelers walked away with a victory on prime-time television, before a national audience watching on NBC.
And I was there to see it!
OK, that exclamation point at the end of that last sentence would indicate I was surprised to be at Heinz Field in mid-December, but I actually wasn't. This sort of thing happens most years in which the Steelers are playing below the line.
Believe it or not, despite being a fan since 1980, Sunday night's contest was only the seventh regular season Steelers game I've ever been to. You're probably wondering why. It's simple, really. I don't have season tickets, and I don't normally have the disposable income that would allow me to spend hundreds of dollars to see a football game in person. Therefore, I'm one of those people who either gets to go to games in August or when the team is just bad, like this season (5-8, heading into Week 15), thanks to desperate fans looking to unload their tickets at a discount price or for nothing at all.
I don't know if it was revenge for maybe a poor job performance in 2013, or simply a cruel joke, but my boss offered me his tickets for the game (free of charge), and after a second or two to think it over, I accepted them. My boss's seats are in Section 538 (way up there) in the open end of the stadium, with a perfect view of the scoreboard, and oh yes, the river. Of course, it's the kind of view that looks lovely on TV, but when you're there in December, the temperatures are in the low-20s, and the wind just never stops whipping from the time you get out of your friend's car to tailgate in some parking lot, to the time you get back in the car some four hours later, it's just not as much fun as it seems. I couldn't have dressed any warmer for the game unless I installed a heater in my jacket, and I still couldn't stay warm. I mean, my head, torso, arms and legs were warm enough, but my hands and feet? Let's just say I was a little worried about frost-bite, despite what I thought were fairly insulated gloves on my hands, and boots over top of two pairs of socks on my feet.
In all honesty, I'm not the best person to analyze this week's game despite being there in person (if you could call Section 538 "in person") because I found myself standing in the men's room at various times just trying to stay warm--and I wasn't the only one with that strategy.
My guess is a lot of long-time fans either tried to give their tickets away this week or simply threw them in their fireplace as makeshift firewood because I was part of the lowest attendance to ever witness a Steelers game at Heinz Field (45,000 and change).
Again, though, this is nothing new for me.
My first game was in 1988 at old Three Rivers Stadium against those hated Eagles. Much like Sunday night's contest, I attended the game with my uncle, and oh yes, there wasn't a whole lot at stake for Pittsburgh. Actually, the only thing at stake was clinching a top 10 draft pick because, at 2-8, the Steelers were off to their worst start since 1969. For the record, it was actually a pretty fun experience--including witnessing several fights break out in the stands between Eagles and Steelers fans--but Pittsburgh lost 27-26, after a 57 yard field goal attempt by Gary Anderson was blocked as time expired.
The following year, my uncle and I were back at Three Rivers Stadium for a Week 3 match-up against the Vikings. Minnesota was considered a serious Super Bowl contender, but as for the Steelers? On the heels of their 5-11 season from a year earlier, they lost their first two games of the 1989 campaign by a combined score of 92-10 (as you may have guessed, it was the only time I've ever been to Steelers games in back-to-back seasons). Actually, I'm proud to say I was in attendance for that game. Pittsburgh won, 27-14, and would begin one of the most improbable and surprising journeys in franchise history, culminating in a thrilling 26-23 wildcard victory over the old Oilers at the old Astrodome on New Year's Eve.
Five seasons later, I actually attended my first and only game in-which the Steelers had a winning record at kickoff (3-2). My uncle scored the tickets, and I might have actually had to pay my way into the stadium (memory fails me). Anyway, just like Sunday night, Pittsburgh knocked off the Bengals, this time by a score of 14-10.
That '94 team that made it all the way to the AFC Championship game was one of many Super Bowl contending Steelers teams of the 90s, so as you may have suspected, it was my last regular season game of the decade.
My next game was actually my first time visiting Heinz Field. It was Week 2 of the 2002 season against the eventual AFC Champion Raiders. If you remember the '02 campaign, it was pretty crazy. Pittsburgh started out 0-2 before rallying behind quarterback Tommy Maddox to win the AFC North crown and play in two of the most exciting postseason games in franchise history. But before that, there was Week 2. You may remember that game. It was the one in which Oakland quarterback Rich Gannon completed 17,000 outlet passes (actually 43) in a 27-17 defeat of the Steelers. Honestly, I don't know how many of the passes were outlets, but they sure all seemed like it, and we can thank Dick LeBeau for that, whose team he was head coach of during that period, the Bengals, figured out that the best way to beat Pittsburgh's dominant defense was to spread it out. Gannon was the third quarterback to benefit from this scheme, after Jon Kitna and Tom Brady before him.
Thanks a lot, Dad.
Four years later, I was back at Heinz Field to tailgate and celebrate a Steelers team that won its first Super Bowl in 26 seasons the year before. Of course, since I was there for that game, Pittsburgh obviously wasn't primed for a repeat in 2006. Heading into the week, the Steelers were 4-7 and would go on to defeat Tampa, 20-3. I'd give you some analysis of that game, but I played too much beer pong before kickoff and do not remember.
Anyway, the last game I attended before Sunday night's was the one that kicked off the 2009 NFL season. The reason the Steelers were able to participate in that game was because they were the defending Super Bowl champions. There was pomp. There was circumstance. And, in the end, there was a 13-10 overtime victory against the Titans. Just like '06, the Steelers never got a chance to defend their title, thanks to missing the playoffs with a 9-7 record, but the game against Tennessee was the only one I ever attended that had an actual playoff atmosphere.
All-in-all, the Steelers combined record at kickoff of games I've attended over the years is 14-28. Therefore, if you ever see pictures of me enjoying a game at Heinz Field, you better believe it's because of a bad season.
I know what you're going to say: "You should cherish every game you get to attend. I mean, the tickets were free!"
Yeah right. If there was a video feed in the men's room at Heinz Field, I would have watched the whole game there.