There were obviously many exciting postseason games played at Three Rivers Stadium, the Steelers old home from 1970-2000. Pittsburgh's first playoff win at TRS, a 13-7 victory over the Raiders which is famously remembered for its Immaculate ending, ushered in an era of star power and championship dominance the NFL really hadn't seen before. As for the team's last playoff victory at Three Rivers, played a quarter of a century after the Immaculate Reception, it was every bit the defensive struggle, if not nearly as memorable.
The Steelers and Patriots have had a pretty significant rivalry since 2001, but believe it or not, back in the 90's, before Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and Spygate, the two teams had a nice little feud that produced some exciting and memorable moments.
The height of the 90's rivalry saw the two teams face off three times from January of 1997 to January of 1998--including two playoff clashes.
On January 5th, 1997, in a Divisional Playoff game played at old Foxboro Stadium following the '96 season, New England took care of the Steelers in pretty short order, behind Drew Bledsoe and Curtis Martin, scoring a 28-3 knockout victory under then head coach Bill Parcells. The Patriots would reach Super Bowl XXXI before losing to Green Bay, 35-21.
Following the Super Bowl, Parcells left New England to become the Jets' head coach. In the book "The Ultimate Super Bowl Book," Belichick, the Patriots' secondary coach at that time, said Parcells was so focused on his own future, he was on the phone in his hotel room, discussing the New York job in the days leading up to Super Bowl XXXI--talk about your commitment to winning.
I guess Belichick admired those slimy tactics because he joined Parcells' staff in New York.
In steps Pete Carroll.
That's right, before Carroll became famous as the annoyingly enthusiastic 50-something head coach of the USC Trojans in the 2000's, he was the annoyingly enthusiastic 40-something head coach of the Patriots from 1997-1999.
Carroll was a defensive coordinator by trade, but in a Week 16 game against the Steelers on December 13th, 1997, defense wasn't on display, as Kordell Stewart, Yancey Thigpen and Jerome Bettis led an offensive attack that produced 404 yards, and Pittsburgh overcame a 14-0 first quarter deficit and won in overtime, 24-21.
The victory is probably best remembered for Kevin Henry's pick of a Drew Bledsoe screen pass late in the fourth quarter that led to the game-tying touchdown and two-point conversion.
The dramatic victory clinched the second seed in the AFC and a first round bye for Pittsburgh (11-5), while the 10-6 Patriots had to settle for the third seed and a Wildcard game to open the postseason--the two teams swapped seeds from the previous postseason.
The Patriots survived a defensive showdown with AFC East rival Miami in the first round, winning 17-3, to set up the rubber-match against the Steelers on January 3rd, 1998.
Pittsburgh was favored by six points in the game, and after Stewart rushed for a 40 yard score and a 7-0 first quarter lead, it looked as if the Steelers would not only exact revenge from the previous year's playoff loss, they would completely turn the tables and blow New England out of the building.
But it was the only touchdown scored by either team.
Carroll may have had a defensive background, but the Steelers were obviously no slouches on defense when Bill Cowher was running the show; Pittsburgh finished sixth in total defense in '97 under DC Jim Haslett--including first against the run.
Martin, a Pittsburgh native and one of New England's heroes in the playoff victory over the Steelers the previous year, was a non-factor, as the Patriots managed only 36 yards on the ground against a vaunted Pittsburgh defense that would only give up two Adam Vinatieri field goals the entire day.
The two most famous plays happened late in the fourth quarter, with the Steelers clinging to a 7-6 lead.
Pittsburgh had the ball, fourth and goal from inside the one. Instead of going for the sure three points and a 10-6 lead, Cowher decided to gamble and went for the knockout touchdown. The call was a sneak by Stewart that failed miserably.
The Patriots got the football back, deep in their own territory, only needing a field goal to take the lead. But any hopes they had were snuffed out by Steelers rookie linebacker Mike Vrabel (a future star and Super Bowl hero in New England), who stripped Bledsoe of the football, and Jason Gildon recovered for Pittsburgh--the fourth takeaway by the defense on the day. The play by Vrabel wasn't exactly "Immaculate," but it was enough to preserve the very hard-fought, 7-6, victory.
The Steelers struggled over the next three years and didn't make it back to the playoffs until 2001--a year after Three Rivers Stadium was demolished. While the Steelers final playoff victory at Three Rivers Stadium didn't have nearly the historical significance as the first one, for a fan base that prides itself on tough, hard-nosed football, and for a stadium that was almost as intimidating and unforgiving as its hosts, it couldn't have been a better send-off.