As a die-hard Steelers fan, it's only natural that I put more importance on playoff victories and postseasons that actually lead to Super Bowls. But, believe it or not, I do have some fond memories of "stand-alone" playoff wins. What I mean is, there may have been no run to a championship, but the victory, as well as my own personal memories, were so awesome, it's something I'll never forget.
One of those victories was the overtime win in the divisional playoff round over the Jets at Heinz Field, following the very memorable 2004 season that saw rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger take the reins in Week 2 after an injury to Tommy Maddox and lead Pittsburgh to a 15-1 regular season. Of course, Roethlisberger had help from a defense that finished first in the NFL in total points and yards and a rushing attack that finished second in the league with 2464 yards.
Speaking of that ground attack, Duce Staley was a very noteworthy offseason free agent acquisition who was expected to replace the legendary Jerome Bettis as the work-horse in the backfield. No. 36 may have been in the twilight of his career, but he was still on the team and still served a purpose. That purpose, initially, was as a short-yardage and goal line specialist. This approach was never more evident than in Pittsburgh's Week 1 victory over the Raiders at Heinz Field in-which Staley rushed for 91 yards on 24 carries, while Bettis rushed for a mere yard on five attempts but scored three goal line touchdowns. I'm not sure if many people remember this, but the fans actually booed Bettis when he was brought into the game to score the touchdowns after Staley did the bulk of the rushing work.
But, as the year progressed, the Bus showed everyone that he still had a lot in the tank as he actually carried the ball 250 times to Staley's 192. Staley missed several games due to injury that season, and Bettis would go on to lead the team in rushing with 941 yards and score 13 touchdowns while Duce only tallied one score in '04. Bettis was once again the starter by season's end.
Roethlisberger was the classic game-manager in his rookie year, averaging only 21 passing attempts a game and throwing 17 touchdowns to 11 interceptions. He did show flashes of his future brilliance, however, particularly in last-second victories over the Cowboys and Jaguars.
As for the defense, it was led by James Farrior, the inside linebacker the team signed prior to the 2002 season, who had a remarkable year--including four INTs, four sacks and five forced fumbles--and finished second behind Ed Reed for NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
The 2004 season was also the year that Troy Polamalu became the player that we all know and love, causing fits for OCs and quarterbacks all across the league and making his first of many Pro Bowls.
Probably the highlight of the regular season was the victory over the Super Bowl champion Patriots at Heinz Field on Halloween that broke New England's 21 game winning-streak. Pittsburgh jumped out to a 21-3 first quarter lead and never looked back, winning, 34-20. The victory helped the Steelers stay one step ahead of New England and eventually earn the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
There was naturally great excitement and optimism in Steeler Nation once the playoffs started. The Steelers had just set the AFC record for most regular season wins, and despite the 6-10 finish the season before, the traditionally poor performances for rookie quarterbacks in the postseason, and New England's recent postseason dominance, a trip to Super Bowl XXXIX for the Black and Gold seemed to be in the cards--a psychic even predicted a Steelers/Eagles match-up.
Pittsburgh's opponent in the Divisional Playoff Game on Saturday, January 15th, 2005, was a Jets team that finished the regular season with a 10-6 mark and had just outlasted San Diego in the wildcard round a week earlier, thanks to a game-winning field goal by Doug Brien in overtime.
The Steelers defeated New York, 17-6, at Heinz Field in Week 14, led by Bettis who rushed for a touchdown and threw for another, and were installed as nine-point favorites for the postseason rematch.
In the week leading up to the game, my mom, a fan her whole life but not insanely passionate like me, was becoming a bigger fan by this point (she even spotted Roethlisberger at some Walmart somewhere and went straight up to him and shook his hand), asked me if there was anything to worry about with regards to the match-up. I said, "The Jets are a playoff team, and it's single-elimination, so anything can happen this Saturday." She couldn't (or wouldn't) grasp this sentiment and said, "What do you mean? Everyone is saying Pittsburgh SHOULD win!"
I kind of felt bad. There's a long-held belief in society that eventually the parent/child dynamic changes, and the roles are reversed. I spent the rest of the week trying to tell her that the NFL playoffs are so great because of the "win or go home" set-up. I don't think she wanted to hear any of that. Of course, I couldn't blame her. I don't like the "excitement" of playoff football, either. I mean, it's fun, but it really isn't. You probably know what I mean by that.
I was at work for the first half of the game, and for those fans, like my mom, who aren't too crazy about playoff excitement, things couldn't have started off better. Pittsburgh jumped out to a 10-0 first quarter lead, thanks to a Jeff Reed 45 yard field goal and a Bettis three-yard touchdown plunge that was set-up by a Polamalu interception of Jets' quarterback Chad Pennington.
Even though the Steelers didn't have the most explosive offense in the NFL, I was feeling pretty confident by that point (a 14 game winning-streak tends to make a fan kind of cocky).
Unfortunately, it didn't take long for my confidence to wane. The Jets hung around and eventually tied the score at 10 just before the half on a Santana Moss 75 yard punt return for a touchdown.
Following the Moss return, a co-worker, amused by the result for whatever reason, said, "What do you think of that?" And I retorted, "I think it sucks!" Yes, despite comforting my mom all week about the highs and lows of playoff football, I was beginning to come apart at the seams like a rookie quarterback starting his first playoff game.
Fortunately, I was finished with work by halftime, so I headed to my mom's to try and catch most of the second half. Late in the third quarter, Pittsburgh had the ball and was driving for what I hoped would be the go-ahead score. I was still en-route to Mom's at the time and had my car radio on, listening to Billy, Tunch and Myron (broadcasting his next-to-last game) describe the action. The offense was still making progress when I arrived at my mom's place and turned my car radio off, but by the time I rushed into her house, she was screaming at the television and calling Reggie Tongue an "ass." Tongue was a Jets' defensive back who had just returned a Roethlisberger INT 86 yards for a touchdown and a 17-10 New York lead.
I couldn't believe it. Here were the Steelers, 15-1 in the regular season, losing by a touchdown to an underdog New York team. It's one thing to fall short of the Super Bowl, but it's quite another to not even win a playoff game after such a special year.
I started to unravel even more right in front of my mom, and she said, "Don't give up just yet. They'll pull it out." (So much for those parent/child roles being reversed).
I hung in there, but man, was it hard, particularly after Bettis fumbled deep in Jets' territory early in the fourth quarter.
I was beginning to wonder if there was enough time for a comeback. Thankfully, the young Roethlisberger helped orchestrate a drive with both his arms and legs, and finished it off with a four yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward that tied the score with six minutes left in regulation.
It was just a matter of a Pittsburgh defense that hadn't given up an offensive touchdown all day getting the ball back one last time. Unfortunately, the Jets offense put Brien in position to attempt a 47 yard field goal with less than two minutes remaining. Brien's kick looked straight and true, but it hit the cross-bar, giving the Steelers' offense premium field position. The first thing that crossed my mind was Roethlisberger continuing his regular season magic and driving for the winning-score. But I guess that didn't cross No. 7's mind, as he quickly gave the football right back with his second INT, this one to David Barrett who returned it to Pittsburgh's 37 yard line. I was absolutely in shock, but my mom was still trying to keep the faith, even if she did look a bit flustered.
Several plays after the INT, on the last play of regulation, Brien was out again, this time to try a 42 yard field goal and send a stadium full of Black and Gold faithful home in stunned silence. Meanwhile, at my mom's house, she had her face covered as she sat on her couch, while I stood in the middle of her living room, hoping and praying for a miracle, but really expecting the worst--after all, no kicker had ever missed two field goals in the last two minutes of a postseason game.
Brien did miss a second time, and when he did, I jumped up and, in maybe the most guttural scream of my life, I shouted: "HE MISSED IT AGAIN!"
I was hoping for a quick end in overtime, but the struggle continued, early-on. Eventually, Pittsburgh mounted a sustained drive, led by Staley, who had returned to the lineup for a cramping Bettis and helped lead the offense to the Jets' 13 yard line. While the offense was trying to put an end to things, would you believe my brother had the nerve to call my mom's house at that very moment for one of his patented "Can you believe this!" phone chats? Yeah, I couldn't believe it either, so I immediately picked up the phone and hung it right back up. That's right, I did that.
Anyway, unlike Brien, Reed's kick had accuracy, and the Steelers had just escaped with an almost surreal 20-17 victory.
I can't remember if my brother called me back, or if I called him, but we talked on the phone immediately after that. And just to show you how euphoric playoff victories can make you, I agreed to be my brother's taxi the next day while he ran his many errands (my bro doesn't drive).
As for my mom, after Reed kicked the game-winner, I gave her a high-five--the first and only time we've ever done that.
Unfortunately, the Steelers Super Bowl hopes were dashed a week later, after a lopsided loss to New England in the AFC Championship Game.
But I'll always have fond memories of what transpired against the Jets.
My mom has witnessed my manic behavior during Steelers playoff games many times over the years, but I'm pretty sure she has a special place in her heart for that victory over New York. When she talks about that day, she never remembers who the Steelers played, nor does she recall what transpired during the game. But she does remember her gut-wrenching nervousness, and of course, my crazy behavior, referring to the Jets win as simply the "jumping around game."