Super Bowl XXX: The Steelers nearly get one for the thumb

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers' rally from 13 points down nearly gave them their fifth Super Bowl championship, but two costly turnovers led to a 27-17 Cowboys victory.

As the final seconds ticked off the clock at the conclusion of Super Bowl XXX, you had the feeling that the better team that night would not be holding the Vince Lombardi Trophy aloft the desert sky.

On January 28, 1996, the Pittsburgh Steelers nearly upset the 13-point favorite Dallas Cowboys in Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz. But two costly turnovers ensured that Pittsburgh would be the Super Bowl bridesmaids for the first time in five trips to the big game.

Trailing 20-17 with just over four minutes left, the Steelers offense took the field looking to take the lead. Quarterback Neil O'Donnell was armed with his five-receiver set and three timeouts. They had scored the games last 10 points after facing two 13-point deficits. The Cowboys defense, which was on the field for most of the second half, was on its heels. It looked as if Pittsburgh would pull off the biggest Super Bowl upset since Joe Namath guaranteed a Jets victory in Super Bowl III.

On second down his own 32-yard-line, O'Donnell, pressured by a Dallas blitz, had his pass intercepted Cowboys cornerback Larry Brown. His second interception of the game set up Emmitt Smith's game clinching short touchdown run two plays later. Dallas would win their fifth and last Super Bowl just minutes later by the count of 27-17, with Brown taking the honors as the game's MVP.

While the end result was not the one the Steelers and their fans had hoped for, there were plenty of positives to take from Pittsburgh's duel in the dessert.

Expected by many football experts to be blown off the ball by Dallas' mammoth offensive line (they were the only offensive line in the NFL to average over 300 pounds a linemen in 1995), the Steelers defensive line swarmed the Cowboys' backfield early and often. After allowing a 23-yard run by Smith on his first carry, linebacker Levon Kirkland, nose tackle Joel Steed, and the rest of the Steelers held Smith to 26 yards on his final 17 carries. As a team, Dallas rushed for a mere 56 yards for an average of 2.2 yards a carry.

Pittsburgh's defense also applied pressure on Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, who was barely touched in his previous two Super Bowl victories. Aikman was 0-3 passing on third down in the second half as the Cowboys offense took only 19 snaps in the final 30 minutes. Aikman was also sacked twice as he threw for the fewest passing yards in any of his three Super Bowls.

While Kirkland led the Steelers with eight tackles and a sack, cornerback Rod Woodson set professional sports history by being the first American professional athlete to return to compete in the same season in which he tore an ACL. After tearing his ACL in a Week 1 win against the Lions while trying to tackle Barry Sanders, Woodson underwent rigorous physical therapy in pursuit of rejoining his teammates on the field. Woodson played most of the game and held Hall-of-Fame receiver Michael Irvin to five catches for 76 yards and zero touchdowns.

On offense, the Steelers offensive line overcame a poor start and by game's end had thoroughly outplayed the Cowboys defensive line. After falling behind 13-0, Pittsburgh's offensive line-led by Hall-of-Fame center Dermontti Dawson- gave O'Donnell time to march the Steelers to their first touchdown of the game, hitting Yancy Thigpen for a six-yard touchdown seconds before halftime.

After falling behind 20-7 on a Dallas touchdown set up by Brown's first pick, Pittsburgh's O-line went back to work. Mixing punishing runs by Byron "Bam" Morris with methodical passes by O'Donnell, (who completed a then Super Bowl record 29 passes) Pittsburgh would score 10 unanswered points to put the Steelers in position to win. A field goal and a 1-yard touchdown run by Morris with 4:44 left was sandwiched in between an onside kick recovery by Deon Figures.

The Steelers famed five wide receivers also made their mark on this game, especially wide outs Ernie Mills and Andre Hastings. With Deion Sanders taking away Thigpen most of the game, Mills and Hastings caught a combine 18 passes for 176 yards, with most of those catches coming in acrobatic fashion.

Mills hauled in eight passes for 78 yards before leaving the game due to injury in the fourth quarter. Hastings recorded 10 catches for 98 yards that included a 19-yard-catch on third and 20 late in the first half that set up a fourth and short conversion by Bam Morris that led to Pittsburgh's first touchdown. Hastings 10 catches in the game is second all-time in Super Bowl history.

While they didn't join the ‘70s Steelers has Super Bowl champions, the '95 squad made themselves and their fans proud for their effort in Super Bowl XXX. Even though the better team didn't win that night, the Steelers still walked off the field that night as champions in their own right.

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