Can you believe it? It's game week for the first time in what seems like forever. Congratulations to US for making it through another NFL offseason. I've been out of town and unplugged all weekend until just a few hours ago, so let me catch my breathe and we'll begin our final week of life this calendar year without live, regular season NFL games. For the immediate time being, let's continue with maryrose's outstanding countdown of the Top 12 greatest non-Super Bowl wins in the illustrious history of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Many thanks to him for all these fine contributions. And of course, if you enjoy his writing and are not yet aware of his recent book project, be sure to check out From Black To Gold: The Pittsburgh Steelers, available for purchase now. - Michael Bean -
This series has highlighted my Top 12 Greatest Wins in Pittsburgh Steelers' history. I do not include Super Bowls, as they would eat up half the series! Please keep in mind that these wins are not necessarily the most important wins. If that were the case, then only the deepest playoff wins would be recounted. Sometimes "importance" is a factor, but not always. Sometimes the underdog factor comes into play and sometimes the comeback factor is the reason for a game being selected where it is. Sometimes it is just the way the game unfolded. In any case, this is just one person's opinion, so there is no right and wrong, just fun. Enjoy.
In Game #10 of this series, I talked about a great game in 1964 on television viewed by a father and child. Forty-one years later, the scenario was eerily familiar. The Steelers were huge underdogs, on the road, against the consensus best team in the NFL. They received the opening kickoff and drove down the field to score. They did it soon again thereafter. They did not punt in the first quarter. In the meantime, the unstoppable opponent could not get to the 50-yard line. After one quarter, the Steelers had a two-touchdown lead.
No, I am not taking about the Steelers-Browns game in 1964, though it seems that way. This time the game featured the Steelers and Indianapolis Colts in the 2005 playoffs. Instead of a nine-year old boy telling his dad that the Steelers were going to win, this time the boy was the dad and his 10-year old daughter was telling her dad that the Steelers were going to win. Now it was I walking that fine line, loving the child's optimism, but fearing a naive letdown.
In 1964, the Steelers faced one of the top-five running backs in NFL history. They not only shut down the run, they themselves ran their way into a lead they never relinquished. Forty-one years later, they faced one of the top-five quarterbacks in NFL history. They not only shut down the pass, they themselves passed their way into a lead they never relinquished.
Ben Roethlisberger was the 2005 version of 1964's John Henry Johnson. Big Ben out-Peytoned Manning the way John Henry out-Jimmied Brown. After his first pass was dropped, Roethlisberger completed seven in a row and marched the Steelers 84 yards for the game's first score, an 11-yard touchdown pass to Antwaan Randle-El. He led a 72-yard drive a few minutes later that culminated in a seven-yard TD pass to Heath Miller. In between the Steelers' perfect offensive executions, Coach Dick LeBeau's defensive unit blitzed and confused the Colts, rendering them completely ineffective.
The Steelers led by nine at halftime in 1964. Against the Colts, the halftime difference was 11. Everything about both of those games up until half was filled with incredible similarities and ironies, especially to me. There was no comfort at halftime of either game, as we kept fearing the second-half explosion that could reverse the contest.
Like 1964, the Steelers came out in the third quarter and scored an early touchdown (Jerome Bettis from a yard out) to extend the lead and keep momentum. However, here is where the similarities and ironies end. In 1964, the Steelers continued their domination throughout the second half. Against the Colts, there were two plays the likes of which had never been seen before. They both went against the Steelers, which unlike 1964, turned the game into a thriller.
The first play occurred when the Steelers were "clinging" to a 21-10 lead. I say clinging because Peyton Manning was having the greatest statistical year of any quarterback in NFL history. He had just scored quickly and had the ball again at mid-field. Manning threw a pass that was intercepted by Steelers' safety Troy Polamalu. The Steelers knew it. The Colts knew it. The 57,449 fans in the Indianapolis RCA Dome knew it. The millions who watched the game on television knew it. Little old ladies knitting in their rocking chairs knew it.
Somehow, incredibly, referee Pete Morelli saw something the rest of the world did not understand. He ruled the pass incomplete, giving Manning new life. The similarities between 1964 and 2005 ended on that play. The Colts scored quickly. Instead of having an 11-point lead and the ball at mid-field halfway through the fourth quarter, the Steelers found themselves fighting for their lives, ahead just 21-18.
Pittsburgh regained its poise and actually had control of the game again after linebackers Joey Porter and James Farrior sacked Manning on fourth-and-long. The desperate Colts gave up the ball on downs at their own two-yard line with just 1:27 to play. Because the Colts had all three of their timeouts remaining, Pittsburgh Coach Bill Cowher decided, justifiably, that handing the ball to Jerome Bettis was a better option than Ben Roethlisberger taking a knee.
But then came the second bizarre play of the game. The normally sure-handed Bettis ran into Colts' linebacker Gary Brackett, whose helmet hit the ball directly and popped it loose. Indianapolis defensive back Nick Harper, who had been in the hospital the night before with a stab wound to his leg allegedly caused by his wife, scooped up the ball and began running to a stunning victory.
The Steelers had no speed in the game since they were in their goal-line offense. The only player who could possibly stop Harper was quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and if Harper makes one more move, or one less, that does not happen. Give credit to Ben, a great deal of it. He made the tackle at the 42-yard line of the Colts. Thank you, Mrs. Harper. But Manning had new life, again.
The game had been emotional for more than three hours, especially for a 10-year old fan. Mary Rose and I were both wearing our number 7 Roethlisberger jerseys, white to match the Steelers' road uniforms. We were sitting in the big chair together and it was all I could do to calm down her emotional roller coaster. I tried to tell her it was just a game and that the game was not over. She was buying neither of that as Manning was completing passes and now going for the kill in the end zone. I thought to myself, "Gosh, have I created a monster?" amidst dealing with my own tensions of that ballgame.
Steelers' cornerback Bryant McFadden perfectly defended a pass in the end zone to Reggie Wayne. Colts' kicker Mike Vanderjagt lined up to boot a game-tying 46-yard field goal. Vanderjagt had been money from long range his entire career. I pleaded with Mary Rose that even if the kick was good, the game would only be tied and the Steelers could still win in overtime. She was not buying anything I was trying to sell.
The kick never had a chance, badly off to the right. Mary Rose paid quite an emotional price for a 10-year old, but she finally came of age as a legitimate die-hard Steelers' fan, just like her dad 41 years earlier. Final score: Steelers 21, Colts 18. Unlike 1964 though, better days were looming ahead for the modern-day Steelers in the weeks to come. Most of the Steelers' fans that I knew were quite surprised, if they admit the truth, that the Steelers could beat the team that was universally considered the heavy favorite that year, in their own antiseptic dome. The Colts had thrashed Pittsburgh earlier in the season in that same dome, 26-7. Coach Dick Hoak was not surprised at all at the reversal of fortunes.
"We were actually a lot more confident than our fans," revealed Hoak. "We saw things on tape that we knew how to correct and we knew we had the right people to beat them. They were so good that year that they didn't have to be complicated. That made it easier for us to game-plan against them. On offense, we came out passing to set up the run, something they didn't expect. Our defensive coaches saw how we could take them out of their offensive game. Everything worked to perfection, until the fumble. I was calm and collected the whole game until then. My heart sank right through me. Then Ben made the tackle, then they drove anyway, then we stopped them. The whole thing became an emotional roller coaster."
#12 - Steelers 20 - 49ers 17 (1984)
#11 - Steelers 20 - Colts 16 (1995)
#10 - Steelers 23 - Browns 7 (1964)
#9 - Steelers 24 - Broncos 17 (1984)
#8 - Steelers 26 - Oilers 23 OT (1989)
#7 - Steelers 29 - Browns 9 (1994)
#6 - Steelers 23 - Ravens 13 (2008)
#5 - Steelers 63 - Giants 7 (1952)
#4 - Steelers 36 - Browns 33 (2002)
#3 - Steelers 24 - Raiders 13 (1974)