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From 1989 to 2011 - A Unique Steelers-Broncos Playoff Rematch

It surprises people outside the United States to learn that football has replaced baseball as the national pastime. Of course, many reasons explain football's popularity, but stock answer is that the National Football League is one of the best marketed products in the US.

Marketing, at its core, is about story telling, and the NFL has masterfully told its tale with NFL Films serving as its minstrel. Behind the legendary voices of John Facenda and Harry Kalas, NFL Films narrated pro football so eloquently that generations of NFL fans never needed of YouTube or to visualize their favorite history-making moments.

Packaging means nothing, however, absent a compelling story.

Post-season battles between the Steelers and Broncos several compelling stories, but tides of history have converged make this one match up a little different from the rest.

From 1989 to 2011 - A Unique Steelers-Broncos Playoff Rematch

The 1989 Pittsburgh Steelers are the most storied non-Super Bowl squad in Steelers history, because they fundamentally defied the odds, galvanizing the support of a generation of fans whose memories of the Super Steelers traced back to their grade school years.

If you're unfamiliar with the '89 team team, here's their tale in 62 words:

Coming off a 5-11 season, the 1989 Steelers lost their opening games 51-0 and 41-10, suffered three shut outs, but ultimately rallied to make the playoffs, defeated the Houston Oilers and (costing Chuck Noll arch-rival Jerry Glanville his job in the process) only to come within a dropped pass and an errant snap of upsetting the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium.

Since that fateful match up, the Steelers and Broncos have met twice in the AFC Championship, once Pittsburgh in 1997 and once in Denver in 2005. Both times the visiting team won and went on to glory in the Super Bowl.

What makes this playoff game unique is that several main characters from the 1989 game return to Mile High to reprise their roles.

Leading Man: John Elway

Although his attitude and playing style differed sharply, in 1989 John Elway was the Peyton Manning of his generation. Elway of the 80's was a fantasy owner's dream, and his last minute comebacks, albeit aided and inflated by Denver's thin air, are nonetheless legitimate legends.

But as AFC Championships bedeviled Manning, the Super Bowl haunted Elway, who was out dueled by Phil Simms in Super Bowl XXI and choked badly in a blow out vs. the Redskins in Super Bowl XXII.

The 1989 AFC Divisional Playoff Elway was first post-season contest game following his Super Bowl XXII nightmare, and he took the field that afternoon as a quarterback in search of redemption....

...And redemption has been central to John Elway's return to the Broncos, this time as team President. Elway's mission has been to restore the franchise's honor and to rebuild a culture of winning. Elway quickly cleaned house in Denver, and one of his first moves was to hire a new head coach, John Fox.

The Teacher Becomes the Master, and The Pupil Becomes the Teacher

The New Master

John Fox is no rookie head coach, having seen the Carolina Panthers through many ups and downs in his nine years coaching there. That part of Fox's story is well known.

But what is less well-known, is Fox joins Tony Dungy and Mike Tomlin as a branch on the Chuck Noll coaching tree. Chuck Noll brought Fox into the NFL, naming him as his secondary coach in 1989, where Fox helped a promising rookie from UCLA make the transition from linebacker to safety. That rookie was Carnell Lake, who also just happens to be returning to the Mile High City....

The New Teacher

As mentioned above, Lake had to make the switch from linebacker to safety as an NFL rookie. Rod Rust was the Steelers defensive coordinator in 1989. Rust's system doesn't (and shouldn't) get the recognition that the LeBeau-Capers, zone blitz does. But Rust's system was successful and known its complexity.

In one year under Rust the Steelers passing defense improved from 28th (which meant last place then) to 16th, and Carnell Lake played a big role.

As a rookie, Lake was 5th on the team during the regular season in tackles and led the defense in the post-season. He only brought down one interception, but recovered 5 fumbles, including a game changer during a monsoon vs. Miami.

As impressive as his rookie year transition from linebacker to safety was, the transformation in the Steelers secondary that Carnell Lake has overseen as defensive backs coach has been more remarkable.

When the Steelers left the field after Super Bowl XLV, consensus in the NFL was that secondary was their unquestioned weak link. Under Carnell Lake's tutelage, William Gay and Keenan Lewis have developed into confident, competent corners on the NFL's number one pass defense. The metamorphosis of the Steelers secondary has been so dramatic that Troy Polamalu has been able to function for much of the season as a fifth linebacker, playing close to the line of scrimmage.

Supporting Players

10th Round draft picks don't exist in today's NFL, and they generated little fanfare in 1989. But Jerry Olsavsky never let other's expectations discourage him.

Olsavsky began by making a name for himself on special teams. But that changed in week 8 when an injury to Hardy Nickerson forced Jerry O into the starting lineup. Olsavsky would go on to start 8 more games, earning himself a spot on the AP's All Rookie team.

Jerry Olsavsky wanted desperately to join on Bill Cowher's staff but The Chin turned him away each time. After the 2009 season, Mike Tomlin gave him his wish, naming Jerry Olsavsky a defensive assistant.

Scout's Honor

In 1989 Joe Greene was in the 3rd year of his stint as Steelers defensive line coach. As defensive line coach Joe Greene never earned the accolades that Johnny Mitchell's success has won him.

But let's be frank here, Greene coached Keith Willis, Aaron Jones, Donald Evans, Lorenzo Freeman, Kenneth Davis, Craig Veasey and Gerald Williams. Out of that group, only Williams would have a shot at playing alongside with Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood, Cameron Heyward and Chris Hoke.

And while we're on the subject of quality personnel let's remember that Greene returned to the Steelers in 2004 as a scout, and in that capacity he probably had some role in the team's evaluating and acquiring players like Hood, Heyward, and McLendon.

Tim Tebow, the Modern Day Equivalent of the 1989 Steelers

Hollywood has bred us to be suckers for underdog stories. The 1989 Steelers filled that role mightily. But for as remarkable as their story was, at pales in comparison to Tim Tebow's.

Has a successful college player ever generated even a faction of the controversy Tebow generated over whether he could win in the NFL? Josh McDaniels ignored the naysayer's and drafted Tebow in the first round, but got himself fired after week 13.

McDaniel's exit appeared to spell doom for Tebow. But when the Broncos started 1-4 this year, John Fox turned to Tebow. The conventional wisdom was that Fox was "playing Tebow because he ‘had to'" so that he could start fresh with a new quarterback in 2012.

No one gave Tim Tebow a chance...

...just like no one gave the 1989 Steelers a chance.

And, as an NFL passer, Tebow has failed to complete more than 50% of his passes...
....The 1989 Steelers finished 28th (last) in total offense.

Competing 45% of his passes didn't stop him Tebow from leading his team to an improbable 8 game streak where they won 7 games, including 3 over time victories...
....The 1989 Steelers, with their 28 ranked offense, rallied from behind 3 times on their run to the playoffs.

The parallels are not 100% symmetrical.

Whereas the 1989 Steelers were surging as the playoffs arrived, Tim Tebow and his Broncos are coming off a three game losing streak. But that's the beauty of the story.

The 1989 Steelers appeared to be "down for the count" a number of times, but each time they bounced back. After a third shut out left them at 4-6 the media asked Chuck Noll if he was ready to call it a "rebuilding year."

Noll scoffed at the notion, and declared the playoffs to be his goal during the remaining six games. The media rolled their eyes. Noll had the last laugh.

The Steelers, injuries aside, should by all rights win this game. But as Jerry Micco warned on the Post Gazette's "SportsNow," if the score is close going into the fourth quarter, the Steelers had better watch out.

An Improbable Epic

The 1989 Steelers and the Denver Broncos played a game for the ages in Mile High Stadium. Just a few months before, ESPN had mockedPittsburgh for "having a starting running back named Merril Hoge." Suffice to say, the Broncos entered that game as heavy favorites.

By the end of the first half Merril Hoge had run for 100 yards. Numbed with disbelief, the Broncos were over heard saying, "That guy, number 33, Hode, Hog, whatever his name is, he's KILLING us."

The Steelers led that game 17 to 10 at the half, but John Elway led twin touchdown drives in the third and fourth quarters while the Steelers could only manage field goals.

The Steelers had a shot late in the fourth quarter. But rookie Mark Stock dropped what would have been a key long completion. Dermonti Dawson had to come out of that game after that play, and in came his back up Chuck Lanza. Lanza snapped the ball badly, Bubby Brister never got his hands on it, Denver recovered, and won the game.

Rematch 22 Years in the Making

We of course don't know what kind of game Steelers and the Broncos will provide us almost 22 years to the day later. The "experts" are predicting a low scoring game.

But many of the key figures who brought us that first epic will be on hand, albeit playing different roles.

Given their low playoff seed and mounting injuries, the odds-makers are betting against the Steelers journey ending in Lombardi Number Seven. But those same odd-makers never gave the 1989 Steelers any chance.

How fitting is it then, that the 2011 Steelers will start their own improbable journey in the same place where their 1989 brethren's ended vs. a team led by a quarterback fighting his own set of odds. NFL Films couldn't have scripted things any better.