An exciting, dual-threat quarterback on one side, a strong-armed pocket passer on the other. Two lethal offenses scoring seemingly at will. A thrilling second-half comeback that was a prequel to even more drama in overtime. A final Hail Mary pass that left everyone - both those at the game and those watching on TV - on their feet. This game really did have it all.
Well, unfortunately, I must backtrack a little; the game almost had everything. It lacked defense, and, most importantly, a winner at its conclusion.
After an 0-2 start and trailing the Browns late in Week 4, Bill Cowher inserted Tommy Maddox into the lineup as the team's new starting quarterback. Maddox led Pittsburgh to a comeback win over the Browns and, after a loss to the Saints the following week, the Steelers reeled off four straight victories heading into their Week 10 matchup with visiting Atlanta. The Falcons were also starting a new quarterback in Michael Vick, who played sparingly during his rookie season the previous year. Mirroring Pittsburgh's start, Atlanta had also started 1-3 before Vick helped ignite a four-game winning steak heading into Pittsburgh.
The Steelers' offense, which had averaged 29 points per game in their previous five games, took control of the game early. Following a touchdown pass to Shawn Jefferson from Vick for the game's first touchdown, Tommy Gun responded with touchdown passes to Plaxico Burress (33 yards) and Hines Ward (five yards) as Pittsburgh led 17-7 at the half.
After Falcons running back Warrick Dunn stunned the Heinz Field crowd with a 59-yard touchdown run to kick-off the second half, Maddox responded with touchdown passes to Burress (62 yards) and tight end Jerame Tuman (18 yards) as Pittsburgh scored 14 of the game's next 17 points. Kicker Todd Peterson booted his second field goal of the afternoon to give the Steelers a 34-17 lead just two minutes into the fourth quarter.
Unfortunately for Steelers fans, Pittsburgh's defense then saw first-hand the magic that Vick displayed throughout that season. On his way to a 338-yard day (294 yards passing, 38 more rushing), Vick engineered a furious fourth-quarter comeback capped by his 11-yard touchdown run with just 51 seconds remaining in regulation to even the score. His touchdown run was the last of three Falcons' fourth-quarter scoring drives as Atlanta scored 17 unanswered points in the final eight minutes of regulation to force the first overtime game ever in Heinz Field.
Defense returned to the game in overtime, as both teams punted to each other, setting the stage for Maddox to try to engineer a last-minute victory in the game's closing seconds. On the final play, Maddox heaved a Hail Mary pass down the left sideline for Burress, who caught nine passes for a staggering 253 yards. Burress caught the pass but fell mere inches shy of the end zone, preserving the 34-34 tie. Pittsburgh and Atlanta combined for 1,092 yards, 51 first downs and eight touchdowns in a game that ended without a victor.
The Falcons game summed up Pittsburgh's season: a dynamic offense and inconsistent defense that struggled all season long defending the pass. In a flip of the script, it was the Steelers that trailed the Browns 24-7 in the Wild Card before Maddox engineered a gallant second-half comeback to win, 36-33. But Maddox and Pittsburgh's offense could not overcome their defense the following week against the Titans, who ended the Steelers' season with a controversial field goal. Tennessee initially missed their field goal attempt but was given a second opportunity after a roughing-the-kicker penalty assessed against corner back Dewyane Washington to post a 34-31 victory.
Despite the disappointing ending to the season, the 2002 campaign was an exciting one that included many twists and turns, including the crazy duel with Atlanta for the last tie game in Steelers' history.