Pat Bowlen loves to give.
The owner of the Denver Broncos for the past 30 years, Bowlen stepped down yesterday due to declining health. But during those three decades as the head man in Denver, Bowlen gave a great deal to the Mile High City.
He gave the Broncos fans six Super Bowl appearances and the franchise's first two Vince Lombardi Trophies. He and his players gave the city of Denver the second most wins during that span in the NFL. He helped give Denver a brand new stadium at the start of the century. Shannon Sharpe told NFL Network that Bowlen personally took care of the costs for 20 of Sharpe's closest friends to travel to Canton for Sharpe's Hall-of-Fame induction. Off the field, Bowlen has been lauded for his giving spirit in regards to his charitable contributions to the city.
His Broncos gave the Steelers many memorable battles over the past 30 years. Denver went 3-2 against the Steelers in their five post season match ups during the last 30 years, with the winning team advancing to the Super Bowl in three of the four occasions.
In fact, Bowlen's first playoff game as owner of the Broncos came against the Steelers. Led by second year quarterback John Elway, Denver had won a franchise best 13 games and had earned the No.2 seed in the AFC playoffs. The Steelers were heavy underdogs despite winning three of their last four regular season games to finish 9-7. Despite their mediocre record, the Steelers had a knack for playing their best against the best that season, exemplified by their upset of the 49ers in Week 7 that turned out to be the only loss San Francisco endured that season on the way to a victory in Super Bowl XIX.
Anchored by a powerful rushing attack, efficent passing and an inspired defense, the Steelers upset the Broncos at Mile High Stadium, 24-17. While Jack Lambert and the defense held Elway and the Broncos to just 250 total yards and 15 first downs, the Steelers offense amassed 381 yards and 25 first downs. Mark Malone enjoyed his finest hour as the Steelers quarterback, completing 17 of his 28 pass attempts for 224 yards that included a 10 yard touchdown pass to Louis Lipps that tied the score at 17 late in the third quarter. But the story of this game was the bruising running duo of Frank Pollard and Walter Abercrombie. The duo combined to rush for 174 yards on 33 carries, with Pollard rushing for 99 yards that included the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter.
While the Steelers slipped into mediocrity over the next five seasons, the Broncos ascended as the best team in the AFC. Denver had appeared in two Super Bowls by the time the teams met again in the second round of the '89 playoffs. As was the case five years earlier, Denver was again the heavy favorite while the 9-7 Steelers again looked to play the role of spoilers after upsetting Houston in overtime the week before in the wild card round.
After touchdowns by Merril Hoge and Louis Lipps powered the Steelers to leads of 10-0 and 17-7, Denver rallied to tie the score on an Elway touchdown pass in the third quarter. Red zone scoring would be the Steelers Achilles heel on this afternoon, settling for a six-point lead on two Gary Anderson field goals late in the game. Elway made sure the Steelers felt the sting of those red zone miscues, driving the Broncos to the go-ahead touchdown late in the game. Mel Bratton's touchdown from a yard out sealed Denver's 24-23 victory in what turned out to be Chuck Noll's last playoff game. Denver would go on to lose their third Super Bowl in four years, this one to the 49ers in Super Bowl XXIV.
Despite playing at home and defeating the Broncos about a month earlier, the Steelers were again the decided underdogs in the '97 AFC Championship Game against Denver. After allowing a 43-yard run and short yardage score by running back Terrell Davis, Kordell Stewart and Jerome Bettis responded with their own rushing touchdowns as Pittsburgh took a 14-10 first half lead. But Elway and the Broncos would rally with 17 unanswered points in the second quarter to take a 24-14 halftime lead. Despite shutting Denver's offense out in he second half and cutting the deficit to three points on a Stewart touchdown pass to Charles Johnson, the Steelers could not overcome four turnovers that included three interceptions as the Broncos prevailed, 24-21.
While the Steelers suffered three non playoff seasons following the loss, Bowlen and the Broncos would win the next two Super Bowls to close out the decade. After defeating the Steelers, Denver upset the Packers to win the AFC's first Super Bowl since 1983, the season before Bowlen took over control of the Broncos. In perhaps his finest moment as owner, Bowlen held the Lombardi Trophy for just seconds after the game before handing it over to Elway while exclaiming: "This one's for John!"
While Elway was the sentimental favorite eight years earlier, Jerome Bettis held that title when the Steelers headed to Denver for the 2005 AFC Championship Game. Despite being the No.6 seed, Pittsburgh was favored to beat Denver on the strength of their monumental upset over the 14-2 Colts the week before. Led by Jake Plummer, Denver rolled to a 13-3 record that season and had just dethroned the defending two-time Super Bowl champion Patriots the week before.
While the first three playoff meetings between the two teams went down to the wire, this one wasn't close. Pittsburgh never trailed and led 24-3 at halftime on the strength of two Ben Roethlisberger touchdown passes. Bettis also scored from three yards out in his bid to advance to his first Super Bowl.
After Plummer rallied Denver to within 10 points at 27-17 with just under eight minutes left, Big Ben put the game on ice with a four-yard scamper into the end zone with 2:59 left. The score was set up by a forced fumble on Denver's previous possession. With the win, the Steelers became the first sixth seed to advance and ultimately win the Super Bowl. It would be Bill Cowher's only Super Bowl victory and the team's first since the '79 Steelers. Bowlen and the Broncos wouldn't return to the AFC Championship Game until 2013, which ended up being Bowlen's last as the owner of the Denver Broncos.
The 2011 AFC Wild Card match up between the teams was one of the most exciting playoff games in NFL history. Despite going 12-4 during the regular season, the defending AFC Champion Steelers traveled to face the AFC West champion Broncos, who went 8-8 under quarterback Tim Tebow, who took over following the team's 1-4 start. After two early field goals, Tebow and the Broncos ambushed Pittsburgh by scoring 20 unanswered points to take a 20-6 halftime lead. But Roethlisberger willed the Steelers back into the game, connecting with Jericho Cotchery from 31 yards out to tie the score.
In overtime, Tebow's last pass in Denver ended the Steelers season. On the first play of OT, Tebow hit Demaryius Thomas for an 80-yard scoring strike to propel Denver to the next round.
Bowlen and his Broncos gave the Steelers many memorable battles during his time as the team's owner. Steelers fans always knew that the a game against the Broncos meant a 60-minute slug fest against an always competitive team. The Steelers history wouldn't be what it is if not for Bowlen's Broncos and his desire to field the best teams possible, each and every season. Bowlen gave much to the NFL, and like every fan base, the Steelers are thankful for Pat Bowlen and what he gave to the great game of football.