As we risk our lives to acquire the proper nuclear fuel to feed BTSC’s 1981 Delorean, we find ourselves programming the time circuits for the holidays once again. It was a time when NATO began peacekeeping in Bosnia, moviegoers were enjoying the original Jumangi and the collaboration of Boyz II Men and Mariah Carey was in its’ record-breaking number one streak with One Sweet Day.
Welcome to December 24, 1995.
Meanwhile, on the professional gridiron, the Pittsburgh Steelers were enjoying an 8-game winning streak and had already clinched the AFC Central. However, the final week of the regular season had them still in a battle for home-field advantage in the AFC with the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Steelers were set to visit legendary Lambeau Field and square-off with the Green Bay Packers. The Green-and-gold featured Head Coach Mike Holmgren, the eventual MVP in Brett Favre and a stifling defense that was home to Reggie White and Sean Jones. It had been 23 years since Green Bay had a division winner and they needed a win to clinch.
The Steelers, operating without their top-two running backs, Erric Pegram (rib injury) and Bam Morris (hamstring pull) had Fred McAfee starting at running back. The former Saint had only 22 carries the entire season, so penetrating the Green Bay run-defense was expected to be a tough task. But Neil O’Donnell, Yancey Thigpen and rookie phenom Kordell Stewart highlighted an offense that could score quickly without having to rely on the running game as much as it used to.
The first quarter was primarily a defensive struggle as Green Bay indeed took the running game completely away from the Steelers. The biggest action was a Steelers’ turnover-on-downs in enemy territory and an Edgar Bennett 23-yard run to end the first quarter. But the second play of the second quarter saw Bennett run nine yards up the middle for the touchdown and into the arms of the fans in the stands for the famed Lambeau Leap. It was 7-0 Packers.
After shutting the Steelers down again on the next drive, Favre and the Packers were moving the ball into Steelers’ territory. At the Pittsburgh 47, No. 4 dropped back to pass and fumbled while trying to elude a sea of white shirts. Carnell Lake, also on the blitz, recovered the ball to put the Steelers in good field position that turned into a Norm Johnson 33-yard field goal.
Then, the Steelers started having more trouble with Green Bay’s receivers, as Favre connected with Brooks and Mark Ingram on the next drive. Brett found Brooks, the Packers’ newly-minted single-season yardage champ, in the back of the end zone for 19 and he Lambeau-leapt as well. It was 14-3 in favor of the home team. But the Steelers got the ball back with less than two minutes on the clock and raced down the field to get into field-goal range. But O’Donnell and company found themselves quickly in the red zone behind three completions to Andre Hastings and two to Ernie Mills, one of which was his eighth touchdown of the year. The halftime lead was cut to four.
After the Steelers were pinned down on the 1-yard line by a Craig Hentrich punt, they went three-and-out and had to punt as well. The short kick gave Green Bay a short field. Dorsey Levens’ 23-yard run got the ball out to the nine. Then Favre, on a busted play, took off for pay-dirt and was stopped short. It looked as though he was injured on the play, but he merely took a legal shot to the gut by Greg Lloyd and threw up. Jim McMahon was set to enter, but Favre stayed in. On 3rd-and-goal, Favre capped off the 5-play drive by rolling right and completing the pass to Mark Chmura. Suddenly it was 21-10 in favor of the Packers on the frozen tundra with the 0° wind-chill.
Fred McAfee (31 yards on the drive) started to move the ball on the ground well as the Steelers worked their way towards the end zone. However, the Green Bay defense clamped down and the Steelers had to settle for a Norm Johnson field goal of 25 yards. But after a Kevin Greene plaster-sack of Favre led to McMahon’s entrance, Green Bay countered with a 47-yarder from Chris Jacke to make the score 24-13 with 13:26 left in the game.
On the next drive, Ron Ehrhardt’s offense was even more focused and drove into Packer real estate again via O’Donnell completions to Stewart (2), Thigpen (2) and Hastings (1). On the eighth play of the drive, rarely used Tim Lester burst in from the right side for the TD. However Kordell ran into a wall on the option and was forced to pass on the two-point try. It fell incomplete to Jonathan Hayes and the score was Green Bay 24 and the visiting Steelers 19.
Green Bay tried to put the game away on the next series, but the Blitzburgh Defense wouldn’t allow it and forced a punt from the Steelers’ 40. Starting on the 20 with 5:27 remaining in the contest, Bill Cowher’s club drained all but eleven seconds from the clock with a 19-play drive that included two conversions of fourth and inches. On the 19th play, the Steelers were facing a 4th-and-goal from the GB six. Holmgren’s team was being thoroughly dominated on the drive and was looking for a Christmas miracle. It didn’t appear as they’d get one as Thigpen found himself all alone in the left corner of the end zone. O’Donnell launched a perfect pass to the Pro Bowler that fell right into his hands...and then inexplicably bounced off of his knee. Thigpen ripped off his helmet in disgust, but restrained himself from spiking it. The Steelers’ win streak was over as frozen fans wearing foam cheese on their heads rejoiced in the holy Wisconsin night.
The Steelers wouldn’t have gotten home-field advantage with the win. Kansas City demolished Seattle to wrap that up, but Pittsburgh still earned the bye-week. Cowher and Company still really wanted the win. But the loss against the eventual NFC runner-up still elevated the Black-and-gold. It motivated them as they’d go on to reach their first Super Bowl in 16 seasons.
As for me, I was back home for my first Christmas in Johnstown since moving away. After the loss, I celebrated Christmas Eve with my family and all anybody wanted to talk about was how valiantly the Steelers played in the loss. I remember my Great-Aunt Theresa breaking down the play to Thigpen. She was in her late-60s, but I was impressed. Even today, at her advanced age, she knows her team. I remember raising my glass for the toast during our traditional Italian meal of the seven fishes. I remember giving thanks for being back home with my beloved family and friends at the table, and I capped it off with giving thanks to the Steelers for what would continue to be (despite the future Super Bowl loss) a special year.