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Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Indianapolis Colts: A Complete History of the Rivalry

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In the NFL’s 100th season, a look at the Steelers and Colts, now and through history.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

With all the NFL 100th season lists, I’ve been thinking about the histories of various Pittsburgh Steelers rivalries. So every week for the rest of the year, I’ll post a retrospective preview, considering the two teams and setting up for the upcoming game.

This week: Indianapolis Colts


2019 Comparison

Current Records:
Pittsburgh 3-4 (2nd AFC North)
Indianapolis 5-2 (1st AFC South)

Current Streak:
Pittsburgh : 2w
Indianapolis : 3w

Last Week:
Pittsburgh defeated Miami, 27-14
Indianapolis defeated Denver, 15-13

2019 Off/Def Comparisons:

Some Other Key Stats:

Turnover Ratio (NFL Rank):
Pittsburgh : +10 (2nd)
Indianapolis : -0- (17th)tie

Third Down Conversions (Offense / Defense):
Pittsburgh : 36.7% (22nd) / 43.7% (24th)
Indianapolis : 45.2% (10th) / 39.2% (16th)

Penalties:
Pittsburgh : 47 (5th)
Indianapolis : 43 (4th)

Opponent Passer Rating:
Pittsburgh : 87.0 (10th)
Indianapolis : 99.8 (22nd)


HISTORY:

Pittsburgh Steelers v Baltimore Colts Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

All-Time Records:
Steelers 667-587-22 (.532)
Colts 543-486- 7 (.526)

Steelers have the 4th most wins in NFL history; 11th best all time winning percentage.
Colts are 12th in wins, and 12th in winning percentage.

Since Merger:
Steelers 502-315-3 (.614)
Colts 406-399-2 (.504)

The Steelers are the winningest team in the NFL since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger.
The Colts are 14th.

This Century:
Steelers 212-115-2 (.648)
Colts 208-129-0 (.615)

The Steelers, Colts, and New England Patriots are the three most successful teams of this millennium. The Patriots are the winningest, with the Steelers #2, and Colts #3 overall. In the first decade of the century (2000-09), the Colts and Steelers swap spots. In regular season wins alone, the Colts move to #1. Any way you slice it, these three have been the class of the league for the last two decades.

Most Iconic Coach:
Steelers : Chuck Noll, the only coach to go 4-0 in Super Bowls
Colts : Tony Dungy, first African-American coach to win a Super Bowl

Note 1: Dungy played for Noll’s Steelers in the late 70s (collecting a SB-XIII ring as a backup safety), and coached for Noll in the 1980s, becoming the youngest and one of the first African American position coaches and defensive coordinator in modern NFL history. The Steelers, famous for their color-blindness, hired him without fanfare (i.e. just because he was good), and he proved them right. Dungy’s famous “Tampa-2” defense, developed as coach of the Buccaneers, is in many ways an updated form of Bud Carson’s 4-3 schemes that Dungy learned in Pittsburgh.

Note 2: Current Steelers coach Mike Tomlin coached defensive backs under Dungy in Tampa Bay. This puts Tomlin in Noll’s coaching tree as well.

Note 3: When the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII, Tomlin became not only the youngest coach to ever win a Super Bowl, but was only the second African-American coach to do so (after Dungy). Asked about this after the win, Tomlin said he was aware of the fact, but was glad no news outlets had seemed to care: “That means this isn’t news anymore, it’s just the way of the world. As it should be.”

Head Coaches’ Assistant-Coaching Highlight:
Steelers (Mike Tomlin) : Defensive Backs Coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl XXXVII. Tomlin’s DBs intercepted NFL MVP Rich Gannon on four of their record five picks, returning a record three for touchdowns in the Buccaneers’ 48-21 blowout victory.
Colts (Frank Reich) : Offensive Coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles during their Super Bowl LII victory over the favored New England Patriots. Reich’s offense flummoxed Bill Belichick all day and rang up 41 points in the win.

Player/Coach in Common (current):
Donte Moncrief (Indianapolis 2014, 3rd round/90th overall – signed with Steelers 2019). Moncreif seemed like a much bigger story before the season. Today, many fans are crossing fingers that the Steelers will release him before week 10 to regain a compensatory draft pick.

Player in Common (past):
Johnny Unitas, drafted by Steelers in 9th round, 1955, given no reps in training camp after coach Walt Kiesling decided he was not smart enough to play pro football. He played semi-pro ball in Pittsburgh for the “Bloomfield Rams” ($6/game) and worked construction in town, and was eventually offered a tryout in Baltimore, where he became arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history (he’s my pick). The Colts won three NFL titles and a Super Bowl under Unitas (1958, 1959, 1968, and 1970), while losing one NFL title and a Super Bowl (1964, 1968); the Steelers record in those five years, collectively, was 25-38-3 (.388).

Coach in Common (past):
Chuck Noll served as Secondary Coach and Defensive Coordinator for the then-Baltimore Colts from 1965-68, including posting a resounding 34-0 shutout of the Cleveland Browns in the 1968 NFL Championship game. The Colts would go on to famously lose Super Bowl III to the New York Jets, but that wouldn’t stop Art and Dan Rooney from tapping Noll to take over their dreadful Steelers squad in 1969—a post he wouldn’t leave until 1991.

All-Time QB Controversy:
Steelers : Terry Bradshaw (1970-83) vs Ben Roethlisberger (2004- )
Colts : Johnny Unitas (1955-72) vs Peyton Manning (1999-2011)

Note: All four of these guys are multiple champions (though Manning got his second with the Broncos), and all four are going to wind up in Canton (Bradshaw and Unitas are already there).

Best Team not to With a Title:
Steelers: 1976 : Season ends in Oakland in AFC Title Game, but is ruined in Divisional Playoffs against the Colts, when Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier are both injured (see below).
Colts: 2005 : Season ends at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers (see below).

Best Former Ram Who Stayed Less than Five Years:
Steelers : Kevin Greene (1993-95), HOF 2016
Colts : Eric Dickerson (1988-91), HOF 1999

Best Penn State Backfield Teammate, class of 1972
Steelers : Franco Harris (1st Rd, 13th overall). 11,950 rush yards, 91 touchdowns, 3x All Pro (1x first team), 9x Pro Bowl, 4x Super Bowl champion, Super Bowl IX MVP, All-Decade Team (1970s), Hall of Fame 1990
Colts : Lydell Mitchell (2nd Rd, 48th overall). 5,487 rush yards, 27 touchdowns, 2x All Pro (0 first team), 3x Pro Bowl, 2x NFL receptions leader

Record when HOF QB Goes Down for the Season (2010s):
Steelers : 3-4, 2019, (or 3-2 in games with starters other than Ben Roethlisberger).
Colts : 2-14, 2011, when Payton Manning had season-swallowing neck surgery.

Record when HOF QB Goes Down for the Season (1960s/1970s):
Steelers : 7-0, 1976, without Terry Bradshaw.
Colts : 13-1, 1968, with Johnny Unitas in limited duty.


HEAD TO HEAD:

2005 AFC Divisional Playoff Game - Pittsburgh Steelers vs Indianapolis Colts - January 15, 2006 Photo by Don Larson/Getty Images

All-Time Series:
Pittsburgh 24 – 6

Playoff Series:
Pittsburgh 5 – 0

Current Streak:
Pittsburgh 5w

Longest Streak:
Pittsburgh – 9 games (1985-2002)
Colts – 2 games (1968-71)

First game:

November 12, 1950
Pitts – 17
Colts – 7

This is a strange series to plot, as it’s not clear who the Baltimore Colts were in their early years. The Colts were part of the AAFC from 1947-49 (the same league that gave birth to the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers when it merged with the NFL in 1950). They played one season in the NFL in 1950, including this game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, then folded – being revived in 1953. Is this, then, the first game in the Steelers-Colts rivalry, or just an exhibition against a team that didn’t make it? Hard to say. In any case, it wasn’t a barn-burner. The Colts came in at 1-6 and would finish the year 1-11. The Steelers, who had begun the year 2-5, would finish on a hot streak, with a final record of 6-6 including a victory even over the defending champion Philadelphia Eagles. The fast finish was a mirage, unfortunately, as the 1951 team slipped back into their sub-.500 mediocrity for the better part of the next twenty years.

Most Recent game:

November 12, 2017
Pitts. – 20
Colts – 17
Highlights

The Steelers were a deceptive 13-3 that year, frequently sleepwalking through games, only to pull out victories in the final minutes. This game was one of those. The Colts were absolutely terrible that year, finishing 4-12 with Andrew Luck missing the entire season. The Steelers were 6-2 but came out flat after their bye (stop me if you’ve heard that one before), and nearly lost this one until a couple of late explosions. This game (for me at least) came to epitomize the problems between Todd Haley and the rest of the Steelers organization (here’s a recap in two parts from this writer, part 1 and part 2).

Biggest Game in the Series (TIE):

January 15, 2006 (AFC Divisional Playoffs)
Pitts. – 21
Colts – 18
Highlights

The Tackle. This game was one of the all-time greats in Steelers lore, and one of the craziest finishes in NFL Playoff history. There are so many things that happened there; you’ll have to forgive me for how long this write-up will be.

Coming off of a 15-1 season that ended in disappointment, the Steelers had a lot of hope. A midseason losing streak – including a 26-7 MNF embarrassment against this very Colts team – nearly cost them a playoff trip. The Steelers needed a dozen things to break their way just to qualify as the AFC’s sixth seed. After escaping a Wild Card road game against Cincinnati, the reward was a trip to Indy against the top seeded 14-2 Colts.

The Colts, after resting starters late in the year, and sitting through a first round bye, looked sluggish and off-time. Meanwhile, 22-year old Ben Roethlisberger, who’d played terrible in his rookie playoffs, was outstanding in this one, avoiding pressure, converting third downs, and leading the Steelers to a 21-3 lead heading into the fourth quarter.

In the final quarter, Manning led a touchdown drive to cut the lead to 21-10 (highlighted by Manning overruling Dungy and sending the punt team back to the sidelines on a midfield fourth down). He was driving them for another with 5:30 left in the game, when Troy Polamalu made a diving interception on a crossing pattern. Rolling over and popping up to run, Polamalu’s knee knocked the football out of his own hands, and he dove on the loose ball and stayed down. Replay officials then decided that he hadn’t made a enough of a football move to complete the catch (foreshadowing 15 years of that question) and gave the ball back to the Colts, who immediately drove for another touchdown that (with the two point conversion) made it 21-18.

At the two-minute warning, the Colts took the ball back inside their own 20, when Joey Porter (who’d made headlines that week, calling the Colts “soft”), exploded with sacks of Payton Manning on 2nd and 4th downs, to end the series, and seemingly the game. Pittsburgh lined up at the two yard line, with reliable Jerome Bettis taking the handoff to ice the game. As he dove for the end zone, a Colt linebacker planted his helmet on the ball, popping it out of Bettis’s hands, where cornerback Nick Harper (who’d also made headlines that week, when he’d been stabbed by his girlfriend in a fight) grabbed it and started the opposite way. Since the Steelers had their jumbo package on the field (extra linemen and tight ends) there was no speed to catch him – it should have been an Indy touchdown. But Roethlisberger, who’d been coached at Miami (OH) to play deep safety on goal line plays, had drifted back to the 25 yard line, and snapped to attention when Harper grabbed the ball. Running full tilt and watching over his shoulder, Ben slowed Harper and forced him to change direction several times, before reaching out and grabbing his ankle as the CB went by, tripping him up and allowing rookie Heath Miller to finish the tackle at the 47 yard line.

In two plays, Manning had Colts on the Steelers’ 28. With time for two plays before the tying field goal. Manning went for the win, but rookie Bryant McFadden broke up two plays (one in the end zone). On the game’s final play, Mike Vanderjagt, the most accurate kicker in NFL history, lined up for a 46 yarder on his home field (a dome), and missed. And the Steelers went on to Denver, eventually landing in Detroit for Super Bowl XL and their record-tying fifth Super Bowl.

January 14, 1996 (AFC Championship Game)
Pitts. – 20
Colts – 16
Highlights.

This one has considerably less drama and intrigue than the other “biggest game” above, but since it was for a trip to the Super Bowl, it’s hard not to count it too. Oddly, the roles were almost reversed in this one. The Steelers were the powerhouse, with the AFC’s second seed. They had unfinished business, having lost the AFC title game the previous year on the game’s final play (after embarrassingly recording a Super Bowl rap video already). They were heavy favorites in this contest. The Colts were a 9-7 Cinderella who had beaten San Diego and Kansas City on the road to get to Pittsburgh. The Steelers, who were the better team by nearly any measure, came out flat in this one (as they often did in conference title games back then), and let the scrappy Colts hang around far too long, before Bam Morris seemingly iced the game with a 1-yard touchdown with 1:34 left. This game is mostly remembered for what happened after, as Colts quarterback Jim Harbaugh (yes, the same guy) drove to the Steelers 30, then fired a Hail Mary on the game’s final play which came disastrously close to being completed. The ball landed in wide receiver Aaron Baily’s lap in the end zone, but he couldn’t hang on, and after a terrifying round of hot potato, the rock hit the Three Rivers Astroturf, and the Steelers were going to Super Bowl XXX.

As a personal side note, I watched this game in the lounge of the dorm during my freshman year of college, nursing the then-worst hangover of my life (still the second-worst). I saw every second of this contest, and remember literally none of it – not even the Hail Mary. Oh college…

Other Memorable Games:

October 26, 2014
Pitts. – 51
Colts – 34
Highlights.

This shootout signaled that the Steelers (after two years at 8-8) were back to being a force in the NFL, though now on the strength of their offense.

Indianapolis’s Andrew Luck threw for 400 yards and three touchdowns and led the to Colts’ 34 points. That would be enough to win nearly any week. But Ben Roethlisberger hung up 522 yards and six touchdowns, going 40-49 with zero interceptions and zero sacks on the day—hitting nine different receivers overall and spreading his touchdown tosses out amongst four. His rating of 150.6 is not his highest ever, but this game was one of the best passing performances you’ll ever see. He would throw six more the following week in a dismantling of the Baltimore Ravens, becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to throw six-touchdowns on back to back weeks.

As a side note: did you know Ben has the most 500 yard passing games of any quarterback in NFL history, with three? (Only 23 such games have ever even happened.) Did you know he’s tied with Payton Manning for the most perfect 158.3 passer rating games (with four), and is the only quarterback ever to throw two perfect games in one season (2007)? There are still people who want to claim that he’s a winner because of his supporting cast (the defense early; the other Killer B’s late), or that he’s mostly a play-ground baller and not really one of the greats. Those people are wrong (and probably stupid). I’m enjoying watching Mason Rudolph grow, but we should all be secretly praying for Big Ben’s return – not just because the Steelers will play better, but because the guy is truly one-of-a-kind, and we’re lucky he’s spent his career in black and gold.

November 28, 2005
Pitts. – 7
Colts – 26

This game wasn’t that significant in and of itself, but rather for how it set up the previously mentioned AFC Divisional Playoff game between the two teams a month and a half later. Indianapolis came into the game at 10-0 (the Steelers were 7-3). After a Steelers opening 3-and-out, the Colts took possession at their own 20 yard line, where (on their first offensive play) Payton Manning and Marvin Harrison caught Ike Taylor out of position, and improvised a go route that became an 80 yard touchdown only 94 seconds into the contest. The rest of the game was a bit more competitive, but the Colts were never in any danger. They looked like the superior team, and would take that confidence into the playoffs as well.

December 19, 1976 (AFC Divisional Playoffs)
Pitts. – 40
Colts – 14
Highlights.

Dan Rooney called the 1976 Steelers the best squad this team ever had, and they certainly had a claim for the best defense in NFL history. This was the year that the two-time defending champs started off flat and out-of-sync, falling to a stunning 1-4 (in a 14 game season) before losing quarterback Terry Bradshaw for two months. After a players-only meeting, the defense took control (of the league, really), and the Steelers finished on a 9-0 run, having given up a total of 27 points total (three per game) and pitching five shutouts. Bradshaw would come back for the playoffs as well. The chances for a three-peat seemed very high.

This divisional blowout (the first round of the playoffs that year) is less significant for the contest itself, than for what it set up the next week, as the Steelers duo of 1000 yard rushers, Franco Harris and Rocky Bleiar (only the second pair of teammates in NFL history to both break the 1000 yard mark) were both injured against the Colts. Neither could play the following week, and the Steelers (unable to control the clock) lost to the 13-1 Raiders 24-7.

December 27, 1975 (AFC Divisional Playoffs)
Pitts. – 28
Colts – 10

A convincing Steelers win in the playoffs is always a nice thing. This game signified one thing, to my thinking: the reigning Super Bowl champs were going to defend their title. It is less mythologized than the icy conference title game against Oakland, or the balletic Super Bowl X against Dallas, but it’s the most thorough of the postseason contests. And those are good too. (Side note: also my dad’s 28th birthday, so there’s that too.)