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The BTSC Delorean: The complete catalog of Steelers AFC Championship Games, 1980s and 90s edition

Take a trip back in time with BTSC with the complete catalog of Steelers AFC Championship Games from the 1980s and 1990s.

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

The Pittsburgh Steelers have played in 63 Postseason Games in in their history, and they all elicit memories in Steelers fans both good and bad. In those contests, the Steelers have played in 16 AFC Championship Games and are .500 in those games with a record of 8-8 with six of those leading to Super Bowl victories. BTSC takes a look back at the entire catalog of Steelers AFC Championship Games in Part 2 of a three-part series.

Here’s a brief tale of the tape of the Steelers history in AFC Championship Games:

Record: 8-8

Home Record: 6-5

Road Record: 2-3

Points: Steelers 349, Opponents 339

Home Points: Steelers 239, Opponents 204

Away Points: Steelers 110, Opponents 135

Shutouts: 0

Biggest Win Margin: 29 - Steelers 34, Oilers 5 (January 7, 1979)

Biggest Loss Margin: 19 - Patriots 36, Steelers 17 (January 22, 2017)

Closest Game: 3 - Denver Broncos 24, Pittsburgh Steelers 21 (January 11, 1998)

Overtime Games: None

Here’s a brief tale of the tape of the 1980s Steelers in AFC Championship Games:

Record: 0-1

Home Record: None

Road Record: 0-1

Points: Pittsburgh Steelers 28, Opponents 45

Home Points: None

Away Points: Pittsburgh Steelers 28, Opponents 45

Shutouts: 0

Biggest Win Margin: None

Biggest Loss Margin: 17 - Miami Dolphins, Pittsburgh Steelers 28 (January 6, 1985)

Closest Game: 17 - Miami Dolphins, Pittsburgh Steelers 28 (January 6, 1985)

Overtime Games: None

Here’s a brief tale of the tape of the 1990s Steelers in AFC Championship Games:

Record: 1-2

Home Record: 1-2

Road Record: None

Points: Pittsburgh Steelers 54, Opponents 57

Home Points: Pittsburgh Steelers 54, Opponents 57

Away Points: None

Shutouts: 0

Biggest Win Margin: 4- Pittsburgh Steelers 20, Indianapolis Colts (January 16, 1995)

Biggest Loss Margin: 4 - San Diego Chargers 17, Pittsburgh Steelers 12 (January 6, 1995)

Closest Game: 3 - Debver Bron Pittsburgh C, hiefs 16 (January 15, 2017)

Overtime Games: None

January 6, 1985 - Dolphins 45, Steelers 28 (1985 AFC Championship Game)

The Steelers of 1984 were in their first season post-Terry Bradshaw, lost Jack Lambert for half of the season with a turf toe injury, and were the youngest team in the league. At 9-7, Chuck Noll’s team won a weak AFC Central and snuck into the playoffs as a division winner. After a shocking defeat of the 13-3 Denver Broncos on the road in the Divisional Round, the 14-2 Miami Dolphins, a team that destroyed the Steelers 31-7 in October, were waiting in South Beach with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. Everybody knows the story of the Steelers and every other team in position to draft Dan Marino passing on the Pitt quarterback and said QB that broke six NFL full season passing records in that sophomore season of 1984. That story was on the minds of many when the blitzing barnstormers of the Steel City was matched up against Marino and his high-powered offense, while the ball control Steelers were pitted against the Killer B revival in Miami-Dade.

As expected, Marino struck first with a 40-yard bomb to Mark Clayton (4 for 95 yards and 1 TD) to forge an early lead with 7:15 gone in the first. The Steelers countered with a long run by Walter Abercrombie that set-in motion a RIch Erenberg seven-yard saunter into the end zone with 3:30 remaining in the initial quarter. Brothers Glen and Lyle Blackwood both picked-off Mark Malone (20/26 for 312 yards, 3 TDs, and 3 INTs) passes in the second quarter, but the Dolphins only were able to muster an Uwe von Schamann 26-yard field goal. Surprisingly, the Steelers actually took a lead of 14-10, when wide receiver John Stallworth (4 receptions for 111 yds and 2 TDs) pulled-in a 65-yard touchdown reception with 2:52 remaining until intermission. But that wouldn’t last long, as Marino would throw a 41-yard touchdown to wide receiver Mark Duper (5 catches for 148 yds and 2 TDs) and an interception by William Judson then set up a 2-yard touchdown run by Tony Nathan (61 yards rushing, 8 catches for 114 yds and a TD) to give Miami a 24-14 lead before halftime.

Miami’s momentum was maintained in the second half, Marino completed a 36-yard touchdown to Duper. But the Steelers wouldn’t go away so easily into the Miami mid-day sun. Malone found Stallworth once again for a 19-yard touchdown, but the Dolphins scored two more touchdowns with Woody Bennet’s TD run from the one, and Marino’s fourth TD throw, this time to Nat Moore clinched a Super Bowl berth for Don Shula’s team. Malone would connect with Wayne Capers on a 29-yard pass play to close out the scoring, but the clock had already struck midnight on Chuck Noll’s Cinderella Steelers and the white, aqua, and orange proved to be too formidable, amassing 569 yards of offense and Marino going 21/32 for an AFC Championship record 421 yds and 4 TDs. Malone and the Steelers offense did put up big numbers though with Walter Abercrombie, Frank Pollard and Rich Erenberg rushing for a combined 147 yards, but No. 16’s three interceptions ultimately aided the demise of his team. The difference remains that that the Steelers defense couldn’t get to Marino, while the Dolphins capitalized on defense on a plethora of Pittsburgh turnovers.

The 1984 AFC Championship loss went down in history as the final playoff appearances of Stallworth, Malone, Lambert, Frank Pollard, Gary Dunn, Mike Merriweather, Mike Webster, Larry Brown, Donnie Shell, Bennie Cunningham and a host of others. The Steelers fought with great pride and valiance, but the game truly marked the end of the remarkable 1970s dynasty. But what a hell of a run it was

To watch the full game, click HERE

January 15, 1995 - San Diego Chargers 17, Pittsburgh Steelers 13 (1995 AFC Championship Game)

The 1994 version of the Pittsburgh Steelers started out getting absolutely embarrassed by the defending champion Dallas Cowboys upon finishing the first quarter of the season at 2-2. By the end of the season, Bill Cowher’s club had won 10 of 12 to finish at 12-4 and embarking on their third consecutive trip to the playoffs in as many seasons. After beating Bill Belichick and the Browns for the franchise’s first playoff game since 1989. With home-field advantage and spirits high, it was hard to deny that the Men of Steel weren’t favorites to go to their first Super Bowl in 15 years. But were the Steelers not focusing on the task at hand and looking past the incoming AFC West champs, the San Diego Chargers? With spirits high and the team listed as favorites to go to their first Super Bowl in 15 years, Bill Cowher allegedly erupted when Ray Seals and other players were focusing on production of a Super Bowl rap video entitled “60 Minute Men”, and other players seemed more concerned about Super Bowl tickets for friends and family.

On game day, the Steelers looked focused and ready to roll at the start when they took the opening kickoff and drove 67 yards via Neil O’Donnell’s big completions to Andre Hastings for first downs, one being on a 4th and 2. Following was a 16-yard pass to paydirt to John L. Williams for a 7-0 lead with a mere 7:18 gone from the clock. Ron Ehrhardt’s Steel City offense was looking to add more late in the quarter, but Barry Foster was tackled by Chris Mims with the ball coming loose and the fumble recovered by Darren Carrington at the San Diego 41. Pittsburgh’s defense would manage to stop the momentum and force a punt. The Steelers proceeded to march towards taking advantage of squashing the lucky break by the opposition and advance the ball to the Chargers 27-yard line, but a holding penalty pushed them out of field goal range, and they ended up punting it back.

In the second quarter, San Diego finally managed to get points after feeding the ball plentily to Natrone Means and getting a 46-yard gain on a pass interference penalty called on Deon Figures that placed them on the doorstep on the Steelers 3. They couldn’t get in the end zone though and settled for a John Carney 20-yard field goal to trim the score to 7–3 with 3:41 to go before intermission. Wanting to get a bigger lead before the break, the home team struck back with a 12-play drive, including two passes to Hastings and three first down conversions from O’Donnell to Ernie Mills. With a first down at the enemy 12, it looked as though the Steelers could get another touchdown, but a holding penalty knocked their offense 10-yards in the wrong direction and scored on Gary Anderson’s 39-yard field goal with 13 seconds left in the half was all that they could muster. With 30 minutes in the books, Pittsburgh only led by the score of 10–3 despite outgaining their opponents from San Diego in total yards 229–46.

The Chargers came out of the locker room to start the second half looking to even the score, but three plays in Stan Humphries was intercepted by Rod Woodson and O’Donnell countered with a long pass to Eric Green and a shorter toss to Yancy Thigpen to get Bill Cowher’s club down to the Chargers 6. But a no gain by Foster and a pair of incompletions intended for Ernie Mills stalled the drive. Anderson’s 23-yard field goal was the consolation, and the Steelers were on top by a score of 13–3 with 10:37 left in the game. A trip to the Super Bowl was seeming to be more and more likely for the Three Rivers Renegades. But the Steelers were either too self-assured or merely snake-bitten as Bobby Ross’ guys pulled a shocker on the ensuing drive, when Stan Humphries faked a handoff to Means, completely fooling the everybody in the Steelers secondary and finding little known Alfred Pupunu insanely wide open for a 43-yard touchdown. The score was cut to 13–10 with 8:03 left in the third, but there was plenty of time left for the Steelers to rebound, but they never did. Three straight possessions ended in three punts, as the offense was absolutely flat.

Early in the final quarter, Humphries kept going to his man Alfred as he completed consecutive passes to Pupunu for 31 yards, moving the ball across midfield. Then on 3rd and 15 with 5:13 left in the game, the 43-yard line jinx continued as Humphries launched a 43-yard touchdown pass to Tony Martin, who leaped over Tim McKyer to make the grab right in front of the end zone to give the Chargers a 17–13 lead. Now with only 5:13 to go in regulation, the pressure was on, and O’Donnell seemed up to it coming out and completing seven consecutive passes to Green, John L. Williams, Mills, twice again to Williams, and two more to Green to get to the Chargers 9. But a run by Foster got negative one yard, Neal couldn’t hook up with Green on second down, John L. got 7 on a pass play, and it all came down to 4th and goal at the 3. A trip to Miami and the Super Bowl all came down to this, as No. 14 dropped back and threw over the middle to Foster, only to have linebacker Dennis Gibson get his hand in there and knock the ball and the Steelers Lombardi Trophy dreams to the Three Rivers surface.

Neil O’Donnell, for the time, set an AFC Championship game record completing 32 of 54 passes for 349 yards and a touchdown, while Ernie Mills chipped in with 8 catches for 106 yards. But the Steelers could only break the plane of the end zone once and found themselves tormented by Junior Seau and his 16 Junior Seau recorded 16 tackles while suffering from a pinched nerve in his neck. All in all, the 60 Minute Men could only hold a lead for 55 and came up the dreaded “three yards short”.

To watch the full game, click HERE

January 14, 1996 - Pittsburgh Steelers 20, Indianapolis Colts 16 (1995 AFC Championship Game)

After a devastating end to the 1994 NFL Season at home in Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium, the Steelers started of their 63rd season in search of three more yards to avenge that shocking loss to the San Diego Chargers in the AFC Championship. But circumstances were demoralizing for the team with Rod Woodson’s assumed season-ending knee tear and the loss of QB Neil O’Donnell for a month in the season opener. After an auspicious 3-4 start, a lost season was the diagnosis for football in the Steel City. However, Bill Cowher and the Steelers wanted a second opinion. The prescription was hard-nosed play and the cure occurred when the black and gold triumphed in all but one of their remaining nine games. When the Steelers bludgeoned the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Divisional Round, the opportunity would finally present itself against the surprising Indianapolis Colts and Captain Comeback, Jim Harbaugh.

The Steelers appeared to come out smokin’ and with good field position after Ernie Mills had a great kick return on the opening kick negated due to a Donta Jones roughness penalty, The excitement waned quickly when Neil O’Donnell threw a pass to Mills that was tipped by Tony Saragusa and intercepted by Jeff Herrod and advanced to the black and gold 24-yard line. But the Blitzburgh defense bottled up the Colts and Carrie Blanchard’s 30-yard field goal attempt clanked off of the upright and went in. The Colts led 3-0 with only two minutes and 43 seconds gone in the game. You just knew it was going to be one of those days.

It took the Steelers until their third possession to put a productive drive together, but it stopped at the Colts 13 in a frustrating manner for the Steelers when O’Donnell’s perfect strike to Kordell Stewart fell incomplete at the front of the end zone. However, officials missed an egregious pass interference call on Jason Belser who got there way too early. Fans booed the replay loudly as Belser did a full body flex at the Three Rivers Stadium faithful. The Steelers settled for a Norm Johnson 30-yard field goal to tie it up at 3-3. The tie didn’t last long as they countered next with another Blanchard field goal. Both defenses were bending but didn’t break until the Steelers took the ball at their own 20 and engineered a 16-play drive that climaxed in an O’Donnell to Stewart touchdown collaboration over Belser for five yards on 3rd and goal. The play should have not been allowed because Kordell briefly stepped out of the end zone before the pass was thrown. It ended up being a makeup call for the illegal Belser breakup from before. The Steelers drained 7:27 off of the clock and went into the locker room at halftime up 10-6.

Getting the ball at the 25 on the opening kick of the second half, Harbaugh guided his team as far as the Pittsburgh 20. A 37-yard field goal was the fruit of that drive’s labor for Indy. The Steelers would not answer, and the Colts would be on the move into black-and-gold territory again, but the Big Nasty D would force another field goal attempt that would not go through the uprights from 47-yards out. Norm Johnson and the Steelers did have an answer in the form of a 36-yard field goal when the offensive efforts came to a halt at the visitor’s 18. With the score 13-9 in the closing seconds of the third.

A three-and-out by an inspired Steelers defense gave the offense an opportunity to drain clock and extend the tally to possibly a two-score game. But a decent drive got cold when O’Donnell suffered a streak of incompletions and the normally reliable Johnson missed on a kick of 40.

With Ted Marchibroda’s Colts possessing the ball at the 30 and 10:57 separating the Steelers from a trip to Phoenix for Super Bowl XXX, the defense needed to protect their lead. What transpired was slightly less than desirable, as Harbaugh completed three straight passes. From the 47 of Pittsburgh, hinders all over the world gasped in horror as Captain Comeback launched one deep to a wide-open Floyd Turner who rocketed into the end zone. Blanchard’s true extra-point made the score 16-13 with the clock showing 8:46 remaining. The Steelers had plenty of time to shine, but the offense was as cold as that January Joe Dinardo forecast and Rohn Stark emerged to punt the ball away to Indy. The Steelers looked to have gotten a huge break on the very next Colts’ possession when Lamont Warren had the ball tomahawked out of his arms by Levon Kirkland at the Indy 9, but the ball bounced high and was plucked out of the air by Joe Staysniak to retain the ball for the visitors. Then Brentson Buckner was not called for a roughness penalty on Harbaugh for a very late hit after the whistle, and the Colts were facing a 3rd and 1 at the 21 when Willie Williams made a huge defensive stop. Warren had a hole in which it looked like he could have run forever, but No. 27 tripped him up from behind with an ankle tackle for no gain. The Steelers would get another shot, but precious time poured off of the clock.

With the ball back at the 3:03 mark, Neil came out firing completions to Stewart and John L., but the next pass almost ended things in disaster for the home team when O’Donnell’s pass to Mills was a sure pick-six dropped by Quentin Coryatt. Despite the new life, an incompletion on third down set up a 4th and 3 from the Indianapolis 47. O’Donnell hit Hastings for a nine-yard gain and a first down with 2:00 to go. On the very next play, No. 14 called an 80-Semi Go, a double-move to Ernie Mills and went for it all. No. 89 hauled in the pass at the 1 and Bam Morris would burst in two plays later for the go-ahead touchdown and a 20-16 lead. But 1:34 was a ton of time for Captain Comeback despite spending two timeouts on the Steelers last possession and starting out at their own 16. Harbaugh would move his team to midfield with :39 left when his pass was intercepted but dropped by Chris Oldham, who could have sealed it there. After completing a 4th and 2 to Sean Dawkins, the Colts had the ball at the Pittsburgh 38. A Harbaugh scramble for nine and a spike to stop the clock at :07. With one last play for a Super Bowl bid, Harbs launched a Hail Mary with three men to the right side of the end zone. All along Aaron Bailey was the target, and when the ball finally came down after seemingly hanging in the air forever, it appeared that Bailey had come down with the football. However, Randy Fuller had knocked it to the turf and an official was right there to call it incomplete. The Back Judge Tim Mills later said, “If I didn’t see it hit the ground, the wrong team goes to the Super Bowl”.

With those three more yards realized, the Steelers were finally back in the Super Bowl after a 16-year hiatus. Regardless of what happened in Arizona two weeks later, the outcome against Indy ended in an epic thriller on a cold day and revitalized yinzer love for their “Stillers” with even more intensity than ever.

To watch the full game, click HERE

January 11, 1998 - Denver Broncos 24, Steelers 21 (1997 AFC Championship Game)

The year 1997 started out a lot like the campaign three years earlier, opening up and getting trounced by the Cowboys in the season opener at home. The 37-7 debacle against Dallas and the 1-2 beginning was no surprise as the Steelers’ 65th season was considered a transitional year due to free agent losses of standouts like Rod Woodson, Chad Brown, Ernie Mills, Andre Hastings, Deon Figures, Brentson Buckner, and others. It was also a season with a new starting quarterback at the helm in the form of Kordell Stewart and the disappointing decision to switch to a rounded number font instead of the traditional (and awesome) block numbers. So, a sixth-straight playoff appearance was not a certainty. But the Steelers triumphed in 10 of their next 12 games before falling to Tennessee in the finale. A 7-6 win over New England at home in the divisional round set up the Steelers hosting the AFC Championship Game for the third time in four seasons and a date with Denver, a team they beat a few weeks earlier at Three Rivers by the score of 35-21 led by a phenomenal Kordell Stewart who threw for 303 yards and three touchdowns, while running for two more.

Denver won the coin toss and elected to receive, but it didn’t seem like the best decision when John Elway’s pass on the second play of the game was intercepted by Levon Kirkland to set up shop on the Broncos 43-yard line. Stewart and his offensive unit move the ball to the 20, but sure-footed Norm Johnson actually missed a 38-yard field goal attempt. to squander the opportunity. On the next play Denver wasn’t kidding around when Terrell Davis, sporting a flak jacket unbeknownst to the Steelers) took off for a 43-yard sprint to the Steelers 29, and then followed it up later in the drive with a run to glory from the 8. The Steelers, realizing that they needed to keep the game tight, countered with a 65-yard effort to tie the game with a Stewart completion of 20 yards to Yancey Thigpen and 33 by Slash’s use of his own legs to pay dirt and a 7-7 score with 6:16 remaining in the first quarter. Denver was on the move again immediately on the next series with passes to Shannon Sharpe and Rod Smith and runs by Davis to get down to the Steelers 32. However, Darren Perry crashed that momentum he forced and recovered Davis‘ fumble. The Steelers took advantage by driving the length of the field courtesy of receptions by Thigpen and Courtney Hawkins and 32 yards on six carries by Bettis, including his 1-yard bulldozer to go up 14-7 early in the second. Denver added points on the ensuing possession with a Jason Elam 43-yard field goal to cut the score to 14-10, but after a pair of punts, Cowher Power was in full force as the Steelers, behind a 19-yard run by Will Blackwell, were driving towards changing the numbers on the scoreboard in Bronco territory. But two plays later, Stewart threw into double coverage and Ray Crockett mad him pay for it, intercepting his pass in the end zone. Elway, looking to force the issue of why one shouldn’t force a throw into traffic, led his horses on an 80-yard jaunt to glory that ended with a 15-yard touchdown pass to fullback Howard Griffith, and a 17-14 lead with 1:47 to go before halftime. The Steelers couldn’t counter this time and a series that featured an unnecessary roughness penalty on Steelers lineman Justin Strzelczyk only took 1:03 off of the clock. With a mere :43 seconds left, Elway went to work, and thanks to a pass interference penalty on Carnell Lake for 34 yards on the first snap of the drive, the Broncos weren’t only in field goal range, but close enough for shots at the end zone. Mike Shanahan’s team then got a run by Davis and a 1-yard touchdown pass and two Ed McCaffrey catches, including one of the 1-yard scoring variety to give Denver a 24-14 lead in only 30 seconds. A squib quick returned by Jon Witman had the Steelers at their own-43 with 13 seconds left, but Kordell’s heave to Charles Johnson was taken away by Braxton, and both teams retreated to the locker room for an intermission.

Staunch defense was the theme for most of the second half, but it didn’t necessarily look like it from the start of the quarter. The Steelers opened the final 30 by moving the ball methodically down the field with Kordell, Bettis, Hawkins and Thigpen doing most of the heavy lifting but with goal to go on the enemy 5-yard line, Stewart’s offering to Johnson in the end zone was again gobbled up by a guy in the wrong uniform as Allen Aldridge ended the possession with an interception in the end zone. After a stop to force a punt, the Steelers moved the ball to the Broncos 32, only to come up empty again when Neil Smith sacked Stewart, who lost his grasp on the ball and Mike Lodish claimed the turnover for the Broncos on the final play of the third quarter. Punts ended the next five drives, but Kordell caught fire late to put a stop to that trend by completing seven of eight passes and calling his own number to advance the chains in a drive that ended with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Johnson. With 2:46 left in regulation, the score was 24-21 and there was still a chance with one more defensive stop. But they couldn’t get one. At the two-minute warning, facing 3rd and 5 on their own 15-yard, the Broncos sealed it with consecutive passes from Elway to Sharpe and then McCaffrey to move the chains and run out the clock.

Both teams had success running the ball as Davis rushed for 139 yards, Bettis rushed for 105 yards and both scored touchdowns. But the biggest story of the game was turnovers as Pittsburgh lost possession five times to their opponent’s two.

The Broncos would end on a Rocky Mountain High as Denver would douse the flames of the white-hot Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl to finally bring home the Lombardi to the Mile High City. As for the Steelers, this game marked the final playoff game in the history of Three Rivers Stadium and the end of the best years of the 90s and the beginning of a bad stretch with a three-year postseason hiatus.

To watch the full game, click HERE