"He caught the ball! No, no, they rule incomplete! For a moment, it appeared that the miracle had been answered... Aaron Bailey, almost with the reception... and the Steelers have won!"
Dick Enberg's call of the end of the 1995 AFC Championship still gives me goosebumps some 19 years later. The call perfectly crystallizes how crazy that play, and that entire game, was. In the end, the Steelers had exercised the demons of the heartbreaking defeat in the 1994 AFC Championship, and had won the teams first conference title since the great 1970's teams. The Colts, heavy underdogs throughout their playoff run, proved themselves worthy competitors in nearly pulling off one of the greatest upsets in NFL championship history.
If you're too young to remember or need a refresher, Pittsburgh trailed late and needed to convert a fourth down and complete a 37-yard pass to take the lead with less than two minutes left. Led by Jim Harbaugh, the Colts battled into Steelers territory to set up a Hail Mary pass to Aaron Bailey as time expired. While it initially looked like he caught the pass, the officials saw what the replays of the play later revealed: the ball had barely slipped out of Bailey's arms and onto the Three Rivers Stadium turf.
While the last play in itself makes this game memorable, here's 10 other reasons why the game was so great and remains a fun watch nearly 20 years later. You can watch the game in it's entirety here.
1) Defense ruled the day: An interception on the Steelers first passing play from served as a foreshadowing of things to come. While there were plenty of big plays by both offenses, this game was a battle between two physical, hard-hitting defenses. A week after holding the 13-3 Chiefs to a mere seven points, Indianapolis held Pittsburgh to just 285 total yards a week after putting up over 400 yards against the Bills. Not to be outdone was the Steelers defense, with Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene and Chad Brown each sacking Harbaugh while helping hold the Colts rushing attack to just 3.6 yards per carry.
2) One of the best broadcast teams in their element: The broadcast team of Dick Enberg, Phil Simms and Paul Maguire is easily my all-time favorite, and the fact that they called this game is icing on the cake. In my opinion, no one could capture the drama of a game quite like Enberg, whose knack with words helped him perfectly articulate and illustrate what was transpiring on the field. He also gave you the most random and interesting facts during games, like how Erric Pegram would fall asleep watching his favorite show, Sanford and Son, and that Colts (and future Steelers) linemen Will Wolford attended high school with Tom Cruise. Simms, a former Super Bowl MVP as the Giants quarterback, did a great job complimenting his fellow broadcasters while also breaking down the game in an informative way that wasn't over the viewers' heads. A former linemen in the AFL, Maguire couldn't hide is old school passion for the game, and would often break out in enjoyable rants when he loved a particular play on the field. All three are at their best here, and really make this game a treat to watch some 19 years later.
NBC, in general, did a great job covering the NFL back then. The network liked to focus on the coach's and players' facial reactions before and after plays, exemplified by capturing the shot of an intense Lloyd right before he gives an impassioned speech to the defense before they headed out for the game's final drive at the 2:06:36 mark of the video posted above. During this sequence, you notice that Enberg and his fellow broadcasters don't say a word; they simply let the great sounds and pictures do the speaking for them. Unfortunately, many of today's broadcasters forget what this broadcast team knew. that sometimes the best lines is knowing when not to say any.
3) Steelers execute classic Ron Erhardt drive: The Steelers former offensive coordinator loved long, sustained scoring drives that would sometimes take well over 10 plays while taking a significant amount of time off the closk. As offensive coordinator of the Giants in Super Bowl XXV, Erhardt's offense controlled the clock for over 40 minutes, with two drives lasting over half a quarter. Trailing 6-3 in the second quarter, Pittsburgh embarked on a classic Erhardt drive. They moved 80 yards on 17 plays, with Pegram and Kordell Stewart converting on several key third and short situations. The drive culminated in Stewart's five-yard touchdown reception as Pittsburgh took the lead into halftime.
4) Kordell's controversy: Replays of his touchdown revealed that Stewart's feet went slightly out of bounds prior to his catch, making him an illegal receiver. Since replay challenges were not available at that time, the touchdown stood, drawing the ire of Colts fans for years to come. The way I see it, the play was the Football Gods evening out matters from earlier in the game, when Stewart was hit in the end zone by a Colts defender prematurely on a pass intended for him. As Stewart said to NBC after the game: "What goes around comes around."
5) Lloyd, Harbaugh have potty mouths: When you're a kid, hearing a pro athlete swear on TV (and seeing the subsequent responses by nervous broadcasters afterwords) is pretty hilarious. As a matter of fact, it's still funny now as an adult. This happened on two occasions during this game. Referee Bernie Kukar's (I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that he was arguably the best official of his time) mic picked up Harbaugh swear after he was thrown down by Steelers defensive linemen Brenston Buckner after the play had been whistled dead. Lloyd's bomb wasn't by accident, and he dropped it in his post-game speech in the locker room to the chagrin of a young Jim Grey ("this is a family program, or at least it was)." In a Super Bowl XXX pregame show, Lloyd defended his actions by saying that kind of speech was meant for the locker room, and while he didn't want his young son talking that way, his speech was meant for the guys that he had spent the entire season battling with. I agree with him, and that's probably why post game celebrations are now done on the field.
6) Willie Williams makes crucial tackle: One play after slamming down receiver Floyd Turner one yard shy of the first down, Williams made the tackle that saved the season. On third and one with the Colts up three late, Williams sprinted from the opposite end of the field to trip up Colts running back Lamont Warren for no gain. With a gaping hole, Warren probably would have gained at least 20 yards. Instead, the Colts had to punt, and the Steelers took the lead on their ensuing possession.
Two plays before Williams' stop, one of the weirdest bounces by a ball you'll ever see on a football field took place. After Levon Kirkland popped the ball out of Warrens hands (at about the 1:52 mark), the ball ricochet off of Darren Perry's knee, went up in the air and into the arms of Colts linemen Joe Staysniak. While the play seemed like a bad omen at the time, it's now just a forgotten crazy play from this crazy game.
7) The Steelers finally get "three more yards": "Three more yards" was the Steelers' slogan throughout the 1995 season after falling three yards shy of reaching Super Bowl XXIX the year before. It was ironic that late in the game and trailing by three points, Pittsburgh faced fourth and three yet again. The Steelers converted this time, however, with Andre Hastings snaring in a nine-yard pass to keep the Steelers' drive alive.
8) Ernie Mills saves the day: When I think back on the '95 Steelers, one thing that comes to mind first is that while the team had its share of great players, the Steelers possessed a multitude of quality role players that included Buckner, fellow defensive linemen Ray Seals, defensive backs Williams and Perry, linebackers Brown and Kirkland, Pegram, fellow running back John L. Williams, and receivers Hastings and Ernie Mills, to name a few. Mills, who led the team in touchdown receptions that season, was clutch on that day when the team needed him most. Three plays after breaking up what would have been a game-ending interception by Quentin Coryatt, Mills pulled down a 37-yard pass down the far sideline, setting up Bam Morris' one-yard touchdown run to give Pittsburgh the lead for good.
9a) Fred McAfee's special teams moment: With the Three Rivers Stadium crowed already in a frenzied pitch, Fred McAfee brought the stadium to an even higher decimal level. On the ensuing kickoff following Morris' touchdown, Pittsburgh's special teams missile shot through the Colts blocking wedge to trip up Bailey at the 15-yard-line. But it's McAfee's reaction that I'll never forget, as he threw he helmet down to the delight of the 60,000 plus delirious Steelers fans. While I do think that that type of celebration is almost never necessary and should be penalized, at that moment, with the energy in the stadium being what it was and being in that moment, McAfee's reaction was spot-on. That's why you have home field advantage, for moments like that in championship games, to feed off your crowd, and to try to rev them up even more.
9b) Harbaugh perfects role as gritty underdog: While I'm indifferent on him as a coach, I will forever respect Jim Harbaugh the quarterback for the effort and dogged determination he showed in this game. Harbaugh and the Colts' grit made this game what it was, a battle that was almost won by David instead of Goliath. The play that defined Harbaugh on that day occurred on that final drive. Standing tall amidst a rushing Buckner, Harbaugh completed the pass despite suffering a hit by Buckner that drew blood. Harbaugh and the Colts lost, but he surely gained respect that day by the fans that witnessed his efforts.
10) Cowher's emotional celebration: Most last-second, hail mary passes aren't very close. This one was as close as you can get without it working, with the pass landing into Bailey's lap before squirting out of his grasp just long enough to hit the turf. When it was over, tears immediately began to fall from Bill Cowher's eyes. He would experience more great wins, and would win a Super Bowl a decade later, but here, in Three Rivers Stadium at the young age of 38, Cowher's pure joy that day was something we'd never see again. He had felt the pressure of losing his first two playoff games. He had heard the criticism following the team's loss to San Diego a year earlier, and heard even more after the '95 team started 3-4. But Cowher kept the team together, and put together arguably the greatest coaching stretch of his career until 2005. Maybe all those reasons caused Cowher to be so emotional following this win, and I wouldn't be surprised if the win over the Colts on January 14, 1996 is his second most memorable win as coach.
For many of us, there aren't many games we enjoyed more.