"Don't lose a foot, Jerome!"
Jerome Bettis listened to former ABC broadcaster Dan Dierdorf's plea to not lose his chance at rushing for 100 yards for a record sixth consecutive game on Monday Night Football. Bettis didn't lose a yard, and the Steelers, despite allowing the Packers to scream back into a game that looked over at halftime, didn't lose the game.
Pittsburgh's 27-20 win over the visiting Green Bay Packers in front of a raucous Three Rivers Stadium crowd on November 9, 1998 was a true roller coaster ride. Pittsburgh rolled out to a seemingly insurmountable lead only to barely escape Brett Favre's gallant second half comeback bid. It was a game that featured two of the best teams of that era, playing an exciting brand of football that more than lived up to the pre-game hype.
The energy surrounding the game was electric, with Pittsburgh hosting their first Monday Night Game in over two years against a team that had won Super Bowl XXXI two years earlier and had just played in one of the best Super Bowls ever, albeit in a losing effort. The Broncos, who bested the Steelers in the AFC title game in '97, dethroned Green Bay 31-24 to become the first AFC team to win the Super Bowl since the '83 Raiders. Combined, the Steelers and Packers had earned 11 straight playoff appearances, had played in every conference title game since 1994 (and six combined) and had appeared in the last three Super Bowls. This was a matchup of a Super Bowl that should have been in the 90s, and at that time, a Super Bowl that could have still been in the works.
Cajoled by the deafening Three Rivers crowd, the Steelers figuratively and literally blitzed the favored Packers right from the onset. After a Stewart touchdown pass to Charles Johnson put the Steelers on the scoreboard barely three minutes into the game, Slash scored again from a yard out to give the home team a 14-0 lead at the end of the first quarter.
With the Steelers defense harassing Brett Favre and stonewalling his rushing attack, Pittsburgh's offense continued to pile onto their lead. Rookie Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala's first career touchdown followed by a Norm Johnson field goal capped off a perfect first half for the Black and Gold, who led 24-0 at intermission.
The Steelers offense roared of the gates again in the second half, and only a Green Bay defensive stand just yards away from the end zone prevented the score from getting entirely out of hand. Nevertheless, a 21-yard-field goal by Norm Johnson, which made the score 27-0 with a little more than a quarter and a half left to play, appeared to put this one on ice.
As normally is the case in potential blowouts, a big play by the losing team is their only chance at reversing the momentum. This was the case on this night. With the score 27-3 after the Packers offense finally put together a scoring drive near the end of the third, the Packers' Keith McKenzie scooped up a Steelers fumble at the Green Bay 12-yard-line and screamed 88 yards into the end zone. The play was the first of three Packers scores in the game's final stanza, as Favre engineered two furious scoring drives in the games final minutes. A short touchdown run by Raymont Harris, a two-point conversion to Antonio Freeman and another field goal by Ryan Longwell cut Pittsburgh's lead to 27-20 with 2:58 remaining.
With the game seemingly getting away from the Steelers, Bill Cowher did what he normally did in this situation: he gave the ball to The Bus to seal the deal. Bettis delivered, along with Stewart, who enjoyed his finest game of the year by completing 15 of 22 passes for 231 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. Together, Slash and Bettis ran out the clock, with the latter becoming the first running back in NFL history to rush for over 100 yards in six straight Monday Night Football games. Bettis gave a yeoman's effort, rushing for a hard earned 100 yards on 34 carries, with his longest run just 12 yards. It wasn't pretty, but it was efficient, and it helped push the Steelers to 6-3 on the year.
Donta Jones' 2.5 sacks led Pittsburgh's defensive charge, while first year Steeler Dewayne Washington recorded an interception off of the three-time league MVP and surefire first ballot Hall of Fame quarterback. And despite allowing those two late scoring drives, Pittsburgh still held Green Bay to just 39 rushing yards and 256 total yards on the night.
While a memorable game, this victory over Green Bay is not one that's seldom revisited because of how the rest of the season played out. Pittsburgh won just once more, a 30-15 win over Jacksonville two weeks later, before dropping their final five games that started with the fabled coin flip debacle in Detroit on Thanksgiving Day. And although they won 11 games and advanced to the playoffs for the sixth straight year, Green Bay suffered a dramatic, last-second loss to the 49ers in the Wild Card round that ended up being the final chapter of the Packers' run of success in the 90s.
But on one night, two of the best teams in that decade squared off in a game that lived up to its billing. It was a game that included several big plays, including a 45-yard catch by a rookie named Hines Ward. It was a game where each star played like one in a game that had a championship atmosphere. While they never did face off in a Super Bowl, the 1998 Monday Night duel between the Steelers and Packers gave fans of each team a showcase of how great those teams were, and how great a championship game between the two might have been.