To blatantly steal from the advertisements for ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, what if I told you that there was once a time when the Pittsburgh Steelers could, and would, actually beat the New England Patriots twice in the same season? The first happened in one of my favorite regular-season Steeler games in my viewing history.
So with that being stated, let’s set the Delorean’s time circuits for a time when radio stations were blaring Chumbawumba’s Tubthumping incessantly, audiences were gearing up for the release of the epic Titanic which was a mere six days away, Bill Clinton was president and his secret of White House debauchery and shenanigans was just barely being kept quiet, Charles Woodson defeated Peyton Manning for the Heisman Trophy and I was in my West Virginia apartment nervously gearing up for a first date with a woman that I was really excited about.
As intrigued as I was for the date, I was just as excited for a rare Saturday Steeler game on NBC. The Steelers, winners of nine of their previous eleven, had just come off of a huge win at home against the eventual champs, the Denver Broncos, to extend their record to 10-4. The game in Foxborough was crucial because the Steelers were embarrassed there in the fog eleven months before in the playoffs, and this game with 9-5 New England would decide home field advantage and a bye in the upcoming AFC tourney.
The game started off with both teams impressive defenses flexing their muscles early. After five combined punts and a Lawyer Milloy interception of Kordell Stewart setting the Pats up at the Pittsburgh 27 in the second quarter, Drew Bledsoe hit his stud TE Ben Coates on the third play of the drive for a TD of 18 yards. On the ensuing drive, Stewart was picked off again by Willie Clay and Bledsoe hit Sam Gash on a one-yard pass. Just like that, it was 14-0 New England.
Still unable to get started, Josh Miller punted again for the Steelers. After the home team had their drive end with a Tom Tupa punt, the Steelers got the ball back with 3:57 remaining in the half. Stewart capped off a twelve-play, 72-yard drive with a one-yard plunge. At the half, “the black-and-gold” were down 14-7 and set to get the ball back to start the third.
The third quarter was fairly uneventful besides a Norm Johnson field goal of 36 yards and a Darren Perry pick of Bledsoe that saw the Steelers set up shop at the Patriots 45. The Steelers stretched the drive into the fourth, where Johnson finished it off with 12:55 remaining with a 34-yarder through the uprights. The Steelers cut the NE lead to one.
On the very next drive, Bledsoe wasted very little time and found the diminutive David Meggett on a desperate heave that looked to be errant. But Meggett reacted, adjusted and leapt to snag the ball and race 49 yards for a score and a 21-13 lead.
The next two drives for the Steelers failed with Kordell Stewart missing Courtney Hawkins on a fourth-and-six on the NE 36 and then another Josh Miller punt with 3:33 remaining. The game seemed lost.
Next, Bledsoe attempted to drain the clock. He quickly hit Troy Brown for 13-yards on a crucial third-and-long. The Steelers started using their timeouts. After two short gains by Mario Grier, Bill Cowher called his final timeout with Pete Carroll’s Pats facing a third-and-seven from the 50, ten seconds before the two minute warning.
The following was the equivalent of a Christmas miracle twelve days early. The Steeler defense flushed Bledsoe out to the right and he attempted an across-the-body pass in the flat to Meggett. If Megget snags it, the game is likely over. Little-known lineman Kevin (pronounced key-vin) Henry anticipated the pass, intercepted it and rumbled off into the Massachusetts night. With New England closing-in as Henry (cousin of then-WWF superstar Mark Henry) charged towards the end zone, No. 76 risked reversing his good fortune by pitching the ball to Orpheus Roye at the 18. Roye crossed the goal line and Steeler Nation was elated. However, It was ruled a forward lateral and called back. But the Steelers had found renewed hope.
On the other side of the 2 minute-warning, the Steelers were needing eight to force overtime. But they only gained three yards and were facing a fourth-and-seven from the NE 15. Stewart, known more for his legs than his arm, heaved a sideline prayer to Yancey Thigpen. Thigpen, who had his finest season of his career with 1,398 yards in ‘97, made a brilliant and difficult grab and got both feet in to move the Steelers to the NE 4. On first down, Stewart took the ball to the one. He hit Mark Breuner for a one-yard TD and the Steelers were forced to go for two. Stewart, who notoriously had a habit of throwing low, did just that on the 2PC. However, Thigpen made a tremendous, sliding grab to rescue the ball from the Foxboro turf to tie the game with 38 seconds left. A Bruce Armstrong holding penalty backed the Pats back to their own 15, leaving not enough time and too much real estate to do anything but kneel out the clock.
The Steelers late-game fortune continued as they won the coin flip. But it didn’t look to continue as a pass on first down to Bruener fell incomplete and Jerome Bettis lost five yards on second down. But on third down, Kordell’s heroics continued as he hit Courtney Hawkins on third-and-15 for 41 yards. After a 16-yarder to Bruener and three runs for nine yards from Bettis got the Steelers to the Patriot 13, Norm Johnson kicked true for 31, and the Steelers escaped snow-glistening Massachusetts with a 24-21 victory.
The two teams met again in the playoffs a few weeks later in Pittsburgh, with the Steelers winning 7-6. They fell to Denver in the AFCCG at home a week later and their season was over.
To me this was a beautiful victory that I hold dear. The Steelers adhered to the lyrics of that hot song by Chumbawumba. "I got knocked down and I get up again and you're never gonna keep me down". Elated I headed off to my date. Much like the Patriots haunting and hindering the Steelers for the majority of time after that fateful night, my postgame victory party did too...as I divorced that women seven years later and left WV for good.
All ended well though, as I eventually found a way to pull a Chumbawumba myself.