Steelers against all the odds

With the success of the Wales soccer team in Euro 2016, one perception is clear. It’s so obvious, but Wales proved the point beyond doubt. Players that come together and play as a team generate the synergy that lift their potential and play in excess of their ability.

The Steelers had this unity on the road as the underdogs in three different stadiums before making the final journey to Detroit for Super Bowl XL. But their exploits began before then.

When the Steelers previous season ended with the loss to the Patriots in the AFC Championship game, Jerome Bettis wasn’t sure if he wanted to put his body through another year of torture. He reflected long and hard before deciding his team had come so close to getting to the Super Bowl that he would contribute one more season in the belief that maybe he could help his team make the long journey to his home town – Detroit for Super Bowl XL.

The Steelers season appeared to be heading into the doldrums in week 13 when they played host to the Bengals and lost 31-38. “A Chill over the Steelers Season,” was the Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s descripted headline. Despite the loss, the team’s unity grew that day. Hines Ward caught a season high nine passes with two touchdowns, but he took the blame for a dropped catch that could have won the shootout.

It was the Steelers third straight defeat. Both teams had 7-3 records two weeks earlier but after two wins, the Bengals advanced to 9-3 while Pittsburgh were now two games behind. Playoff football for Pittsburgh was looking unlikely.

The previous year, the Steelers had only lost just the one game – against the Ravens. The expectations had been high for another division championship in 2005 with another run in the playoffs, but now the chill of reality froze out any such thoughts.

Faced with a season that looked to be fruitless, four consecutive victories then launched them into the final wildcard spot and the team spirit began to ignite. Jerome Bettis proved to be the catalyst in the first win with his 100-yard rushing game. Antwann Randle El’s 72-yard punt return against the Vikings was the only touchdown of the next game to give Pittsburgh the win.

The Christmas Eve 41-0 crushing of the Browns saw the Steelers first shutout in five years as Hines Ward and Willie Parker each contributed over 100 yards and a touchdown. In the season finale that saw the home fans say their farewell to Jerome Bettis, the Steelers special teams and Willie Parker’s 135 yards rushing with three touchdowns from Bettis saw Pittsburgh overcome Detroit.

“The only issue on the road is crowd noise. Other than that, there isn’t any. It’s a challenge we’ve faced in the past. We can play with anybody.” observed Kimo von Oelhoffen.

Coach Cowher shouldered the heavy burden of never leading a team in the playoffs to a victory on the road, but the Steelers had won six of their previous seven visits to Riverfront Stadium and this journey proved just as fruitful.

The Steelers worked hard to fight back from a ten-point deficit for an eventual 31-17 win against Cincinnati who had won the division. Roethlisberger threw for 208 yards plus three touchdowns with no interceptions. “Basically, I’m making better decisions and trying to lead this team,” Roethlisberger suggested.

“We put Pittsburgh back on the map of the AFC North,” enthused Hines. Cowher gained that first road playoff victory and was practical with his thoughts, “We’re just going to the next game where they send us and we’re going to try to find a way to win this next game.”

Ben celebrating his touchdopwn pass to Cedrick Wilson courtesy of the Post-Gazette
Ben celebrating his touchdopwn pass to Cedrick Wilson courtesy of the Post-Gazette

The Steelers moved on to Indianapolis to face the formidable Peyton Manning and the number one seed Colts team that led the AFC in scoring and touchdowns. Manning was held up as the gold standard of quarterbacks.

The Colts had every right to feel confident about hosting a team they handed a 26-7 spanking to during the regular season. After three quarters of that game, the Steeler had been held to just 98 yards of total offense. Colts Coach Dungy was realistic with his analysis though, “We can’t rely on the fact that we beat them once before. It’s how you play that particular day.”

Against a negative background, the Steelers took an early 14-point lead and carried a 21-3 lead into the final quarter. The momentum swung violently the Colts way as they added fifteen points. When Bettis gave up a rare fumble with a minute of the game remaining and the fumble recoveree headed towards the end zone, Steelers fans held their breath as their season end looked in sight.

Roethlisberger was smart enough to make his first NFL tackle and save the potential touchdown. The Steelers defense held their opponents, forcing a field goal attempt. “By a shoestring” the Post-Gazette headline described the Steelers victory after the Colts kicked went wide and the Steelers took the close win.

“A day ago, nobody wanted to give us a chance,” said Ward. “We came out and we did what we had to do. We knew it would be tough to come into Indianapolis and they beat us pretty good the last time. This is kind of redemption for us.”

Post Gazette cartoon
Post Gazette cartoon

Before that final trip to the Super Bowl, the next hurdle for the Steelers to overcome was a visit to Denver for the AFC Championship. Such was the significance of the game there were calls for Pittsburgh’s sports icon Myron Cope to come out of retirement to call it. The Broncos went 13-3 during the season before beating New England, who were aiming for their third straight Lombardi Trophy, 14-3 in their divisional playoff game.

The Steelers had lost four out of their five previous AFC Championship appearances since the 1995 season but still headed to Colorado with buoyant optimism despite being 3-point underdogs.

Quite rightly, the spotlight before the game fell on quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Jake Plummer. Denver’s Plummer had thrown for more yards, more touchdowns and less interceptions. Plummer was complemented by two running backs who amassed almost 2,000 yards rushing between them during the regular season.

Most sports writers felt the game was evenly balanced. Although no incentive was necessary, making sporting history and getting Bettis to Detroit certainly focussed the team’s energy in Mile High Stadium.

The night before the game, Kimo von Oelhoffen and Bettis rallied the troops visualising what the next day’s game would mean to them all. Von Oelhoffen talked about the opportunity, of careers full of chances squandered and crucial games lost. Bettis talked of a hometown homecoming, of a love for the game and of camaraderie.

Post-Gazette image from the AFC Championship game
Post-Gazette image from the AFC Championship game

The Steelers, who had failed the previous year in Heinz Field when expectations were so high, took an early lead. They never looked in jeopardy of failing in their quest to give Bettis his perfect retirement present. Ben had a passing rating of 124.9, throwing two touchdown passes and diving in for another as the Steelers dominated the game.

In a complete team performance, the Steelers scored on their first four possessions while their defense forced Plummer into four turnovers, converting three into touchdowns.

Roethlisberger said that getting Bettis to his hometown game was the driving force all year for the team, before adding, “I’m glad I didn’t have to cry and apologise to him that I didn’t get him there.”

Hines Ward reflected, “This is how it’s supposed to end for Jerome. He deserves to be a champion.”

“Getting there was good,” said Dan Rooney, “but we’re going there to win. It’s just another step.”

afc-championship-result

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