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A history of Steelers' playoff comebacks

Posted Jan 11, 2016

The comeback win in Cincinnati was thrilling, but it was by no means a unique event in Steelers history.

It can be viewed as one of the undeniable perks of being a Steelers fan, the ability to cull through the rich history of one of the NFL’s storied franchises to enjoy current accomplishments in light of a past that identifies them by most metrics as the most successful franchise since the 1970 merger.

The Steelers’ six Lombardis are the most accumulated by any of the NFL’s franchises, and with their victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Saturday night they tied the Dallas Cowboys as the teams with the most all-time postseason wins with 34.

And what a victory that was at Paul Brown Stadium, a venue the Steelers justifiably could consider their home away from home. Yet another chapter in the season-long story of overcoming injuries had Ben Roethlisberger exiting the locker room after injuring his throwing shoulder to lead the game-winning field goal drive. It was made even more special by the defense’s do-or-die takeaway that got the ball for the offense with 83 seconds left, and it had the drama of the Bengals villains combining for 30 yards in stupid penalties when the clock was stopped to create the makeable field goal the game-winner turned out to be.

Coming from behind on the road in the final 90 seconds to defeat (eliminate) a hated division rival in a playoff game has to qualify as one of this franchise’s defining moments, right? Its greatest come-from-behind postseason win, right? Maybe, but not necessarily, and the exercise to follow should be viewed as a tribute to the Steelers’ rich playoff history and not any attempt to disrespect or trivialize any of the 33 postseason victories that preceded it.

To be offered is a retrospective of nine other playoff victories in which the Steelers were staring elimination in the eye before doing something spectacular to pull out a victory. Again, these games can hold different places in the hearts of fans based on their age and perspective, but taken together that should be seen as evidence of what this franchise has accomplished in the NFL playoffs.

In reverse chronological order:

2010 AFC DIVISIONAL ROUND
Steelers 31, Ravens 24

Back in the two-trains-one-track days, this game was played in a postseason after both of these teams finished 12-4, with the Steelers winning the AFC North based on having the better division record. The Ravens held a 21-7 halftime lead and were in control of every meaningful aspect of this game at Heinz Field.

After gaining just 114 net yards and turning the ball over twice in the first half, the Steelers flipped the script in the second half. In the second half, the Steelers defense sacked Joe Flacco four times and had three takeaways, and the Ravens’ offensive possessions ended: fumble, punt, interception, fumble, punt, field goal, turnover on downs.

The Steelers’ offensive possessions ended: punt, touchdown, punt, touchdown, field goal, punt, touchdown, victory formation. This postseason ended with an eighth AFC Championship and then a loss to Green Bay in Super Bowl XLV

* * *

SUPER BOWL XLIII
Steelers 27, Cardinals 23

The game that would crown the champion of the 2008 NFL season found the Cardinals taking a 23-20 lead on a 64-yard touchdown pass from Kurt Warner to Larry Fitzgerald late in the fourth quarter. Following the ensuing kickoff, the Steelers offense took the field with a first-and-10 at the 22-yard line with 2:30 remaining in the season.

A holding penalty on Chris Kemoeatu on first down moved the ball back to the 12-yard line, and from there Ben Roethlisberger completed 5-of-7 for 84 yards and the 6-yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes that earned the Steelers a sixth Lombardi Trophy.

* * *

2005 AFC DIVISIONAL ROUND
Steelers 21, Colts 18

Leading, 21-3, going into the fourth quarter, the Colts scored 15 points over a 10-minute span in the fourth quarter. The Steelers punted the ball to the Colts with 2:31 remaining, but two sacks on the ensuing series, including one on fourth down, turned the ball over on downs to the Pittsburgh offense at the Indianapolis 2-yard line.

That’s when Jerome Bettis fumbled, and Ben Roethlisberger saved the postseason with his open-field tackle of Nick Harper at the Indianapolis 42-yard line. From there, Steelers fans held their collective breath as Peyton Manning moved the offense into position for a 46-yard tying field goal attempt by Mike Vanderjagt. When the attempt sailed wide right, the Steelers had upset top-seeded Indianapolis on the way to the Conference Championship Game in Denver.

The Steelers went on to win Super Bowl XL, to bring a fifth Lombardi Trophy to Pittsburgh.

* * *

2004 AFC DIVISIONAL ROUND
Steelers 20, Jets 17, OT

Placekickers gagging is a recurring theme in the Steelers’ playoff thrillers, and Doug Brien always will hold a special place in that history. Jets safety Reggie Tongue intercepted a fourth quarter pass from rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and his 86-yard return gave the visitors a 17-10 lead.

Roethlisberger’s 4-yard pass to Hines Ward tied the game, 17-17, with six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, and that’s when the game went into a phase where the Steelers continued to try to give it away and the Jets were just as adamant about not accepting the gift.

Brien missed a 47-yard field goal attempt with 2:02 remaining, and then with the Steelers trying to end it in regulation, Roethlisberger was intercepted by David Barrett, whose 24-yard return set up the Jets offense at the Steelers 37-yard line. The Jets maneuvered for a final-play field goal attempt by Brien to secure the upset, but he missed another one, this time from 43 yards out to send the game into overtime. Shortly into the extra session, Roethlisberger got the offense into position for a game-winning 33-yard attempt by Jeff Reed, who didn’t miss.

The Steelers lost the next week in the AFC Championship Game, 41-27, to New England.

* * *

2002 AFC WILD CARD ROUND
Steelers 36, Browns 33

The Browns led, 17-7, at halftime at Heinz Field, and the lead ballooned to 33-21 with 10:17 left in the fourth quarter. Needing to kill the clock, Cleveland offensive coordinator Bruce Arians nevertheless kept calling passing plays. A 10-play, 77-yard drive ended with a 5-yard touchdown pass from Tommy Maddox to Hines Ward, and the Steelers had cut the deficit to 33-28 with 3:06 to play.

Unable to run out the clock, the Browns had to punt the ball back to the Steelers, and a 61-yard drive ended with a 3-yard touchdown run by Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala and a successful two-point conversion with 54 seconds remaining and Pittsburgh had a 36-33 victory over Cleveland.

* * *

1995 AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Steelers 20, Colts 16

It’s important to understand that this game came the year after one of the worst upsets in franchise history, a 17-13 loss to double-digit underdog San Diego in the 1994 AFC Championship Game at Three Rivers Stadium. Had the Steelers lost back-to-back AFC Championship games at home, in decisive upsets to decided underdogs with basically the same roster, there was a fear the whole thing would have to be blown up and rebuilt.

With the Colts holding a 16-13 lead and the Steelers getting the ball back for maybe a final time with 3:03 remaining, Neil O’Donnell completed a pass to Andre Hastings on a do-or-die fourth down play, and then on the next play Ernie Mills made a sweet catch deep along the sideline for a 47-yard gain to the Colts 1-yard line. Two plays later, Bam Morris scored to give the Steelers a 20-16 lead with 94 seconds remaining.

It wasn’t over yet. With five seconds left, the Colts had a last-gasp attempt at the end zone from the Steelers 29-yard line, but Jim Harbaugh’s pass to Aaron Bailey was broken up by Randy Fuller.

The Steelers went on to lose to the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX.

* * *

1989 AFC WILD CARD ROUND
Steelers 26, Oilers 23, OT

The 1989 season was the one in which the Steelers started 0-2 after losing games to Cleveland and Cincinnati by a combined 92-10, only to come back and qualify for the playoffs. Heavy underdogs, the Steelers got the game into overtime on a 2-yard run by Merril Hoge with 19 seconds left in the fourth quarter, and it was in overtime where Rod Woodson made the second-most spectacular individual play I ever have seen made by anyone in a Steelers uniform.

The Steelers received the overtime kickoff and after being forced to punt, the Oilers took possession near midfield. Weakened by a case of the flu that had team doctors recommending he not even make the trip to Houston, Woodson came off a block on the Oilers’ first snap of overtime, hit running back Lorenzo White in the backfield, forced a fumble himself, recovered it himself, and returned it to the Houston 46-yard line.

Three plays later, the Steelers were facing a third-and-8 from the Houston 33-yard line. As the Steelers offense was in the huddle, Chuck Noll switched his headset to defense and said to coordinator Rod Rust, “If this pass is incomplete, I’m going to punt the ball and pin the Oilers deep.” Rust, a veteran coach who had done wonders in his one and only season as the Steelers defensive coordinator, responded, “I don’t know if we can stop (the Oilers) again.”

When Bubby Brister’s pass was incomplete, Noll took Rust’s words to heart and sent Gary Anderson onto the field. Anderson’s 50-yard field goal gave the Steelers a 26-23 win.

* * *

SUPER BOWL XIV
Steelers 31, Rams 19

The Rams took a 19-17 lead into the fourth quarter against the mighty Steelers of the 1970s, already three-time Super Bowl champions and looking to become the first team to win four as well as become the first team to win them back-to-back on two different occasions.

Terry Bradshaw hooked up with John Stallworth on a 73-yard touchdown play to restore the Steelers’ lead to 24-19, but the Rams wouldn’t quit and put together a nice drive as an answer. But Jack Lambert intercepted a Vince Ferragamo pass at the Steelers 14-yard line with 5:24 remaining to turn the tide in Pittsburgh’s favor one final time.

Two plays later – on a third-and-7 from the Pittsburgh 33-yard line – Bradshaw hooked up with Stallworth down the field again, this time for a 45-yard gain. Franco Harris’ 1-yard run accounted for the final margin and the Steelers were the team of the 1970s.

* * *

1972 AFC DIVISIONAL ROUND
Steelers 13, Raiders 7

Fourth-and-10. Steelers ball on their own 40-yard line. Twenty-two seconds remaining. No timeouts. Oakland 7, Pittsburgh 6.

Close your eyes and you still can hear the play-call made by the late Jack Fleming, the Steelers’ radio play-by-play announcer at the time.

“Hang onto your hats, here come the Steelers out of the huddle …
and this crowd is standing … Bradshaw back and looking again … Bradshaw running out of the pocket, looking for someone to throw to … fires it downfield … and there’s a collision … and it’s caught out of the air … the ball is pulled in by Franco Harris … Harris is going for a touchdown for Pittsburgh … Franco Harris pulled in the football for Pittsburgh … I don’t even know where he came from …”

It was named the most outstanding single play in NFL history by NFL Films, and it gave the Steelers a 13-7 victory over the Raiders, the first playoff win in franchise history, and the springboard to four Super Bowl championships in the 1970s.

And it even can be viewed as the cornerstone for the foundation of success that was on display again last Saturday in Cincinnati.

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