Frantic finish sends Steelers to SB XXX
By BOB LABRIOLA
On the day when the 1994 Pittsburgh Steelers became the 1995 Pittsburgh Steelers, all they wanted was a shot at redemption. All they wanted was a chance to avenge the bitterest loss of their lives. To get what they wanted, they would have to get themselves back into the same position they were in when the San Diego Chargers upset them in the AFC Championship Game.
And now, they were back.
The Steelers were back in the AFC Championship Game, and they also would be getting a mulligan on trying to win it on their home field. Again, they were heavy favorites to win, this time over the Indianapolis Colts, but their approach was lacking the runaway ego that had help spoil things the last time.
"I think we'll be able to handle potential distractions better," Coach Bill Cowher had said even before the playoffs began. "I don't think that will be a problem this year. A year ago, you win one playoff game and you say, 'Geez, we've never been here before.' You realize how close you are, and the closer you get the greater the focus has to be. I like our situation. We're healthy, we have good people and we've played good football for the last nine weeks. We'll utilize this first playoff game (at home) and see what happens."
The first home game had turned into another because the Colts had upset the top-seeded Chiefs in Kansas City in the other AFC Divisional Round game. The Steelers were 7-2 at home heading into this AFC Championship Game, and if they couldn't get to 8-2, if they lost another of these as a heavy favorite and again were denied at the doorstep of the Super Bowl, well, the whole prospect was scary to consider.
Some of this sentiment came out in the locker room immediately after the win over the Buffalo Bills had punched their ticket to this game.
"You get frustrated a little bit, and worry, 'Is this going to slip away from us again?'" said Carnell Lake, whose unselfish move to cornerback and then his stellar play at the position was a major reason why they had advanced this far. "But we have a lot of character on this team, and we kept fighting. You do think about what happened against San Diego. It's, 'We can't let this happen – again.'"
The way this game unfolded did nothing to eliminate the chances of that happening again to the Steelers, because the nothing-to-lose Colts' confidence grew after a first quarter that ended in a 3-3 tie and a first half that had them down by only 10-6. The game's only touchdown had come on a 5-yard reception by Kordell Stewart in which he appeared to step out of bounds along the back of the end zone before making the reception.
The Colts' confidence grew and allowed them to continue to play the Steelers close, and the longer the score remained close the more dangerous the underdog becomes. That's what happened vs. the Chargers the previous season, and it's what started to happen to them again, this time against the Colts.
After an exchange of field goals early in the second half, the Steelers led, but only by 13-9, and that's when a series of events was set into motion that would reaffirm what this team was all about.
"This team has been one that's been able to respond to situations," is what Cowher said after the win over the Buffalo Bills in the Divisional Round. "We haven't overreacted. There hasn't been a sense of panic that has set it. They can take a punch, like a good fighter, and the one thing we've been able to do is get back up. We believe in one another, we trust one another. The most important thing is finding a way to win."
The belief was put to the test when Colts quarterback Jim Harbaugh directed his offense 70 yards in four plays and ended it with a 43-yard touchdown pass to Floyd Turner. The Colts had a 16-13 lead, and there was 8:46 left in the game. Déjà vu?
"It was in the back of your mind, sure," said defensive end Ray Seals. "It's like, 'Damn, is this going to happen to us again?' But last year we didn't finish."
The Steelers were unable to do much on their ensuing offensive possession, and the Colts got the football back. With 3:57 left, Indianapolis was faced with a third-and-1, and the Steelers called their first timeout of the half to come up with the correct defensive plan. But this effort at getting everyone on the same page failed miserably, and as the Colts broke their huddle there was confusion all along the Steelers' side of the line of scrimmage.
"The defense was kind of screwed up," said Cowher. "We had people lined up on the wrong side, half the people playing one thing …"
From this mish-mash came one of the great plays in Steelers playoff history. The Colts had called a running play to Lamont Warren to the right side of the Steelers defense, and even though there was nothing but open space in his field of vision when Harbaugh handed him the ball, the day was saved by cornerback Willie Williams.
This is the guy who had led the AFC with seven interceptions during a season that began with All-Pro Rod Woodson tearing the ACL in his right knee on the first series of the season opener against the Detroit Lions, and on this occasion Williams followed his instincts more than his assignment on the play. He came over the left side of the defense and ran down Warren from behind. No gain. Colts have to punt.
"Best tackle I made all year," said Williams.
Indubitably. But now that the Steelers had the ball, they had to do something with it. There was 3:03 to play, and the Steelers started what would be their final offensive possession at their own 33-yard line.
"Everybody in the huddle just reminded each other how we felt last year after the San Diego loss, how the mood was in the locker room that day, how solemn everybody was after (Chargers linebacker) Dennis Gibson knocked down the pass in the end zone," said right tackle Leon Searcy. "That was preached in the huddle."
The Steelers offense would huddle just that once, before the start of the drive, because O'Donnell was ordered to run the two-minute offense. And so it began.
O'Donnell to Stewart for 13. O'Donnell to fullback John L. Williams for 7. On second-and-3, O'Donnell tried to go to Ernie Mills on a slant, but Colts linebacker Quentin Coryatt broke perfectly and had the pass hit him right in the hands. Coryatt dropped it, and that gave the Steelers new life. As Mills said, "If he catches it, it's over."
Another incomplete pass set up a fourth-and-3 with 2:25 to play. Cowher left the offense on the field. "That was the game," said Cowher. "There was 2:25 left, and we only had two timeouts left. That was it."
O'Donnell to Andre Hastings converted the fourth down, and the two-minute warning brought O'Donnell to the sidelines to talk to coordinator Ron Erhardt.
"We knew we had to come up with some kind of play that could get us some pretty good yardage downfield," said Erhardt. "We just ran a little go-pattern, and Ernie is the go-to guy, along with Yancey Thigpen."
In the huddle, O'Donnell turned to Mills and Thigpen and told them one of them was going to get a chance to make a big play. It turned out to be Mills, who made a pretty over-the-shoulder catch and did the sideline ballet to put the ball at the Colts 1-yard line. It took two tries, but Bam Morris punched the ball across the goal line for the touchdown. "I just kept pumping my feet like I was running in water," said Morris, "and we got it in."
The Steelers led, 20-16, but this game wasn't over. It wasn't over, because Harbaugh brought the Colts to the Steelers 29-yard line with five seconds left in the game. One more play. Hail Mary time for the Colts; Randy Fuller time for the Steelers.
Time expired before Harbaugh's pass came down in the right side of the end zone, and the people around the ball when it did were Colts receiver Aaron Bailey and Steelers safeties Darren Perry and Myron Bell. Three players went up for the ball, and Bailey actually got his hands on it, before Fuller came from the side and raked it loose. As soon as the ball touched the turf, 61,062 fans allowed themselves to take a breath.
And so it was that a guy who wasn't even on the roster when the Steelers opened their regular season was somebody who made a significant contribution to the team advancing to Super Bowl XXX. Fuller only had been added to the Steelers roster because the secondary was in a state of upheaval because Deon Figures got shot in the knee late in the offseason and Rod Woodson tore his ACL in the season opener. That's the kind of year it was for the 1995 Pittsburgh Steelers.
"All I know is that my story is a dream come true," said Fuller, signed two weeks into the season after being released by the Denver Broncos. "I was sitting out the first couple of weeks, and now I'm going to the Super Bowl."
As were the Pittsburgh Steelers, for the fifth time in franchise history.
"When we came back for training camp this year, Bill Cowher talked about getting back and winning a championship," said O'Donnell. "Now we're going to the Super Bowl, so maybe we did learn something from last year."
Blanchard 34 FG
Johnson 31 FG
Blanchard 36 FG
Stewart 5 pass from O'Donnell (Johnson kick)
Blanchard 37 FG
Johnson 36 FG
Turner 47 pass from Harbaugh (Blanchard kick)
Morris 1 run (Johnson kick)
Total Net Yds
Time of poss.