Golden opportunity squandered in NE fog
By BOB LABRIOLA
It was an undeniable characteristic of the 1996 Pittsburgh Steelers. Sometimes a strength, but ultimately it was their undoing.
The 1996 Steelers were set to travel to face the New England Patriots in the AFC Divisional Round of the playoffs, and that they were the defending conference champions certified them as a formidable opponent but that they failed to secure a bye as one of the top two seeds was a testament to their inconsistency.
Confronted with adversity, these Steelers were more dangerous than a grizzly bear separated from her cubs, but they also had a maddening tendency to relax when things were going their way.
A poor performance and a rash of injuries in an opening loss to Jacksonville had been followed by five straight wins, for example, but then they also found a way to take a 9-3 record to Baltimore and get hammered, 31-17, by a Ravens team that would finish 4-12. They ended their regular season with back-to-back losses to San Francisco and Carolina, a pair of 12-4 teams from the NFC, and so they naturally had responded by crushing the Indianapolis Colts in an AFC Wild Card Game, 42-14, to earn this trip to New England.
Steelers-Patriots was the 1 p.m. game on the Sunday of that playoff weekend, with the Jaguars at No. 1 seed Denver being the late game on Saturday. The Steelers arrived at their Providence hotel in plenty of time to catch the bulk of Jaguars-Broncos, a game most league observers figured to be a mere formality. After all, Jacksonville was only in its second season of existence, and the Broncos had John Elway and enough of everything else to have finished 13-3. The reasoning was that Mile High Stadium certainly would prove to be way too much for the fellas from Florida.
But as keys were unlocking the doors on the players' floor throughout the Steelers hotel, the Jaguars were in the lead. Every time the Broncos made a play, the Jaguars had an answer, and when Mark Brunell's run late in the fourth quarter sealed the outcome, the happiest place outside the Jacksonville area code was that floor of a hotel in Providence.
For the Steelers, it was: beat New England to play the AFC Championship Game at Three Rivers Stadium for the third straight year; then win the conference title by beating Jacksonville at home, and it was back to the Super Bowl.
The Steelers had played well in that win over the Colts in the Wild Card game and so they were on a up-tick going into their game against the Patriots, and because of the Jaguars' upset win over the Broncos they had it all laid out right there in front of them.
This was precisely what that team couldn't handle.
In hammering the Colts in the Wild Card Game, the Steelers tasted a bit of déjà vu. Jerome Bettis was busting up the Colts defense when he injured an ankle on a touchdown run in the third quarter. Bettis' importance to the offense was similar to what Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier meant to the 1976 Steelers, and if that great team couldn't overcome the loss of its rushing attack, this version of the Steelers had no chance.
But because Bettis was so adamant about playing against the Patriots immediately after the win over the Colts, the Steelers were feeling good about themselves.
"The last time I looked, we were the defending AFC champions," said defensive end Brentson Buckner. "People were counting us out before the playoffs. Well, we're still here, and we don't plan on going anywhere."
As the week wore on, though, it seemed as though Bettis' rehabilitation wasn't going anywhere either.
After saying, "I'm ready to play right now," on Dec. 29, Bettis said two days later, "It's not that good. If the game was at 7 p.m. today, I probably wouldn't be able to play. Fortunately for us, we do have some days to get it better and I foresee myself playing."
The next day, Bettis said, "If you can't run, you can't do anything. It's going to be rough, but we'll see. I'm not putting any extra pressure on myself. If I do, I'll be doing a disservice to this team. They need me to be out there effective. If I'm out there hobbling and unable to get the job done, I'm taking away from the team and the offense."
Finally, on Jan. 3, with the game less than 48 hours away, Bettis began to feel better. At least, he was saying he felt better. "Hopefully, it will even feel better tomorrow than it does today. I know I can run straight ahead, no problem. But I don't think I'm going to go straight in games. Once I have the ability to go laterally, I can play."
The immediate run-up to the game was all-Bettis-all-the-time, but as it turned out he wouldn't have mattered one way or the other.
The Steelers won the coin toss and elected to receive the opening kickoff, and it's noteworthy that a dense fog hung over the stadium in Foxborough on Sunday, Jan. 5, 1997. The fog was dense enough to make following the ball from the stands an iffy proposition; in effect, the fog enveloped everything, including the Steelers.
After a nothing kickoff return, the Steelers opened the game with a play-action pass to tight end Jonathan Hayes for 12 yards to their own 35-yard line. But no, a penalty for having both receiver Andre Hastings and fullback Tim Lester in motion at the same time nullified that.
After the three-and-out that followed, the punt gave the Patriots the ball at their 47-yard line. First play: play-action, double-move by receiver Terry Glenn on cornerback Rod Woodson. Fifty-three yards to the Steelers 2-yard line. Next play, touchdown, New England; 7-0.
"I was looking in the backfield, looking at the play-action," said Woodson. "Call it biting, but it was more like being stupid. Sometimes a defensive back's eyes can be his own worst enemy."
Added linebacker Levon Kirkland, "After that first play of the game, we said, 'OK, no more.' Then they hit the second one and the third one. We didn't get into our groove until it was 21-0."
That "second one" came after another three-and-out by the Steelers, who would finish the game converting only 3-of-18 third downs. The Patriots took over at their 41-yard line, and not too long after that, quarterback Drew Bledsoe notched his second easy touchdown pass of the game with a 34-yard screen to running back Keith Byars.
Now down, 14-0, and the first quarter barely half over, the Steelers offense took the ensuing kickoff and managed to begin to move the football. A couple of first downs, then across midfield, then to a fourth down from the New England 22-yard line. Instead of a field goal, Coach Bill Cowher elected to go for it.
The Steelers failed to convert that fourth down on the final play of the first quarter. On the first play of the second quarter, Patriots running back Curtis Martin went 78 yards through the Steelers defense, and it was 21-0. The game essentially was over, and when the scoreboardf clock made that official, the final numbers were 28-3.
"Two or three guys missed the tackle," Cowher barked to a reporter asking about Martin's 78-yard run. "Does that have to do with preparation? Does that have to do with being up for the game? That has to do with executing. We just didn't execute."
The Steelers didn't execute, and it was a total team effort. Starting quarterback Mike Tomczak threw two interceptions, and backup Kordell Stewart completed 0-for-10. The defense gave up those three big plays, and then a 23-yard touchdown run by Martin in the fourth quarter. The Steelers had 90 net yards passing, they missed tackles. They stunk, and as a result they had squandered what looked like a yellow brick road to Super Bowl XXXI.
"They looked like a pack of wild dogs last week (against the Colts)," said NBC color commentator Randy Cross. "This week they just look like dogs."
"Everybody says it's tougher to lose close games, but the last thing you want to have in your memory is that you got blown out in the playoffs," said Woodson. "You have to go home thinking the whole offseason about a blowout, but it happened and that's what we have to live with."
By the way, Bettis rushed for 43 yards on 13 carries, but after the Patriots took a 21-0 lead the Steelers had to turn to their passing attack. For the game, that "attack" was 16-of-39 for 110 yards, with two interceptions, good for a cumulative 22.7 passer rating. It had been a thorough, complete, decisive loss.
"I really hate the 'feeling' questions," said linebacker Chad Brown. "Obviously, it sucks. Obviously, it doesn't feel good. We are, we were the AFC champs, and we felt people weren't giving us the respect we were due. The way we came out today, I guess we proved those naysayers right."
Martin 2 run (Vinatieri kick)
Byars 34 pass from Bledsoe (Vinatieri kick)
Martin 78 run (Vinatieri kick)
Johnson 29 FG
Martin 23 run (Vinatieri kick)
Total Net Yds
Time of poss.