Another in a series of stories chronicling the 52 playoff games in Steelers history.**
Playoff pressure, John Elway, big plays, and even a "Fat Albert" interception by Steelers nose tackle Gary Dunn. All those factors and more came together for a "Rocky Mountain High" that John Denver couldn't fit into a song.
December 30, 1984, with 74,981 screaming Broncos fans rocking Mile High Stadium for an AFC Divisional Playoff Game, easily will win out as one of the most improbable afternoons I've ever spent on a football field.
We weren't even supposed to be there, not after needing to win three of our last four just to finish 9-7, not after edging into the playoffs as the AFC Central Division winner for a postseason that included the 14-2 Miami Dolphins and our 13-3 hosts.
And by the time the afternoon melted into evening, those 74,981 were left wishing we hadn't been there. The scoreboard told their tale of woe: Steelers 24, Broncos 17.
When we arrived in Denver, the city vibe was, "bring on the fish" (meaning Miami). Tunch Ilkin, myself, Pete Rostosky – all starting offensive linemen -- and a few other players headed to a local eatery to chow down the night before the game.
The restaurant was buzzing with conversations that mostly included commentary directed towards our table. The astute Broncos fans of 1984 opined openly, and punctuated their observations with snippets about what a waste of time it was to have to play the Steelers. Denver should just roll into the AFC Championship Game in Miami.
Sunrise over the Rockies broke magnificently on game day. The palpable adrenalin rush was already threatening to kick into high gear as we went through the morning routine of pregame calorie consumption, chapel, and group meetings.
Like a warhorse sensing the impending battle, I found myself having to constantly pull back on the reins. Burning precious adrenalin is a big time no-no. In the thin air of Mile High, there could be no wasted energy dumps. But I could feel the release nearing as the clock slowly counted down towards the "first bus" departure for the stadium.
Arriving at the stadium, the splendor of pregame was all around. There is something very special about the prep phase of a playoff game. The guys were moving about in subdued tones, getting dressed, taped up and yet still vibrating with electricity underneath.
After we took the field for warmups, one thing became perfectly clear. Chuck Noll had conned us. Before leaving for Denver, Chuck had given a lecture on the thin air of Denver. "If we go into Denver and stay less than 48 hours, the air doesn't affect you," Chuck had said.
Because this was my first game in Denver, I bought into it.
"Chuck lied to us," I said while wheezing to strength coach Walt Evans during warmups. "Where is the freaking air?"
Little did I know that in the game ahead I'd be searching for air big time. Three of our scoring drives would cover 70-plus yards. I spent every available moment on the sidelines strapped to the oxygen tank. Mike Webster kept laughing at my blue lips.
Back in the locker room, Chuck brought everybody together before heading out for the kickoff. The pregame speech was typical of the greatness of Chuck Noll. He was always to the point and dead on.
"Whoever makes the fewest mistakes is going to win. Win the battle of turnovers and we win the game," Chuck said.
After the second of two consecutive fumbles lost by quarterback Mark Malone in our opening two series, Mike Webster grumbled as we walked off the field, "Great. Plan A is to win the battle of turnovers. What's plan B?"
Iron Mike had no idea, or me either, just how bad it could get. After that lousy start, we actually managed to recover another of our fumbles, but had a punt blocked in the second half, and Gary Anderson missed three field goals. Other than that, everything went swimmingly.
Malone rebounded from the fumbles and actually out-gunned the gunner by throwing for 224 yards and a touchdown to Elway's 184, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Frankie Pollard was terrific, with 99 yards rushing and two trips into the end zone, including the game-winner.
If you had told me we were going to win that game at that moment – after those two early fumbles – I would have said you're crazy. But we screwed our heads on straight, got our game on, and actually went into halftime with a lead.
On this day our defense was terrific. They beat on Elway like a tied-up goat, especially in the second half. Having to contain the hard throwing wonder boy was no easy task, and we put our defense under a lot of pressure with those fumbles, but they were up to it. David Little had two sacks.
Backed up on our own 4-yard line in the second quarter, an attempted middle screen found its way into the hands of nose tackle Gary "Fat Albert" Dunn, who had followed the flow of the line and read the play correctly. He intercepted the ball and promptly fell down after a scintillating return covering about 54 inches.
"If I had cut to the outside, I would've taken it all the way," said Dunn with a straight face on the sidelines to me and Tunch.
"After you stopped at the 50 for a Gatorade, Albert!" I retorted.
The raucous crowd at Mile High was deafening. Standing at the 50-yard line in the huddle, I could feel the vibration from the fans stomping in unison directly under my feet. Conversation in the huddle was difficult, hearing at the line of scrimmage practically impossible. Many times we had to watch the ball for the snap.
We were knocking on the door, with the ball on the Broncos 4-yard line, during one of those 70-yard drives. In the huddle Mark Malone called the play: 15-straight, an off-tackle play right behind offensive tackle Pete Rostosky and me.
As we broke the huddle, Pete, with a panicky look on his face, turned to me and yelled, "What's the play?"
"Fifteen straight," I said with cupped hands so defensive end Rulon Jones or linebacker Karl Mecklenberg wouldn't hear. Obviously Pete didn't hear me either, because as we hit the line of scrimmage, he again turned to me, almost freaking out, and yelled, "What'd you say?"
Jones and Mecklenberg had their ears locked in now. So I stepped in between and faced Pete with my back to the Denver side of the ball. In a voice that was being pressed for time and eavesdroppers, I repeated the play and the snap-count.
As I stepped into position between Pete and Webby, Rostosky, now having lost his mind as well as his hearing screamed, "15-straight!"
At that point, a laughing Rulon Jones, having heard Pete, turned to the defense, pointed to us and said, "It's coming right here, boys." Timeout.
Twice we came back from seven-point deficits that had fans in Denver disbelieving what they were seeing. The game boiled down to the final 3:30 of the fourth quarter.
Safety Eric Williams intercepted Elway and returned it to the Denver 4-yard line. In the huddle, the tension was overwhelming. The fans were berserk at this point. We ran a play or two for a yard or so, and I knew we were down to crunch time. Then came the call in the huddle for a run directly behind me. Gulp.
Only impressions linger with me now. Hunkered down, crowd screaming, watching the ball to get a good takeoff and then an explosion of exhausted energy. From the 2-yard line, Frankie Pollard gave me a 220-pound enema boost from behind as he gutted it over for the game winner.
Incredible. After all the snafus, we pulled the game out. A stunned Mile High crowd was silent as the gun signaled the end of the Broncos season.
I will never forget the guesstimate crowd of 10,000 who showed up at the airport to greet us after we landed in Pittsburgh. Steelers fans are the best.
- 1972 AFC Divisional Playoff
- 1972 AFC Championship Game
- 1973 AFC Divisional Playoff
- 1974 AFC Divisional Playoff
- 1974 AFC Championship Game
- Super Bowl IX
- 1975 AFC Divisional Playoffs
- 1975 AFC Champiionship Game
- Super Bowl X
- 1976 AFC Divisional Playoff
- 1976 AFC Championship Game
- 1977 AFC Divisional Playoffs
- 1978 AFC Divisional Playoff
- 1978 AFC Championship
- Super Bowl XIII
- 1979 AFC Divisional Round
- 1979 AFC Championship
- Super Bowl XIV
- 1982 AFC Tournament
- 1983 AFC Divisional Playoff
- 1984 AFC Divisional Round