For all their playoff success — the most postseason appearances, most playoff wins and most Super Bowl victories among them — the AFC title game has seen nearly as many Steelers failures as triumphs.
Pittsburgh is 36-23 all time in the playoffs and 6-2 in the Super Bowl, but just 8-7 in the AFC Championship, with a chance to fall back to .500 if they lose at New England on Sunday. A loss would also give the Patriots the franchise record of nine Super Bowl appearances, breaking the tie with, among other teams, the Steelers. This win would be big.
When Mike Tomlin was asked about having to go through New England in an AFC title game to get back to the Super Bowl for the first time since he’s been in charge of the Steelers, he was quick to point out the Patriots haven’t gone through them to get to a Super Bowl either, at least not while he’s been the head coach.
Sure, that’s true, but in this era, the Patriots undoubtedly have. The 2001 and 2004 NFL Playoffs may predate Tomlin’s time in town, but in the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era, the Pats beat the Steelers twice to get to the Super Bowl. Twice. Tomlin’s not the only one who hopes it doesn’t happen a third time.
A loss is a loss in a game this important, but maybe some losses were just a little worse, historically speaking. And then, which of the eight title game wins was the most memorable and exciting? From worst to first, here’s the ranking of every Steelers AFC Championship appearance.
Let’s hurry up, and get the Pats out of the way.
15. New England Patriots @ Steelers, Jan. 27, 2002
Patriots 24, Steelers 17
Kordell Stewart threw three interceptions and lost a fumble and somehow the Steelers still had a chance to win the 2001 AFC title game against Tom Brady, Drew Bledsoe and the soon-to-be-dynastic Patriots.
The game turned on an attempted field goal in the third quarter with the Steelers trying to cut the score to 14-6. Instead, the kick was blocked and returned for a score, giving New England a 21-3 lead. The Steelers actually scored on the next two drives to cut the deficit to 21-17, but after a field goal by the Patriots, the final three Steelers drives went punt, pick, pick.
This game started the Patriots dynasty. Thanks, Steelers.
14. New England Patriots @ Steelers, Jan. 23, 2005
Patriots 41, Steelers 27
This was the battle of perhaps the two best teams in the AFC in the last 20 years. The 15-1 Steelers hosted the 14-2 Patriots in the 2004 AFC title game after Pittsburgh had beaten New England earlier in the year. The return meeting didn’t go the same way, as New England crushed the Steelers, getting out to a 24-3 lead and holding on for the 41-27 victory.
Ben Roethlisberger was picked off three times and fumbled once, while Tom Brady and Deion Branch teamed up to take down the Steelers vaunted secondary. The Steelers outscored New England 24 to 17 in the second half, but it was too little, too late to matter.
13. San Diego Chargers @ Steelers, Jan. 15, 1995
Chargers 17, Steelers 13
Hey remember that time Stan Humphries out-dueled Neil O’Donnell for a chance to get to the Super Bowl? It was awful! (Note: This should probably be the worst loss ever, but, blergh, New England.)
Humphries hit Tony Martin on a 3rd-and-14 with just over five minutes to play on a 43-yard touchdown score to give the Chargers a 17-13 lead after the Steelers had led the entire game to that point. O’Donnell had his chance to respond, and got the Steelers down to the Chargers 3-yard line, but was unable to connect with Barry Foster on a game-winning score with a minute to play. In the history of losses at Three Rivers Stadium, that had to be one of the worst. Ever.
12. Steelers @ Oakland Raiders, Dec. 26, 1976
Raiders 24, Steelers 7
In the mid-to-late 1970s, the Raiders went to five-straight AFC title games, and won only once, in 1976, against the Steelers. The ’76 Raiders were one of the best teams in NFL history, losing only once all season en route to a Super Bowl victory. In the AFC Championship, Terry Bradshaw was 14-for-35 for just 176 yards and an interception while Kenny Stabler was 10-for-16 for 88 yards and two scores for the Raiders. It was a different time.
11. Steelers @ Miami Dolphins, Jan. 6, 1985
Dolphins 45, Steelers 28
The Steelers beat the Broncos in the Divisional Round that year, taking the chance of seeing John Elway and Dan Marino face off in the playoffs away from the rest of America. Instead, it was the Steelers who got to face the Pittsburgh-area native in his first AFC title game, and Marino did not disappoint, throwing for 421 yards and four touchdowns. Mark Malone could not keep up, despite throwing for 312 yards and three scores, but his three interceptions made it difficult for the Steelers to keep pace in the second half, as Miami pulled away, giving Marino his first (and only) trip to the Super Bowl.
10. Denver Broncos @ Steelers, Jan. 11, 1998
Broncos 24, Steelers 21
The Denver Broncos were 12-4 in 1997 and had the second-best record in the AFC, but since the Kansas City Chiefs had the best mark, Denver was forced to go on the road to the Super Bowl as the Wild Card. After trouncing Jacksonville in the first round, then beating the Chiefs in the second, Denver traveled to Three Rivers to take on the Steelers for the AFC championship.
Terrell Davis rushed for 139 yards and a score, and John Elway threw two more scores, while Kordell Stewart threw for one and rushed for one, throwing three interceptions and fumbling once, as Pittsburgh mustered just one second-half score, falling 24-21 to the Broncos.
9. Miami Dolphins @ Steelers, Dec. 31, 1972
Dolphins 21, Steelers 17
The Steelers lost their first trip to the AFC Championship game, running into the undefeated Miami Dolphins in the 1972 playoffs. How was the game remembered? Well, the first six paragraphs on Steelers.com about the game talked about The Immaculate Reception … which happened the week before. It did explain the AFC title game like this:
There were other mistakes, too. Dwight White jumped offside to negate a Jack Ham interception; Miami’s Howard Moore blocked a Roy Gerela field goal attempt to give the Dolphins the favorable field position they needed to score the game-winning touchdown; and Bradshaw threw two interceptions once the Steelers had closed their deficit to 21-17. That would be the final score.
8. New York Jets @ Steelers, Jan. 23, 2011
Steelers 24, Jets 19
This is the one the Steelers nearly gave away. Up 24-0 in the first half, the Steelers were held in check by the Jets in the second half of the 2010 AFC title game, while New York scored 19-straight points, 16 of which came in the second half on a Santonio Holmes touchdown, Jerricho Cotchery catch and a safety on a fumbled snap by Ben Roethlisberger.
Ben was 10-for-19 for 133 yards and two interceptions, plus the safety, as the Steelers won on the back of the defense and Rashard Mendenhall’s 121 yards rushing.
Perhaps Andy Reid should have thought of this game, though, when opting to kick off down two points last Sunday. The Jets kicked off with three minutes to play, three timeouts and the two-minute warning and still were unable to stop the Steelers from getting three first downs, including the last to Antonio Brown on a third-and-six pass, to secure the win.
7. Houston Oilers @ Steelers, Jan. 7, 1979
Steelers 34, Oilers 5
The first of two seasons in which the Steelers faced the Houston Oilers in the AFC title game and, well, this one wasn’t close. Pittsburgh rushed out to a 14-0 lead that was extended to 31-3 before halftime. Houston managed just 142 total yards against the Steel Curtain defense, including just 62 yards on 22 rushes for Earl Campbell, while Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier did enough on offense to secure the easy win.
Heck, John Stallworth’s one catch for 17 yards and a score would have been enough offense to secure the easy win.
6. Houston Oilers @ Steelers, Jan. 6, 1980
Steelers 27, Oilers 13
The Oilers actually got out to an early lead on the Steelers in the AFC Championship rematch during the 1979 playoffs, but Pittsburgh scored two second quarter touchdowns to take a 17-10 lead into halftime. The teams traded field goals in the fourth quarter before the Steelers put the nail in the coffin on a four-yard score by Rocky Bleier.
The Steelers defense had three sacks, forced three turnovers and held Earl Campbell to just 15 yards on 17 carries, but the game may be most remembered for a touchdown the Oilers scored, or, well, didn’t, to tie the game in the fourth quarter. Mike Renfro caught a Dan Pastorini pass in the corner of the end zone, but after a several-minutes-long delay, the catch was ruled incomplete by the referees, despite everyone at home watching on TV getting the luxury of seeing the replay. It wasn’t for another six years before Instant Replay would be used in NFL games.
5. Oakland Raiders @ Steelers, Jan. 4, 1976
Steelers 16, Raiders 10
The Steelers played the Raiders every year in the playoffs from 1972 through 1976 — including the AFC championship in the 1974, 1975 and 1976 playoffs.
The ’75 game was a defensive battle, with just three points scored between the two teams until the fourth quarter. From Behind The Steel Curtain:
Legend has it that the tarp that covered the Three Rivers Stadium turf leaked the night before the game. Coincidentally, it rained that night, and the rain that seeped through the tarp froze into ice by the following morning. While the entire field was compromised, the worst part of the field was outside of the hash marks.
The iced sidelines made for a treacherous day for wide receivers in regards to not only being productive, but staying safe against the physical defensive backs of the Steelers and Raiders.
The teams combined for 12 turnovers and 12 punts. The Raiders had a chance late, but Ken Stabler was unable to reach the end zone on his final throw.
4. Steelers @ Denver Broncos, Jan. 22, 2006
Steelers 34, Broncos 17
This was Ben at his best.
Roethlisberger was 21-for-29 for 275 yards and two scores, rushing for another, as Pittsburgh beat up on the Broncos in Denver. Jake Plummer had two interceptions and two fumbles, wholly outplayed by the Steelers’ signal caller on the day. The entire team did, in one of the most decisive playoff wins of the current Steelers era.
3. Indianapolis Colts @ Steelers, Jan. 14, 1996
Steelers 20, Colts 16
This game may not have all the classic Steeler names of yore, but it wasn’t short on drama. Bam Morris scored a one-yard touchdown with 94 seconds to play, giving the Steelers a four-point lead. The Colts had a chance on their final drive, but literally ran out of time just outside the Steelers’ red zone. The win put Pittsburgh back in the Super Bowl for the first time since the late ’70s. They were led by Neil O’Donnell’s 205 yards passing and one score, and Erric Pegram — a Steelers legendary name if there ever was one — with 10 carries for 46 yards.
2. Baltimore Ravens @ Steelers, Jan. 18, 2009
Steelers 23, Ravens 14
Pittsburgh got out to a 13-0 lead, but the rival Ravens made it close before the end of the first half, cutting the Steelers’ lead to 13-7 at the break. A Jeff Reed field goal extended that lead to 16-7, but Willis McGahee’s second touchdown with 9:29 to play left Pittsburgh with just a two-point advantage.
Baltimore forced a three-and-out on the next drive, and it sure as heck felt like the Steelers might be in some trouble with just under seven minutes to play and the Ravens stealing momentum. And yet, on the fifth play of their drive, Flacco was intercepted by Troy Polamalu who returned the pick for a touchdown, all but locking up the game for the Steelers.
Baltimore still had a chance with more than 4:30 to play, but on the second play of the subsequent drive, McGahee fumbled, ending any hope for the Ravens and putting the Steelers back into the Super Bowl.
1. Steelers @ Oakland Raiders, Dec. 29, 1974
Steelers 24, Raiders 13
The Immaculate Reception may have ignited a fire in the Steelers franchise, but it took two more seasons for them to actually win a Super Bowl.
After beating the Raiders in the ’72 Divisional round, the Steelers lost in the ’73 Divisional playoffs to Oakland. A year later, the two teams faced off for a spot in the Super Bowl and Pittsburgh prevailed, on the road, with a win that set a lot of history in motion. The ’70s Raiders are revered, but the ’70s Steelers are the dynasty everyone talks about to this day.
Pittsburgh trailed Oakland 10-3 in the third quarter of that game, but the Steelers scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, including two for Franco Harris, to overtake the Raiders, 24-13, for their first-ever AFC Championship.