One long week from today, the Pittsburgh Steelers head to the Mile High City to face the Denver Broncos. A little of the luster has been lost from this match-up thanks to yesterday’s manhandling by the Baltimore Ravens which knocked Denver from the ranks of the undefeated. Nothing feels better than being the team that hands another club their first loss of the year. I love being a spoilsport.
When you ask Steeler Nation to name our biggest rivals, few would mention the Broncos. There are the traditional division rivals, like the Browns and Bengals. Then there are the Patriots and Ravens, teams we’ve battled for playoff glory most of this decade. And finally we have the Cowboys, a team we faced for the Super Bowl title on three occasions and the only team which rivals the Black and Gold on the national stage.
Nope, nobody mentions the Broncos. But I’m here to rectify that. Some of you newer fans may not be aware of the history these teams have together. In many ways, it’s been a much more heated competition over the last 25 years than the so-called rivalries we have with the Browns or Bengals.
In 1989, head coach Chuck Noll pulled off a miracle. He lead a thoroughly mediocre squad to the Wild Card game. In those days, there were only 3 division winners, all of whom got byes. Two Wild Card teams played a game to see who advanced to the final four. The Steelers won an OT thriller against the Houston Oilers when a young Rod Woodson steamrolled a punt returner, forcing a fumble which lead to the game winning FG.
The next week, the Steelers faced the Broncos. John Elway was in the midst of leading Denver to three Super Bowls in four years (and losing all of them) so the Donkeys were heavy favorites. Merrill Hoge (yes, the ESPN guy) had the game of his life, rushing for 120 yards on only 16 carries. Bubby Brister showed tremendous grit, playing almost an entire quarter with a concussion so severe his teammates had to literally walk him to the correct sideline. The Steelers were on the verge of a monumental upset until Elway pulled off one of his patented comebacks, throwing the go-ahead TD with 2:30 left. Yes, Chuck Noll almost made the AFC Championship game with Bubby Freakin’ Brister at quarterback. Now you know why he’s considered one of the best coaches ever.
Fast forward nine years later, Bill Cowher is coach and Kordell Stewart is our quarterback. This was when Slash was one of the most feared offensive weapons in the league and one of the most exciting players I’ve ever seen. I will never apologize for my man crush on Slash. Anyway, the Steelers were the #2 seed and welcomed the Broncos to Three Rivers Stadium. Kordell had a 33 yard TD run which sadly was the only positive in his otherwise horrific day. Three INTS and a fumble contributed to a 24-21 Broncos upset. This game will always be remembered because after Slash threw his second stupid pick in the red zone, Denver LB Bill Romanowski visibly slapped his forehead and yelled at Stewart, “Think, man. You gotta think.”
The Steelers finally got a measure of revenge during the miracle run of 2005. The Broncos had plucked QB Jake Plummer from obscurity in Phoenix and he lead them to the best record in the AFC. Pittsburgh was the lowest seed that year, faced with the daunting prospect of playing the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd seeded teams in consecutive weeks. It turned out to be their easiest game of the playoffs, as the Steelers traveled out to Denver and whupped up on the Broncos 34-17. The Black and Gold went on to defeat the Seattle Seahawks for their fifth Lombardi Trophy which set off a torrent of whining from the Pacific Northwest that continues to this day.
So you can see there’s definitely some history between our respective franchises. If both teams are on a collision course for another epic playoff encounter, next Monday’s game takes on added importance. After all, it may end up determining who has the higher seed and thus, home field advantage. Prior history aside, that’s something I’m sure we all agree we want on our side come January.
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