Sunday, December 13, 2009

Decade in Review: Top 10 Games

Over the course of the next few weeks, we will be reviewing the decade that was in Steelers football. For many of us, this was the greatest decade in Steelers football we have ever seen. For those of our readers that remember the 70s, this was the second greatest decade in Steelers football.

Despite the disappointing end to the decade, the Steelers won two Super Bowls, went to three AFC Championship games, and won five division titles, putting them up there amongst the most dominant teams of the decade. Only New England won more division titles (7 if they hang on this year), and Super Bowls (3). But Pittsburgh was never accused of cheating.

We'll have a whole series of these, and while we could make quite extensive lists, people love top 10 lists. 10 is a great round number, and it leaves plenty of room for people to debate. Of course, these are just our opinions, so feel free to give us your own in the comments!

The Steelers have played a lot of games this decade, so to narrow it down to 10 was a bit of a task. In our list, we tried to pick the best all-around games. A few made the list for their significance or personal memories, but we tried to pick the best and most exciting ones. A notable game left off the list is Super Bowl XL. Why? Because let's face it, as great as it was to win the Super Bowl, it was a relatively sloppy game by the Steelers and wasn't a good of a game overall as some of the others that made the list.

Honorable Mentions
  • Steelers 21, Seahawks 10 (2005-Super Bowl XL)
  • Steelers 13, Ravens 9 (2008-Big Ben leads drive to win the division)
  • Steelers 23, Bengals 17 (2006-Bill Cowher's last game)
  • Steelers 17, Buccaneers 7 (2002-Defense keys victory over eventual Super Bowl Champs)
  • Steelers 27, Ravens 10 (2001-First playoff game at Heinz Field)

Top 10 Games

10. Steelers 24, Redskins 3
December 16, 2000
Final Game at Three Rivers

In the last game ever at Three Rivers Stadium, the Steelers came in with a 7-7 record, looking to have their first winning season in three years. After two consecutive losing seasons in 1998 and 1999, the Steelers were on the verge of turning the corner. Washington struck first with a field goal, but the Steelers battled back in the second quarter, eventually taking the lead on Hank Poteat's 53-yard punt return. The Steelers dominated the ground game, rushing for 200 yards with Jerome Bettis going for 104 and backup Richard Huntley picking up 56 yards and 2 TDs on just 7 carries. The defense also went out in style, sacking Jeff George 3 times and intercepting him twice.

This game also had one of my personal favorite Three Rivers Stadium memories. As it was the last game there, fans were taking anything they could get their hands on as souvenirs. And by anything, I mean anything. I saw a guy walking out of a stall in the bathroom shoving the toilet seat up under his jacket. Somewhere in Steelers nation, someone has a toilet seat from Three Rivers hanging in their rec room. Or his wife made him throw it out and burn his clothes afterwards, who knows.

9. Jaguars 31, Steelers 29
January 5, 2008
AFC Wild Card Game

The only loss to make the top 10, I don't think there's any doubt this was one of the best games of the decade. After a disappointing regular season meeting when Jacksonville ran the ball all over the Steelers, we were out to prove differently. Ben led the team down the field in the opening drive to put 7 on the board, but a special teams breakdown allowed Maurice Jones-Drew to take the ensuing kick back to the 1. After two picks of Big Ben in the second, Jacksonville had a 21-7 lead at halftime. The Jags stretched their lead to 28-10 in the third, but then Big Ben just went off. He connected to Tone at the beginning of the fourth, then found Heath in the end zone on the next drive. What followed was the first bad decision of Tomlin's coaching career. With the score 28-23, he opted to go for 2. The attempt failed. The Steelers came back and scored again to take a 29-28 lead. A penalty on the two-point conversion made the Steelers try again from the 12. Had Tomlin kicked the extra point earlier, he could have kicked again here and had a 3-point lead. Rather, the Steelers went for 2 again and failed. The Jags drove back down the field, and on a controversial non-holding call on 4th and short, moved into field goal range to allow Josh Scobee to kick the winning field goal. Regardless of the outcome, this was a great game with Roethlisberger throwing for 263 yards and two touchdowns in the second half after a disappointing first half.

8. Steelers 23, Ravens 14
January 18, 2009
AFC Championship Game

The Steelers came in riding high after beating San Diego in the divisional. Arizona booked their ticket to Tampa earlier in the day. Nothing beats division rivals clashing in the playoffs. The Steelers played an inspired game, capitalizing on a long touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes on a broken play to go up 13-0. The Ravens battled back in the second half to cut the lead to 16-14 with 9 1/2 minutes to play. The Steelers had to punt the ball back to the Ravens, but the big players stepped up once again. LaMarr Woodley sacked Joe Flacco, forcing a 3rd and 13. Troy Polamalu undercut a pass for Derrick Mason then cut back across the field, weaving through Ravens to find the end zone and put the game under wraps.

7. Steelers 20, Cowboys 13
December 7, 2008

The game that was a 3-3 defensive slug-fest at the half broke open in the second half, with great plays coming on both sides of the ball. The Cowboys defense was having a field day with our offensive line, and TO made a great leaping catch in the end zone on a broken play to put the Cowboys ahead 10-3 in the third quarter. On the Cowboys next drive, a big sack by Farrior on 3rd and goal held them to a field goal and a 13-3 lead. The Steelers drove to the Cowboys goal line at the beginning of the 4th quarter but got stuffed on 4th and goal. The defense held and Tone busted a big punt return to get into field goal range and cut the lead to 13-6. Ben drove the troops down the field and hooked up with Heath out of the backfield with just over 2 minutes to play to tie the game. What happened next was the stuff of legend. The Cowboys ran the ball, playing for OT. The Steelers took a timeout, and Dallas decided to throw. Deshea Townsend made a great play on the ball and took it back to the house for a 20-13 lead.

6. Steelers 21, Bears 9
December 11, 2005

The Steelers started the season 7-2 only to drop 3 straight to the Ravens, Colts, and Bengals. Needing a big win, the Steelers came out determined to run the ball in poor weather conditions. Some may remember that it started snowing so hard, you couldn't see one side of the stadium from the other. But most people will remember this game for Jerome Bettis just turning the Bears defense into his own personal punching bag, rumbling for over 100 yards and 2 touchdowns. The second score was by far the sweetest, as Bettis ran over at least 5 Bears, including Brian Urlacher. That highlight will be shown at his Hall of Fame induction. After this win, the Steelers didn't lose again for the rest of the year, rolling on to Super Bowl XL in Detroit.

5. Steelers 34, Patriots 20
October 31, 2004
21 and Done

The Patriots came in riding a 21-game winning streak that may or may not have been aided by cheating. Ben, in his rookie year, was starting his 5th game. That mantra that Bill Belichick eats rookie QBs for lunch? Ben had enough of that. He hit Plaxico twice for scores in the first quarter, and a pick-6 by Deshea Townsend put the Steelers up 21-3 after just 15 minutes. The Patriots battled back, but behind Jerome Bettis, the Steelers were just too much, outlasting New England 34-20 and snapping the Pats 21 game streak on Halloween.

4. Steelers 20, Jets 17 (OT)
January 15, 2005
AFC Divisional Game

The Steelers rolled to a 15-1 regular season record in Big Ben's rookie season. They didn't look sharp through 3 quarters against New York, giving up a punt return and interception return for scores. The Steelers battled back in this roller-coaster game to tie it at 17 in the fourth. After Doug Brien missed a 47-yarder, the Steelers looked to be in position to win the game. However, Ben got picked off, and the Jets drove back down the field to set up a field goal try as time expired. Brien was joke city again and missed from 43 yards, sending the game to overtime. After a defensive stand, the Steelers drove back down the field, setting up Jeff Reed for the game winner and sending the Steelers back to the AFC Championship game.

3. Steelers 21, Colts 18
January 15, 2006
AFC Divisional Game

The fact that this is the #3 game of the decade tells you just how good the Steelers were during these ten years. The Steelers came in as the #6 seed in the AFC and the Colts were the best team all year. However, the Colts had limped into the playoffs as they had everything wrapped up in Week 13. The Steelers offense came out throwing, surprising everyone. Big Ben hit Randle El and Heath Miller for touchdowns to take a quick 14-0 lead. The Steelers continued to dominate, stretching their lead to 21-3 in the third quarter. Manning led the Colts back, hitting Dallas Clark for a big touchdown to cut the lead to 21-10. The Steelers seemed to have put the game away with a Troy Polamalu interception, but on one of the worst calls of the decade, the refs overturned the interception, giving the ball back to Indianapolis. Manning capitalized then converted a 2-point conversion to get within 3. The Steelers gave the ball back to the Colts, but the defense stepped up huge, including a 4th down blitzkrieg by Porter and Farrior. With a minute and a half to go, the Colts had timeouts, so the Steelers couldn't kneel on the ball. With the ball on the one, they gave it to the Bus, who coughed it up. Nick Harper recovered the fumble for the Colts and had nothing between him and the end zone except for a 6'5" 240-pound quarterback. Ben somehow reached out and made "The Tackle" to keep the Steelers hopes alive. Manning drove the Colts into field goal range, but Mike "Choke job" Vangerjagt, the most accurate kicker of the era, missed wide right, sending the Steelers to the AFC Championship game and Peyton Manning home crying.

2. Steelers 36, Browns 33
January 5, 2003
AFC Wild Card Game

In quite possibly the greatest game in the history of the Steelers-Browns rivalry, Tommy Maddox led a furious second-half comeback to pull victory from the jaws of defeat and send the Steelers on. The playoffs always magnify the intensity of rivalries, and this game was no different. The Browns, with Kelly Holcomb at quarterback and Bruce Arians as their offensive coordinator, brought in a wide open spread-offense attack that tore through the Steelers secondary for the first three quarters. The Steelers trailed 24-7 in the middle of the third quarter, and things looked bleak. But then the Steelers went no huddle and the Tommy Gun offense emerged. Maddox found Burress and Jerame Tuman in the back of the end zone to cut the lead to 27-21. After the Browns worked their way back down the field and scored again, they went for two and failed, making it 33-21. But Maddox would not be denied, finding Hines Ward in quadruple coverage at the goal line to make it 33-28. After Dennis Northcutt dropped a pass that would have sealed the deal and given Cleveland a first down, Tommy led the team back down the field to the 3. On a draw play, Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala took it in from 3 yards out to give us the lead. The Steelers converted a two point conversion on a pass from Randle El to Tuman to take a 36-33 lead. The Browns tried to come back but fell short and the Steelers moved on to face Tennessee in the divisional playoffs.

This was also the game where the Renegade lore was born. Renegade was played in the middle of the third when the Steelers were trailing and people were leaving. Those of us that stayed witnessed the greatest comeback of the decade, and never have to prove to anyone why we're Steelers fans because we didn't leave when things looked bleak. The craziness about this day was that across the country, the 49ers staged a similar comeback against the Giants. These YouTubes are a must-watch for any football fan.

1. Steelers 27, Cardinals 23
February 1, 2009
Super Bowl XLIII

Not only was it the greatest game of the decade, it also happened on the biggest stage. The Steelers came in looking to become the first team in NFL history to win six Super Bowls. The Cardinals had never been to the Super Bowl. Larry Fitzgerald was the hottest player in the league in the playoffs, breaking Jerry Rice's playoff receiving yards record. The Steelers came out and took a quick 10-0 lead, but Arizona came back to cut the lead to 10-7. Just before halftime, Arizona was knocking on the doorstep, but James Harrison decided not to blitz and stepped in front of Warner's pass and took the ball all the way back 100 yards for a touchdown as time expired in the half. The Cardinals stormed back in the second half, behind and inspired effort by Larry Fitzgerald who made a great leaping catch on a fade route, then took a slant route to the house through the middle of our defense to put the Cards ahead 23-20. With 2 1/2 to play, Santonio told Ben on the sidelines that he wanted the ball, and Ben listened. Holmes reeled in 4 catches on the final drive. The first came after a hold on Kemoeatu to get to 2nd and 6. The second was two plays later to convert the third down. Tone grabbed another one across midfield that he cut outside the corner and took down the sidelines to the 7. Two plays later, Ben fired one for the corner of the end zone and Santonio came down with it amidst three Cardinal defenders for the greatest catch in Super Bowl history. Arizona drove back down the field and had a shot for the end zone with 10 seconds to play, but LaMarr Woodley stripped Kurt Warner and Brett Keisel fell on the ball to seal the deal.

Not only was it on the biggest stage, but this was also the best game of the decade as the Steelers played tough, physical football, produced big defensive plays, and ultimately drove down the field at the end of the game to win. What makes it even sweeter and sets it apart from all the other games on this list was the fact that we got to hoist the Lombardi Trophy after all was said and done. No matter how we play this season, or in any season after this, we will always have this Lombardi Trophy to remember this game.

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