Three yards short… just 3 yards short of the 1994 AFC Championship. That loss to the San Diego Chargers haunted the Pittsburgh Steelers for nearly a full year. They had fought to unseat the Bills and Oilers in an AFC ruled by open offenses during the early 90s. In 1994 with each foe not making the playoffs, Pittsburgh would coast to Super Bowl XXIX, right?? After all Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Levon Kirkland, Rod Woodson and the rest of the Blitzburgh defense would be back intact.

sbxxxpLOL Uh huh that’s exactly what everyone thought when on a rainy, gray, dreary, ominous day in Three Rivers Stadium, the Steelers welcomed the San Diego Chargers in what was going to be a Steelers coronation and they’d be off to win that elusive “one for the thumb”, fifth Super Bowl title. However trailing late in the 4th quarter 13-10, on a 3rd and short, Stan Humphries play faked and went up top for Tony Martin for a 43yd touchdown with a few minutes to go in the game.

The Steelers weren’t known for their passing offense or good at a two minute drill. Frantically the Steelers raced down field when they were caught 3 yards away from the goal line facing a 4th down. The season rested on one play… Neil O’Donnell threw for Barry Foster yet Dennis Gibson knocked the ball down to preserve a 17-13 upset. Prozac prescriptions skyrocketed in western Pennsylvania.

So the mantra going into the ’95 season was to get those “3 more yards”. It was emblazoned on banners, t-shirts, terrible towels, you name it. They were determined not to be denied again.

In the offseason the Steelers said goodbye to free agent TE Eric Green and farewell to Barry Foster. Foster who had led the AFC with 1,690yds rushing in 1992 was the heart of the offense since Coach Bill Cowher had come to the Steel City. Yet unlike when the team lost Hardy Nickerson and Thomas Everett in recent years, Green and Foster represented the offenses identity and personality. So when they lost their most decorated player, cornerback Rod Woodson in week one, staggered to a 3-4 start, it looked like 1995 would become a lost season.

nfl_woodson-rings_600x600Enter Kordell Stewart. The mid-round draftee QB from Colorado made famous for his hail mary pass that beat Michigan in 1994, was languishing on the Steelers bench. Several receivers were injured and he was pressed into duty as a receiver in practice where he proved to be more athletic than the regular receivers. Stewart electrified in practice. Cowher started to insert Stewart into the lineup in several packages and a now wide open Steelers offense was born.

The big play along with 3, 4, and 5 receiver sets were run with regularity, for the first time. Teams did not have any film to study they’re new approach nor ANY film to recognize where or how they would use Stewart.

With this new weapon, “Slash” helped the Steelers break their predictable play calling and a bolder offense went from scoring 21 to 27 points per game. They went on an 8 game winning streak and for 6 straight games scored in the last two minutes before the half. Stewart scored 4 of those touchdowns. They took the momentum into the half with them in the process. Retooled with new enthusiasm the ’95 Steelers screamed into the playoffs.

Yet make no mistake about it… this team was still identified by it’s defense which ranked 3rd in the NFL. Led by one of the decade’s best quartet of linebackers, Greg Lloyd (6 1/2 sacks, 6 forced fumbles/ 3ints) & future Hall of Famer Kevin Greene (9 sacks /2 forced fumbles) led the pass rush along with DE Ray Seals. ILB Levon Kirkland (88 tackes 2 ff) and Joel Steed suffocated inside rushing attacks and former SS Carnell Lake joined Greene and Lloyd in the Pro Bowl. This unit was 2nd against the run, 3rd overall whicle sacking QBs 42 times forcing 18 fumbles and pirated 22 enemy passes.

super-bowl-logo-1995How different was this team? In their first playoff win over Buffalo, the Steelers scored the most points ever in a home playoff game winning 40-21. The AFC Championship against the upstart Indianapolis Colts was a slugfest that echoed the 1994 championship in many ways. The most eery was when Harbaugh duplicated the exact same scenario, throwing a late 4th qtr bomb to Floyd Turner to take a 16-13 lead. You want to talk about a hush falling over a stadium, my goodness you would have thought you were at a funeral…lol and we were. After all they had overcome to get back to the championship game and they were in the same position again?? Are you kidding me??

So what had changed?? The season long development of their passing game is what had.  Not only were they able to initiate a march, they actually faced the team’s motto during the drive. Facing a 4th and 3 near midfield with their season on the line, O’Donnell hit Andre Hastings to keep the drive alive. “To hell with a tie!”

Nearing field goal range for a game tying kick, this bolder Steeler offense went for it all when O’Donnell found a streaking Ernie Mills down to the 2. They scored a few plays later to take a 20-16 lead. Now it was up to the defense to hold off the Colts who had come from behind many times that season. Harbaugh brought them to within a failed hail mary of pulling off the upset.

So with a collective sigh of relief they were off to Super Bowl XXX. They literally got those three more yards. Although they lost to Dallas, they thoroughly outplayed them from the middle of the second quarter on. They held Dallas to 61 total yards in the second half, fewest ever for a Super Bowl winner.

They were the first to kick an onside kick without being under 5 minutes to go. Something the Saints copied in Super Bowl XLIV. A couple errant interceptions by O’Donnell robbed this team of its rightful place in history as a Super Bowl champion. Yet the magnificence of their effort in trying to achieve their goal was to be celebrated. Tremendous lesson to be learned from these men is a simple one. To achieve what you want, you may have to change how you do things to get there.

A look back at the ’95 AFC Championship Game:


Sigh…. Neil!!! This was the crowning jewel for becoming AFC Champions in 1995. They should have won it all…

Dedicated to the memories of LB Kevin Greene, T Justin Strelzyk, and Offensive Coordinator Ron Erhardt.



The Soul Of The Game: 1986 Conference Championships

When we say “The Chancellor never sleeps”, we mean there is always football on. Whether we’re talking about the Hall of Fame exhibition game between the Arizona Cardinals and the New Orleans Saints, or a former landmark game, there is always football on in the imagination. Although I’m writing a football book based upon the Super Bowls, my favorite week are those of the AFC and NFC Championship Games.

There you will find the last of the games between passionate fans of the home teams versus the sterile groups that attend the Super Bowl. The season ticket holder who has been cheering and screaming for 4 months… it leads to a contrast that can’t be matched by the corporate Super Bowl ticket holder.

86TaylorWhen the home team wins the conference championship the celebration reverberates throughout the stadium. The fans don’t want to leave and in some instances players take a victory lap long after the cameras are gone. On the other hand the silence that can overcome a stadium when the home team goes down can be deafening. It’s almost like something has gone wrong with your ears. How can 80,000 people go that silent?? Yet you remember last January how quiet it got in Candlestick Park when Lawrence Tynes kicked the New York Giants to the Super Bowl.

In 1986, the Championships were two tightly fought games. The New York Giants beat the Washington Redskins 17-0 and did so based upon good field position with a fierce wind in the first quarter. In Cleveland a defensive battle gave way to John Elway coming of age with “The Drive”. From there the Broncos, who had gained 216 total yards throughout the first 54:00 of the game, drove 98 yards to the tying score. Then won it in overtime.

These fiercely contested game made Super Bowl XXI anti-climactic. They had intensity that bordered on the Hatfields and the McCoy’s and all four defenses played terrific football that day. The two games before the Super Bowl are normally better games than the Super Bowl and my love for the conference finals started with these fiercely fought games.

Thanks for reading and share the article.

AFC Championship Recap

Steelers Hammer Jets Early

Heinz Field and the AFC Championship Game where Rex Ryan’s charges came up short for the second year in a row. Well did they come up short or were they beaten?  They were beaten.   The Steelers dominated the game from the very outset with a near ten minute drive to set the tone at the start of the game.  Rashard Mendenhall ran in his accustomed hard nosed fashion and kept the Jets from taking advantage of their injured offensive line.  Speaking of which they fired off the ball and took command of the trenches early taking the fight to the Jets defense.  Mendenhall finished the first half with 17 carries for 95 yards.  When they needed a play, there was ole’ trusty, reliable Roethlisberger.   The Steelers kept their raucous crowd in the game with a dominant first half performance in taking a 24-0 lead.  Then holding off the surging Jets in the end 24-19 to advance to their 8th Super Bowl to face the Green Bay Packers.

Ben Roethlisberger proved why he deserves to be talked about among the best quarterbacks in the game today and creeping into the all time quarterback talk.  He began the game on fire again.  Not from the stat sheet, but when the Steelers needed a play to keep a drive alive, he found a way to extend plays and make the throw that kept the chains going.  The ad-lib option pitch back to Mendenhall is what showcases his greatness.  How alert was that?  It shows he’s aware of where everyone is on the field and this year he’s endured offseason tumult, had to play with a young receiving corp, and now has to be given credit for what he provides his team. His stats read 10 of 19 for 133 yards and 2 interceptions, but he ran for a touchdown and when it counted most he completed passes for the two first downs that allowed the Steelers to run out the clock.  Thats greatness.

When you’re talking football in January, you had better bring your defense.  The Jets brought theirs but they just didn’t have ananswer in the first half.  As mentioned before they did pick off Roethlisberger twice but were pushed off the ball for much of the first half.  Consequently the #1 against the run Steelers defense only allowed 1 rushing yard and kept the Jets from getting into any offensive rhythm.  Then with the Jets trying desperately for points before the half, Ike Taylor’s sack and forced fumble returned for a touchdown by William Gay was the signature play of the game.  Providing the insurmountable 24-3 lead they’d have to protect.  They provided the biggest play of the game when the Jets had trimmed the lead to 24-10.  The Jets, threatening to get back into the game and on their 17th play of the drive couldn’t dent the Steel Curtain on a 4th and 1 from the Steeler 2 yard line.  Tomlinson never made it back to the line of scrimmage.   

The Steelers did give up a safety on the next play but the defense won it on that goal line. The resulting time it took for the Jets to march for the touchdown to make it 24-19 came on a defense that was tired.  It cost the Jets 4:29 of possession time only leaving 3:09 on the clock when the Steelers took the field.  So with a couple key throws by Ben, the Jets were sent home from the AFC Championship game for the second year in a row. They battled valiantly in the second half but again came up short.  They didn’t come up short on their own, the Steelers held them off.  We have a couple weeks to get ready for the Super Bowl in Dallas.  Packers or these resourceful Steelers.  Who do you have?

Thanks for reading…

Jets Are Slick Like A Fox

Is it me or are the New York Jets changing the face of the NFL?  What I mean is take a look at the brashness that they are exhibiting as they advance through the playoffs.  A coach in Rex Ryan who almost stoops to the level of his players in saying what is on his mind.  Players that celebrated on the field like school kids after winning a playoff game where no one, including yours truly, didn’t think they’d win.  Yet they persisted and are on their way to the unfriendly confines of Heinz Field where they will play a Steelers team they beat late in the season.

This team really talked a big game and ate it for the late season loss to the Patriots, a 45-3 debacle on Monday night football.  Yet they stayed true to who they were and talked brashly about getting back into the thick of things, through late season wins over Pittsburgh. From Coach Ryan’s pregame declaration that it was personal between he and Belichick, to Antonio Cromartie’s expletive pre-game comments about Tom Brady, this team has been  bellacose, verbose, inflammatory.   LOL Damn have they made these playoffs fun

Then you have the Patriots.  They were above the smack talk, or so we thought, then Wes Welker gets roped into making a reference regarding feet which was an obvious smack toward the much publicized fetish of Rex Ryan.  He subsequently gets benched for the beginning of the game which resulted in the Patriots never getting in sync the rest of the game.  To hear Deion Branch call them classless is like the pot calling the kettle black.  How soon we forget!!  You remember the 2006 AFC Divisional playoff when the Patriots came from behind to beat the San Diego Chargers don’t you?

The Patriots started a near fist fight on the Charger logo when the game was over doing Shawne Merrimans’ “Lights Out” dance??  How about the 2004 AFC Championship when Deion Branch, who on the decisive touchdown, ran a reverse into the endzone waving goodbye to the nearest Steeler defender.  Take your medecine and be quiet….and this is before we start talking about a team that ran scores up on teams in 2007 in the most distasteful fashion.

Lost in all of this is the fact Mark Sanchez is growing up right before our very eyes.  He’s beaten two straight Hall of Famers in Peyton Manning and Tom Brady yet no one has acknowledged that.  The fact that the defense has throttled two offenses and befuddled those same two quarterbacks and nearly knocked Brady into next season.  The Jets coverage was so great on one play ESPN showed Brady had over 8.5 seconds on one play and still couldn’t find a receiver.

That the league’s #2 defense has grown into a fire breathing monster and headed for Pittsburgh. Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson are averaging over 120 yards a game in the playoffs.  Yet now the Jets don’t want to talk.  This could be the worst thing they could do since the focus has been on their antics and not on their X’s and O’s.  I hope they lapse into who they really are.  A trip to the Super Bowl may depend on it.

Thanks for reading