The 1997 Pittsburgh Steelers were a team of both change and continuity. The change was some important personnel shifts, including at quarterback for the second straight year and the departure of a franchise legend. The continuity was in the sixth straight playoff appearance in as many seasons under head coach Bill Cowher.
Kordell Stewart was handed the reins to the offense in his third year in the NFL, taking from veteran retread Mike Tomczak, who had simply kept the seat warm after Neil O’Donnell departed in free agency two years earlier. Stewart was productive—throwing over 3,000 yards, but also mistake-prone, with a TD-INT ratio of 21-17.
The young quarterback had a Pro Bowl receiver in Yancey Thigpen, who accumulated nearly 1,400 yards, and a Pro Bowl running back in Jerome Bettis, who rumbled for over 1,600 yards. Dermontti Dawson was a fixture at center, now 32-years-old, but still a 1st-team All-Pro as he continued building what would be a Hall of Fame resume. The offense finished seventh in the NFL in points scored.
Rod Woodson had been a fixture at corner, one of the great defensive backs in league history, but he and the Steelers parted ways prior to this season. The new-look Pittsburgh defense had Pro Bowl talent in nose tackle Joel Steed, inside linebacker Levon Kirkland and corner Carnell Lake, the latter two being 1st-team All-Pro.
Pittsburgh opened the season with a home game against the Dallas Cowboys. After spending the previous six years as a double-digit win playoff team and winning three Super Bowls, the Cowboys would slip to 6-10 this year. But that decline wasn’t in evidence in Week 1. They forced Stewart into a rough 13/28 for 104 yards showing and the Steelers suffered an embarrassing 37-7 rout.
They recovered the following week by edging the mediocre Washington Redskins 14-13, overcoming a special teams touchdown and three Stewart interceptions. Pittsburgh’s bye week came early, but after one terrible performance and another shaky one, both at home in Three Rivers Stadium, it was probably a timely break.
The Jacksonville Jaguars were in just their third year of existence, but they had reached the AFC Championship Game out of the wild-card slot in their “sophomore” year. They were also a division rival of Pittsburgh’s in the AFC Central division that existed prior to the realignment of 2002. The Steelers’ Week 3 visit to Jacksonville was big enough to warrant the Monday Night stage.
That Pittsburgh was a three-point underdog after winning the Central three straight years is testimony to the respect the Jags had. And the Steelers found out that their rising young foe wasn’t going anywhere. Pittsburgh allowed 306 passing yards to Mark Brunnell, and couldn’t answer with the running game in a 30-21 loss.
Pittsburgh was able to bounce back with consecutive wins over the Tennessee Oilers—who had just relocated from Houston and not yet re-named themselves the Titans—and the Baltimore Ravens who were two years removed from Cleveland and the “new Browns” that would replace them in 1999 did not yet exist. Got all that? The AFC Central was an entire division in transition.
Stewart played well in the wins over the Oilers and Ravens, going 16/24 for 244 yards at home against Tennessee, and then rallying the team with both his arm and with a 74-yard touchdown run as Pittsburgh turned a 21-0 deficit into a 42-34 win.
A Sunday night home date with Indianapolis was next. These teams had met in the playoffs in both 1995 and 1996, but the Colts would crash to 3-13 this year. Pittsburgh managed to turn it over six times and still win the game 24-22, thanks to 164 yards from Bettis. The big running back kept rumbling in Cincinnati for 135 more in a 26-10 win.
Jacksonville paid a return visit to Pittsburgh with both teams at 5-2. It was a national TV game in the late Sunday afternoon window and the Jags picked up where they left off on the Monday Night in September, taking a 10-0 lead into halftime.
Then Stewart found Courtney Hawks on a 28-yard touchdown pass, later ran for a TD and the game went to overtime at 17-17. Pittsburgh won it when Stewart tossed a short pass to Bettis who rolled in from seventeen yards out. The Steelers had sole possession of first place in the AFC Central.
Pittsburgh went to Kansas City to face the Chiefs, who were on their way to the top seed in the AFC. Stewart found Hawkins on a 44-yard touchdown pass and an early 10-0 lead. But against another physical opponent, the Steelers gave up 183 yards on the ground and KC ground out a 13-10 win
Two easy divisional home wins followed. Pittsburgh blasted Baltimore on a Sunday night home date, intercepting Vinny Testaverde four times in a 37-0 win. Then they produced a workmanlike 20-3 victory over Cincinnati. The Steelers were 8-3 and tied for first with the Jaguars.
Both teams lost the following week, Pittsburgh dropping a 23-20 decision in Philadelphia because Stewart threw three interceptions and the team lost two fumbles Another poor outing at Arizona followed, with Stewart erratic and the defense giving up 270 yards passing to Jake Plummer. But it ended well—Bettis ran 142 yards and Pittsburgh escaped the desert with 26-20 overtime win over a team on its way to a 4-12 season.
The win came coupled with Jacksonville loss that gave Pittsburgh a one-game lead, just as they prepared for a decisive two-game stretch The Steelers would have to face the Denver Broncos, the second-best team in the AFC behind Kansas City, along with the New England Patriots—who had reached the Super Bowl in 1996 and would win the AFC East again this year.
Pittsburgh met the challenge, though it wasn’t easy. They fell behind Denver at home, 21-7 in the second quarter. But Stewart outplayed John Elway. The Steeler quarterback found Thigpen on a 69-yard touchdown and later on a 21-yard scoring play. Trailing 24-21, Stewart then ran for two touchdowns. He finished 18/29 for 303 yards while Elway was erratic, going 17/42 for 248 yards. Pittsburgh won 35-24.
Another strong-armed quarterback in Drew Bledsoe was up next in the road trip to Foxboro. Again, Pittsburgh fell behind by two touchdowns, and still trailed 21-13 in the fourth quarter. Stewart threw a touchdown pass to tight end Mark Bruener and a tying two-point conversion to Thigpen. Then the young quarterback led the offense to the winning field goal in overtime in a 24-21 final. Stewart and Bettis combined for 138 rush yards, while the Patriots managed only 42.
The win not only clinched the AFC Central, but also assured Pittsburgh of the 2-seed in the playoffs over New England. It was a distinction that had proved critical in 1996 when the Steelers lost that seed line to the Patriots and it would be so again this season. The final game at Tennessee was basically mailed in, with Bettis not playing and Stewart only going half the game in a 16-6 loss.
After taking the week off, Pittsburgh welcomed New England to old Three Rivers Stadium on Saturday afternoon for the first game of the divisional round. The Steelers were a (-6) favorite and Stewart immediately used his legs to his advantage, taking off on a 40-yard touchdown jaunt in the first quarter.
The defenses on both sides then completely took over the game. New England, then coached by Pete Carroll, who was in his first year replacing Bill Parcells, forced Stewart into a 14/31 for 134 yards performance. The Steelers never scored again.
But New England, with running back Curtis Martin sidelined, couldn’t crack the end zone and it was still 7-6 Pittsburgh when the Steelers drove to the 1-yard line with 3:24 left. Cowher decided to go for it. I think he made the right decision.
It was a worthwhile risk to try and expand the lead to eight points, and at worse leave the Patriots pinned if the fourth down play failed. They’d still have to drive about 70 yards for a winning field goal, not all that different from what it would have taken for a tying touchdown drive after a kickoff.
Those explanations seem empty when New England does what they did—stuff Stewart’s leap over the line of scrimmage and quickly drive to their own 42-yard line. Steeler linebacker Mike Vrabel saved the day against his future team when he strip-sacked Bledsoe, forced a fumble and another Pittsburgh linebacker, Jason Gildon recovered. The 7-6 win was preserved.
Cowher then apologized in the press conference for having gone for it on the goal line, saying he should have taken the points, offering the rationale “I’m a young coach”. The press conference was just idiotic. First off, I believe he made the right decision. Second, even if you disagree, Cowher was now in his sixth year. That’s hardly too young to make a basic fourth down percentage decision that every fan can make after watching football a few years.
At any rate, the Steelers had to feel like things were breaking their way. In their AFC Championship run of 1995 they had beaten the AFC East champs on Saturday (in that case Buffalo) and then watched top-seeded Kansas City get beaten at home on late Sunday afternoon. The exact same sequence occurred this time and Three Rivers Stadium was again the site of an AFC Championship Game.
Where the analogy to 1995 breaks down is that year the Steelers played an overachieving Colts team. This time they drew Elway and the Broncos. Denver had finished with a better record than Pittsburgh and was only a wild-card because Kansas City had won the AFC West. The Steelers lost 24-21 in a game that didn’t feel that close. Stewart threw three interceptions and after Pittsburgh closed to within three points, Elway calmly converted the first downs that ran out the clock.
The 1997 Pittsburgh Steelers marked the end of a short era in franchise history. From 1992-97, they had been steady contenders, in the playoffs every year and making the Super Bowl once, although the home playoff defeats of 1992, 1994 and now 1997 were gnawing. But the next three seasons would see the Steelers fall from relevance and not until 2001 would a second era of Cowher success begin.