The NFL playoffs expanded to five teams per conference in 1978 and then six in time for the 1990 season. No team seeded below #4—the demarcation point for having to play three straight road games—had ever won the Super Bowl. The 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers made history and were the first.
Pittsburgh had reached the AFC Championship Game in 2004 and only the dynasty that was the New England Patriots stopped them. The Steelers had finished the ’04 regular season 15-1 and introduced the NFL world to rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The expectations were there for another Super Bowl run in 2005.
The Steelers opened with easy wins over the Tennessee Titans and the Houston Texans and set up a Week 3 battle with the Patriots, on the banks of the Three Rivers. Tom Brady threw for 372 yard and New England won 23-20 on a field goal by Adam Vinateri with one second left. Could anything work right against the Patriots?
Pittsburgh then went west to face the San Diego Chargers, who had gone 12-4 the year before and won the AFC West under the coaching of Marty Schottenheimer. This team the Steelers got on the right side of the last-second field goal—their own kicker Jeff Reed hit a 40-yarder to produce a 24-22 win.
The split of the New England/San Diego games was good enough, but a disappointing home loss to Jacksonville followed. The Steelers quickly turned it around to win four straight. They beat all three of their AFC North division rivals—the Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns and then mixed in a win over the Green Bay Packers, who were enduring their worst season of the Brett Favre era.
With a record of 7-2, Pittsburgh was rolling and had every reason to be thinking Super Bowl. But Roethlisberger missed the next game in Baltimore. Tommy Maddox played in his stead, and the offense was ineffective in a 16-13 overtime loss.
Roethlisberger came back, but nothing could help the Steelers on a trip to undefeated Indianapolis. Peyton Manning repeatedly hooked up with Marvin Harrison, and Edgerrin James ran for 124 yards. Pittsburgh ended up on the wrong end of a 26-7 score.
A key division loss to the Bengals followed. Roethlisberger and Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer each had a big day, but Big Ben threw three interceptions while Palmer had none, and the Bengals won 38-31.
A once-promising season was now on the brink, with a record of 7-5. The Steelers simply had too much talent for missing the playoffs to be on the table.
Willie Parker rushed for 102 yards behind an offensive line that included Pro Bowler Alan Faneca. The receiving corps was led by Hines Ward, who accumulated nearly 1,000 yards in catches. Pittsburgh had a potent weapon in Antwaan Randle-El, who was a good receiving threat, a punt returner and as a former college quarterback, could throw it off a reverse. A rookie tight end in Heath Miller, who has had a long NFL career, gave Roethlisberger another threat.
But the pride and joy of the Steelers over the years has been their defense, and in recent years it’s started with the linebackers, in their blitzing 3-4 scheme. Clark Haggans and Joey Porter combined for 19.5 sacks, and Porter made the Pro Bowl. So did Troy Polamulu, the tough strong safety who was in the early stages of a career that would eventually see him win Defensive Player of the Year.
The man who was the inspirational leader of this team though was Jerome Bettis. “The Bus” as the big running back was called was in his final season. He was no longer the every down back—that role went to Parker—but Bettis still led the team with nine rushing touchdowns. Furthermore, his hometown was Detroit—the site of the Super Bowl, and bringing The Bus back home was a big motivating theme for the Steelers this season.
Given all this, it’s not surprising that they came up with their most physical defensive effort of the year in a 21-9 win over the Chicago Bears, a team on its way to a division title under Lovie Smith. Bettis rushed for 101 yards against the tough Bears’ defense, Parker had 68 and Pittsburgh simply out-toughed a very tough opponent.
The end of the schedule was soft, and Pittsburgh took advantage. They won road games over the Minnesota Vikings and Cleveland decisively, and then beat the Detroit Lions at home. The Steelers were in the playoffs, but they would have to do it the hard way—they were seeded #6 in the AFC.
Cincinnati won the AFC North and as the 3-seed would host their division rival to start the postseason. Palmer tore up his knee on the game’s first possession, but backup Jon Kitna still had the Bengals ahead 17-7 in the second quarter. Pittsburgh’s running game would prove too much though—the Steelers won the rushing battle with 144 yards to Cincy’s 84, and Roethlisberger was an efficient 14/19 for 208 yards and no interceptions. Pittsburgh scored 24 unanswered points and won 31-17.
It was time to go back to Indianapolis. The Colts had won their first 13 games before losing a couple meaningless games and finishing 14-2. Pittsburgh wasn’t given much of a chance, but with Roethlisberger again playing with efficiency—14/24 for 197 yards—they ran out to a 21-3 lead.
Indianapolis cut the lead to 21-18, but Pittsburgh had the ball near the Colt goal line in the closing minute with a chance to wrap up the game. Then a nearly epic disaster unfolded. Bettis fumbled and it took a saving tackle by Roethlisberger to prevent a game-winning touchdown. Peyton still moved Indy to field goal range, but kicker Mike Vander Jagt missed. The Steelers improbable upset was secured in a most improbable way.
The nemesis of New England had been eliminated by the Denver Broncos on the same weekend, so Pittsburgh went west for the AFC Championship Game. Facing the coach/QB combo of Mike Shanahan and Jake Plummer was a little easier than dealing with Bill Belichick and Brady. Roethlisberger was 21/29 for 275 yards and no interceptions, while the Pittsburgh defense forced four turnovers in a 34-17 win that was never close.
Pittsburgh had already made a little bit of history—they were the first 6-seed to even reach the Super Bowl. But other teams had won three road games in the playoffs before—the 1985 New England Patriots did it out of the 5-spot before being crushed by the Bears. The Steelers had the chance to seal their road win with a Super Bowl trophy and to do it in the backyard of Bettis.
The Super Bowl against the Seattle Seahawks was an ugly affair. Parker’s 75-yard touchdown run helped put the Steelers up 14-3. But Roethlisberger was awful, only completing 9-of-21 passes, and in the third quarter he threw a hideous interception near the goal line. Instead of wrapping the game up, the Seahawks got momentum, cut the lead to 14-10 and were driving to take the lead.
Seattle’s drive was halted when a holding penalty nullified a pass to the 1-yard line and an interception followed. Pittsburgh drove it into Seahawk territory, and then Randle-El showed of his arm, hitting Ward with a 43-yard touchdown pass off the reverse. The 21-10 final stood up.
Ward was named Super Bowl MVP, and the fact he did it with only five catches tells us you there weren’t a lot of standout individual efforts to choose from. But no one in Pittsburgh cared. They had made history as a 6-seed, beaten the two best teams in football in Indianapolis and Seattle and sent Jerome Bettis out a champion in his own backyard.