In the pantheon of what could be considered the most decorated postseason history of any National Football League franchise, the Steelers have carved a formidable pattern of success that has tantalized their followers while also stretching the boundaries of believability.
Strewn in the wake of their unparalleled success over four decades are games flavored with immaculate receptions and ice bowls, forearm shivers and criminal elements. They featured coaches who could never kick down the door and acrobatic catches that have been etched into the league's consciousness.
But, for all their nasty battles with the hated Oakland Raiders, beyond their memorable thumpings of the Houston Oilers and two epic Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys, no team has been a more frequent opponent and a constant annoyance in the postseason than the Denver Broncos, the team the Steelers will face again at 4:30 p.m. today in an AFC wild-card playoff game.
This will be the seventh playoff meeting between the teams -- more than the Raiders, the Oilers and even the New England Patriots -- and it is a series best remembered for punches to the stomach, dropped passes, costly interceptions, botched snaps and one incredible individual performance by a running back whose name the Broncos could never pronounce.
But, to at least 16 of the Steelers who comprise the 12-4 team that will begin another journey through the postseason, it will be a return to the site where they won the 2005 AFC Championship game and became the first No. 6 seed in NFL history to win three playoff games on the road and the Super Bowl.
"It was against the No. 1 offense in football at the time, the No. 1 seed [in the AFC], and we just went in there and played great," said defensive end Brett Keisel, who had two late sacks in the game. "The defense forced some turnovers, Ben [Roethlisberger] was red hot and we just overwhelmed them."
"No one thought we had a chance," said defensive end Aaron Smith, a Denver-area native who has been on the injured reserve list since October and will not play in this game. "I remember it was a nice, sunny, bright day and we jumped on them early and Jake [Plummer] had a bad day against us. We scored a lot of points early and they weren't really designed to be a comeback team. If they got behind, they were going to be in trouble."
There always has been postseason trouble in Denver, both for the Steelers and the Broncos.
Each team has won twice in the Mile High City, and each team has one victory in Pittsburgh. And each team has a victory in the AFC championship game that propelled them to a Super Bowl victory.
For the Broncos, that came after the 1997 season at Three Rivers Stadium when a pair of Kordell Stewart interceptions late in the first half led to a pair of touchdown drives engineered by John Elway in the final 1:47. The Broncos won, 24-21, and Elway went on to win the first of back-to-back Super Bowls.
"The Raiders were always our top challenger because they played in the same division," said former Broncos linebacker Karl Mecklenburg, a six-time Pro Bowl selection who played from 1983-94. "But, when we got to the playoffs, there were the Steelers, always waiting for you."
Through all the memorable moments, the rivalry with the Broncos never reached the nasty tenor of the discord the Steelers had with the Raiders.
But a tone was set early, back in 1977, when defensive tackle Joe Greene was so frustrated during a 34-21 Broncos victory in a divisional playoff game that he punched guard Paul Howard in the stomach, claiming he was being held all the time. Greene was ejected from the game and later fined $5,000.
After Stewart threw one of his three interceptions in the 1997 AFC championship game, Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski taunted the Steelers quarterback as he walked off the field.
"That rivalry for me, in those 10 years, was huge," said former Broncos linebacker Randy Gradishar, the leader of Denver's famed "Orange Crush" defense who faced the Steelers eight times from 1974-83, twice in the postseason. "I always enjoyed playing against the best, and, when we played them, they were probably the best."
"The Steelers have always been a tough team to play, very physical," Mecklenburg was saying the other day, thrilled that his former team was back in the playoffs for the first time since that 2005 AFC title game loss to the Steelers. "You know what to expect with them. They weren't going to try to trick you. It reminds me of the matchup they're going to have this Sunday -- two tough, hard-nosed teams. Whoever makes the most mistakes is going to be in trouble."
The Broncos took another punch in the stomach -- figuratively, this time -- in 1984, right when the league was anticipating a marquee matchup in the AFC championship game between Elway and Dan Marino of the Miami Dolphins, two of the quarterback stars from the NFL draft class of 1983.
The Steelers came to Mile High Stadium as 10-point underdogs against the 13-3 Broncos and rallied from a 17-10 deficit for a 24-17 victory, a game in which former tackle Tunch Ilkin said, "I never saw a stadium go from being so loud to mausoleum-quiet."
Five years later, the Broncos delivered the payback in what was one of the most disheartening playoff losses in Steelers history.
In 1989, in a season that began with back-to-back losses to the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals by a combined score of 92-10, the Steelers were coming off an emotional 26-23 overtime playoff victory in Houston -- a game that resulted in the firing of Oilers coach Jerry Glanville -- when they traveled to Denver for a divisional-round game.
Despite holding leads of 13-0 and 23-17, the Steelers lost when Elway drove the Broncos 71 yards for the winning touchdown with 2:22 remaining in Denver. The game always will be remembered for Steelers receiver Mark Stock dropping a first-down pass near midfield that would have given Gary Anderson a chance to attempt a field goal for the win.
"Back then, they did a lot of trap blocking, so, as a linebacker, most of my time was spent chasing the guards and trying to find the running back behind him," Mecklenburg said.
And the player the Broncos could never seem to locate was Merril Hoge.
Hoge was so dominant in that game -- 16 carries for 120 yards and eight catches for another 60 yards -- that NFL Films has a clip of Broncos safety Dennis Smith yelling in the Denver huddle, "That Hoag, Hoadge, whatever his name is -- he's kicking our ..."
"I probably learned more lessons in that one year about habits, work ethic, perseverance and life lessons than I ever learned in sports," said Hoge, an ESPN analyst. "From a leadership standpoint, I thought it was one of Chuck [Noll's] greatest moments in coaching.
"I remember after our 0-2 start, everyone was beating us up, locally and nationally, calling us the worst team in football and saying you don't recover from stuff like that. I remember Chuck stood in front of us on a Tuesday and he said, 'Listen, I know what they're saying about you but I believe in you.'
"I'm telling you, you could feel the energy in that room change. The only guy who mattered believed in us, and he had a plan. It was pretty powerful that day."
The Steelers looked like a team on a mission, certainly one deemed for improbable destiny, especially when they grabbed a double-digit lead on the Broncos.
But Stock's dropped pass, and a botched shotgun snap to quarterback Bubby Brister by center Chuck Lanza two plays later, conspired against them. Lanza was playing because Pro Bowl center Dermontti Dawson was out of the game with a concussion.
"That snap, I had it in my hands, but somebody's foot hit the ball," Hoge said the other day, recalling the moment as though the ball was still lying in front of him. "I'm thinking, if I pick that up, I might have had a first down."
But Hoge didn't recover the fumble.
Instead, he took a helmet to his knee from a Broncos player and broke the top of his fibula. It might have been the greatest individual game of his career, but it was also the most painful. In addition to the fibula, Hoge also sustained a broken jaw on a hit by linebacker Simon Fletcher and had his ribs busted earlier in the game.
"I played five or six years after that, and why that game was so memorable was because of all the mounting moments," Hoge said. "It was the only game I ever played where I had butterflies the entire game. Every play was like the first play of every game. Every third down was so critical."
There is some amount of irony that the Steelers will play a road playoff game today at the very site of the last playoff game they had to play on the road.
But, unlike 2005, the Broncos (8-8) boast the worst record of all the playoff teams, not the best; and their offense is far from the No. 1 unit they boasted in the last postseason meeting.
"Any time you play a playoff game, a team has every bit of motivation that you do," Mecklenburg said. "The Steelers have a great record of playing in the playoffs, of playing against the Broncos and doing well. Pittsburgh has an advantage going into this game in that they have the experience, they understand what it means to play in playoff games and win playoff games. The Broncos don't have those people."
Maybe not now. But they did, as the Steelers can well attest.
Today marks the franchise-record seventh time the Steelers will face the Denver Broncos in the playoffs. A quick look at the previous six meetings:
Broncos, 34-21 • Dec. 24, 1977 • @ Denver
The skinny: Two INTs late in the game by Denver LB Tom Jackson lead to 10 Denver points that put the game away.
Steelers, 33-10 • Dec. 30, 1978 • @ Three Rivers
The skinny: The Steelers defense records six sacks and Terry Bradshaw and John Stallworth hook up 10 times for 156 yards.
Steelers, 24-17 • Dec. 30, 1984 • @ Denver
The skinny: Eric Williams intercepts John Elway and returns it to the 2, setting up Frank Pollard's winning TD with 2:45 to play.
Broncos, 24-23 • Jan. 7, 1990 • @ Denver
The skinny: A 10-point underdog, the Steelers put a scare in Denver before John Elway leads a face-saving TD drive.
Broncos, 24-21 • Jan. 11, 1998 • @ Three Rivers
The skinny: Kordell Stewart throws 2 INTs in the end zone as the Steelers lose AFC title game at home for second time in four years.
Steelers, 34-17 • Jan. 22, 2006 • @ Denver
The skinny: Finish unprecedented three-game road trip to Super Bowl. Score on all four first-half possessions.
Gerry Dulac: email@example.com ; twitter: @gerrydulac. First Published January 8, 2012 5:00 AM