In the early 1970s, at the start of their Super Bowl glory days, the Steelers' chief antagonist was the Oakland Raiders, a team that inspired hatred and lawsuits, forearm shivers and immaculate receptions.
Toward the end of that decade, it was the Houston Oilers, a team that just never could kick down the door and get past the Steelers to the Super Bowl. It was a rivalry based on mutual respect and flavored with the folksy charm of their cowboy coach, O.A. "Bum" Phillips.
Nearly 30 years later, no team tormented the Steelers more than the New England Patriots, who deprived them of two more Super Bowl appearances by beating them on their home field in the conference championship in 2001 and '04.
But, for continuous rivalry and sustained annoyance, no team has engaged the Steelers in more big games and been responsible for some of the most bothersome playoff heartaches since 1974 than the Denver Broncos.
Over the past four decades, the series has been punctuated by punches to the stomach, record-setting performances, ballyhooed debuts, botched shotgun snaps, last-minute heroics, too many interceptions and one dropped pass that not only cost the Steelers a playoff victory but also sent the players into near-mutiny a year later when the offense was overhauled.
"The [Oakland] 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."
They have met six times in the postseason since 1977 -- more than the Raiders, Oilers or Patriots -- with each team winning three times. The Broncos' biggest game was a 24-21 win in the 1997 AFC championship game at Three Rivers Stadium when Kordell Stewart threw three interceptions and lost a fumble. The Steelers' biggest victory was beating the Broncos, 34-17, in the 2005 AFC championship in Denver, a game that propelled them to their fifth Super Bowl title.
But there were painful defeats, too.
In 1984, with a marquee AFC championship game matchup looming between John Elway of the Broncos and Dan Marino of the Miami Dolphins, the Steelers went to Mile High Stadium as 10-point underdogs to the 13-3 Broncos and rallied from a 17-10 deficit for a 24-17 victory.
"I never saw a stadium go from being so loud to mausoleum-quiet," former Steelers tackle Tunch Ilkin said.
Five years later, the Broncos repaid the favor.
In one of the most disappointing playoff losses in team history, the Steelers blew leads of 13-0 and 23-17 and lost when Elway, who had made his NFL debut at Three Rivers Stadium in 1984, 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 kick the winning field goal.
"We were moving up and down the field," former Steelers center Dermontti Dawson said. "That's when we had our trapping offense, and they couldn't stop us."
Dawson, a seven-time Pro Bowl pick, was unwittingly a pivotal component in that game because he had to come out for the final series after injuring his ankle. Two plays after Stock's dropped pass, Dawson's replacement, Chuck Lanza, botched a shotgun snap to quarterback Bubby Brister. The Broncos recovered, and the game was over.
"We've always had big games against Denver," said former Steelers running back Merril Hoge, who had one of the biggest of them all in that game -- rushing for 120 yards on 16 carries and catching eight passes for 60 yards.
Hoge was so dominant in that game 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 ... "
"The 1989 game was a big game," Hoge said the other day by phone. "If we win that game, things would have been so much different. Things changed after that. Tom Moore [offensive coordinator] left, and Joe Walton came in and it wasn't a good fit for the offense. Tom Moore had us drilled ... we were young, our offense was starting to come around, and we had to start over."
While the rivalry lacked the bitterness that framed some of the Steelers' classic battles with the Raiders, the Broncos certainly inspired some nasty freeze-frame moments over the past four decades, too.
In a 1977 playoff game in Denver in which the Broncos ended the Steelers' quest for an unprecedented third Super Bowl title, Hall of Fame defensive tackle Joe Greene was so frustrated during a 34-21 Broncos victory 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.
In a 1997 regular-season game at Three Rivers Stadium, Broncos linebacker Alfred Williams accosted coach Bill Cowher near the sideline because he was upset at the way the former Steelers coach came out on the field to celebrate a play.
After Stewart threw one of his three interceptions in the 1997 AFC championship game loss at Three Rivers Stadium, Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski began taunting 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.
"What I remember is the greatness of their players. Even though you're not supposed to say how great another team was, they prided themselves on being the best and they continue to prove themselves today."
The Steelers (5-2) and Broncos (6-1) will meet for the third time tonight since the 2005 conference championship, but the previous two regular-season meetings -- both won by the Broncos -- did not carry the same significance as the 8:30 p.m. Monday Night Football matchup at Invesco Field in Denver.
For the Steelers, who have won four games in a row, it is the second game in a row they will face a division leader. For the Broncos, it is the second game in a row they will face a physical, hard-hitting team from the AFC North Division. Both defenses are ranked high in the league: The Broncos are ranked No. 1 in total defense and fewest points (96); the Steelers are ranked No. 1 against the run and haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 29 consecutive games, counting playoffs.
It has the making of another rivalry classic, even if it is the regular season.
"My first pro game was in Three Rivers Stadium, and I got my first sack against Mark Malone in 1983," Mecklenburg said. "That was a big step for me. First game, first sack."
The 1983 game, won by the Broncos, 14-10, is not remembered, however, for being Mecklenburg's first NFL game.
All eyes were focused on Three Rivers Stadium Sept. 4, 1983, because it was the NFL debut of Elway, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft and the man who would eventually win two Super Bowl titles for the Broncos. It was not a memorable debut.
Elway completed 1 of 8 passes for 14 yards before being replaced by veteran Steve DeBerg, who threw the winning touchdown pass.
"He didn't just start off on fire," Mecklenburg said. "He struggled a little bit at first and so did that team. We had 12 rookies make that team that year.
"John was an interesting guy. He was such a gifted guy that I don't think he was ever pushed like he was pushed in the NFL, where you just can't do it with physical ability alone. I don't know if he ever had to do it before. He'd get up for the big games, but he thought he could just show up and win. Dan Reeves and Mike Shanahan straightened him out real quick."
Elway was 2-1 in three playoff meetings against the Steelers, his biggest victory coming in the 1997 AFC title game. That's when he led the Broncos to two touchdowns in the final 1:47 of the first half after two costly turnovers by Stewart. The Broncos won, 24-21, and Elway went on to win the first of back-to-back Super Bowls.
Denver gets to see the reincarnation of Elway in Ben Roethlisberger, who wears the same jersey number and also has two Super Bowl rings.
"The people in Colorado maybe kind of forget that, that the Raiders were our rival because of the division and the Steelers were our rival because of the AFC," Gradishar said. "Of course, the Steelers probably don't care about any of that. They have all those Super Bowls."
Gerry Dulac can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published November 9, 2009 5:00 AM