Steelers and the Playoffs: History shows miracles can happen ... if you first believe
January 3, 2010 10:00 AM
1989 backfield mates Bubby Brister, left, and Merrill Hoge.
The product of the power of positive thinking, Merrill Hoge pulls away from Houston Oilers defensive end Sean Jones in a playoff game after the 1989 season -- weeks after the Steelers were given little hope of making it.
By Chuck Finder Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
They needed the kindness of NFL strangers.
They needed a victory in Florida for their evaporating playoff hopes.
They needed to precariously balance their focus between the field and the out-of-town scoreboard.
Yes, the Steelers have been there, done this holiday miracle before.
Twenty years ago this past week, another needy bunch of Steelers required a third consecutive victory, a 9-7 record and a complex scenario of events to enable them to unwrap a wacky, wild-card berth.
Although, in that case, there was the portent of snow in the Sunshine State.
"It was one of the best experiences in my life," Merril Hoge recalled of that frenetic finish in 1989.
"I felt like we were really one of destiny's teams," continued Tunch Ilkin.
"Once it was done, you felt like you deserved it," added Bubby Brister. "Even though it was tough, you put yourself in position to have a chance."
Steelers (8-7) at Miami Dolphins (7-8)
When: 1 p.m.
The Steelers of 2009 have it easy, by comparison. They didn't lose their opening two games by a collective 92-10 to division rivals Cleveland and Cincinnati. They didn't have the national media sifting through that wreckage and concluding that the game was too modernized for their old Hall of Fame coach, Chuck Noll. They didn't have to have three teams all lose or tie on the regular season's final weekend -- just two this time, the Houston Texans and the Baltimore Ravens or New York Jets.
The Steelers (8-7) head into their 1 p.m. date today against Miami (7-8) at Land Shark Stadium desperately needing a victory along with triumphs by Oakland (over Baltimore) or Cincinnati (over the Jets), plus New England (over Houston). Their predecessor by a generation needed two of those same franchises to lose in the end: the Raiders, then residents of Los Angeles, and the Bengals along with the Indianapolis Colts.
"I thought there were four teams that had to lose that week at home -- and favored," Hoge wondered.
Well, it was three teams. All on the road. All underdogs -- though not by much.
Indianapolis was a 2 1/2-point underdog at New Orleans, and the Colts got kicked, 41-6. The Giants were a 7-point favorite over the Raiders and won, 34-17. Then, on a Christmas-special "Monday Night Football" telecast, Cincinnati was a 6-point underdog at Minnesota, and lost, 29-21.
The 1989 Steelers, who began 0-2, found themselves one of three AFC Central teams in the playoffs, along with the then-Cleveland Browns, now residents of Baltimore, and the then-Houston Oilers, now Titans in Tennessee. That was the last year three teams from this same old yard made the postseason, a hat trick that could be repeated this season provided the Ravens, Steelers and Bengals (the division champion) all qualify. Age-old lessons abound.
"That whole year [Noll] told us to believe in ourselves," remembered Hoge, now an ESPN analyst.
"The thing of that year ... I think that was Chuck's best job of coaching ever," added Ilkin, an offensive tackle then and now a Steelers' radio color commentator. "We lost 51-nothing at home [to Cleveland], then it was 41-10 the next week in Cincinnati. In '88, we were 5-11, and then getting crushed our first two games. ... I'll never forget the national media was there, the networks were there, and the question was: 'Had the game passed Chuck by?' "
Noll believed. Even when those young Steelers were on a bumpy trail with a third-year Brister at quarterback, a third-year Hoge and a rookie Tim Worley in the backfield, plus kids such as Dermontti Dawson at center and Rod Woodson and Carnell Lake in the secondary. They never won or lost more than two in a row. At December's start, Noll informed them that they needed to win out their final four games to make the playoffs ... and they promptly lost to the Houston Oilers of Jerry Glanville at home.
A three-game winning streak would have to suffice.
Those Steelers needed help. From above?
The heavens brought snow to Tampa Bay the night before they played the Buccaneers. Yes, in Florida. Snow. Ilkin recalled electricity brown-outs blanketing the Bay area.
"It ended up being one of the coldest days in Florida history," Hoge said of that Christmas Eve contest the Steelers won, 31-22. "We came out in short sleeves. I know the Bucs thought we were the toughest sons of [guns]. We had them beat psychologically before it started. If they actually knew that we forgot all our [cold-weather] stuff ..."
Players usually deny peeking, Ilkin said, "but I was watching the scoreboard the whole game. Every drive, I'm looking up at the scoreboard. The defense is on the field, I'm watching the scoreboard."
One by one, the games fell the Steelers' way: the Raiders, the Colts. In the locker room after beating Tampa Bay, needing just a Minnesota victory Monday night against Cincinnati to propel them into the playoffs, Hoge recalled, "Chuck said, 'If you believe, see you Tuesday' " for postseason practice.
"I can't recall if I've ever had a feeling like that night," Hoge said of watching Minnesota hold on to beat the Bengals. "I couldn't sleep. I was at [Three Rivers Stadium] at the crack of dawn. We had a couple of guys who tried to get back [to Pittsburgh]; they didn't think that we were going to make it, and they couldn't get back. Chuck said at the meeting, 'We have a couple of non-believers.' "
Second lesson: You never know.
"Chuck felt like we could win out," Brister said. "He used to stress that all the time: Once you get in the tournament, anything can happen."
After losing both times to Houston in the regular season, the Steelers not only upset the Oilers in the Astrodome on New Year's Eve, they got Glanville fired.
"Is that the year they went to Denver?" current Steelers backup quarterback Charlie Batch asked, trying to search his hometown memory bank for 1989. "I remember that."
The next week, Hoge went wild on the host Broncos with 120 yards on 16 carries and 60 more on eight catches. Broncos safety Dennis Thurman kept yelling "Hoe-g is killing us," until Ilkin screamed a correction: "It's Hodge." The Steelers grabbed leads of 17-7 and 23-17 in the fourth quarter, but then the Denver quarterback did his usual comeback thing for a 24-23 victory.
"When you're up by 10 against John Elway, that's not enough; I didn't know that at the time," said Brister, now running quarterback camps and serving as a spokesman for the American Association of Professional Drivers about sleep apnea in over-the-road truckers. "Getting in the playoffs was great, but it ended up tough. We felt we were playing well enough to move on after Denver. We would've had home field [in the AFC championship game], and we already beat Cleveland. No telling what would've happened against San Francisco" in the Super Bowl.
"Let one slip away from us in Denver."
Maybe, Hoge said, speaking as the voice of experience, these 2009 Steelers can recapture "the magic, and it will help them to repeat their world championship."
"You got to treasure every moment," added Brister, who eventually won back-to-back Super Bowl rings as Elway's Denver backup. "If you do make the playoffs, enjoy it, play hard. Because you don't know if you're going to make it again."