When Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith walked off Heinz Field Nov. 10, 2002 after a game against the Atlanta Falcons, he had a feeling he had not experienced before. And he has not experienced since.
After 60 minutes of regulation and 15 minutes of overtime, the game ended in a 34-34 tie. It is one of only 17 NFL games that has ended in a tie since the league adopted its sudden-death overtime format in 1974.
"It was strange," Smith said. "That game seemed like it lasted forever. We were playing and playing and playing. It was an awful feeling. I would have rather lost than have it end in a tie. You want to come away with something. I remember it was an awkward feeling."
Ties in NFL games happen about once every two years. Only one other game since the 2002 Steelers-Falcons game has ended in a tie. The Philadelphia Eagles and Cincinnati Bengals played to a 13-13 tie in 2008, a game that drew a lot of attention because Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb confessed afterward that he did not know that NFL games could end in a tie.
Smith and some other Steelers who played in the '02 game said they did not know the rule, either.
"I didn't even know you could tie like that," receiver Hines Ward said. "When we went into overtime and didn't score, I thought we were going into another overtime. It was an exciting ballgame, but it was like a wasted Sunday. We didn't get anything accomplished. It was like a scrimmage. No one won or lost. It didn't help or hurt anybody."
Atlanta will visit Heinz Field today for the first time since that tied game. Despite the ending, the contest was one of the most memorable regular-season games in Steelers history.
Quarterback Tommy Maddox set a team record with 478 passing yards and four touchdowns. The quarterback for the Falcons that day was Michael Vick, who threw for 294 yards and ran for 52, including an 11-yard touchdown scamper with 42 seconds remaining that sent the game into overtime.
"I remember chasing Vick around and trying to kill him," Smith said.
The two teams combined for 1,092 total yards. The Steelers accounted for 645 of those yards. Steelers receiver Plaxico Burress set a team record for receiving yards with 253. Burress' final catch of the day was a 50-yarder. Had it been 51, the Steelers would have won the game.
After James Farrior blocked Jay Feely's 53-yard field goal attempt with one second remaining, the Steelers had time for one play. Maddox dropped back and threw a Hail Mary pass to Burress, who caught the ball and fell to the ground inside the Atlanta 1-yard line.
Maddox and Burress are out of professional football, but plenty of other Steelers who will play today were on the 2002 team. Seven players on this team played in that game, and four others were on the 53-man roster.
By contrast, Atlanta only has two players this season who were on its roster in 2002.
Ward, who was in his fifth season, had 11 receptions for 139 yards and a touchdown.
"It was an offensive game, back and forth," Ward said. "For whatever reason, we couldn't find a way to win the ball game. It was just one of those days. It was disappointing to put up that much offense and not come away with anything."
The Steelers had the game under control at the beginning of the fourth quarter, holding a 34-17 lead. But the Falcons scored 17 points in the final 7:44 to tie the score and force overtime.
"It was memorable because we were up, and then Michael Vick went crazy," said receiver Antwaan Randle El, whose fourth-quarter fumble on a punt return helped to ignite Atlanta's rally. "That's a game I wish I can just forget. To come out with a tie after you put so much time in working is tough.
"There shouldn't be ties. Let it go on and on. You put four hours into it, the whole week you put effort into it, and it becomes a tie? I was just empty. I remember thinking, 'What do you mean it's over?' We didn't realize the rules. It was crazy."
This season the NFL tweaked the overtime rules, but only for games in the postseason. In the playoffs, both teams will have at least one opportunity to possess the ball unless the team that possesses the ball first scores a touchdown.
But, for regular-season games, the rule remains the same as it has been since 1974. The first team to score in overtime wins. If neither teams scores after 15 minutes, the game is over.
The Steelers and Falcons have a history of playing close games. Their past four have been decided by a total of 10 points. The past two have gone into overtime. In '06 at Atlanta, the Falcons prevailed in another wild game, 41-38, when Morten Andersen made a 32-yard field in overtime.
The'02 ended in a tie, at least in part, because of field conditions which were less than ideal for kicking. Steelers kicker Todd Peterson missed a 40-yard attempt in the first half. On the Steelers' first overtime possession, coach Bill Cowher decided to go for it on fourth down instead of attempting a 48-yard field goal. Later, Cowher decided to punt rather than attempt a 51-yarder.
Two weeks later, Peterson was cut and Jeff Reed was signed. Reed has proven to be a much better kicker than Peterson, but it has not spelled success in overtime for the Steelers.
That Falcons game at Heinz Field started a streak of misfortune in overtime. The Steelers are 2-7 in such games since then, including consecutive losses last season against Kansas City and Baltimore in November that contributed to the team's late-season swoon.
Perhaps, Randle El put it best when he said that the one lesson to be learned from the '02 game is this: "You want to win those games before it gets to that. People are talking about the overtime rules. Well, just win the game in regulation. Then you don't have to worry about it."
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com or 412-263-1230. First Published September 12, 2010 4:00 AM