The Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys both are 7-6 and fighting for their playoff lives.
That alone makes Sunday’s Week 15 matchup in Dallas riveting, but history gives this game some extra juice.
These are the only two teams who have met three times in the Super Bowl. The Steelers beat the Cowboys twice in the 1970s, and the Cowboys beat the Steelers in the 1990s, a decade they dominated like the Steelers dominated the 1970s.
There’s still a special aura to a Steelers-Cowboys game, even if Steelers fans too young to remember the 1970s might not feel it.
I’m old enough to feel it.
Being interconference foes, the Steelers and Cowboys don’t meet frequently. These games are spaced out enough through the years to almost represent different stages of life.
The Steelers-Cowboys timeline traces different points in the Steelers history as well as my own life growing up as a Steelers fan.
The Eyes of a Child
I actually missed Super Bowl X and Super Bowl XIII, because I started paying attention to sports in 1979. The Steelers’ 14-3 home victory over the Cowboys on Oct. 28 was the first Steelers-Cowboys game that I watched.
Since I missed their epic collapse in 1978, it wasn’t hard to fall in line with the rest of New England and become a Red Sox fan. Some rookie from Indiana State named Larry Bird was about to set foot onto the parquet floor, so I was getting in at just the right time as a Celtics fan.
My NFL allegiance was up for grabs.
In the schoolyards of Rhode Island in the 1970s, most boys wore either the red and blue of the Patriots (with old Pat Patriot), the blue and silver of the Cowboys or the black and yellow of the Steelers.
Even in 1979, before the NFL Sunday Ticket, it was a lot easier to see non-local NFL teams on TV than it was in other sports because of the NFL’s deal with the networks. I was exposed to some Steelers games that fall, and the Patriots’ franchise was less than 20 years old and not as entrenched as the other Boston teams.
The first Steelers game I watched was their first loss of the 1979 season, which came to the Eagles after a 4-0 start. I knew the Steelers were unbeaten going into that game, and even though they lost, seeing them on TV might have been enough to make me a Steelers fan.
I went about my merry way as 8-year-olds do for the next few weeks. The Steelers didn’t consume my Sundays in the fall the way they would a couple of decades later. A few more Steelers games came and went while the 1979 World Series diverted my attention. While I didn’t become a Pirates fan, I did play for the Pirates in a Boys Club baseball league and owned one of those yellow, flat-top Pirates caps. I didn’t have any stars on it, though.
A few days after Willie “Pops” Stargell and the Pirates beat the Orioles in seven, I came across a boxscore in the newspaper, and my impressionable mind was further molded into that of a Steelers fan.
The Steelers had beaten the Denver Broncos 42-7 on Monday Night Football the night before. I didn’t see the game. I wasn’t paying enough attention yet to even know the Steelers were playing the Broncos on Monday Night Football. But that boxscore influenced me. I can’t remember the exact headline on top of the boxscore, but the word “bad” was part of it. I knew enough to realize that 42-7 was a blowout. It all came together to make the Steelers seem sort of bad-ass in my eyes.
The Steelers’ next game was against the Cowboys, and it happened to be on TV in our living room.
I didn’t yet have the attention span to sit and watch the whole game. I just know the Steelers won, and it was the first Steelers win that I watched. Even if they had lost, I already was at the point of no return in becoming a Steelers fan.
My mind wasn’t even changed by the Steelers’ 35-7 loss in San Diego three weeks later. That was the first Steelers game I watched from beginning to end. The Steelers would provide me with a childhood flashback 33 years later with another stinker against the Chargers.
That year, I asked Santa Claus for a Steelers coat, a Steelers winter cap, Steelers pencils, Steelers notebooks, a Steelers wastebasket and other Steelers paraphernalia. Then the Steelers won the Super Bowl. Life couldn’t be any better.
It would be a while before I saw the Steelers win another Super Bowl. The lights went out on the glory days of the 1970s, and the Steelers taught me that you don’t always get what you want.
The next time the Steelers and Cowboys played was the 1982 season opener, which is kind of a lost classic in Steelers-Cowboys lore.
The Monday Night Football matchup in Dallas almost mirrored Super Bowl XIII. The Steelers had a 33-14 lead in the fourth quarter before the Cowboys narrowed the gap to 33-28. Then Gary Anderson clinched it with a field goal and the Steelers won 36-28. There were no two-point conversions back then.
I was 11, and did not yet have the oomph to stay awake for an entire Monday Night Football game, so I fell asleep during this game.
It was fitting considering the Steelers’ 2-0 start would be interrupted by an eight-week NFL strike. The Steelers lost in the first round of the playoffs at home to the Chargers. That game wasn’t on TV in Rhode Island. To recoup some of the TV money lost during the strike, the playoffs were a 16-team tournament. Not every first-round game had a national audience. So even more torturous than watching the Steelers lose a playoff game was the helpless feeling of relying on periodic updates on the bottom of the TV screen as they blew a 28-17 lead and lost 31-28.
As I grew into a teenager in the 1980s, the Steelers meandered into mediocrity, and the Celtics and Red Sox commandeered most of my attention. I don’t remember the Steelers’ 27-13 loss in Dallas in 1985, a year the Steelers finished 7-9. I don’t remember their 24-21 win over the Cowboys in Pittsburgh in the 1988 season opener. Big deal. They lost their next six games and finished 5-11, their worst season in my lifetime.
The Steelers weren’t yet must-see TV for me in 1991. Joe Walton was their offensive coordinator, so I didn’t miss much. They were in Dallas on Thanksgiving. I don’t know how I can’t remember where I watched that game, or if I even watched it at all. Whatever. The Steelers lost 20-10 and finished 7-9 in Chuck Noll’s final season.
The Real World
The NFL Sunday Ticket premiered in 1994. It was the dawn of a new day for fans not living in the market of their favorite team.
On the first NFL Sunday that year, the Ticket allowed me to keep an eye on the Steelers while hanging out with some Patriots fans at a sports bar in Rhode Island.
I would have had to wander from the group I was with to get a better look at the Steelers hosting the Cowboys, and I wasn’t going to do that. I guess I hadn’t yet crossed the threshold of insanity as a Steelers fan, but I’d get there.
I mainly watched Dan Marino and Drew Bledsoe duel it out as the Dolphins beat the Patriots 39-35 in a downpour at Miami. Every time I looked over at the Steelers game, it seemed Emmitt Smith was running up the gut of the Steelers defense with someone at the bar shouting “EMMITT!!!” every time he got the ball.
Smith had 171 yards in the Cowboys’ 26-9 win over the Steelers, but life would get better for Steelers fans. The Steelers went 12-4 that year and reached the AFC Championship Game, losing again to those damn Chargers in Pittsburgh.
Three years later, the Cowboys again pounded the Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium in a season opener. Again the Steelers recovered to reach the AFC Championship Game before losing at home.
In between those two Steelers-Cowboys encounters was the third installment of their Super Bowl trilogy, a game forever remembered for Neil O’Donnell’s two comeback-killing interceptions thrown into the waiting arms of Larry Brown.
Steelers fans under the age of 20 who want to know what Super Bowl XXX felt like should think about Rashard Mendenhall’s fumble in Super Bowl XLV, and imagine that heartbreak doubled or even tripled. Those passes were thrown right at Brown with no Steelers receiver in the area.
The Steelers’ 27-17 Super Bowl loss to the Cowboys, combined with those two season-opening losses to the Cowboys in Pittsburgh, encapsulate the 1990s for the Steelers.
The Steelers were interesting again, but they just weren’t good enough to bring a championship back to Pittsburgh.
Happy Days Are Here Again
I didn’t know it at the time, but two of the biggest turning points in my life as a sports fan came on Oct. 17, 2004.
That day started with the Red Sox down 3-0 to the Yankees in the American League Championship Series and the Steelers taking their 4-1 record to Dallas.
I saw almost every Steelers game, many of them at bars with satellite dishes, in 2001 and 2002. The Steelers went 13-3 in 2001 before losing again at home in the AFC Championship Game, then put their trust in Tommy Maddox in 2002 before falling in the AFC Divisional Playoffs.
In 2003, the Steelers slumped to 6-10, and that allowed other interests, like the Red Sox, to compete with the Steelers for my time early in the 2004 season.
While the Ticket allowed me to witness Ben Roethlisberger come into the game when Maddox got hurt in Baltimore, the significance of which no one could have known at the time, I found out about his first career victory a week later on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette website. The Steelers beat the Dolphins 13-3 at Miami in a game that was moved from Sunday afternoon to Sunday night because of Hurricane Jeanne. Eight years later, the Steelers would earn another pivotal road win against the backdrop of a hurricane.
I didn’t expect a whole lot from the Steelers or the Red Sox that day. I didn’t mind tuning in to the Steelers game, which I could watch at home, in the second half. They were down 20-10 in the fourth quarter before coming back to beat the Cowboys 24-20.
While the Cowboys fell to 2-3 and finished 6-10, the Steelers’ victory helped spark a 15-1 season. Later that evening, Dave Roberts’ stolen base would spark the Red Sox’ magical comeback in the ALCS.
The Steelers had a bye week after beating the Cowboys, which worked out perfectly since I was at Game 2 of the World Series at Fenway Park the following Sunday.
After celebrating the Red Sox’ first championship in 86 years, I broke from the ranks of my fellow New Englanders four days later and cheered on the Steelers in their 34-20 win over the Patriots. Since then, I don’t miss a single play of a Steelers game without a lot of kicking and screaming.
I did a lot of kicking and screaming the next time the Steelers played the Cowboys, but it was happy kicking and screaming.
The Steelers’ win over the Cowboys in 2004 helped make them a legitimate Super Bowl contender, even though they lost again at home in the AFC Championship Game to the Patriots.
There were no such growing pains for Roethlisberger and the Steelers when they met the Cowboys again in 2008. By then, championships were expected in Pittsburgh, especially after the Steelers beat the Patriots 33-10 at New England the previous week to improve to 9-3.
My father bought us tickets to that game. The season the Steelers were having, and seeing them in person, made me feel like a kid again at Christmas time. Just like 1979.
But The Grinch lurked.
The Steelers were on the verge of pissing away all the momentum from their win over the Patriots. They trailed the Cowboys 13-3 in the fourth quarter and didn’t look much better than they did Sunday against the Chargers, when they pissed away the momentum from their win in Baltimore.
The Steelers came back to tie the game on a touchdown pass to Heath Miller with 2:10 left. Nineteen seconds later, Deshea Townsend intercepted Tony Romo and returned it for a touchdown. The Steelers went on to win 20-13.
Again the Cowboys blew a 10-point, fourth-quarter lead to the Steelers. Again the Steelers helped ruin a Cowboys season. Dallas entered that game 8-4, but finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs.
After Townsend’s pick-six, alone in my apartment, I got on my back and pounded the floor with my feet and hands. Mike Tomlin twirled his headset like a lasso, a serendipitously fitting gesture against the Cowboys.
That emotional win over the Cowboys was sandwiched between the cathartic win over the hated Patriots and a tight, intense win in Baltimore the following week (the Steelers should play at Baltimore in December every year). It all helped springboard the Steelers to their second championship in four years.
Although I probably could do without the being-down-by-10-in-the-fourth-quarter part, it would be nice if the Steelers could navigate a similar turning point with a win over the Cowboys Sunday.
Is that too much to ask?