As disappointing as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2012 season was, it did provide at least one sentimental snapshot.
When Shaun Suisham’s last-second field goal sailed through the uprights to give the Steelers a 23-20 upset win at Baltimore, Ben Roethlisberger and Charlie Batch shared a long, emotional embrace that was about so much more than just that game.
When the Steelers don’t make the playoffs, moments like that keep the season from becoming a series of wasted Sunday afternoons.
Even a forgettable season can evoke some cherished memories.
The Steelers’ 2012 victory at Baltimore is among their most memorable in a non-playoff season. But is it among their top five?
No. 5: Steelers 37, Oilers 34
At Houston, Dec. 4, 1988
Between the peaks of the Steel Curtain era and the Steelers’ two most recent Super Bowl titles, the franchise hit a valley in the 1980s.
And the 1988 season was rock bottom.
The Steelers went 5-11, the only time they haven’t won at least six games since 1970.
Meanwhile, the Houston Oilers, who couldn’t get past the Steelers in the playoffs a decade earlier, were cruising toward their second straight playoff berth.
The previous season, after the Oilers defeated the Steelers at Houston, Steelers coach Chuck Noll got in Oilers coach Jerry Glanville’s face about what he thought was his team’s dirty play.
Even though an already intense rivalry had become personal between the coaches, this didn’t look like much of a matchup on paper. The Oilers were 9-4 and the Steelers were 3-10.
But journeyman quarterback Bubby Brister out-played future Hall of Famer Warren Moon, throwing touchdown passes of 80 and 65 yards to Louis Lipps to give the Steelers a 24-13 lead in the third quarter.
The Steelers lost that lead, regained it in the fourth quarter, lost it again and took it back for good when Brister threw a 16-yard touchdown pass to Merril Hoge in the final minute, giving the Steelers a stunning victory.
The thought of the 1988 season might turn the stomachs of Steelers fans old enough to remember, but the Steelers won three of their last four, including this win at the Astrodome that served as a harbinger of their AFC wild-card playoff upset at Houston the following year.
No. 4: Steelers 24, Redskins 3
At Pittsburgh, Dec. 16, 2000
This win is on the list for a couple of reasons.
Not only did the Steelers bid Three Rivers Stadium a fond farewell, but they foiled Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s attempt to buy a championship.
The 35-year-old hotshot signed big-name free agents like Andre Reed, Deion Sanders and Bruce Smith during the offseason. But his plan didn’t unfold the way he had hoped. Like the Steelers, the Redskins entered that game with a 7-7 record, and the Steelers did their part to show Snyder that there’s more to winning a championship than opening up your checkbook.
Hank Poteat returned a punt 53 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter to give the Steelers the lead for good, and Richard Huntley put the game out of reach with two touchdown runs. The easy victory provided a festive backdrop for the final game played at Three Rivers.
The Steelers missed the playoffs for the third straight year, but won their last two and carried that momentum into their new home the following year. They went 13-3 in their first season at Heinz Field and haven’t had two straight non-playoff seasons since.
No. 3: Steelers 37, Packers 36
At Pittsburgh, Dec. 20, 2009
What a way for the Steelers to end a five-game losing streak.
This game was a classic with a dash of quirky thrown in.
There were four lead changes in the final eight minutes. The last one came when Mike Wallace barely kept his toes inbounds and caught a Ben Roethlisberger pass in the end zone to tie the score 36-36 with the clock showing 0:00.
After the touchdown was upheld on replay, Jeff Reed kicked one of the Steelers’ most dramatic extra points in recent memory. He was mobbed by teammates in a cathartic celebration as the Steelers avoided their first six-game losing streak since 1988.
The Packers took their first lead in this game with eight minutes left, when Ryan Grant ran for a 24-yard touchdown to make it 28-27. Reed answered with a 43-yard field goal with about four minutes to go.
Then, because Steelers coach Mike Tomlin had so little faith in a defense that played the second half of the season without Troy Polamalu, the Steelers tried an onside kick. It didn’t even go the required 10 yards, and the Packers took advantage of the short field and went ahead 36-30 when Aaron Rodgers threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to James Jones.
Roethlisberger had the final say. He threw for 503 yards, becoming the 10th quarterback since 1950 to throw for 500 yards in a game.
The Steelers were 6-2 in 2009, then dropped five straight when Polamalu went down. But they won their last three games and kept their playoff hopes alive until the final weekend of the season.
No. 2: Steelers 23, Ravens 20
At Baltimore, Dec. 2, 2012
Ben Roethlisberger and Charlie Batch weren’t locked in a man hug just because of what happened that afternoon. They were bracing for an inevitable farewell.
Batch completed 25 of 36 passes for 276 yards, his most as a Steeler. The Steelers snapped a two-game losing streak to improve to 7-5 and keep their playoff hopes alive.
For most of Roethlisberger’s career, Batch had been both his backup and mentor. But at 37, 2012 likely was his last year with the Steelers.
Roethlisberger had missed three games with shoulder and rib injuries and was set to return the following week, making this game Batch’s final start as a Steeler.
Batch led the Steelers back from a 10-point deficit in the first half and threw a game-tying touchdown pass to Heath Miller with less than eight minutes left in the game. Then he moved the Steelers 61 yards to get them in position for Suisham’s game-winning, 42-yard field goal.
It was all downhill for the Steelers after their upset of the eventual Super Bowl-champion Ravens, who were 9-2 at the time.
But it was a poignant way for Batch to cap his career.
No. 1: Steelers 23, Bengals 17, OT
At Cincinnati, Dec. 31, 2006
Bill Cowher’s 15 years as Steelers head coach ended in sudden death.
A year after winning Super Bowl XL, the Steelers started 2-6 but salvaged an 8-8 record when they defeated the Bengals at Cincinnati in Cowher’s final game as Steelers coach.
The Steelers had no chance of making the playoffs, but they had a lot to play for. They could give Cowher a fitting sendoff and they could play spoiler.
This game ranks ahead of the Steelers’ 2012 upset at Baltimore because the Ravens not only survived that loss but went on to win the Super Bowl.
The 2006 Bengals weren’t so fortunate.
When Santonio Holmes took a screen pass from Ben Roethlisberger and raced the remaining 67 yards for the game-winning touchdown in overtime, the Bengals were knocked out of playoff contention.
Adding another layer of intrigue to this game was Carson Palmer’s knee injury after he was hit by the Steelers’ Kimo von Oelhoffen in the AFC wild-card game the year before.
The injury knocked Palmer out of the game and nearly ended his career. The Steelers won that game and went on to win Super Bowl XL.
If the Bengals thought von Oelhoffen’s play was dirty, they could have settled the score by celebrating a playoff berth right in front of the Steelers, who would be cleaning out their lockers the next day.
The Steelers didn’t let that happen. Their season might have been over, but they ended the Bengals’ season for the second straight year.