Time was when “Steelers week” was a special time for the Tennessee Titans franchise.
For decades in the old AFC Central, even dating back to the team’s Houston Oilers days, it was the Steelers who set the pace in the division and the other teams who were forced to keep pace.
In some ways, Sunday will be a like a step back in time when these two old foes square off against each other again with home-field advantage hanging in the balance for the AFC playoffs.
“We’ve got a show of hands of how many of the guys that have played the Steelers before and then when those hands go up, you ask them how many of them have beat the Steelers and there was a few scattered hands in the building, and that’s what gets their attention,” Titans coach Jeff Fisher said.
It is the first meeting between the teams since 2005. And for those who didn’t know what they missed, Sunday’s game could provide a little glimpse into the past.
“I just remember we hated them and they hated us,” defensive end Jevon Kearse said. “At one point, I can remember their players taunting our sideline and when we got the chance, we taunted their sideline. It just got really heated.”
The rivalry’s heyday stems back to the late 1970s when Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain ruled the NFL and often found their most serious challenger right in their own division with Bum Phillips, Earl Campbell and the “Luv Ya Blue” Oilers.
Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt was a starting safety on those Oiler teams that came up one step short of the Super Bowl twice, courtesy of the Steelers.
“They were such a dominant team and had so many good players, it was such an uphill battle. We gave it our best shot. We just couldn’t get over the hump” Reinfeldt recalled. “It was frustrating, because at that point in time, the AFC Championship Game maybe should have been the Super Bowl. People felt those were the two best teams. I think the one thing I learned was to play those games at home. Those games were all in Pittsburgh … Hence the importance of this week.”
The rivalry continued when the Oilers were transplanted to Tennessee in 1997, and the Steelers continued to be the main benchmark inside the AFC Central. There was Steve McNair, sternum injury and all, coming off the bench after his replacement Neil O’Donnell had been knocked out of the game with a concussion, and rallying the Titans to a 23-20 win with a fourth-quarter touchdown throw to Erron Kinney in 2000 at Three Rivers Stadium.
There was a 34-7 Monday night shellacking the Titans took at then-brand new Heinz Field the following year.
Then in 2002, immediately after divisional realignment sent Pittsburgh north and Tennessee south, the Titans and Steelers engaged in two memorable games — one regular season and one in the playoffs in early 2003.
The regular season game, won by the Titans 31-23, was memorable for two reasons. First, then-Steelers linebacker Joey Porter accused Titans strength and conditioning coach Steve Watterson of dumping hot chicken broth on him after a play on the Titans sideline. Replays later showed the accusation to be correct.
Then, at the end of the third quarter, Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck leveled Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox with a hit that left him motionless and landed him in a Nashville hospital overnight.
“I remember all that stuff, knocking Maddox out of the game, Watterson pouring hot chicken broth on Joey. I remember all the games, even when Kordell Stewart was their quarterback,” Bulluck recalled. “I guess I have been around this rivalry for a long time. We haven’t really matched up in a few years, but this one is a big one. It's for home-field playoff advantage, and overall it’s two of the best teams in the league playing against each other.”
Sunday’s game is arguably one of the most important games at LP Field since the Titans won a playoff game 34-31 in overtime, thanks in part to a controversial penalty on the Steelers’ Dwayne Washington for running into kicker Tennessee kicker Joe Nedney.
Nedney had made a 31-yarder in overtime, but it was waved off by a Steelers timeout, even though the fireworks went off after it went through. Then, Nedney missed on the rekick, only to have the penalty move him five yards closer where he made the kick from 26 yards.
It moved the Titans to the AFC Championship Game and stuck with the Steelers players for sometime after.
“Of course, it was an acting job,” Steelers receiver Hines Ward said. “You guys know it was an acting job, but within the rules. … It stayed with me for a while. It was a great ballgame. It came down to the wire and fortunately he missed the field goal and Dewayne kind of held up, and [Nedney] flopped.”
Bulluck debated Ward’s view on the kick … somewhat.
“I don't know if he flopped. I know it was good, and they lost and had to go home and we went out to Oakland,” Bulluck said.
Titans safety Chris Hope, who was a Steelers rookie then, remembered it somewhat differently, of course.
“All I can remember is being cheated,” Hope said, perhaps only half-kidding. “We played a great game and it came down to that field goal, and we know how that turned out.”
The sideshow in that game came not from any poured chicken broth but a sideline shouting match between Maddox and the Titans’ bench. The shouting appeared to include Fisher, though the Titans coach denied even this week saying a single word to the Steelers’ quarterback, who threw for 266 yards and two scores in rallying Pittsburgh from a 14-point deficit to a late lead before the Titans forced OT.
“I remember their quarterback was Maddox that year, and he was saying something to somebody on our sideline,” Kearse recalled. “I don't know, but it was something he shouldn't have said, and we did knock him out of that game earlier that season, so he had no room to be talking because he didn't even make it out of the last game on his two feet.”
Oh, and for good measure in that game, Titans quarterback Steve McNair passed for 338 yards and two touchdowns, all the while missing a chunk of skin from the thumb on his throwing hand.
Such was the competitiveness in a rivalry with playoff ramifications sprinkled in. Could Sunday’s game rekindle the sparks that used to fly with regularity between the Titans and Steelers? This game will determine seeding, and there is always the possibility they could meet again in the AFC Championship Game.
“You've just got to be prepared for whatever. I'm sure it will. It definitely means a lot when it comes time for the playoffs. So, it's going to be a real heated game,” said Kearse.
Bulluck is looking forward to Sunday, in part because of what is at stake, but also because of the old rivalries that existed in those days.
“It was real intense. I remember the playoff game. I remember before the conferences got realigned, kind of like one of those Jacksonville weeks or Baltimore weeks, they were all pretty much the same,” Bulluck said. “They were all physical teams that liked to play defense and liked to run the ball. That always makes for a great football game late in December.
“That's my type of football. Those are the types of games you like to play when you get a chance to play against teams with history, especially the Pittsburgh Steelers.”