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The Narrative Of The 2005 NFL Season

The Pittsburgh Steelers were seeking their first Super Bowl victory since the great Steel Curtain of the 1970s. In the ensuing years, the Steelers had produced some excellent teams that earned #1 seeds or even made the Super Bowl, but still fell short. 2005 was different—this time, the Steelers lurked under the radar all year, snuck into the playoffs down the stretch and then become the first #6 seed to win it all.

Most of the 2005 NFL season had been spent looking like it would be the year the Indianapolis Colts and Peyton Manning broke through. Manning was the 1st-team All-Pro quarterback, throwing to 1,000-yard receivers in Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison. Edgerrin James ran for over 1,500 yards behind a line anchored by All-Pro center Jeff Saturday. The Colt defense, with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis pressuring the quarterback and Bob Sanders in the secondary, made marked improvements. Indianapolis finished second in the NFL for both points scored and points allowed.

The Colts showed they could win with defense in a Week 2 game against Jacksonville. The Jaguars didn’t have a star-studded lineup, but they finished sixth in the league for scoring defense and got into contention. Indianapolis being able to grind out a 10-3 win showed they could win in more ways than just behind Peyton’s arm.

To be sure, the Colts still won with offensive explosion. They dropped 40 points on their nemesis from New England, who had won three of the previous four Super Bowls, in a Monday Night win. Indy outgunned playoff-bound Cincinnati 45-37. The Colts also beat the Steelers 26-7. Indy’s record rose to 13-0. A loss to the San Diego Chargers stopped the bid for history, but the Colts still finished 14-2, were the #1 seed and the clear team to beat in the AFC playoffs.

Jacksonville didn’t too to badly themselves in the AFC South. They beat the NFC’s best team, the Seattle Seahawks. The Jags also beat the Bengals and Steelers. With a 12-4 record, Jacksonville was the top wild-card and went in as the 5-seed.

Denver was another prime contender in the AFC. The Broncos had a terrific defense of their own, third-best in the NFL, and led by All-Pros in linebacker Al Wilson and corner Champ Bailey. They had good safeties in Nick Ferguson and veteran John Lynch. Head coach Mike Shanahan turned out another vintage running game, with Mike Anderson going just over 1,000 yards and Tatum Bell coming in just under that threshold. Jake Plummer had a Pro Bowl year at quarterback, throwing to 1,100-yard receiver Rod Smith.

The AFC West was a good division, with Kansas City and San Diego both in the hunt. The Broncos hammered the Chiefs 30-10 on a Monday Night in September. In October, Denver racked up three wins over eventual playoff teams in Jacksonville, Washington, and New England.

When all was said and done, the Broncos were 13-3, the #2 seed and got the bye which came with that seeding prior to 2020. The Chiefs and Chargers were 10-6 and 9-7 respectively, but the bar would be high in the AFC this year, and both stayed home for the postseason.

Any conversation about contenders certainly had to start in New England, with the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady combination now well-established as a dynasty. But the Patriot defense slipped this year. After being elite during their Super Bowl years, the New England D, even with All-Pro tackle Richard Seymour, ended up in the bottom half of the league. Brady, still young, stepped up with his most prolific passing season to date. He threw for over 4,100 yards, with Deion Branch as the primary target.

New England won a tough 23-20 game in Pittsburgh in late September. The Patriots got a key mid-November win over the Miami Dolphins 23-16. The Fish stayed in the AFC East race, but when New England hammered playoff-bound Tampa Bay 28-zip on the penultimate Saturday, the Patriots clinched the division. They finished 10-6 and were the 4-seed. The Dolphins ended at 9-7 and stayed home.

That brings us to the Steelers and the AFC North. Pittsburgh had a top-5 defense of their own, led by safety Troy Polamalu, still early into his Hall of Fame career. Joey Porter Sr. and Clark Haggans were a potent pass-rushing duo from their outside linebacker spots. Offensively, there were challenges. Ben Roethlisberger, only in his second year, missed four games with injuries. Jerome Bettis was now getting more spot-duty in the backfield than anything.

But with All-Pro guard Alan Faneca up front, the Steelers could still run the football. Willie Parker rushed for over 1,200 yards. Hines Ward was a productive receiver. And Pittsburgh still finished ninth in the league for scoring offense.

With a record of 7-5 in December, the Steelers were in trouble, and the Cincinnati Bengals were the team on the rise in the AFC North. Carson Palmer was a Pro Bowl quarterback and Chad Johnson one of the league’s top receivers. Rudi Johnson rolled up over 1,400 yards on the ground and the offense was fourth in the league. The defense had problems, but corner Deltha O’Neal was a big-time ballhawk with ten interceptions.

The Bengals got an impressive 24-7 win early in the year over the playoff-bound Chicago Bears. In early December, Cincinnati outlasted Pittsburgh 38-31. That game would prove to be the ultimate difference in a division race that the Bengals won, earning them the #3 seed with an 11-5 record. But it would also be the last time Pittsburgh lost. The Steelers closed with a rush, winning their last four games, finishing 11-5 themselves and setting up a playoff trip to Cincinnati.

Over in the NFC, Mike Holmgren produced the best team of his tenure in Seattle. Shaun Alexander was the focal point of the offense. Running behind a line that included a pair of All-Pros in Steve Hutchinson and Walter Jones and led into the hole by Pro Bowl fullback Mack Strong, Alexander went for over 1,800 yards at 5.1 yards-per-attempt. As the lynchpin of the league’s top scoring offense, Alexander won the MVP award.

Seattle’s defense was pretty good themselves. They didn’t have stars, but the trio of Bryce Fisher, Rocky Bernard and Marcus Tubbs up front led a good and balanced pass rush. The combination of a steady defense, fantastic running game, and reliable quarterback play from Matt Hasselbeck led the Seahawks. In a soft division, they cruised to a 13-3 record and the top seed in the NFC playoffs.

No one in the NFL played better defense than the Chicago Bears. Lovie Smith’s unit was led by a linebacking corps that included Defensive Player of the Year Brian Urlacher and All-Pro Lance Briggs. Adewale Ogunleye had ten sacks up front. The offense was impotent, ranking near the bottom of the league in scoring. But they didn’t need to score much. And with Thomas Jones running for over 1,300 yards, the Bears could control tempo.

In November, Chicago won consecutive games against playoff teams from the NFC South, 13-3 over Carolina and 13-10 over Tampa. The Bears finished 11-5, won the division and snagged the 2-seed.

Speaking of Tampa Bay and Carolina—both staged a good race in the South. The Buccaneer defense, led by holdovers from the 2002 Super Bowl champs in linebacker Derrick Brook, defensive back Ronde Barber and end Simeon Rice, could still keep offenses under control. Cadillac Williams helped the running game, producing over 1,200 yards and winning Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Carolina could play pretty good D themselves, with Julius Peppers producing the pass rush and Chris Gamble and Ken Lucas combining for 13 interceptions at the corners. Offensively, Steve Smith had over 1,500 yards receiving and made Jake Delhomme a Pro Bowl quarterback at age 30.

Tampa and Carolina split their two meetings and the decisive moment in this race came on Christmas Eve, the second-to-last week. The Panthers lost to the still-contending Dallas Cowboys, while the Bucs edged out the Falcons. Both Tampa Bay and Carolina finished 11-5, but the Bucs held the tiebreaker. They would be the 3-seed and play at home. The Panthers would be the 5-seed and go on the road.

The final two spots came down to a lively three-team fight in the NFC East between the Giants, Redskins, and Cowboys. New York got a monster year from Tiki Barber, who ran for over 1,800 yards and caught 54 passes. Plaxico Burress had over 1,200 yards receiving, and Jeremey Shockey added over 900 more at tight end. All of which was enough to compensate for Eli Manning being mistake-prone. And the pass-rushing combo of All-Pro Usi Umenyiora and Michael Strahan kept the defense afloat.

Washington, in the second year of Joe Gibbs’ second term, got over 1,500 yards rushing from Clinton Portis and almost that same number in receiving yards from Santana Moss. A defense, led by coordinator Gregg Williams was a top 10 unit.

A signature moment came on Monday Night in Week 2. The Redskins were in Dallas, trailing 13-0 late, when two long touchdown passes stunned the Cowboys 14-13. In a race that came down the final week, that ended up being the difference. Washington, at 10-6, got the final playoff spot, while Dallas stayed home at 9-7.

The Giants, meanwhile, got a big October win over Denver, then hammered Washington 36-0 a week later. New York won a key game over Dallas, 17-10 in early December. It took to the last week, but the Giants ultimately brought home the division crown and the #4 seed.

On wild-card weekend, the Patriots showed they wouldn’t give up their title without a fight. They completely dismantled the Jaguars 28-3. And the Giants nice season came crashing down hard in the Meadowlands. The Carolina defense dominated in a 23-0 shutout.

The good games came from Tampa Bay and Cincinnati and in both cases, the road team triumphed. The Redskins got a defensive touchdown early, and then hung on late to beat the Buccaneers 17-10. And the Bengals’ breakout season had a disappointing end. Palmer was injured on the first series, and the Steelers walked out of town with a 31-17 win.

Washington’s defense was able to shut down Alexander and the Seattle running game, but the Seahawks showed their versatility. Darnell Jackson caught nine balls for 143 yards, and Seattle won 20-10 to open Divisional Round Weekend.

That night in Denver, the dynasty ended. The Patriots turned the ball over five times, the Broncos took a 24-6 lead and ultimately closed out a 27-13 win. The following day, in the late afternoon, Carolina kept it going by winning on the road in Chicago. With Smith having a monster day, catching 12 passes for over 200 yards, the Panthers won 29-21.

It was early Sunday afternoon that produced the game that no one will forget. The Steeler defense dominated and took a 21-3 lead into the fourth quarter. This alone would have made the game memorable, with Indy being an 8 ½ point favorite and the odds-on favorite to win the Super Bowl. But it got better.

The Colts scored twice and cut the lead to 21-18. The Steelers had the ball in the late going, needing only to kill the clock. They fumbled. Roethlisberger saved the game by preventing a touchdown going the other way. Indy still got into field goal range. But Mike Vanderjagt missed. Pittsburgh had the upset, and their improbable ride would continue.

Championship Sunday proved anticlimactic. Seattle thumped Carolina 34-14 and punched their first-ever ticket to a Super Bowl. The AFC Championship Game in Denver also was decisive. What no one was expecting is that it was the underdogs from Pittsburgh doing the thumping. The Steelers bottled up the Bronco running game, forced four turnovers, took a 24-3 lead, and this time, they didn’t let it get interesting. A 34-17 win sent Pittsburgh to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1995 and seeking their first title since 1979.

Detroit’s Ford Field would host the Super Bowl, something that was of considerable significance in Pittsburgh, with Bettis being from the Motor City. There was strong sentiment to get “The Bus” his ring in his backyard.

Pittsburgh did it. It was an ugly game in many ways, and several close calls went the Steelers’ way. But Pittsburgh also got a then-record 75-yard touchdown run from Parker. Ward had 123 yards receiving and threw a TD pass on a trick play. The final was 21-10. And the Steel City had a champion once again.