In the late 1990s, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart was a case of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” as his up-and-down play would often frustrate his teammates and fans, but a lot of times would still come away with the victory.
That was the case in the Steelers’ December 1997 game against the New England Patriots when Stewart bounced back from a pair of interceptions to lead his team to an overtime victory in Foxboro.
After spending two years as a quarterback/running back/wide receiver (thus earning the nickname “Slash”) Stewart was given the starting quarterback job by head coach Bill Cowher.
Stewart would be prone to making mistakes, yet show flashes of talent, sometimes in the same game.
An example would be in the Steelers’ fifth game of the season against the Baltimore Ravens when Stewart threw three interceptions in the 1st half as Pittsburgh fell behind 21-0, only to account for five touchdowns to lead his team back to a 42-34 win.
Pittsburgh entered their game with the Patriots with a 10-4 record and a chance to clinch the AFC Central Division title for the fourth straight year.
Meanwhile, the Patriots entered the game with a 9-5 record under first-year head coach Pete Carroll and in the hunt for the playoffs.
Carroll’s success benefited from having all-Pro quarterback Drew Bledsoe, running back Curtis Martin, and wide receiver Terry Glenn at his disposal.
However, the Patriots would be short-handed against the Steelers as Martin and Glenn were inactive because of injuries.
The game was scoreless though most of the first half until the Patriots got on the scoreboard with an 18-yard touchdown pass from Bledsoe to tight end Ben Coates after picking off a Stewart pass.
Lawyer Milloy stepped in front of wide receiver Will Blackwell to make the interception and returned it to the Pittsburgh 27-yard-line, setting up the touchdown that gave New England a 7-0 lead.
Things did not get much better for Stewart on the Steelers’ ensuing possession as he was intercepted again, this time by Willie Clay, which the Patriots converted into another touchdown as Sam Gash caught a 1-yard pass from Bledsoe to make it 14-0 in favor of the Patriots.
After two straight interceptions, Stewart got back on track as he led the Steelers on a 72-yard drive, which culminated with Stewart sneaking in for a 1-yard touchdown to cut the deficit to 14-7 as the first half came to an end.
Pittsburgh got the only points of the third quarter with a 36-yard field goal by Norm Johnson, and then got another field goal early in the fourth quarter, a 34-yarder by Johnson, to trim the New England lead to 14-13.
With their lead cut to one point, the Patriots needed a big play and got it from running back Dave Meggett only on the possession following Johnson’s 34-yard field goal.
On a 1st-and-10 from the Steelers’ 49-yard-line, Bledsoe fired a pass intended for wide receiver Troy Brown, only to have Meggett jump in front of Brown to make the catch at the 31, and then ran it in for the touchdown to push the Patriots’ lead back to eight points at 21-13 with 10:31 left in the fourth quarter.
The Steelers drove to the New England 36-yard-line on their next series where they were faced with a 4th-and-6.
Instead of going for a 53-yard field goal that would make a five-point game, Cowher decided to go for the 1st down.
Stewart fired a pass for Courtney Hawkins, who made the catch only to be tackled inches short of the 1st down by Patriots defensive back Jimmy Hitchcock giving New England the ball back with 6:45 remaining.
The Patriots punted the ball back to Pittsburgh who looked to be in business after Bettis rumbled for a 49-yard gain to inside the New England 22-yard-line on a screen pass, but the play was nullified by a holding penalty on offensive lineman Will Wolford and the Steelers had to punt the ball back to the Patriots with 3:13 left.
New England got one first down and forced the Steelers to burn their remaining timeouts until they were faced with a 3rd-and-7 from the 50-yard-line with 2:10 to play.
One more first down would allow the Patriots to simply take a knee and run out the remaining time on the clock.
But disaster struck for New England when Bledsoe dropped back and tried to toss a screen pass to Meggett, only to have defensive end Kevin Henry pick off the pass.
Henry then rambled for 36 yards until he lateraled the ball to defensive lineman Orpheus Roye at the 13, who ran into the end zone for an apparent touchdown.
However, the officials ruled that Henry’s pitch as a forward lateral, drawing a five-yard penalty from the spot where Henry pitched it to Roye to put the ball at the 18-yard-line and a first down for the Steelers as the two-minute warning.
Pittsburgh would gain only three yards on three plays to force a 4th-and-7 at the 15, where Stewart fired a pass for Yancey Thigpen, who made a diving catch at the 4 to set up a 1st-and-goal.
Stewart would run around the left end for three yards on 1st down, which was followed by Bettis being stopped for no gain on 2nd down.
Then on 3rd down, Stewart found tight end Mark Bruener wide open in the end zone for the touchdown to make it 21-19 with 38 seconds to play.
The Steelers had to go for the two-point conversion to tie the game and when Stewart connected with Thigpen, the game was tied at 21.
The Patriots took a knee to run out the clock, so the game went into overtime where the Steelers won the coin toss and elected to play offense.
Pittsburgh lost five yards on their first two offensive plays which led to a 3rd-and-15 from their own 21-yard-line when Stewart tossed a screen pass to Hawkins, who turned up field and ran 41 yards to the New England 38-yard-line.
Then, Bruener made a 16-yard reception to the Patriots’ 20 which was followed by two runs by Bettis for five yards.
That is when Cowher decided to go for the field goal on 3rd down, a 31-yarder that Johnson calmly kicked through the uprights to give Pittsburgh a 24-21 overtime victory that helped secure the Steelers’ fourth straight AFC Central Division title.
The two teams would meet again in the AFC Divisional Playoffs, this time at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh with the Steelers knocking off the Patriots in a defensive battle, 7-6 to advance to the AFC Championship Game.
However, the Steelers would fall to the Denver Broncos 24-21 as Stewart threw three interceptions in the game, two of them in the end zone as the Steelers were poised to score touchdowns.
Stewart would struggle for the next three seasons as the Steelers failed to make the playoffs each season until the 2001 season when Stewart had his best season as a quarterback as he threw for over 3,000 yards and accounted for 19 touchdowns as he led Pittsburgh a 13-3 record and a return trip to the AFC Championship Game.
But once again, Stewart would throw three interceptions in the AFC Championship Game as the Steelers lost 24-17 to the New England Patriots.
Stewart’s reign as the starting quarterback in Pittsburgh came to an end during the third game of the 2002 season when he was replaced by backup Tommy Maddox after a 0-2 start and was released by Pittsburgh following the end of the season.
Stewart would make stops at Chicago and Baltimore before he retired after the 2005 NFL season.