The Pittsburgh Steelers share the record for the most Super Bowl victories in NFL history. They are tied for the second-most conference game appearances in the Super Bowl era behind only the San Francisco 49ers. And they have twice as many conference finals appearances as they do Super Bowl appearances, meaning they have gone .500 in that round.
There may not have been a more frustrating conference finals loss than the 1994 season’s defeat by the hands of the San Diego Chargers, a game in which the Steelers were highly favored. Starting linebacker Levon Kirkland recalls that game as a humbling experience—and a teachable moment.
“I think it was a lesson in making sure you respect your opponent”, he told Stan Savran recently for the team’s website. “I thought that we really didn’t do a good job of respecting San Diego. We thought, ‘Oh, it’s gonna be a cakewalk. We’re gonna go in here and we’re gonna win our Super Bowl’”.
The Steelers were the number one seed in the AFC that season, finishing 12-4, the best record in the conference. They were awarded a bye week, and blew out the 11-5 Cleveland Browns 29-9 in the Divisional Round (with Bill Belichick as head coach).
The Chargers were the second seed that season and also got a bye, yet Pittsburgh was still favored by six points entering the game. They never trailed through about the first 55 minutes of the game, however, and trailing by four, they ultimately stalled at the Chargers’ three-yard line.
That was a loaded team, however, particularly on defense, featuring four Pro Bowlers (three first-team All-Pros) in Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, and Carnell Lake. Tight end Eric Green was also named to the Pro Bowl. The Steelers had the second-ranked defense that season in both yardage and scoring, with an average offense.
“We had a great team that year. It was probably a little better than the team we had the year we did go to the Super Bowl”, Kirkland recalled. “But I thought we didn’t really play them well and we didn’t put them away. I mean, we came out and we scored, and we were probably leading the game the whole time, but we just didn’t put them away”.
In case you’d like to relive the game, the Steelers scored a touchdown on their opening drive with Neil O’Donnell connecting with John Williams from 16 yards out—that would constitute the majority of their scoring output.
Pittsburgh still held a 13-3 lead about five minutes into the third quarter, but the Chargers responded on the next possession to make it a 13-10 game after Stan Humphries found Alfred Pupunu for a 43-yard touchdown.
Neither team, however, crossed the opposing 45-yard line for the next several possessions until once again Humphries hit on a big play. The game-winning score came on a second 43-yard pass, this one to Tony Martin.
The Steelers would not make the trip to the Super Bowl that year, but they were good enough to reach the championship the following season. Only, of course, to lose to the Dallas Cowboys.