This has been a tough season for Steelers fans. Though technically Pittsburgh remains "in the hunt" for a trip to the NFL playoffs, it feels entirely out of reach. It doesn't mean the season was a wash, however.
What made the Raiders-Steelers matchup in Week 16 of the 2022 NFL season so special? To answer that, we'll have to journey back 50 years.
We've spent most of 2022 rolling our eyes at NFL schedulers. However, this matchup between the Raiders and Steelers, in this specific week, was a gift. Why? Well, the NFL scheduled this very game at an important moment, celebrating nearly to the day, the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception... AKA, the most iconic play in NFL history.
Let's take a moment to rewatch.
On December 23, 1972, the Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the Oakland Raiders at Three Rivers Stadium in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. In the final two minutes of the game, QB Terry Bradshaw targeted RB John Fuqua... and it didn't *quite* go as planned. Fuqua took a hit and the ball flew into the air... only to be caught by Franco Harris, who then ran it in for a touchdown to win the game.
It was a controversial play, sure. You can read about why in this excellent outline from Sporting News. Controversial or not, however, it was a symbolic step forward for the dynasty that would reign through the 1970s. The Steelers went on to lose to the Miami Dolphins in the AFC Conference Championship after that play, contributing to the only undefeated season in NFL history. However, the years to come, particularly the era of the Steel Curtain, became cornerstones to the culture of toughness and grit that Pittsburgh fans know and love.
Running back Franco Harris made the most iconic play in NFL history [see above] and became synonymous with the history of one of the league's most beloved franchises. Hell, a statue of him making the immaculate reception permanently resides at the Pittsburgh airport, there to greet all of those who come to the city. It says, "Welcome to the Steel City, where miracles can happen. You're in Steelers Country, now — no turning back."
Harris went on to be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1990. He finished his career with 14,811 scrimmage yards over 13 seasons and ranks 15th on the all-time rushing list. He's tied for the 11th-most games of 100+ rush yards in NFL history and the sixth-most seasons with 1,000+ rush yards (8).
All of that is to say that Harris is a legend. The Steelers knew it, too. They planned to retire his jersey, No. 32, at halftime in Week 16 — a fitting moment, considering their opponent and the hallmark play he'd once made against them.
Retirement of a jersey number is an immense honor, too, especially by Pittsburgh's standards. Per Pro Football Reference, there have been just two other numbers to ever be retired by the club — No. 70, worn by Ernie Stautner, and No. 75, worn by "Mean" Joe Greene.
Sadly, Harris passed away Wednesday, just days before the team intended to honor him. ESPN's Brooke Pryor recounted the day prior to his passing, spent at the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum. There, he discussed his legacy, the ridiculous and painstaking process of creating the mold for the sculpture we all came to know and love, and talking football with fans. It was a fitting final day.
Many players arrived at Acrisure Stadium for the game wearing Franco Harris jerseys in memory. Cam Heyward ran out of the tunnel waving a flag donning the No. 32.
That wasn't the end of the magic, though...
The Steelers were down four points to the Raiders in the fourth quarter. The defense was playing well, having notched three sacks and two interceptions against Derek Carr on the night. The offense couldn't rally, though... until they finally did. With 2:55 to go, Pittsburgh marched down the field from their own 24-yard line, punctuating the drive with a 14-yard touchdown from Pickett to George Pickens, rookie to rookie for the lead.
0:46 remained, though — plenty of time for Carr and his myriad of playmakers to make a play for the win. At least... there was plenty of time, until Cameron Sutton forced the third interception of the game. With the Steelers' offense back in control, a run by TE Connor Heyward (Cam Heyward's younger brother) put the game on ice.
It was a miracle. It was a miracle for Franco.
I've been the biggest skeptic of rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett. Even amidst that skepticism, I'll admit — Pickett's Week 16 game-winning drive was clutch. His tiny hands made the play of the game.
Does his 5-5 record, 185 pass yards per game, and 5-9 TD-to-INT ratio leave much to be desired? You bet. But the final drive showed he has grit. I like grit.
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