For the Pittsburgh Steelers, the 2008 season was a historic one. Aside from the obvious Super Bowl XLIII victory over the Arizona Cardinals, the season was filled with multiple big-time plays from big-time players in big-time moments. The Week 11 matchup at Heinz Field against the San Diego Chargers was no exception to that. As Pittsburgh made the turn into the latter half of the season, a cold, snowy, mid-November grudge match seemed to propel Pittsburgh towards a strong December and ultimately, a championship-winning playoff run.
The Steelers needed every inch and every point to secure the win over the Chargers in a critical matchup
It is no secret the 2008 Steelers leaned on their historic defense to win games the entire season. With the likes of Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, James Farrior, Lamarr Woodley, and a stout defensive line, Pittsburgh’s defense was the second coming of the Steel Curtain; and they played like it. However, the Chargers brought an explosive offense into Pittsburgh led by LaDainian Tomlinson, Antonio Gates, and Philip Rivers who needed a big win to stay in playoff contention. Heading into the game, the storyline was whether or not Pittsburgh’s defense could smother the Chargers’ high-powered offense, or would the Chargers run the Steelers out of Heinz Field.
About two minutes into the game, Polamalu set the tone as to who was in control of the game.
After moving the ball 16 yards on their first three plays from scrimmage, the Chargers found themselves with a 1st and 10 from their own 45-yard line. Rivers took the snap in an I-formation, dropped back, looked right, and threw an off-target pass a little behind receiver, Vincent Jackson. Jackson couldn’t reign in the ball after juggling it in traffic and the ball looked to have fallen to the grass just beyond the reach of Polamalu’s outstretched fingers. But when Polamalu jumped up with the ball and starting scrambling back up field, Pittsburgh’s defense did what they could to get him down to the Chargers’ 37-yard line. After various reviews, instant replays, and a big smile from Polamalu throughout, the call of an interception stood. Pittsburgh’s play-by-play announcer, Bill Hillgrove described the play in an interview in 2019:
“Many plays of the regular season add up to the playoff run that often times leads to a Super Bowl run. It was the greatest interception I have ever saw.”
After a missed 51-yard Jeff Reed field goal, the Chargers were able to take the ball down the field and score the first points and sole touchdown of the game in the way of a Tomlinson 3-yard touchdown run. Albeit, it came after a very questionable defensive pass interference call against Ike Taylor, but the damage was done regardless. Pittsburgh would establish a strong drive of their own on the following possession which eventually stalled out inside of the Chargers’ 5-yard line after a failed fourth down conversion. It was then Pittsburgh’s defense scored the first points of the game for the home team with a safety.
On a 3rd and long from the San Diego 3-yard line, Harrison stripped the ball from Rivers in the endzone and tackled the Chargers’ Marcus McNeill and moved the score to 7-2. After an interception from Harrison in the waning moments of the first half, Ben Roethlisberger and Pittsburgh’s offense was able to move the ball into the redzone to set up Reed for a 21-yard field goal to close the gap to 7-5 going into halftime.
The Steelers got the ball to start the second half. After a lengthy drive lasting over six minutes, the Steelers’ offense stalled again and ended with another Reed field goal to give the Steelers the lead at 8-7. It was clear that neither the Steelers or Chargers defensive units would waiver in such a tightly contested game. Although the Steelers’ offense was without Heath Miller, the offensive numbers for the game were not necessarily ‘bad.’ Roethlisberger would be able to complete 31 passes of 41 attempts for over 300 yards. Willie Parker tallied another game with over 100 yards on the ground and Hines Ward racked up 124 yards on 11 catches. Compared to Rivers’ 164 passing yards, Tomlinson’s 57 rushing yards, and the Chargers’ number one receiver being Tomlinson with 45 receiving yards, one would think the Steelers would be in firm control of the game. But as the game would wind down, it was another large factor that would hold the Steelers back.
The Steelers would need a Roethlisberger-led game-winning drive to put away the Chargers
After a Chargers’ Nick Kaeding field goal made the score 10-8, the Steelers got the ball with 6:45 left in the game and never looked back. In a drive that started on their own 13-yard line, the Steelers’ offense took their time in picking up first downs. This drive consisted of smart, conservative offensive play-calling and Roethlisberger getting the ball to the two main offensive playmakers; Ward and Parker. Ward was able to pick up 42 yards on four catches in the drive, while Parker picked up another 31 yards on the ground. As chants of, “Here we go Steelers, here we go,” echoed throughout the stadium, the Steelers meticulously moved the ball into the redzone as the game creeped into the 2-minute warning.
All game, the Steelers had troubles in the redzone; this was evident from the Steelers being able to only post eight points up to this point. Therefore, the final two minutes of the game induced stress amongst all of Steeler Nation. The Steelers rode the legs of Parker seemingly into the endzone with 20 seconds left. But after a holding call on Sean McHugh called back the Parker touchdown, head coach Mike Tomlin sent out reliable Reed to close the game with a 32-yard field goal attempt. After the snap by Jared Retkofsky and the hold of Paul Ernster, Reed drove the ball straight through the uprights bringing the score to 11-10, Steelers. But although there was only 11 seconds remaining in the game, there was another splash play by Polamalu that would eventually be corrected in the months following.
With :05 seconds left in the game, the Chargers used their final offensive play to attempt a hook-and-latter. Rivers got the ball to Tomlinson, who then pitched the ball to Chris Chambers. Chambers then tried to toss the ball backwards where Polamalu flew in and broke up the backward pass. Recognizing the ball was still in play as a fumble, Polamalu scooped up the ball and dove into the endzone as the final play of the game. In what would ultimately be admitted as being a wrong call by the NFL, officials waived off the touchdown and ended the game with a 11-10 final score.
This wild and wacky game had everything a fan could ask for, minus points. Steelers fans were able to witness one of the greatest interceptions in NFL history on the first drive of the game. Harrison posted incredible numbers including a sack, fumble, and interception. Roethlisberger led the offense to one of his league-leading 53 game-winning drives. But after it was all said and done, the Steelers knew they got lucky. The Steelers posted over 400 yards of offense, controlled of the ball for over 36 minutes, took the ball away from the Chargers two times, and only managed 11 points. The dooming factor to all of this was an incredibly high penalty count for the Steelers. When the dust settled, the Steelers finished with 115 penalty yards on 13 whistles. I would consider this a truly ugly win.
One final musing of this game is that it made NFL history. This was a ‘scorigami’ game. In short, scorigami describes an NFL score that has never occurred in NFL history. With the final score being 11-10, this was the first time in history that an NFL game ended with such score. If the Polamalu score would have counted in the end, this would have been nullified. However, this is the only game in history that has resulted in 11-10. This score has never been matched since.
Do you remember this game? What do you recall about this crazy contest? Let us know in the comments below!