With the game out of reach and the clock winding down, Ben Roethlisberger dropped back to pass. His Pittsburgh Steelers trailed the Tennessee Titans 14-24 with 37 seconds to play at LP Field, so Roethlisberger hurled the ball downfield to Hines Ward, hoping for a miracle. The pass was intercepted by Titans safety Michael Griffin, who brought it back 83 yards for a score. He trotted into the end zone with only 16 seconds remaining, but it is what happened next that cemented Dec. 21, 2008, in history.
Somehow, a few Titans had gotten their hands on a “Terrible Towel,” a cherished symbol within the Steelers organization and fan base. First, LenDale White and Bo Scaife stomped it. Then Keith Bulluck got in on the act. There are even pictures of Jevon Kearse blowing his nose with the yellow rag.
The Titans showed no respect for their opponents, and why should they have? Tennessee’s 13-2 record was the best in football at the time and the team had just handed a fellow playoff team a 17-point loss. However, the Titans’ late-game sideline antics – coupled with their unexpectedly hasty exit from the playoffs, despite having home-field advantage – prompted some to speculate that Tennessee had brought “The Curse of the Terrible Towel” upon itself.
In each of the next three seasons, the Titans lost to the Steelers. In 2009, on Thursday night of Week 1, Tennessee kicked off the season with a heartbreaking 13-10 overtime loss as Rob Bironas missed one field goal and had another blocked. The team would go on to lose each of its next five games as well, including that unforgettable 59-0 shellacking against the Patriots in Week 6.
The Titans lost another one-score game against the Steelers in 2010, this time by the score of 19-11. Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown brought the opening kickoff back for a touchdown, but the Titans didn’t reach the end zone until the the game’s final minute. Tennessee closed the year at 6-10 after losing eight of its final nine games.
The most lopsided game in the series since the Titans’ 2008 victory came in 2011 when the Steelers won 38-17. Following that Week 5 matchup, both teams sat at 3-2. Pittsburgh went on to finish 12-4, while the Titans posted a 9-7 record and were the best team in the NFL to miss the playoffs.
Finally, Tennessee broke the “curse” on the leg of Bironas in 2012. The same kicker who underperformed in the overtime loss three years earlier made all four of his attempts, including the game-winner as time expired. The Titans won 26-23.
The Titans will face off against the Steelers once again as they open their season Sept. 8 in Pittsburgh. Though the Steelers have an edge in the all-time series, the perennial AFC North power was only 8-8 last season and lost more talent through age and free agency than it gained. I would not be surprised to see the Titans win, but I just hope Tennessee does not bring another “curse” upon itself in the process.