Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Jan. 8, 2011 editions of The Kansas City Star
Quarterback Joe Montana peered into the Chiefs’ huddle, and a sly smile surfaced between those dimpled cheeks.
The clock showed just 1 minute, 48 seconds to play. The Chiefs trailed the Pittsburgh Steelers by seven points. And it was fourth and goal from the Steelers 7.
“I’ll never forget how relaxed he was,” wide receiver J.J. Birden recalled. “We were all kind of nervous, and he came in and kind of smiled, and said, ‘Hey, listen up guys, this is no big deal, let’s go finish this.’ ”
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With that, Montana drilled a pass in the back of the end zone to wide receiver Tim Barnett for the tying touchdown.
Then, he marched the offense downfield in overtime, and Nick Lowery kicked a 32-yard field goal for a 27-24 victory on Jan. 8, 1994 — the last time the Chiefs won a playoff game at home.
“A lot of good things happened to us in that game, because we had no business winning that game, to be honest with you,” said backup quarterback David Krieg, who made an often-forgotten contribution.
The 1993 season was the NFL’s first year of unfettered free-agency, and the Chiefs made some of the biggest headlines by acquiring two former Super Bowl MVPs and future Hall of Famers by signing running back Marcus Allen from the archrival Raiders and making a blockbuster trade with San Francisco for Montana, who would direct the newly installed West Coast offense.
Martyball was buried. Joe Cool captivated Kansas City like no one since George Brett hit .390 for the Royals in 1980.
“Both those guys both had been there before,” coach Marty Schottenheimer said of Montana and Allen. “They understood the pressure, and it never bothered them.”
But in the Steelers game, played on a sunny but cold afternoon at Arrowhead Stadium (then covered by artificial turf, not grass) with an 18-degree wind chill, Montana had a miserable first half. He completed just two of his first eight passes and only six of 15 for 73 yards in the first half, though some drops were partly to blame.
Montana also was shaken up at the end of the first quarter and had to come out for three plays. Krieg replaced him and completed the only pass he threw — a 23-yard touchdown strike to Birden that tied the score 7-7.
“We had been setting that up,” Birden said. “Rod Woodson was known for biting on double moves. We watched film, we said we were going to call a Sluggo — a slant and go, and I ran two slants in a row, we had it set up. Joe got hurt, he comes out, and we look at the sideline, and they said, ‘Run it anyway, run it anyway,’ and Krieg threw it, he kind of threw it over my head, I had to dive for it.”
Krieg, who went 3-2 as backup QB during Montana’s first of two seasons in Kansas City, was just happy nothing bad happened on the play.
“A lot of things could have happened, an interception I could fumble a snap because I hadn’t taken a (warm-up) snap, but J.J. made a great move, stretched out, dove and made a great catch.”
The Steelers, in their second season under former Chiefs defensive coordinator Bill Cowher, broke the tie in the second quarter and led 17-7 at halftime. Cowher had led the Steelers to a dominating 27-3 win over the Chiefs and his mentor, Schottenheimer, at Arrowhead Stadium in the 1992 season, and Pittsburgh was exerting its will again in the playoff game.
“It always comes down to some kind of unlikely hero who makes the key play,” center Tim Grunhard said. “In playoff games, you need your stars to play big and your playmakers to make plays, but you need someone else to make plays, too.”
The unlikely hero was tight end Keith Cash, who made the play of the game.
The Steelers, behind three touchdown passes by Neil O’Donnell, led 24-17 with 2:40 to play in regulation when they were forced to punt from their 48. Cash crashed through the Steelers’ protection and blocked Mark Royals’ punt.
Running back Fred Jones pounced on the ball at the 40 and returned it 31 yards to the Steelers 9. Without that blocked kick, the Chiefs probably would have started the drive closer to their own 9.
“Kansas City through the years, with Albert Lewis and Kevin Ross, we were very successful blocking punts,” said Cash, who also caught a team-leading seven passes in the game. “Anytime Albert Lewis was on the field, he was going to get a little more attention. That’s kind of what happened. He lined up next to me, and Todd McNair was on the other side, and those guys demanded attention.
“My guy, it was kind of a one-on-one situation I don’t know if he was looking outside at Albert to see if he’d cut inside, but he just put one hand up, and it was easy to get by, lay out, and perfect timing. It was loud, and their punter was pretty slow getting the ball off, and it was like the Red Sea opened up for me.”
Kendall Gammon, who went on to a Pro Bowl career with the Chiefs, was Pittsburgh’s long snapper that day.
“We just missed an assignment, and someone came free,” said Gammon, a product of Pittsburg State. “We played well that game, and didn’t get it done. For me coming back to Arrowhead with it being a playoff game and being from this area was pretty special. Just Arrowhead in general that was part of the glory years where it was just crazy here.”
But even with Montana and Allen in the Chiefs’ backfield, the Steelers’ salty defense made it difficult. Allen ran for 1 yard before the 2-minute warning. Montana’s pass for Cash was incomplete. And on third and 8, Allen gained just 1 yard on a draw.
Fourth and goal from the 7. The Chiefs used their last timeout.
Krieg had noticed on the incomplete pass to Cash that Barnett, who had caught just 17 passes, including one touchdown, all season, was open. He mentioned it to offensive coordinator Paul Hackett.
“It was just a reminder to Joe to look at him,” Krieg said, “and sure enough, Tim Barnett, of all people, caught it on fourth down.”
Barnett’s locker was next to Lowery’s, and after the game, the kicker asked Barnett how he handled the pressure of knowing it was fourth down.
“He looked at me,” Lowery said, “and said, ‘That was fourth down?’ ”
Lowery had a chance to win the game in regulation. Pittsburgh went three and out, and Montana, completing five of seven passes (spiking the ball twice to stop the clock) for 47 yards, moved the Chiefs to the Pittsburgh 25 with 12 seconds left.
But Lowery’s hurried 43-yard field goal as the play clock was expiring went wide right, and the game went to overtime.
“If you watch the tape, you’ll see Marty took a long time to decide (whether to kick or run one more play),” Lowery said. “I’m running on the field, and didn’t have as much time as normal I still should have made it, but that’s just what happened.”
Montana gave Lowery a reprieve with the Chiefs’ second possession in overtime. He completed all five of his passes for 47 yards, including a 10-yard hookup with Birden on third and 6 to the Pittsburgh 18. Two running plays to the 14 set up Lowery for a game-winning 32-yarder.
It was the only time the Chiefs led all day.
“One of the great memories was looking up and seeing 80,000 people going crazy,” Lowery recalled.
Kevin Harlan, then the radio voice of the Chiefs, realized the significance of the day.
“When you do games like that, it’s so different than a regular-season game because a regular-season game is the same routine,” Harlan said. “But you just knew a home playoff game was a whole different animal, and it seemed like every play meant something.
“And you felt you had a legitimate chance to win, because of what Montana did, and sure enough, late in the game, he pulls it out. He did it in San Francisco, and he did it again in Kansas City, and it sure made Marty and Carl (Peterson) look smart. Those two guys, Marcus Allen and Montana, were the missing ingredients.
“I remember walking out of the stadium that day, and had never seen the fans like that. Everyone was jumping up and down, people were skipping, hugging, screaming. It was really emotional.”
The Chiefs advanced and beat the Houston Oilers 28-20 on Jan. 16, 1994, in the Astrodome. Cash punctuated the victory by slamming the ball into a poster of Houston coach Buddy Ryan after scoring a touchdown.
They lost 30-13 in the AFC championship game at Buffalo after Montana was forced out because of a concussion. The Chiefs didn’t win another playoff game until last January at Houston.