It was a brisk Sunday morning in uptown Charlotte, the quintessential piedmont sky showering rays of hope on the scores of primeval Panthers fans en route to Ericsson Stadium. Dec. 22, 1996–For all the hype these connective storylines delivered, the game would come down to the hands of an unsung seventh-round backup safety.
Such is football.
One final test: grinding out an 8th consecutive win at home against their proverbial identical twins from Pittsburgh. Dom Capers. Bill Cowher. Kevin Greene. The 3-4 zone blitz. A plethora of parallels which served to encourage a closely contested fight to the final bell.
The Steelers entered the game with no mathematical opportunity to improve their playoff positioning. One day prior, Patriots head coach Bill Parcells led his eventual conference champs to a comeback win over his previous employer in the Meadowlands.
New England’s heroics relegated Cowher’s reigning conference champs to an economy-class seat en route to the dreaded Wildcard Weekend–a place from which a mere four teams over the modern era ascended to a Super Bowl appearance.
Cowher assured his players and the media: every effort would be made to win in Carolina. Pittsburgh was loaded with defensive talent, most notably pass specialist Chad Brown, who served as their leading sack artist and arguably most vocal leader.
Pittsburgh’s exotic 3-4 zone blitz scheme dropped opposing quarterbacks 51 times in 1996, a +30 differential to sacks allowed from opponents on their own quarterbacks.
Offensively, the Steelers ran with interior power as much as any team that season. Coordinator Chan Gailey relied heavily on newly-acquired power back Jerome Bettis for over 1400 yards in 1996. Journeyman quarterback Mike Tomczak replaced Jim Miller in the lineup after the opening game of the season, winning 7 of his first 8 starts.
At any rate, the NFL has always ostensibly rewarded teams who play their best football at the right time, and Tomczak simply wasn’t. The veteran inexplicably tossed a six-pack of interceptions over his prior three starts in which the offense averaged 16 points per game. The Steelers flew into Charlotte losers of two of their last three.
Fully aware of Pittsburgh’s desire to clean up these lingering issues before the playoffs, Carolina took the opening kickoff poised to make a statement.
Second-year quarterback Kerry Collins led the Panthers on a 10-play, 52-yard march to set up the game’s opening score—a deft 12-yard lob over the reach of three defenders en route to the sure-handed Wesley Walls. The all-pro tight end’s 10th touchdown of the season put the Panthers on the board at 7-0.
Collins was a clean 6-for-7 on the drive, connecting with four different receivers with nary a hint of pressure from the pocket.
That seventh-rounder we mentioned at the top? His name was Chad Cota.
While generally viewed by the oft-remiss national media as a pedestrian afterthought on a great defense, close observers of Carolina’s season were keenly aware of Cota’s emerging penchant for making big plays in big moments.
A week prior against Baltimore, Cota knifed in front of Vinny Testaverde on their opening series to clutch his 4th interception of the season. The Panthers turned in their sixth consecutive win, 26-17.
Meanwhile, following the Collins-to-Walls opening score, Pittsburgh and Carolina traded a pair of punts, the last of which put the Steelers in possession at their own 20-yard line. The drive abruptly ended as Tomczak was bull-rushed into his own end zone by linebackers Kevin Greene and Lamar Lathon. The self-proclaimed menacing duo of “Salt & Pepper” forced an intentional grounding infraction, resulting in a safety and a 9-0 Carolina lead.
Against the ropes, Pittsburgh laid a haymaker of their own to stun the Carolina crowd—forcing and recovering two consecutive Panthers fumbles, the second of which squirted from the reliable hands of fullback Howard Griffith inside his own 5-yard line. Tomczak capitalized, connecting with wide receiver Andre Hastings for the Steelers’ opening touchdown.
Trailing 9-7 on the road, Pittsburgh’s notorious special teams unit opted for a surprise onside call. As was the case 10 months prior in Super Bowl XXX, Norm Johnson’s oblong knuckleball was successfully recovered by the Steelers.
Sensing a momentum shift, Cowher made the switch to quarterback / receiver Kordell Stewart, who entered the game with 17 NFL pass attempts to his name. The team later hinted the change was made to keep their veteran starter healthy for the playoffs, while banking on the man they called “Slash” to mitigate Carolina’s speed rush.
Cowher’s plan appeared to fall flat minutes later as Stewart’s first pass attempt was picked off by Panthers cornerback Toi Cook. Call it blissful ignorance, or call it steely resolve—the young signal-caller wasn’t the slightest bit rattled.
Following another Carolina punt, the resilient Stewart dazzled his brothers in gold by high-gearing a determined 80-yard sprint past a sea of pursuant Panthers. The longest offensive play of the Steelers’ season capped off 14 unanswered points in less than three minutes.
The call from Gailey was both basic and brilliant: a 22-personnel bootleg with a well-sold play fake. This generated a wider, deeper pocket from which Stewart could (1) find an intermediate target or (2) survey an optimal avenue for a positive-yardage scramble. In choosing to run, the former Colorado star was able to utilize his uncommon gift of acceleration against, (thanks to Gailey’s 2TE/2BACK set call) a less-athletic group of back-seven defenders.
Carolina suddenly trailed 14-9 at halftime. To quote the great John Fox, they “saw the deepest and the highest” in a 30 minute span.
In the third quarter, the Panthers settled in defensively with improved gap integrity up front, limiting Stewart’s open space threat. Carolina held the Steelers without a first down for the quarter, as Collins and the offense methodically engineered three scoring drives. Each were capped off by a trio of John Kasay field goals. The Panthers led at the end of the third quarter, 18-14.
This score would not budge, as all scoring departed early to beat the traffic over the final 15 minutes. Carolina struggled to generate a ground game and twice punted. Making his impact felt through deeds, not words, Panthers defensive captain Sam Mills and his band of brothers continued to punish Stewart relentlessly. A game now clearly stuck in an offensive stalemate, physicality and toughness took center stage.
Though the Steelers turned the ball over twice on downs in the fourth quarter, Cowher’s dynamic defense kept the pressure on the young and immobile Collins while crowding the box and stifling the run.
Trailing by four with 3:29 to play and 40 yards from pay dirt, the second-year quarterback was afforded one last opportunity to spoil Carolina’s season-long aspirations of a division title.
Pittsburgh took to the air as Stewart confidently threaded completions to three different receivers, pushing the Panthers to the brink inside their own 5-yard line with under one minute to in regulation. Right on crunch-time cue, two unsung Panthers made an elite pair of situational defensive plays.
On second-and-goal from the Carolina 6-yard line, Stewart took a shotgun snap and found daylight off left guard. Panthers lineman Shawn King, one of the many role players employed by defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, kept his team’s NFC West title hopes alive by shedding a block and making the effort-tackle of his life. It may not look like much, but it was a textbook piece of defensive line play.
The rest? You know the rest.
Third down. Stewart deep drop, threads the needle to Hastings.
It’s a touchdown.
But don’t tell that to the seventh-rounder. He’s busy battling on the turf, knowing full well he may never again encounter a point-blank opportunity to literally pull greatness from the jaws of defeat.
The legendary voice of Bill Rosinski kept us all in suspense
“WHAT IS IT??”
It’s an interception. It’s a win. It’s the NFC West Title
And Rosinski goes wild. And the crowd goes wild. And the players and coaches, they go wild.
By wrestling away a win from the iconic Pittsburgh Steelers, Chad Cota forever earned his place in Panthers lore: the underdog player who never quit on his underdog band of brothers in black and blue. Cota seized his moment, becoming the latest benefactor of an infinitely special memory forever etched into the hearts of Carolinians and beyond.
This is what One Panther Place is all about.
Sure, it’s about analysis. And transactions, and watching film.
But it’s also about reflection. Appreciation. Storytelling.
And being there to chronicle these very moments. It’s my why.
Cota’s timely play on the ball clinched the first of Carolina’s six divisional titles, propelling the second-year franchise to within one game of Super Bowl XXXI.