Kenny Pickett will not only be facing the Bills' second-ranked scoring defense when he makes his first NFL start this Sunday in Buffalo. The rookie quarterback and his teammates will also be facing historic odds, as the Steelers are 14-point underdogs for the first time since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
When asked about those odds, Pickett displayed some of the swagger that has quickly endeared himself to his teammates in Pittsburgh.
"You guys, everyone else thinks we're underdogs," Pickett said. "We don't, so we're gonna go in there with some confidence. We know how great we can be when we're detailed and we execute at a high level. That's something that we need to take care of during the week we won't have a shot."
Pittsburgh fans are surely hoping that Sunday marks the beginning of a long, successful era of Steelers football. The franchise has had several notable eras defined by quarterbacks: Bobby Layne (1958-62), Terry Bradshaw (1970-83), Mark Malone/Bubby Brister (1984-91), Neil O'Donnell (1992-95), Kordell Stewart (1997-01) and Ben Roethlisberger (2004-18). Each one guided the Steelers to some level of success, with Bradshaw and Roethlisberger winning a combined six Super Bowls.
He didn't face a defense like the one Pickett will face on Sunday, but Roethlisberger's first NFL start wasn't a picnic. Roethlisberger's first start, which came at Miami in Week 3 of the 2004 season, was delayed nearly eight to avoid Hurricane Jeanne. The Steelers and Dolphins still had to play through a torrential downpour that left the field muddy and almost unplayable.
"That was the worst weather I ever played in," former Steelers receiver Hines Ward said after the game, via ESPN.
Roethlisberger, who made his NFL debut a week earlier in relief of an injury Tommy Maddox, weathered the storm. He shook off an interception on his first pass of the night before leading the Steelers on three scoring drives. With the Steelers ahead 6-3 late in the game, Roethlisberger's seven-yard touchdown pass to Ward sealed Pittsburgh's 13-3 win.
"It wasn't pretty at times, but we got the win," said Roethlisberger, who threw for 163 yards on 12-of-22 passing.
Roethlisberger and the Steelers did plenty of winning that season. Pittsburgh would win a then-AFC record 15 regular-season games. Roethlisberger won AFC Offensive Rookie of the Year after winning a record 13 starts as a rookie. The highlight for Roethlisberger and the Steelers came in consecutive weeks against the Patriots and Eagles. Against New England, Roethlisberger threw a pair of scores as Pittsburgh snapped the Patriots' NFL record 21-game winning streak.
Roethlisberger and Ward teamed up for two more scores the following week as the Steelers posted a commanding 27-3 win over previously-undefeated Philadelphia.
Ironically, it would be the Patriots and Eagles who would face off months later in the Super Bowl. The Steelers would fall one game shy of the Super Bowl after losing at home to New England in the AFC title game.
Just as notable as the outcome of that AFC Championship game was the conversation between Roethlisberger and Jerome Bettis on the sideline as the final seconds ticked off the clock. Roethlisberger promised Bettis, who was contemplating retirement, that he would lead Pittsburgh to a Super Bowl win if the future Hall of Fame running back returned for the 2005 season. Bettis ultimately decided to come back, and would cap off his career by hoisting the Lombardi Trophy after the Steelers won Super Bowl XL.
Eight years before Roethlisberger took the field in Miami, Kordell Stewart was preparing to make the move from "Slash" to starting quarterback. A record-setting quarterback at Colorado, Stewart was selected in the second round of the 1995 NFL Draft. Stewart, who was inactive during the season's first five games, stayed in shape by running routes and returning kicks on the scout team. When the Steelers started to suffer injuries at receiver, coach Bill Cowher decided to utilize the talents of his rookie quarterback.
Stewart immediately provided game-altering plays for the Steelers at quarterback, running back and receiver, hence his Slash nickname. His touchdown catch in the AFC Championship game helped Pittsburgh capture its first AFC title since 1979.
Stewart remained in the Slash role for the 1996 season. But with the Steelers having already clinched the AFC Central division title, Cowher inserted Stewart into the starting lineup during the second half of Pittsburgh's regular-season finale against the Panthers, who needed a win to clinch a first round playoff bye.
The Panthers boasted a formidable defense, led by future Hall of Fame linebackers Kevin Greene and Sam Mills. While he didn't do much through the air, Stewart made history that day by rushing for an 80-yard score, which stood as the longest run by a quarterback in NFL history for 17 years.
Twenty-four years ago, Kordell Stewart did this. He recorded the longest TD run by an NFL QB. The 80-yard record has since been broken by Terrelle Pryor (93 yards).
????: @NFLThrowback pic.twitter.com/skkyYDuzJk— Put It In The Group Chat (@PIITGCPod) December 22, 2020
Stewart's first NFL start as a quarterback, which took place in Week 1 of the 1997 season, was less memorable. Pittsburgh was dominated at home by the Cowboys, who two years earlier had defeated the Steelers in Super Bowl XXX. Stewart threw for just 104 yards with a touchdown and an interception in Pittsburgh's 37-7 loss.
The Steelers stumbled out to a 1-2 start before going on a tear starting in Week 4. A 13-point home win over the Titans jumpstarted a five-game winning streak. Pittsburgh had two dramatic wins during the streak. They trailed 21-0 in Baltimore in Week 5 before five touchdowns by Stewart spearheaded the Steelers' 42-34 win. Three weeks later, the Steelers avenged a loss to Jacksonville earlier in the season after Bettis scored on a Stewart shovel pass in overtime.
Pittsburgh had several other dramatic wins during the second half of the '97 season. The Steelers trailed the Broncos 21-7 before Stewart caught fire with five total touchdowns and 352 all-purpose yards. A week later, needing a win to clinch a fourth consecutive division title, the Steelers defeated the Patriots in overtime after trailing by eight points with less than two minutes left.
Stewart made NFL history that season by becoming the first quarterback to throw for at least 20 touchdowns and run for at least 10 more scores in the same season. The Steelers would advance to the AFC title game, where they would lose a hard-fought game to a Broncos team that would go on to upset the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII.
"That overall team was unbelievable," Stewart said in a one-on-one interview with CBS Sports. "It was