The Greatest Special-Teams Game in NFL History
The Kansas City Chiefs proved to the NFL you can win games on special teams
It was the greatest special-teams game in NFL history.
On that late December Sunday at Three River Stadium in 1986, special teams weren’t a third of the game for the Kansas City Chiefs. They were all of the game for the Chiefs.
Kansas City took a 9-6 record into Pittsburgh needing a victory over the 6-9 Steelers to clinch the franchise’s first playoff berth in 15 seasons. But there was one major obstacle – the Chiefs had the NFL’s worst offense, averaging fewer than 270 yards per game. Awaiting them in Pittsburgh was a still-stout Steeler defense that featured future Hall of Fame safety Donnie Shell and veteran Pro Bowl linebackers Robin Cole, David Little and Mike Merriweather.
And for 30 minutes, that Pittsburgh defense smothered the Kansas City offense. The Chiefs managed only five first downs and 106 yards in the first half – yet took a 24-6 lead into the lockerroom at the intermission.
Hello, special teams.
Albert Lewis blocked Pittsburgh’s first punt of the day and Deron Cherry recovered it in the end zone for a 7-0 Kansas City lead.
“That was the first time I ever addressed our defense,” Lewis said. “We were so intense. The Steelers had third down inside of their own 10 and I told the defense, ‘If we hold them here, we’ll block the kick.’ The guys just looked at me and never said a word. After we got the block, we were on a roll.”
The Chiefs built the lead to 10-0 in the second quarter on a 47-yard field goal by Nick Lowery. Gary Anderson cut the Pittsburgh deficit to 10-3 with a 31-yard field goal midway through the quarter…but Boyce Green returned the ensuing kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown and a 17-3 Kansas City lead.
Anderson cut the Pittsburgh deficit to 17-6 with a 31-yard field goal with three minutes left in the second quarter and had the chance to chip away even further when he lined up for 19-yard field goal with 44 seconds left in the half. But Bill Maas blocked the chip-shot attempt and it was scooped up by safety Lloyd Burruss, who raced 78 yards for a touchdown and that 24-6 halftime lead.
“All season long we felt we had to do something extra on special teams to win games,” Lewis said, “and that was our mentality going into that game. We felt we could match them on defense. But we felt our edge would be special teams.”
The Steelers rolled up 28 first downs and 515 yards against the Chiefs that day. Kansas City managed only eight first downs and 171 yards against Pittsburgh. Quarterback Bill Kenney completed only 12 passes and Kansas City’s leading rusher had 14 yards. But the Chiefs were able to claim both the victory and that final AFC wildcard playoff berth thanks to scoring all 24 of their points on special teams.
Hall-of-Fame coach Tony Dungy was the defensive coordinator of the Steelers that day.
“I remember in the lockerroom afterwards, talking to the defensive coaches and asking them, `How did we lose this game – we never let them get inside our 30-yard line,’” recalled Dungy more than three decades later.
Interestingly, the Steelers did not have a designated special-teams coach in 1986. Pittsburgh practiced special teams on Saturdays during the season and Hall-of-Fame coach Chuck Noll handled the practice himself. But Noll hired two special-teams coaches in 1987. Lesson learned.
Lewis played 16 NFL seasons and 225 games, the third most by a cornerback in NFL history. He intercepted 42 passes, recovered 13 fumbles and was voted to four Pro Bowls. The Chiefs enshrined him in their Ring of Honor in 2007. Lewis was voted team MVP in 1986 when he intercepted four passes and blocked four punts. He added another blocked punt in a wild-card playoff game against the New York Jets — and he carried that one in himself for a touchdown. In all, he blocked a staggering 12 kicks in his career.
The football adage claims special teams are a third of the game. But on one December Sunday in 1986, they were much, much more.