The Carolina Panthers and the Jacksonville Jaguars joined the NFL in 1995 when the league expanded to 30 teams. Caolina’s first season saw them finish a respectable 7-9 under head coach Dom Capers.
Capers began his coaching career with the Philadelphia Stars as an assistant coach before spending six years as the New Orleans secondary coach. When Bill Cowher replaced Chuck Noll in Pittsburgh, he hired Capers as his defensive coordinator.
Capers stayed with the Steelers until he was named the Panthers head coach at the beginning of 1995. At the time Capers left Pittsburgh, the Steelers defense ranked second in the NFL. In Carolina he built the team around a solid defense that included former Steelers Kevin Greene and Gerald Williams.
The first time these team met was in Carolina when the Panthers were enjoying their second season in the NFL. The Panthers were hoping to build on their initial season’s success. In their first season, their rookie quarterback Kerry Collins had led the team to a 7-9 record while not having a stadium they could call home.
The Steelers were coming off a Super Bowl loss to the Cowboys and were hoping for their fifth straight visit to the playoffs. Having seen Neil O’Donnell move to the Jets, the Steelers were now looking forward to life with Mike Tomczak. They also had a wide receiver in Kordell Stewart who was getting noticed in a dual role as ‘Slash.’
The teams met in the season finale when both were looking forward to post-regular season football. Both teams had already qualified but were playing for a bye week. The Panthers were especially proud of their winning record in only their second season and now had a new Ericsson Stadium they could call their own.
Collins was on a hot streak of six straight wins, while Tomczak’s play had been erratic, and he carried an injury into the game. With one eye on the playoffs, Coach Cowher rested several defensive players who were also suffering from nagging injuries.
Capers named five former Steelers as captains for the game. Dwight Stone, Walter Rasby and Rohn Stark joined Greene and Williams.
The (10-5) Steelers at the (11-4) Panthers; December 22, 1996
Both teams then found moving the chains difficult as the defense dominated. With Jerome Bettis going off after the first quarter, the Steelers struggles continued. A Tomczak penalty for intentional grounding when he was under pressure from Kevin Greene, saw him give up a safety to extend Carolina’s lead.
It was the Steelers defense who gave the team a lift when Darren Perry stripped the ball from fullback Howard Griffith. Willie Williams recovered on the Panthers 7. Pittsburgh took full advantage of the turnover with Tomczak finding Andre Hastings with a 6-yard touchdown pass.
The Steelers special teams ensured the Steelers momentum continued recovering their onside kick before Kordell Stewart came on to replace Tomczak. The opportunity was spurned when Stewart threw an interception with his first pass.
After the Panthers went three and out, Stewart made the play of the game midway through the second quarter. He was attempting to pass. With his receivers covered, he saw a gap and made his move. His explosive speed saw him burst through the Panthers defensive line and their secondary with only the goal line ahead. His touchdown run of 80 yards gave the Steelers a 14-9 lead they took into the locker room.
As the defenses continued to control the game, Carolina kicked field goals of 35, 30 and 29 yards to regain a slender lead in the final period.
The Steelers spent the final ten minutes trying to crack the Panthers’ defense. Ernie Mills spurned the best opportunity when Stewart fired a pass to him in the end zone. Mills appeared to have it in his hands but dropped it.
As the seconds ticked away, Stewart found Andre Hastings in the end zone with a pass. Hastings put his hands around the ball, but Carolina’s Chad Kota wrestled it away to bring an abrupt end to the Steelers hopes of a comeback victory.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 14 at the Carolina Panthers 18
Charles Johnson, who contributed 34 yards during the game, became the sixth Steelers wide receiver to surpass 1,000 yards in a season.
Kordell Stewart’s touchdown run of 80 yards was the longest by a quarterback in the NFL at that time.
“He grew up today,” Mike Tomczak acknowledged about Stewart. “The guy makes plays. He’s electrifying out there.”
Despite the loss, the Steelers won their third straight division title. With Tomczak at quarterback, the Steelers beat the Colts 42-14 in the Wild Card game before losing 28-3 to the Patriots in the Divisional game.
The performance of Kordell Stewart brought an argument for him to become the starter. The following season, Coach Cowher promoted Stewart to the number one slot and the team went 11-5, losing to Denver in the Divisional playoff game.
The loss to Carolina was the only time Pittsburgh has not beaten them. The six games played since have all comfortably gone to the Steelers, including another two on the road.