For anyone who likes David vs. Goliath stories, Super Bowl XXX is right down your alley. The Cowboys, winners of two of the previous three Super Bowls, were massive favorites over the Steelers, who were hoping to snap the NFC's run of 11 consecutive wins in the big game.
Heavy favorites themselves two weeks earlier in the AFC title game, the Steelers had to survive a last-second Hail Mary to defeat the Colts. That experience, along with the fact that the Steelers had lost as a double-digit favorite in the 1994 AFC title game, taught them a lesson about not overlooking an opponent.
"We didn't take (the Colts) lightly," former Steelers linebacker Levon Kirkland told CBS Sports during the fall. "They played us hard. San Diego, I thought we were a little bit arrogant going into that game. I thought that we took those guys too lightly. It's just a lesson learned that you can't take opponents lightly."
Did the Cowboys, a 13.5-point favorite entering their matchup with Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XXX, make that mistake?
"I think they did," Kirkland said. "I think they thought, 'We're the Dallas Cowboys, we're going to run over these guys.' They didn't understand that we were from Pittsburgh. We weren't going to be punk'd by nobody. I don't care if you won two of the last three Super Bowls."
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It initially looked like the Cowboys would cover the spread. They led 13-0 early after scoring on each of their first three possessions. It would have been 17-0 if not for a pass interference call on receiver Michael Irvin on the Cowboys' third possession. Meanwhile, the Steelers offense struggled to gain traction against the Dallas defense, led by future Hall of Fame players Deion Sanders and Charles Haley.
Pittsburgh finally found its footing before halftime. The Steelers defense forced a three-and-out on the Cowboys' fourth possession before the offense made it a 13-7 game on Neil O'Donnell's touchdown pass to Yancey Thigpen. Despite being outplayed for the game's first 26 minutes, the Steelers had momentum entering the second half.
"We just kind of settled down," Kirkland said. "If you've never been in that situation before, it's a big deal. Even if you're a seasoned pro, it's a little nerve wracking. I think once we settled down and we stopped them, held them to a field goal, we felt like, 'OK, we can play with these guys, we can stop these guys.' And we were really good against the run."
Emmitt Smith found that out the hard way. The NFL's all-time career rushing leader ran for just nine yards in the second half and finished the game with just 49 yards on 18 carries. The Cowboys offense, a unit that featured the iconic triplets of Smith, Irvin and Troy Aikman, managed just 64 total yards in the second half.
"We were fast and we were tough," Kirkland said. "I don't think they were used to the 3-4 (alignment) as well. So once we kind of got a beat on them, they couldn't do anything."
Kirkland had the game of his life. He had eight tackles that included several tackles of Smith at or behind the line of scrimmage. He also came up with a sack of Aikman that led to a Cowboys punt with Dallas protecting a 20-17 lead with under five minutes to play.
"It would have been the highlight if we would have won," Kirkland said of the sack. "If Emmitt doesn't clip me at the end, I probably would have hit Troy Aikman to the next week."
As Kirkland alluded to, the Steelers didn't upset the Cowboys to pull off what at the time would have been the second-largest upset in Super Bowl history, second only to the Jets' upset win over the Colts in Super Bowl III. On Pittsburgh's ensuring drive following Kirkland's sack, O'Donnell threw his second interception of the half to Cowboys cornerback Larry Brown. Brown, who was all by himself on both interceptions, set up both of the Cowboys' second-half scores, which included Smith's game-clinching touchdown run with 3:47 left. Dallas ultimately won the game, 27-17.
Covering the spread was a testament to the Steelers' resolve in the face of an extremely formidable opponent. It didn't change the fact, however, that the Steelers lost a game they dominated from a statistical standpoint.
"If we don't turn the ball over, I think we win that game by at least two possessions," Kirkland said. "They took us a little lightly, until we were in the game, then it was like, 'Whoa, these guys can play with us.'"
In defeat, the Steelers proved they could indeed play with the Cowboys, who have not been back to the Super Bowl since that night in the desert. The '90s Steelers would not return to the big game, but their success helped pave the way for the team's two championship runs in the 2000s.