September 14 2003: Kansas City Chiefs 41 – Pittsburgh Steelers 20
Dick Vermeil’s head coaching career with the Chiefs had started with a forgettable 6 and 10 season. He followed that with an 8 and 8, that was certainly better than the bare statement of wins and losses might suggest. In 2003, his third season, hopes were high that we finally had a team built to win, and this was reinforced by a comfortable opening day win over the Chargers.
The Steelers had matched the Chiefs by winning comfortably on the opening weekend against divisional rivals. They had also been in close contact with us earlier in the year, when a draft day trade saw KC’s first round pick go to Pittsburgh who used it to grab Troy Polamalu (we then used theirs to pick up Larry Johnson). With Tommy Maddox under centre and offensive weapons like Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward, plenty of points were expected!
We had to wait all of 40 seconds: on the Chiefs’ first drive of the day, a 2nd down pass by Trent Green was picked off and taken back for an opening score by the Steelers. Our second drive fared no better, and ended in a punt. Pittsburgh went straight back down the field, couldn’t get the touchdown, but were able to hit a short field goal. Five minutes into the game and KC were 10-0 behind.
Luckily, the Chiefs had a not-so-secret special team weapon in Dante Hall. From the kickoff, the elusive returner fielded the ball on his own goal line, but managed to find a way through traffic to take it all the way back for a 100 yard score!
After being drafted as a 5th rounder by Kansas City in 2000, Hall had a quiet start to his career before exploding in 2002 – as well as three receiving touchdowns, he had 3 return touchdowns each of which was over 80 yards in distance. He had over 1500 return yards and was selected to the Pro Bowl. This was his first score of an even more productive 2003 season – 5 return touchdowns, over 2000 return yards, and another call up to the Pro Bowl, this time as an All-Pro.
Despite Hall’s heroics, the Chiefs still trailed – things got worse later in the quarter, as Trent Green was picked off for a second time. With great field position, Pittsburgh only needed one play to put the ball into the hands of Plaxico Burress in the end zone. The Steelers led 17-7 at the end of the quarter.
Fortunately for the home fans, the Chiefs again fought back quickly and by playing to their strengths. The second quarter opened with a drive including seven rushes by star running back Priest Holmes. The last of those rushes was a three yarder to cut the deficit to three points. Straight away on the next drive, Holmes continued to rush, but quarterback Green was also now finding his targets – an 11 play, 86 yard drive ended with a short pass to tight end Jason Dunn. Finding themselves behind, the Steelers appeared to panic, and Tommy Maddox’ short pass aimed at Antwaan Randle El was misplaced, giving safety Jerome Woods the chance to take the ball home from half way for his first ever NFL score. There was time for a late Pittsburgh field goal, but this still meant that Kansas City had turned the early deficit into a seven point lead at the half.
The second half turned into a defensive masterclass by the Chiefs. Six possessions by the visitors resulted in zero points – two drives ended in punts, two more in picks, one in a forced fumble, and the final drive of the game ended with the Steelers giving up the ball on downs.
While the Steelers were losing their heads, the Chiefs continued to remorselessly grind the ball using Priest Holmes. After a Dante Hall punt return started a KC drive close to the visitors’ end zone, Holmes punched it home from 4 yards to stretch the lead. Then in a later drive, after Trent Green had completed passes to Derrick Blaylock and Eddie Kennison to move the ball into enemy territory, Holmes found a gap in a demoralised Steelers defensive line, to score a 31 yard rush. This hat-trick of touchdowns followed a pair in the win over the Chargers the previous week, and set the foundation for a truly epic season. Holmes had scored a sensational 24 touchdowns in 2002, but would go on to top that with a staggering 27 regular season touchdowns – plus 2 more in the post season.
He looked set for an incredible third season of 20-plus touchdowns, racking up 15 more in the first 8 weeks of the 2004 season – only for an injury to cut short his season. He managed to get back onto the field in 2005, and back into the end zone, but a second injury effectively put an end to his career. It’s amazing to think that he was undrafted as a rookie!
78 touchdowns for the Chiefs in only 66 games goes some way to explain why he is still remembered so fondly by Chiefs fans, but also the fact he was regarded as a great team mate and positive presence in the locker room, who has gone on to put his efforts into charitable works since retiring from football.
Elsewhere in the NFL at the time:
A thriller in the NFC East – after an early Giants touchdown, the Dallas Cowboys took command and silenced the home crowd as they cruised into a 29-14 lead. The Giants then ran up 18 unanswered points in the 4th quarter for a 32-29 lead, only for Billy Cundiff to tie it up with the last kick of the 60 minutes. Cundiff then repeated the trick in overtime to give Dallas the win.
A more one-sided game in Baltimore saw Jamal Lewis rack up a record-breaking 295 rushing yards as the Ravens crushed the Browns 33-12. The record lasted four seasons, until Adrian Peterson beat it by a single yard.