The play was a "sticks" route. Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Neil O'Donnell never will forget it.
It was fourth down, the ball at the San Diego Chargers' 3-yard line with 1:08 left in the game and the 1995 AFC championship at stake, and with it a trip to the Super Bowl.
O'Donnell had played the game of his life, but his last pass was batted away from Barry Foster by diving linebacker Dennis Gibson in the end zone. Final score: San Diego 17, Pittsburgh 13.
"Everyone usually goes to the first-down marker and turns around. This time, they were going to the goal line," said O'Donnell, the former University of Maryland standout now in his sixth year with the Steelers. "If the pass had been a little higher, maybe we score. If Barry had not started falling backwards, maybe we score. If, if, if . . ."
"It took me a month to put that play out of my mind, to move on," O'Donnell said. "But to know we came that close has motivated me and the rest of the fellows. We had our chance to go. We want another one. We need to find that rhythm again."
O'Donnell has found his rhythm -- and his niche. Since returning for the fifth game after breaking a finger on his throwing hand in the season opener, O'Donnell has thrown for 270 or more yards in four games, including a career-high 377 and three touchdowns in a 49-31 come-from-behind victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.
The Steelers (7-4) also have won four straight to take a three-game lead in the AFC Central. The struggling Cleveland Browns (4-7) are next, Sunday at Cleveland Stadium.
"Neil O'Donnell is making a lot of plays and he doesn't make many mistakes," said Cleveland coach Bill Belichick. "He seems to have picked up right where he left off last season."
Actually, O'Donnell is playing better than he ever has, in part because of free agency, which robbed him of running back Foster, tight end Eric Green and guard DuVall Love during the off-season. All three were All-Pro, and Green and Foster combined for 58 percent of the Steelers' offensive production.
O'Donnell found himself the unquestioned leader and focal point of the Steelers' offense.
"When you lose a lot of key players like that, it forces everyone to step up," O'Donnell said. "It creates a lot of pressure. But we've opened up the offense, and we're spreading the ball around more than ever before."
O'Donnell makes it seem like the adjustments were easy, but they weren't. The Steelers' offense was inconsistent in preseason, and O'Donnell caught most of the flak. The boos had a familiar ring since O'Donnell had been criticized heavily in 1994 when many fans wanted him replaced by backup Mike Tomczak.
"Actually, I thought I was having the best camp I ever had here during the summer," O'Donnell said. "My mind was clear. I didn't have any distractions like injuries or my father being sick. All I had to do was concentrate on football."
"That was great, especially when you have a lot of new faces," O'Donnell said. "The boos I didn't worry about. They booed Terry Bradshaw after he won four Super Bowls. Even booed him at his Hall of Fame induction. It's not the person, it's the position. That's how fans are in Pittsburgh."
O'Donnell didn't get a chance to work out the problems. He suffered a fractured pinkie finger while trying to brace himself after being tackled late in the first half against the Detroit Lions. O'Donnell had to have two screws inserted in the finger and was out for four games.
"I just thought the swelling would go down the next day, and everything would be fine," O'Donnell said. "The next thing I know I'm having surgery."
O'Donnell has been dazzling ever since. He threw for 282 yards against Jacksonville in his first game back, and 347 against the Bengals a week later. He had 298 against the Chicago Bears, including a 10-yard touchdown pass to Ernie Mills with 1:06 left to send the game into overtime, and then another one to Mills that set up Norm Johnson's winning 24-yard field goal with 8:19 left.
Wide receiver Yancey Thigpen leads the team in receptions with 59. Fellow receivers Charles Johnson has 36 and Andre Hastings 32. For years, his critics said O'Donnell couldn't throw deep, but he has put the long ball back into the Steelers' offense.
"Everyone laughed at me when I said this guy could bring our team back," said Ron Erhardt, the Steelers' offensive coordinator who has opened up his offense by frequently using three receivers.
Is O'Donnell in "the zone"?
"I don't know what 'the zone' is," said Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher. "I don't understand that terminology. I talked to him today and he looked pretty normal to me. He has our team playing with a lot of confidence now, too."
This could be O'Donnell's last season in Pittsburgh. He's in the third and final year of an $8.25 million contract, and the Steelers will not make a decision on his future until after the season.
Pittsburgh fans have fallen in love with rookie quarterback Kordell Stewart, the team's second- round draft pick out of Colorado.