Remembering Another Raiders-Steelers Classic

Sports Illustrated's Raider Maven takes you back into the long history of the Las Vegas Raiders vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers rivalry.
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Fresh from their dramatic victory over the Baltimore Ravens on Monday Night Football, the Las Vegas will hit the road to play an old foe, the Pittsburgh Steelers, on Sunday at Heinz Field in the second game of the regular season.

The Raiders and Steelers were two of the power teams in the National Football League and played some epic games during the 1970s when they squared off a total of 11 times including five times during the post-season.

The Silver and Black held a 6-5 edge overall but the Steelers had a 3-2 margin in the playoffs.

Oakland and Pittsburgh captured five Super Bowls in the last six years of the ’70s, with the Dallas Cowboys winning at the end of the 1977 season, although unfortunately, the Steelers won four Lombardi Trophies to only one for the Raiders, who did claim two more in the 1980s.

The Steelers and their fans believed they would have won Super Bowl XI, in which the Raiders defeated the Minnesota Vikings, 32-14, in Super Bowl XI had running backs Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier not been injured and unable to play when the Raiders beat them, 24-7, in the 1976 American Football Championship Game.

The Raiders argued that it didn’t matter because their 3-4 defense held backups Rodney Harrison, Frenchy Fuqua, and the Steelers running game to 72 yards and that Harris and Bleier wouldn’t have done much better because there was simply nowhere to run.

As luck would have it, the Raiders were scheduled to play the Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium in the second game of the 1977 regular season, and it seemed like the entire state of Pennsylvania was waiting for them.

“It would be nice if it were just a football game, which is what it should be,” Raiders Coach John Madden in the days leading up to the game. “The talk surrounding the game sure as hell isn’t as important as the game is.”

Harris and Bleier were healthy this time to complement quarterback Terry Bradshaw’s passing game that included wide receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, and one newspaper in Pittsburgh ran a banner headline that read: “This is the real AFC Championship Game.”

Longtime members of Raider Nation will remember this one as a defensive classic, even though for some reason you don’t hear much about it these days when the memorable games of the Oakland-Pittsburgh rivalry are mentioned.

This reporter remembers it as probably the most physical game he has ever seen, played on the rock-hard artificial turf in Three Rivers Stadium.

“It was hard‐hitting football,” Bleier said afterward. “No shenanigans. Our offense did not play well, but our defense did.”

The Raiders held Harris to 64 yards, including 22 on one play, and Bleier to 23—far below their averages—and built a 16-0 lead on three field goals by Errol Mann and an eight-yard touchdown run by fullback Mark van Eeghen early in the fourth quarter after Kenny “Snake” Stabler’s 22-yard pass to Fred Biletnikoff.

Bradshaw tried to bring the Steelers back with his arm in the second half, completing 16-of-32 passes for 268 yards and a 43-yard touchdown pass to Bennie Cunningham midway through the fourth quarter, but he also threw three interceptions and Pittsburgh lost two fumbles.

The Raiders’ 16-7 victory was their 15th in a row, and even though they went 11-3 that season, they were not the same because linebacker Phil Villapiano and tackle John Vella were lost for the season because of injuries and several other players also were injured and missed playing time.

The Steelers also sustained several injuries and finished the season 9-5, and neither team made it to the Super Bowl that season.

On the day after the Raiders beat the Steelers, the same newspaper ran another headline that read: “The End of a Dynasty.”

About the most you can say about this week’s game between the Raiders and Steelers is that both teams are trying to get to 2-0.

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