Another couple of Steeler games like the one last week in Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium and you will have to accept the following as sanctified National Football League holy writ: 1) Terry Bradshaw is the coolest quarterback in the game; 2) after taking 41 years to get on stage the first time, the Steelers have reserved dressing room space for a Super Bowl rerun; and 3) Steeler Coach Chuck Noll will wince mighty often as he hears the word "dynasty."
All of which is to say that the Steelers, who won everything pro football had to offer just 10 months ago, look red hot and ready to do it again.
Hardly any other conclusion could be drawn from last Sunday's AFC Central Division showdown with the tenacious Houston Oilers, who closely stalked the Steelers before they were overcome by Bradshaw's quick release, two fast whistles and the lingering psychological edge that is part of the arsenal of a champion. In one of the best games of the season Pittsburgh rebounded from a tie in the last 38 seconds for a 24-17 victory, its seventh in eight games, the 50th since Noll took over in 1969 and the best evidence yet that this is a better club than the one that humiliated Minnesota last January in New Orleans.
At the end two factors were clearly evident: Bradshaw is more competent and his teammates more confident. In earlier years the Steelers would have wilted under the pressure and Bradshaw would have collapsed.
On Sunday, the big quarterback was a study in aplomb as he completed 17 of 28 passes for 219 yards and three touchdowns, and in the hysteria at the finish it was Bradshaw who took the Steelers on a 78-yard march to the winning score. On the way he ran once for eight yards and completed three of four passes for 68 more. One of those was a 21-yard strike to Wide Receiver John Stall-worth that knocked the Oilers out of the Central Division's three-way tie for first. Cincinnati, which had fallen to the Steelers just a week before for its first loss of the season, hung in by squeaking past Denver, 17-16.
Good as the Steelers were against a tough Houston team, they might not have won but for two officials' calls Oiler fans will be raging over for a long time. The first came at the end of the second quarter when Billy Johnson, the Oilers' one-man special team, slithered into the left corner of the end zone, with Mel Blount close enough to bite his right ear lobe, and grabbed a Dan Pastorini pass. At least, it looked as if Johnson had grabbed it. For the briefest instant the ball was in Billy's possession and then it was neatly stripped out of his hands by Blount. Interception.
Then, with little more than six minutes remaining in the game and the Steelers backed up to within an eyelash of their end zone, Rocky Bleier was sprung loose on a trap play and fumbled. Houston's rookie Linebacker Robert Brazile picked up the loose ball and ran 14 yards for a touchdown—to no avail. The ball had been blown dead.
Steeler fans, shaking the stadium with bellows of "Dee-fense, dee-fense," also had their moment of frustration. In the last three minutes, as Houston refused to lie down and die, Blount was called for interference on a Pastorini pass to Ken Burrough that the Oiler receiver could not have reached with a skyhook. The ensuing penalty put the ball on the Steeler one, from where Fred Willis, a ballet student who took up the art for the purpose of stretching his hamstrings, danced over for the touchdown that made it 17-all.
The frenzy that marked the game's finish hardly could have been forecast from its opening scenes. The Steelers, who usually have to struggle against Houston (they lost one game to the Oilers last year and barely beat them in another), looked as if they would put this one out of reach before halftime.
Roy Gerela, the kicker with the choirboy countenance, booted a 22-yard field goal midway through the first quarter on the Steelers' second possession, and little more than three minutes later Bradshaw threw his first touchdown pass, an eight-yarder to Lynn Swann. The 53-yard drive, which began after Mike Wagner recovered a Burrough fumble, took only five plays.
A longtime Steeler executive says of Swann, whose touchdown was his sixth of the year, "He gets more fun out of playing this game than anyone I've ever seen," but Lynn's elation was short-lived. Early in the second quarter a Pastorini punt bounced off his face mask, Mark Cotney recovered for Houston and the Oilers had their first touchdown seven plays later. Pastorini, who completed 15 of 33 passes for 203 yards, moved his team 31 yards before Ronnie Coleman crashed the final three.
In a cameo of his performance for the afternoon, however, Bradshaw scrambled away from a potential sack with two minutes left in the first half to throw an eight-yard scoring pass to Tight End Larry Brown, whose seven receptions were a career high. The play gave Pittsburgh a 17-7 lead and, despite the pressure that came later, made good a prediction by Andy Russell, the Steelers' veteran linebacker.
"I don't feel that different about Houston just because they're coming in this time with a 6-1 record," he had said Friday afternoon. "They always give us trouble, but this time I think we're more confident. We believe we have the ability to win the big game. Winning the Super Bowl last year has made us determined to do it again. We're not guilty of any fat-cat philosophy. I think there's going to be a real team feeling that the Oilers can take something away from us, so I think we're going to be ready."
Along with that psychological armament Pittsburgh had a quarterback who posed a dilemma for the Oilers. "The Steelers present some big problems," said Ed Biles, the Houston defensive coordinator. "One of them is that you've got to stop their running game, headed by Franco Harris. Secondly, their concept of the passing game is to go to their outside receivers, which puts a lot of pressure on outside linebackers, who have to be ready to move against the run and also have to get back and help on deep pass coverage. And that Bradshaw's so strong the Steeler receivers run deeper patterns than you normally see, but if you blitz Bradshaw and miss, he'll scramble and run with the ball, and he's got great running ability."
In fact, Bradshaw picked up 16 yards on three frenetic excursions out of the pocket as the Steelers ran for 183 yards, almost twice as many as the Oilers. Together, Harris and Bleier had 140 yards on 32 carries.
When the Steelers won the Super Bowl the key factor was their defense. Last Sunday, with Mean Joe Greene sidelined by an injury and L.C. Greenwood missing the second half with a sprained ankle, Pittsburgh still forced three turnovers and sacked the quarterback four times.
But a more effective offense directed by a Bradshaw with consistent poise foretells an ever better performance in a Super Bowl rerun. The quarterback who was once scorned as a bumpkin is nobody's fool today. This season he has completed 100 of 166 passes for 1,251 yards and 10 touchdowns and has thrown just four interceptions.
Still, the Steelers' win and Bradshaw's new image should not be allowed to crowd the Oilers out of the picture. Houston is a contender that will give rivals trouble all season long just as surely as Coach Bum Phillips, in denim and cowboy hat, looks like the Western movie extra who says, "Why wait for the judge? Let's string 'em up now."
He won't have a long wait for a Steeler rematch. The clubs meet again on Nov. 24 in a Monday night game that may blow the roof off the Astrodome, and how many people remember that it was not too long ago that the AFC Central was a dog's division called the NFL's answer to the Big Sky Conference? Some dogs.