As Center Ray Mansfield saw it, the Pittsburgh Steelers won two football games Saturday afternoon. In the opener at frosty Three Rivers Stadium, the Steelers' defense defeated Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh as Middle Linebacker Jack Lambert and his crew of assassins survived a comedy of uncharacteristic errors by Quarterback Terry Bradshaw and Running Back Franco Harris. Then, in the nightcap, the Steelers—defense and offense—got together and whipped the Baltimore Colts 28-10 and advanced to the AFC championship game against Oakland. "Once we overcame ourselves," Mansfield said, "the rest was easy."
For almost 40 minutes Pittsburgh, imbued with a generous Yuletide spirit, repeatedly presented the football and strong field position to the Colts. The Steelers fumbled away the opening kick-off at midfield, then prolonged Baltimore's first attack by dropping Punter David Lee as he kicked the ball into the end zone on fourth down. After that, Bradshaw, who suffered a bruised right leg just before the half and worked the rest of the game with a pronounced limp, twice hit a receiver in the clear with his bullet passes—but both times the pass catcher happened to be little Lloyd Mumphord, a Colt cornerback. Mumphord was the only player within 20 yards of the ball on his first interception, which he ran back 58 yards to set up a tying touchdown in the second quarter.
Meanwhile, Harris, who recorded an easy 153-to-63-yard victory over Baltimore's Lydell Mitchell in their private duel for the Penn State alumni rushing championship, and who had scored the game's first touchdown, twice stunned his fellow Steelers with near-disastrous fumbles. The first, inside the Pittsburgh 20-yard line, led to a Toni Linhart field goal that put Baltimore on top 10-7 in the third quarter. The second abruptly stopped a Steeler touchdown drive, the ball bouncing through the end zone for a touchback.
The Colts, however, were unable to capitalize on all this Pittsburgh charity. One reason was that Bert Jones, the Baltimore kid quarterback who specializes in the quick strike, suffered a bruised pitching arm while being tackled by J. T. Thomas on the seventh play of the game, and could not reappear until the final period. Marty Domres replaced Jones but, predictably, kept Baltimore's offense on the conservative side. "Domres doesn't scramble like Jones," said Steeler Linebacker Jack Ham, "and he doesn't throw long like Jones. When Jones went out, we were able to tee off up front against the Colts and take away their running game, too." Another reason—and the big one—was the Pittsburgh defense, specifically Linebackers Lambert, Ham and Andy Russell and Cornerback Mel Blount.
January 5, 1976
Mansfield insists that the 23-year-old Lambert is so mean that he makes Joe Greene, who now has missed almost all of Pittsburgh's last five games because of neck and groin injuries, seem a pussycat. With the Colts threatening to take a 14-7 lead after Harris' first fumble, Lambert personally stood Mitchell up at the six-yard line on second down, then deflected a Domres pass on third down.
Still, Pittsburgh was trailing 10-7 midway through the third quarter and Baltimore had the ball, third-and-nine just over its own 20-yard line. "I wasn't going to gamble at that point," Domres said. "I called a straight running play so we could then kick the ball on fourth down." As the Colts lined up, however, Tackle David Taylor suddenly pitched forward—and offside—when his hamstring muscle snapped. Faced now with third-and-14, Domres changed his strategy and tried to pass the Colts to a first down. Domres had been right the first time. Blount, who led the NFL with 11 interceptions, stole the ball from Roger Carr and danced to the Baltimore seven-yard line. From there, Rocky Bleier burst over tackle for the touchdown. Pittsburgh increased its lead to 21-10 midway through the final quarter when Bradshaw hobbled into the end zone from the two-yard line.
Now Jones returned to the game to try and organize a closing rally. In short order he moved the Colts from their own 12 to the Pittsburgh three. Needing an instant touchdown, as the clock closed on two minutes, Jones wanted to try a quick look-in pass. But as he cocked his arm, Ham hooked his elbow and knocked the ball loose. Andy Russell, playing with aching knees, picked up the ball at the seven and began the longest, slowest touchdown run ever witnessed, so slow, in fact, that Ham suggested the referees should have given Russell a penalty for delay of game.
"Juice, Juice, Juice," kidded Defensive Back Glen Edwards.
"Yeah," shouted a happy Steeler. "Prune Juice."