After all the extravagant talk before the game, it was only natural to expect that the Steelers and the Raiders would play one of those instant classics that Pete Rozelle would air-express to the Hall of Fame on the next available jet. The Steelers described the "spiritual and emotional uplift" that Mean Joe Greene would summon in them if he could trot his injured body onto the field for even a few plays, and they suggested that the statisticians would need a dozen extra pages to record all the yards that Franco Harris would be gaining against Oakland's three-man line. For their part, the Raiders promised to unleash the bushy-haired Mad Stork—Linebacker Ted Hendricks—against Terry Bradshaw, Franco, Mean Joe and even Old Mr. Rooney if necessary, and they kept implying that Ken Stabler and Cliff Branch would be giving Defensive Back Mel Blount a live replay of his 1974 playoff humiliation when Branch caught nine passes against the Steelers and sent Blount to the bench in disgrace.
So after all that, when the teams finally put on their thermal underwear and played the AFC championship game at Three Frozen Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh last Sunday, what did they give Rozelle's filmmakers? Another X-rated flick that, as one Steeler grumbled, "should be burned before they let anyone else see it." There were nine fumbles in all, including one sequence of four in eight plays, all but one of which were recovered by the defense. There were five interceptions, too, one of which, naturally, was fumbled. There was even a blocked field-goal attempt, after which, in the weirdest scene since Garo Yepremian's last attempted pass, came the unbelievable sight of Pittsburgh's panic-stricken Roy Gerela trying a left-footed dropkick for an extra point following a mishandled snap from center. And, at last report, there were 86 cases of frostbitten fingers and toes.
Although the Steelers were overly generous to the Raiders until the very end, they somehow won this farcical contest by the score of 16-10 and now get to thaw in sunny Miami, where they will defend their Super Bowl championship against the Dallas Cowboys on Jan. 18. For a time, though, Pittsburgh threatened to pull this week's version of the Minnesota caper and blow a supposedly safe lead in the closing seconds.
The Steelers slid into the final 98 seconds with a 16-7 margin on the scoreboard and, best of all, in possession of the ball at the Oakland 36. Bradshaw was on the sidelines, having just been kicked in the head after skidding into a wall of Raiders, and Terry Hanratty was under orders to hand the ball off while the clock ticked away. Sure enough, Harris promptly fumbled at the Oakland 35, the Raiders recovered and, six plays later, with 17 seconds on the clock, George Blanda was kicking his longest field goal of the season, a 41-yarder, to narrow Pittsburgh's lead to 16-10. Now all Oakland had to do was recover an on-side kick and have Stabler do what Roger Staubach had done the week before—hit some receiver for the game-winning touchdown in the last seconds. The Raiders came pretty close.
January 12, 1976
Ray Guy squibbed his kickoff right at John Stallworth, the normally sure-fisted Steeler receiver who earlier had made a difficult catch of a Bradshaw bullet in the end zone for the touchdown that put Pittsburgh ahead 16-7. This time Stallworth bobbled the ball, and Oakland's Marv Hubbard, who had set up the Bradshaw-to-Stallworth touchdown with a disastrous fumble at his own 21, recovered near midfield. Seven seconds on the clock and the Oakland version of Heartbreak in Minnesota was on.
Unfortunately, Stabler could not duplicate Staubach's curtain lines. He did connect with Branch at the Pittsburgh 15—it was only their second collaboration of the game—but the clock struck 00 as Branch desperately tried to get out of bounds. "One more play," said Stabler. "One more play was all we needed. Why is it that time always runs out on us?"
Those closing pyrotechnics aside, the teams spent most of the game handing each other the ball as if it were flaming, not frozen, and making headlong sprints for the propane heaters behind their benches. Pittsburgh Coach Chuck Noll attributed most of the fumbles to "the hardest hitting I've seen all season," but on one play Oakland's Pete Banaszak flat-out dropped the ball before he was hit when the Raiders were inside the Steeler 20-yard line and threatening to take a 7-3 lead in the third quarter. How did they get there? By recovering a Pittsburgh fumble, of course.
Both Bradshaw and Stabler complained of poor traction on the slick Tartan, and they frequently threw the ball behind, over and under their receivers, who wore gloves, and directly into the hands of the opposition. "We normally avoid the middle of the field and work the sidelines," said Stabler, trying to explain his two interceptions, "but the sides were all ice and our receivers couldn't move well out there."
Pittsburgh hit Oakland with a "spiritual and emotional" downer right at the start when the massive Greene removed his black cape, flexed his muscles, slapped his helmet into place and galloped onto the field. Joe had not started any of Pittsburgh's previous five games after suffering a pinched nerve in his neck and a pulled groin muscle, and he was supposed to be employed only on special occasions against the Raiders. But there he was in black-and-gold living color. "We saw Jaws on our flight from the Coast," said Oakland Coach John Madden, "and that shark reminded me of Mean Joe."
Greene was more of a mental deterrent than a physical obstacle against the Raiders. His mere presence helped the Steelers confine the Oakland running game and, in the end, to shut it off completely. "If we don't stop the Oakland run," Steeler Linebacker Jack Ham said before the game, "we all get to watch the Super Bowl on TV because Stabler will be able to pick us apart." Obviously respectful even of a half-mean Greene, Oakland ran only five plays in his and sidekick L.C. Greenwood's direction during the game, gaining a mere nine yards. "We took one side of the field completely away from them," Ham said.
While the Raiders had worried about their running problems, the Steelers occupied themselves with discussions of Oakland's Mad Stork. In the Raiders' triumph over Cincinnati the previous week, Hendricks had sacked Quarterback Ken Anderson four times and had played Ping-Pong with a number of Anderson's spirals. "According to the films," Bradshaw said, "Hendricks always lined up against the weak side and never had anyone over him. A guard or a running back should have picked him up, but they never did." Ironically, Hendricks had languished on the Oakland bench for much of the season, not starting a game until Defensive End Tony Cline's knee injury so weakened the Oakland front four that John Madden had to switch to a three-man front with four linebackers.
The Steelers appeared ecstatic as they contemplated the weaknesses of the Oakland defense—or the alleged weaknesses. "It has to be weak against the run," said Center Ray Mansfield. "All we have to do is handle the guy in the middle, the guy who plays head-up against me—Art Thorns—and we should be able to get three, four, five yards a crack against them automatically." Guard Sam Davis and Running Back Rocky Bleier were understandably more concerned about Hendricks than about Thorns, mainly because they would have to block the Stork on his anticipated charges into the Pittsburgh backfield. "You can't cut-block Hendricks because he'll step over you," Davis said, "and you can't try to charge out at him because he'll grab you with those long arms and throw you aside. You've got to mirror him, play him like a basketball player, juke with him, stay with him."
Much like Mean Joe, Hendricks never made contact with the quarterback, as Davis and the other Steeler guards, or the smaller Bleier, constantly cut him off en route. And when the Steelers ran with the ball they generally went to their strong right side, away from Hendricks on the left. The Steelers went left twice during the first half, and both times the Raiders stopped them for no gain, which was the general order of play until Pittsburgh fled to its heated clubhouse with a 3-0 lead on Gerela's 36-yard field goal early in the second quarter. "Whatever we thought we could do through the middle," Mansfield said, "Thorns wouldn't let us do it. He was all over the damn place."
For horror freaks, the third quarter rated an Oscar. Pittsburgh started it by A missing a 44-yard field goal after Stabler threw an interception to Mike Wagner, and then Hendricks blocked another Pittsburgh field-goal attempt. Oakland appeared to be the beneficiary of the game's first major break when rookie Mike Collier fumbled Ray Guy's end-over-end punt when Collier lost his footing at the Pittsburgh 16. Unbelievably, two plays later Banaszak fumbled the ball when he was in the open, and Middle Linebacker Jack Lambert pounced on the first of his three recoveries. But Pittsburgh returned the favor when Lynn Swann fumbled at midfield as George Atkinson clotheslined him and sent him to the hospital with a concussion. Following the afternoon's script, Clarence Davis fumbled right back to Lambert at the Pittsburgh 30 three plays later. At last, mercifully, the period ended.
Two plays into the final quarter, Bradshaw thought he would shake up the already shivering Raiders by sending Harris out around the left side. As Harris stepped out, Stallworth cracked back from his receiver's spot and wiped out several Raiders with a devastating block, leaving Franco head on against rookie Neal Colzie, who was starting at corner-back in place of the injured Willie Brown. "I'm not worried about Colzie's inexperience," Madden had said, "because he's already played 21 games for us this year." Colzie tried to stand Harris up by sticking his helmet into Franco's chest, but Harris disdainfully brushed him aside and barrelled down the sidelines on the 25-yard touchdown that put Pittsburgh ahead 10-0.
With his running game nullified, Stabler now went overhead and, in six plays, passed the Raiders to a touchdown. Three times he connected with Dave Casper, one of four tight ends on the Oakland roster, and each time Casper made a good catch in traffic. For the touchdown, Stabler whipped a sidearm pass from the Pittsburgh 14-yard line to Mike Siani in the end zone.
Aroused by Stabler's effort, the Raiders stopped the Steelers on their next series and forced a punt. But Marv Hubbard fumbled on Oakland's first play, Lambert recovered again and Bradshaw went to work on Colzie. On third-and-five at the Oakland 20, he sent Stall-worth at the rookie, and for an instant it appeared that Colzie would intercept the ball. But he lost his footing, tumbled to the ground, and Stallworth picked off the pass for a touchdown. Gerela then added to the day's entertainment with his dropkick act.
Thanks to Pittsburgh's continuing blunders, Oakland did end up just 15 yards from the Super Bowl, but that still spells defeat. "The only thing wrong with the Raiders," Greene said, "is that they've always been so good they've never been able to sneak up on anyone." Mansfield conceded, "Sometimes you have to feel bad for a team like that. They stopped us on the run today. They stopped us with that three-man line, even though we didn't think it was possible. And they still lost." There was, in fact, only one player in the Pittsburgh clubhouse who was close to what might be called gloating—Mel Blount, the man who had been burned by Cliff Branch a year ago but who had held the fleet little receiver to zero receptions for the first 58 minutes of this game. "I think Branch deserved at least one catch," Blount said. "Don't you?"
So Madden, confronted by failure once again, stood in the Oakland dressing room and tried to describe his feelings. "What about the turnovers, Al?" someone asked him, confusing Madden with Oakland Managing Partner Al Davis. "First of all," Madden said, "my name is John, not Al, and John thinks that it is all over. This was going to be our year, the year we finally won everything after all those years of frustration—and now it is all over. That's what John thinks."
On his way to the Pittsburgh victory celebration, some Steeler player had the final word. On the blackboard he had erased the Pittsburgh temperature—16°—and had replaced it with the Miami temperature—67°. Whatever it will be in Miami on Jan. 18, it will be warmer than it was last Sunday in Pittsburgh. "We'll be bringing our golf shoes," Mansfield said, "not our ice skates."