From the start, it was one huge argument for playing football under a roof. When the Cincinnati Bengals skated into their frozen Riverfront Stadium last Sunday afternoon, ready to body-check the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Penguins—err, Steelers—right out of the NFL playoffs, the temperature was 26°, the sky was almost black and snow would soon be piling up on the green AstroTurf. Even Bowie Kuhn might have been tempted to put on a topcoat.
This was a game that Cincinnati badly needed to win, and Pittsburgh had to win. If the Steelers lost, they would have five defeats and could forget about any Super hat trick in Pasadena. If the Bengals lost—well, they would have three defeats and would probably have to beat the Raiders next Monday night in Oakland in order to secure a playoff berth. So there was a certain amount of drama in the pre-game babble.
Mostly the talk centered around the belief that the very thought of the Steelers was enough to send the Bengals off a bridge, any one of those that continually lead visitors into Kentucky when they are desperately searching for their hotels in Ohio. The word was that the Steelers now had the Bengals psyched and intimidated. After all, Pittsburgh had won four straight against Cincinnati, including the 23-6 rout earlier this season that finally got the Steelers out of the blocks after they had lost four of their first five games.
That triumph launched the Steelers on a six-game winning streak; even one loss likely would have eliminated them from the playoffs by now. Complicating matters, all types of Pittsburgh heroes—Quarterback Terry Bradshaw, Wide Receiver Lynn Swann, Defensive Lineman Fats Holmes—were out of action at various times, and the Steelers even had to start a mere rookie, Mike Kruczek, at quarterback in four games. Kruczek won them all, though, simply by handing the ball off to Franco Harris or Rocky Bleier on almost every play and then getting out of their way. Not that Pittsburgh needed much offense. For 22 quarters the Steelers did not allow a touchdown.
December 6, 1976
There were various theories about what had been wrong with Pittsburgh during its four early losses. Some blamed the injuries. Others insisted it was the old "tired of winning" syndrome. Perhaps it was some bad luck catching up with a team that had enjoyed so much good luck, for fortune certainly smiles on clubs that win consecutive Super Bowls. The Steelers had to have been slightly unlucky to lose to Oakland 31-28 after leading by 14 points late in the fourth quarter. In another mysterious defeat, Pittsburgh had New England down 20-9 but gave it away 30-27. While some felt the Steelers had begun poorly because they were playing too deliberately, as if afraid to lose rather than trying to win, one club official attributed it all to overconfidence. "I think they simply thought they could win any time they felt like it," he said. In any event, the Steelers were offering no excuses. Owner Art Rooney, interrupting his attack on a cigar, said before Sunday's game, "If we're left out of it after today, we've got nobody to blame. No bad calls or bad breaks. We did it to ourselves." Then he bundled himself up to observe the confrontation.
The visibility in Riverfront Stadium was deteriorating so quickly, however, it is unlikely that Rooney or many others of the 55,142 customers ever saw little Chris Bahr kick the rumored 40-yard field goal that gave the Bengals a 3-0 lead near the end of the first quarter, just before the snow began to fall. Bahr's kick was the difference between the two teams at halftime, unless you wanted to take into account Pittsburgh's mistakes. In fact, through nearly all of three quarters, Steeler errors were far more to blame for the continuing deficit than anything the Bengals could manage to do. Pittsburgh gained a lot of yards and moved the football, which at times more nearly resembled a snowball, through the white stuff pretty well, but then something would happen to stop them and the stadium maintenance crew had to come out and scrape off the field to find out what it was. Every time the Steelers seemed ready to hold on for a score, they were victimized by an interception or a busted play or a fumble. Twice they lost the football on first down in Cincinnati territory after advancing it convincingly to that point. Another time they got real close, all the way to the Bengal 17, but an offsides penalty nullified an 11-yard gain by Harris. Next Kruczek was sacked by Coy Bacon, and then he ran a busted play. After which Roy Gerela, who had missed an earlier field-goal try from 27 yards, had his 47-yard attempt blocked by Ron Carpenter.
And thus it went until Pittsburgh finally got the break it needed in the final moments of the third quarter, the kind of break a team will get when it just possibly has the other guys psyched out. After a Pittsburgh punt, the Bengals gave the snowball to Boobie Clark on first down, and Clark coasted for seven yards. The only trouble was, when everyone stood up and brushed off the snow, a member of the Steel Curtain with the rather appropriate name of White—Dwight White—was clutching the football just inside the Cincinnati 25.
Twenty-five yards can be a long way to go when you can't stand up or see very well, particularly when the rules won't let you use a sled. But Kruczek remained upright just long enough to see Swann and hit him with a 14-yard pass to put the Steelers in the vicinity of the Bengals' 11. Then Bleier, who grew up in the snow country of Wisconsin, skied right behind Guard Sam Davis for seven yards. Bleier must have had snow-tire studs on his football shoes because he rushed for a game-high 97 yards and was the only player who didn't skid left when he wanted to turn right. Rocky's run brought the ball to the Cincinnati four. From four yards out it is usually tempting to give the ball to Harris, and that is what Kruczek did.
So Harris did the best Hamill Camel of the day, or double axel, or whatever they call those things skaters do. All these large guys were standing up and shoving and tugging, and there went Franco, drifting to his right and aiming at a huge hole his blockers had opened. He shoved off with one foot and sort of glided, and then he shoved off with the other and did a bit of ice dancing—and all of a sudden he was in the Cincinnati end zone and trying to stop himself from going on through a tunnel and out into the white-caps of the Ohio River. Gerela kicked the extra point to make the score 7-3, which was how the game ended.
As touchdowns go, it wasn't exactly a thing of beauty, or even entirely memorable, but if the Steelers do wind up in the playoffs, it will be pressed into every steel worker's scrapbook.
The Bengals were not finished, however, and later stopped Kruczek on a fourth-and-one sneak almost at their goal line. In their last two games, the Bengals had miraculously pulled off last-second victories over Houston and Kansas City when Quarterback Ken Anderson connected on desperation passes to Isaac Curtis and Bruce Coslet. After the Bengals stopped the Steelers, Anderson was faced with a second-down-and-six call at his own six. He stepped back into the end zone and lofted a bomb to Curtis at midfield. The ball disappeared in the whirling snow, and when it reappeared Curtis caught it over his shoulder in perfect stride. On a clear day Curtis may have run forever. On this day, though, he was forced out of bounds.
With 1:29 remaining in the game, Anderson moved the Bengals to a first down on the Pittsburgh 24, and if he had been able to plant his feet, he might have presented the home folks with a winning touchdown. As Pittsburgh Defensive Back Mike Wagner said, "I couldn't even see Kenny from 25 yards back. I could see his form but nothing else. When the ball was in the air, I couldn't see it until it was halfway to the receiver." But Anderson kept slipping and falling, and his four passes were incomplete.
So for now, at least, the Steelers have weathered another storm, but the odds still are not altogether in their favor. Cincinnati has a one-game lead in the AFC Central, and the Steelers suddenly find themselves at the mercy of their old chums the Oakland Raiders, of all people. Pittsburgh finishes against Tampa Bay and Houston and seems assured of a 10-4 record. But that may be good enough for the playoffs only if Oakland beats the Bengals.
Well, at least it never snows in Oakland.