There was an aura of grim inevitability to it, reminiscent of the week before the outbreak of a major war. For the fifth straight year, Pittsburgh and Oakland would be staring down the muzzles of one another's heavy artillery in a playoff game, and for the third straight year the battle would be for the American Conference championship. The Steelers-Raiders rivalry is only seven years old, but already it wears the fascination of slam-bang tradition. "I have the feeling that the game's been forgotten," worried Oakland Coach John Madden on the eve of the conflict. "It's being treated like World War III."
Little wonder. Beginning with Franco Harris' game-winning "immaculate reception" of a tipped pass back in 1972, Pittsburgh had the better of the playoff action, winning three of the four games with Oakland and going on to win the Super Bowl the past two years. Oakland, by humiliating contrast, had made the big game only once, losing to Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers nine years ago in Super Bowl II. This year. Madden swore it would be different, at least as far as the Pittsburgh game was concerned.
Last September, in the first contest of the NFL's regular season, the Raiders rallied for 17 points in the final three minutes to edge the Steelers 31-28 at Oakland. In the process, bad blood came to a boil, particularly when the Raiders' George Atkinson smashed the Steelers' Lynn Swann unconscious. Strangely, the Steelers found themselves in the playoffs thanks mainly to the Raiders, who eliminated Cincinnati in a game in which their only motive was pride. "We want to win the Super Bowl by beating the Super Bowl champs in the playoffs," said all the Raiders after that game. The Steelers, meanwhile, psyched themselves for the battle by remembering what Atkinson did to Swann. "If anything like that happens again, I'll come off the bench myself," said Joe Greene. "We can play any kind of game they want to play."
But last Sunday, playing unspectacular, indeed almost gentlemanly, football. Oakland coolly dismembered the two-time Super Bowl champs 24-7, and in the most unwarlike manifestation of all, Atkinson actually played the role of peacemaker whenever things got even lukewarm. There was not a single 15-yard penalty called in the game, a conflict that probably could have been fought in a drawing room with no harm done to the wainscoting. The closest thing to an outburst came late in the second half when the frustrated Swann had a shoving match with Oakland Free Safety Jack Tatum after taking what he considered a late hit from behind. Some war.
January 3, 1977
In a sense, Pittsburgh lost this battle when it won the previous week's skirmish against Baltimore. Franco Harris left that game in the third quarter with 132 yards and badly bruised ribs. Rocky Bleier sprained a toe and retired with minus one yard after his first and only carry against the Colts. Roy Gerela, the tiny place kicker, aggravated a groin pull. And backup Halfback John (Frenchy) Fuqua pulled a calf muscle. Of the four, only Fuqua saw action against Oakland, and he played sparingly. "Nobody feels like fighting a war without weapons," Noll said after the defeat.
Mean Joe was more direct. "There's no doubt about it," he said in the locker room, "Oakland won the game. We're a good football team, but they were better today."
Before the kickoff there was some doubt that the Raiders deserved to be playing for the AFC championship, despite a 13-1 record over the regular season, the best in the NFL this year. Their 24-21 last-seconds victory over the wildcard New England Patriots a week earlier was suspect on two counts. One was a debatable "roughing the passer" call against Patriot Tackle Sugar Bear Hamilton that kept alive the Raiders' victorious scoring drive. The other was uncalled interference by Raider Linebacker Phil Villapiano against Patriot Tight End Russ Francis that stalled a New England march and let Oakland Quarterback Ken Stabler work his closing magic.
But all doubts about the Raiders' qualifications faded in the hazy, 52° weather of Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. Toward the end of a slow-starting first quarter. Raider Hubie Ginn partially deflected a Bobby Walden punt, and this led to the game's first score—a 39-yard field goal by Errol Mann. In the second quarter. Oakland Linebacker Willie Hall intercepted a Terry Bradshaw pass that bounced off the outstretched hands of Fuqua, returning it 22 yards to the Steeler one-yard line. Clarence Davis pounded the six points home and Mann's extra point was good. So it was Oakland 10, Pittsburgh zip.
With less than 10 minutes left in the half. Bradshaw put together his only drive of the long afternoon. After missing his first six passes, he finally connected with Frank Lewis for 11 yards to the Steeler 41. Then he hit John Stallworth at the Oakland 37 and found Swann—crossing in the Atkinson danger zone, from right to left—on a pass that carried to the Raider seven. A face-mask penalty against Villapiano—he had two for the day—set up Reggie Harrison's three-yard burst into the end zone. It was Pittsburgh's only visit to that remote realm all day.
Unperturbed as usual. Stabler moved the Raiders 69 yards in 13 plays for another touchdown before the half ended, converting three critical third-down calls on the way. Oakland's 10-point bulge was back, 17-7.
During the halftime lull, students of the game pondered whether Noll would reverse his decision to keep Harris and Bleier out of the game because of their injuries. Something had to be done, and fast, as the statistics showed. Here was Oakland, the team with only a middling ground game, running for 99 yards in the first half—and against the team that can't be run against. And here was Stabler, the NFL's top passer this season, throwing only 12 passes, completing six for a minuscule 44 yards. The world was drastically out of whack.
But Harris and Bleier remained on the bench when play resumed while Stabler snaked ahead in the third quarter, hitting his mercurial deep receiver. Clifford Branch, for 28 yards on a pass that carried to the Pittsburgh 33. He then gutted it out on fourth and one with a seven-yard pitch to Tight End Warren Bankston. Five plays later, Stabler sent Pete Banaszak over the left side, past Steeler Linebacker Andy Russell, and hit him with a five-yard pass for a touchdown. It was Russell's last game after a sterling 13-year pro career, and a cruel way to send him into retirement. But Linebacker Jack Ham took partial revenge. Just as Stabler released the pass to Banaszak. Ham—blitzing past Bankston from the Snake's right—blindsided the quarterback, flattening him with bruised ribs and knocking a cap off his tooth. "I could have continued," Stabler said later, "but I couldn't throw." By this point the score was already 24-7, and Stabler was not needed any longer.
As the game wound down to its final minutes, the 53,739 spectators began to mill and gaze wonderingly at one another. Could it finally be? After nine frustrating years, the Raiders were actually going to the Super Bowl again? A crowd of longhairs swept through the stands with a banner: RAIDER MENU—SWANN SOUP, FRANCO DOG, TERRY AKI. When it ended, the fans burst onto the field, swirling and whooping to choke off a final Bradshaw-to-Swann pass, swallowing up Swann in the charge. It was the end of an era, however brief.
"Winning it the way we did was right," said Madden, shaking his head firmly. "It was right. After going 13 and 1, then 14 and 1—beating Cincinnati to get those people in here. We did it the right way. I know Franco and Rocky didn't play, but it wouldn't have made any difference."
But what happened, one wondered, to that high charge of emotion and violence that seemed to hang over the game before it got under way?
"I'd get knocked down," said Stabler, nursing his sore ribs, "and I'd tell whoever knocked me over, 'Nice play.' And then I'd complete a pass and they'd say, 'Good throw.' or whatever. They didn't come to fight, and we didn't, either."
Fullback Mark van Eeghen, the 1,000-yard rusher who picked up 66 on 22 carries against the Steelers, said, "We all had read the verbal warfare that's been in the papers all week long. I got helped off the ground one time and I helped someone myself. If Joe Greene got popped in the eye, we all made sure he knew it wasn't intentional."
For all the Raiders, though, it was a time for release and relief, after years of frustration. "I'll tell you," said Banaszak, who joined the team in 1966, "one minute I'm crying and the next I'm smiling. The last time we went to the Super Bowl, I was a little scared, to be honest about it. I saw Bart Starr on the field and wanted to trade football cards with him. This time I'm not going to be scared. I know that Minnesota's good, because if they weren't, they wouldn't be there. And they're frustrated, too, like us, after being there three times without winning it. For one of the coaches, this is going to be a very big win, the biggest."
Then the Raiders were off to celebrate. Last Sunday was Madden's 17th wedding anniversary. He said he'd take his wife Virginia anywhere she wanted to go. Like Pasadena next week.