A White Christmas? Bah, humbug! In Denver they had something even better—Orange Crushmas. It took place when the town's orange-jerseyed Broncos, led by their Orange Crush defense, stunned the Pittsburgh Steelers 34-21, and when it was over some 75,000 delirious Denver fans spent Christmas Eve caroling "We're No. 1."
The victory was all the sweeter because it was the first time the Broncos had been in a playoff game in their 18-year history. This season Denver had a new coach in Red Miller and a new quarterback in Craig Morton, and the Broncos won 12 games and their first championship of any kind—the AFC West.
Denver staged this latest miracle in Mile High Stadium despite some painfully obvious—and obviously painful—Christmas presents that Gene Barth's officiating crew gave to the Steelers. Denver prevailed because the Bronco defenders were even greater Scrooges than the stingy Steelers, and because of Tiny Tim. Or rather Tiny Tom—Tom Jackson, a 5'11", 220-pound corner linebacker who recovered a fumble and intercepted two Terry Bradshaw passes to set up exactly half of the Broncos' 34 points.
Still, the Broncos needed a perfect demonstration of the style of football that carried them to their best season in order to beat a Pittsburgh team that had been in the playoffs six straight years. Two days before the game Miller outlined what he called a "team game plan," a euphemism, really, because the Broncos were counting on their defense to carry their offense. "We've played field position all year," Miller said. "That means that on offense in our territory we won't take a chance on an interception. Instead, we'll eat the ball or run on third down, then kick it over the 50 and force the other team to march."
January 2, 1978
Jackson spoke for the defense. "Our linebackers have to take good deep drops on passing plays. We want to force the Steelers to dump passes off to their backs up in front of us. Our theory of defense is that you cannot beat us for 70 yards at five or six yards a crack. Somewhere along the way you'll make a mistake."
That field-position philosophy salvaged the first half for Denver. By the end of the second quarter the Steelers had outgained the Broncos 183 yards to 44 and had held the ball for more than 20 of the game's 30 minutes. Still, the score was 14-14. Pittsburgh had marched 56 and 65 yards for scores, but in plowing up and down the field the Steelers had also made mistakes. Denver got its first touchdown on a four-play, 17-yard drive after John Schultz had blocked the first punt of his life. The second score came on a one-play, 10-yard TD burst by Otis Armstrong after Jackson returned a Franco Harris fumble 30 yards.
On the first Bronco touchdown, a seven-yard strike up the middle by rookie Rob Lytle, something happened that almost turned the halftime entertainment into a full-scale brawl. Steeler Defensive Tackle Mean Joe Greene complained to Barth's crew that Bronco Guard Paul Howard had been holding him on too many plays, but the officials offered little in the way of sympathy. Greene complained several more times; then, with less than a minute to play in the second quarter, he took matters into his own hands. Or fists. Mean Joe leveled Howard with a devastating bolo punch to the solar plexus. Astonishingly, Greene's punch escaped the eyes of only six people—the members of Barth's crew.
Two plays later Greene drew a 15-yard penalty for throwing the same sort of punch at Center Mike Montler, who Mean Joe felt was trying to retaliate on Howard's behalf. Montler politely explained that one of his hands just happened to get inside Greene's face mask in the normal course of blocking. All of which led to angry words and some shoving as the two teams headed to their locker rooms and almost brought Miller and Steeler Defensive Line Coach George Perles to blows.
The Broncos clung to their game plan in the third quarter, moving 41 yards to take a 21-14 lead. But Pittsburgh marched 61 yards to tie the score early in the fourth quarter. Denver came right back on the following series and went ahead 24-21 on a 44-yard field goal by Jim Turner. Then Jackson and the Orange Crush took charge.
First, Jackson made a leaping, one-handed interception of a Bradshaw pass and returned it to the Steeler nine-yard line. The Broncos appeared to clinch their victory on a third-down Craig Morton pass that Wide Receiver Haven Moses caught at the back of the end zone. However, Barth's crew ruled the pass incomplete, saying the ball had been tipped first by another Bronco. Jack Dolbin. A television replay once again embarrassed the officials, showing clearly that the pass had actually been deflected by Steeler Safety Glen Edwards and should have been a Denver touchdown. Instead, the Broncos had to settle for a 25-yard Turner field goal and a shaky 27-21 lead with 5:10 to play.
But no amount of official charity could save the Steelers. On Pittsburgh's next possession, Tiny Tom intercepted his second pass at midfield and returned it to the Pittsburgh 33. Jackson later described his actions. "We've been taught that if a team tries to suck us up by running a pass pattern in front of us there's probably someone running the same pattern behind us," he said. "We're better off dropping back, and then, if they throw to the short man, coming up late to make the hit. Rocky Bleier was running a pattern in front of me. I saw Bradshaw look at me, and I guess he thought I was going to bite and come up. But he never looked at Bleier so I held my ground." Bradshaw, in fact, thought he had Lynn Swann open behind Jackson, but his pass flew directly into Jackson's hands.
At that point, with 1:50 left and everyone expecting Denver to protect its lead by running out the clock, the cautious, conservative, field-position-conscious Bronco offense presented the Steelers with a surprise package. When Pittsburgh called time out after Denver ran a line plunge on first down, Morton trotted over to Miller, who calls the Bronco plays, and suggested a bomb. Miller reacted as if he'd been hit with a bomb.
"Craig had to ask me twice," Miller admitted. "But I've learned that they're the ones playing the game, and lots of times their ideas are better than ours." So while the Steelers bunched up to stop another clock-killing run, Morton unloaded a 34-yard scoring pass to Dolbin. Above the end zone stands, the scoreboard flashed over and over and over WE WANT OAKLAND, WE WANT OAKLAND.
Now that's the Crushmas spirit.