Before the Los Angeles Raiders get carried away celebrating their 38-10 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC semifinal Sunday in the Coliseum, they should heed this bit of perspective from Matt Millen, their inside right linebacker:
"Pittsburgh played us today like they were favored by seven instead of being seven-point underdogs. Seattle will be playing like they're an underdog with nothing to lose."
Two very nasty gentlemen, Chuck Knox and Tom Catlin, must have been licking their chops.
Knox coaches the Seahawks, who'll meet L.A. for the AFC championship this Sunday. Catlin coaches the Seattle defense. This pair has never lost to the Raiders. They beat them when Knox was with the Rams and Catlin was his defensive mastermind. They beat them again when they teamed in Buffalo. And this season, when they popped up with the Seahawks, they beat them 38-36, giving Raider quarterback Jim Plunkett fits, and 34-21. That's 4-0 against the Silver and Black. Clearly they've got a good book on Al Davis' intimidators.
January 9, 1984
"Hell, no, I'm not happy we have to play Seattle," L.A. owner Davis, who was otherwise exultant, said in the locker room after the Steelers game.
"They beat you on flukes, on turnovers, the first time," a writer reminded him.
"Hey, they beat us," Davis said. "Never mind how they did it. It's a win. It counts."
On Sunday one series of downs best typified the difference between the play-it-safe Steelers and the confident Seahawks. "The Steelers got down to our six-inch line in the first quarter, and they kicked a field goal," Millen said, "like being down there was no big deal, like they were going to be down there all day. I couldn't believe that."
That decision to go for a field goal instead of the touchdown with 8:19 remaining in the first quarter was, to many observers, the game's turning point, if there can be such a thing in a blowout. Pittsburgh had marched from its 21-yard line on six plays, the most noteworthy being Cliff Stoudt's 44-yard completion to Wayne Capers. On third and one, halfback Frank Pollard looked clearly over, but referee Gene Barth ruled no TD. "I thought he'd scored," Millen said. "When the referee said he wasn't in, I said, 'Thank you.' But I figured it was 100 to one that Pollard would get it the next time, right behind [center] Mike Webster for the score."
Steeler coach Chuck Noll explained the decision to eschew the gamble this way: "Well, we scored on third down and they didn't give it to us, so I figured we'd better kick the field goal."
The Steelers never drove deep again. They were to pick up a touchdown in the third quarter when the game was already in the bag for L.A., 31-3, on a 58-yard bomb to John Stallworth. But one drive at the beginning, plus one bomb, is hardly an offense.
When the Steelers got the ball back on their own 14 with 5:36 to go in the first quarter, Stoudt tried to go to flanker Calvin Sweeney on a little turnout move from the slot position. But Raider corner-back Lester Hayes, who had faked that he was dropping back, broke for the ball, picked it off and went 18 yards for a touchdown, and the romp was on.
"Stoudt's ability to look you off a receiver is very minimal," said Hayes, who had been burned by Stoudt on the 44-yarder to Capers. "Capers gave me a good shove," Hayes said. "He shoved my head right down."
Hayes was one of the Raiders who expected to see the injured Terry Bradshaw at quarterback for the Steelers—right up until the warmups.
"I was watching them in the pregame," he said. "I saw Bradshaw throwing little lob passes when they were throwing short, but then when they started throwing longer, he was just standing around. I knew then he wasn't playing. And I realized all those 4.5-second pass routes they run were now of historic value only. Stoudt gets a little jittery after three seconds. He starts scrambling."
"Nervous, erratic, itchy to get out of the way" is how Los Angeles defensive end Lyle Alzado, who had 2½ sacks, described Stoudt. Actually, the mystery is why any of the Raiders expected Bradshaw to play at all. The Steelers were practicing right up the road in Thousand Oaks, Calif. and Davis is supposed to have a spy at every practice. But Bradshaw's arm, which was operated on for torn muscles and tendons in his right elbow last March and was reinjured last month in a victory over the New York Jets, never came around. He took no work.
The Steelers had lost the four previous games that Stoudt had started. Their offense was the worst in the NFL during that stretch. Against the Raiders, Stoudt was 10 for 20 for 187 yards, the only time in the five starts that he'd been as high as .500. The Steeler offense had no life. Stoudt was called twice for throwing a pass when he was past the line of scrimmage. Franco Harris was a nonentity—three carries for 13 yards until he picked up some "gimme" ground in the dying moments.
Marcus Allen, the Raiders' tailback, was an entity for sure. He carried 13 times for 121 yards and two touchdowns, but the play of the day was his four-yard score that made it 14-3 at the start of the second quarter. Allen took the ball from Plunkett—who would wind up with 232 yards on 21 of 34 passing with no interceptions—and followed a blocker into the right side of the line. Only he didn't so much follow as leap and then extend his body in a flat-out dive! The next thing you knew he was on the ground in the end zone. Carl Lewis would have been proud. Turn it 90 degrees and so would Greg Louganis.
On defense the Steelers looked O.K. at times, and passive at times. They made a very strange decision late in the first half, when Ray Guy punted them down to their own 12 with 1:38 to go. A 15-yard penalty was called against the Raiders, which meant Guy would have had to punt over from his own 49, but the Steelers declined it.
"It was ridiculous," Raider corner-back Mike Haynes said. "I could hear Franco and Stallworth yelling, 'What do you mean we decline it?' "
Then the Steelers punted to L.A., and with 1:02 left in the half and the ball on the Raider 30, they went into an old-style, three-man-rush prevent defense, figuring the Raiders would run the clock out. Hey, this is 1984. Teams don't do that any more. It cost them three points on a drive for a field goal, which made it 17-3 at halftime. The Raiders scored the next two times they had the ball, and the game was over.
Bradshaw, who's 35 and has to be wondering about his future, was just another spectator in a baseball cap in the almost-filled 92,000-seat Coliseum.
"This isn't the kind of team I'm used to being associated with," he said. "We had everything to gain...a championship game in Pittsburgh, a shot at the Super Bowl...and we just didn't seem to be excited about going out to play this game. We didn't play with the attitude we needed to win. You just don't go out and play like a bunch of dogs."
A vignette: Alzado was matched against left tackle Tunch Ilkin, Pittsburgh's weakest offensive lineman. Alzado's fellow defensive end, Howie Long, figured Lyle needed a boost, so during the week he dropped a quote on him from one of the local papers. "A guy told me Ilkin said, 'Alzado presents no problem,' " Long told Alzado. That was all Alzado needed. He taped a sign on his bathroom mirror: "You present no problem to me." Every morning he looked at it. By game time he was ready, and he got 2½ sacks.
"It won't be like that against Seattle," Alzado said. "They'll be ready. They'll be coming after us."