Prior to 1972, there were two things that all Pittsburgh Steelers' fans had in common. First, they had never experienced the euphoria of an NFL title. There was never a football parade in their lives where conquering heroes reached out and touched the fans who loved them. Second, there was nary an historical account of a championship that at least fans could read about. There were no victorious films of days gone by, or proud newspaper headlines, or television highlights, or books written that chronicled the glory of autumns past - nothing. There was only darkness. During Christmas of 1972, Steelers' fans received a gift two days early. That day (December 23) became the zenith of Steeler Nation's first 40 years of existence. One week later, on New Year's Eve, came the nadir.
#1 - 1972 Season: Dolphins 21 Steelers 17
This one is my champion heartbreaker. No, it was not the Super Bowl, merely the first AFC Championship Game the Pittsburgh Steelers ever played in. But consider the fact that the Steelers were coming off the high of the Immaculate Reception just one week earlier, obviously unprecedented drama in NFL annals. Consider the fact that never before had the Steelers won an NFL Championship. We diehard fans could not grab onto any history to reduce the agony. Consider also that later that very same day, what we would end up living with along with the Miami loss, our beloved Roberto Clemente died tragically in a plane crash delivering supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. Add it all up and December 31, 1972 is the most painful day in Pittsburgh sports history. And in particular, that AFC Championship loss hurt me more than any other. The record books would not allow me to visit any previous glory to numb the pain.
Having never experienced an NFL playoff victory, the Steelers finally broke through in grand style with the Immaculate Reception. They seemed to be the team of destiny. They were also a team of great defense and momentum. Pittsburgh gave up precisely 15 points total in the last four games of the regular season and then in the playoffs, high-powered Oakland could only muster a broken-play touchdown scramble by Ken Stabler.
Even though Miami was undefeated, the Dolphins traveled to Three Rivers Stadium for the AFC Championship game. In those days they rotated divisions to host the title game. Almost as if the football gods were displeased at the league's system of selecting a host city, game-time temperature in Pittsburgh, on the last day of the year, was a balmy 67 degrees. This of course, played right into Miami's comfort zone and took away all of Pittsburgh's cold-weather advantage. Go figure
Not only was the weather disappointingly beautiful, but the Immaculate Reception came with a price tag of its own. All week long the national media, already stationed in Pittsburgh, turned the play into a piñata. Statements kept streaming out of NFL headquarters in New York, while John Madden staged a whine filibuster from the west coast. The media kept pouncing on Chuck Noll, as if he could answer any of their questions. He grew increasingly agitated with the relentless rehash of the past while he and the Steelers needed to focus on the future, namely the Miami Dolphins. He finally told the media with clenched teeth, my all-time favorite Nollism, "The rule book doesn't cover the hand of God."
It may seem now that Miami was invincible since they still pat themselves on the back for being the NFL's only undefeated Super Bowl Champion. The truth is, they were very beatable and Pittsburgh should have been the team that changed NFL history. The Dolphins played the third easiest schedule in NFL history in 1972. Their opponents' composite record was 70-126, a god-awful .357 percentage.
Miami's No Name Defense kept the Dolphins in the game early
The Steelers took control of the game early. After stuffing the Dolphins and getting the crowd in a frenzy, Pittsburgh marched down the field to take a 7-0 lead. Terry Bradshaw fumbled in the end zone and an alert Gerry Mullins pounced on it. The bad news was that Bradshaw left the game with a concussion after a belt to the head, thwarting the Steelers' offense. Miami's famous "No Name Defense" had much to do with that also. The good news was that Miami's offense was being completely stifled by the newly-emerging "Steel Curtain." A Jack Ham interception was wiped out when Dwight White jumped offside, but still it looked like the Steelers would take that 7-0 lead into halftime.
Then one of the worst plays in Steelers' history occurred - a play that can never be erased from memory. Snuffed yet again, the Dolphins resorted to a fake punt to change their fortunes. It worked to perfection. Punter Larry Seiple scampered 37 yards well into Pittsburgh territory. Seiple literally ran 25 or 30 yards before any Steeler even noticed, or at least it appeared that way. Miami used its trickery to finally get on the board, when Earl Morrall hit Larry Csonka with a nine-yard touchdown pass. The two clubs were knotted at the break, each rolling a seven.
Larry Seiple's fake punt in the first half and Bob Griese's 52-yard slant pass in the second half killed us
The Steelers came out of the locker room and immediately regained their momentum. They drove to the Miami seven-yard line, but had to settle for a 14-yard Roy Gerela field goal (in 1972 the goalposts were still at the front of the end zone). Getting three instead of seven was very unsettling. The Three Rivers crowd began to sense trouble, as the score should have been much more favorable to Pittsburgh. Miami Coach Don Shula felt vibes of his own, and sent in Bob Griese to replace Earl Morrall. Griese changed the game. He needled Paul Warfield with a short slant pass across the middle that ended up covering 52 yards. Andy Russell, a guy whose career mistakes you could probably count on one hand, took responsibility for the play after the game. Jim Kiick then gave the Dolphins their first lead, 14-10. Terry Hanratty did the best he could to keep Pittsburgh in the game. The Steelers were about to get the game to within one point in the fourth quarter, when a blocked field goal reminded Steelers' fans of how things were for 40 years before the Immaculate Reception.
Griese drove the Dolphins again and Jim Kiick once again scored on a short plunge. The Steelers could not stop Miami's ground attack, which featured two 1,000-yard rushers that year (Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris). The Dolphins now led 21-10. Bradshaw came back on the field and completed four consecutive passes for 71 yards, the last of which was a 12-yard touchdown pass to Al Young. When Pittsburgh's defense forced Miami to punt, the energy of the crowd was volcanic. And then the magic ran out. Bradshaw threw two late interceptions to kill drives, either one of which would have done the trick with a touchdown. The Steelers lost 21-17. The Dolphins went on to defeat the Washington Redskins, 14-7, in the Super Bowl. George Allen's over-the-hill gang was quite beatable. The euphoria of the Immaculate Reception, our hometown baseball hero, and the thought of a first-ever championship for the Pittsburgh Steelers were all gone in the blink of an eye.