We're now down to the Final Four of heartbreakers in Pittsburgh Steelers' playoff history. Again, ranking these games is like ranking ice cream. There are no right and wrong opinions. At the end, our tournament will determine how BTSC Steeler Nation feels as a whole.
#4 - 1976 Season: Raiders 24 Steelers 7
While the game itself was a total flop, the situation surrounding this game was excruciating. When asked which Steelers' team was the greatest of all time, both Art Rooney and Dan Rooney proclaimed that the 1976 team was their top choice. That alone is enough testimony to put this loss among the top four playoff losses of all-time. Simply put, the 1976 Steelers' defense was the finest that I and many others have ever seen, and by far. People who never saw that team might compare total defensive numbers with other great NFL teams, but comparisons do not tell the story. The first third of the season was awful. After five games the Steelers, Super Bowl Champions mind you, looked in the mirror at a hideous 1-4 record. They had scored 108 points themselves and had given up two more than that, 110, for an average of 22 points surrendered per game.
Little did anyone know at that point that the last two thirds of the season were going to be a defensive majesty. In the middle five games, the Steelers gave up three field goals. Period. In that "middle season" the Steelers went 15 straight quarters without surrendering a single point and 21 straight quarters without giving up a touchdown. Close your eyes and imagine that today.
The final third of the season was almost as good as the middle third, if such can be fathomed. The final trimester featured another 11 consecutive quarters without giving up a single point and 12 straight stanzas without allowing a touchdown. A total of 28 points were scored against Pittsburgh over the last nine games. If you’re scoring at home, that is a meager three-point average for the final two-thirds of the season. Heading into the playoffs, that ugly first third of the season was a distant memory, replaced by recent visions of defensive lockdown not seen before in the modern NFL.
Against Baltimore in the first round of the playoffs, the final score did not dampen the spirits of Steelers’ fans. Because of those first five games, Pittsburgh had to travel in the playoffs, but it didn’t matter if it played the Colts in Baltimore, Pittsburgh or Venus. The Steelers annihilated the Colts, 40-14, in a game that wasn’t that close. Baltimore had the best offense in the league in 1976, the only team to cross the 400-point milestone (417), and it was manhandled in its own yard.
Unfortunately for Steelers, that game would signal the end of what could have been a glorious season for Pittsburgh, vying to become the first NFL team to win three consecutive Super Bowls. Both Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier were injured in that game and neither would play the next weekend in Oakland. 1976 was the year that Harris and Bleier both ran for 1,000-yard seasons, an historical gem in the NFL annals. The defense fought gallantly, but a blocked punt gave Oakland its first three points and a deflected interception of Terry Bradshaw was returned to the Steelers' one-yard line, setting up a 10-0 Oakland lead. Pittsburgh cut the lead to 10-7 after a 75-yard drive, but without Franco and Rocky controlling the clock, the Steelers’ offense could not match up against a powerful Oakland club.
When healthy these two men, both 1,000-yard rushers, led the Steelers to Super Bowl Titles
Oakland finally put together an offensive drive near the end of the first half and punched it in for a 17-7 midway advantage. An identical drive in the third quarter made the score 24-7, which is where it ended. Reggie Harrison, who scored the Steelers' lone touchdown, rushed for a paltry 44 yards to lead Pittsburgh. Harrison could not replace Harris and Bleier, and in fairness to him, that is exactly what he was asked to do. NFL teams all used two running backs in their offensive set in those days. The aging Frenchy Fuqua just didn't have it anymore, so Chuck Noll and staff spent all week in practice creating a new offense featuring a single running back, that being an inexperienced Reggie Harrison. It was an insurmountable challenge, especially against a team like the Oakland Raiders. Oakland went on to trounce the Minnesota Vikings in the Super Bowl, 32-14, something the Steelers might well have done also. Prior to learning that both Franco and Rocky would not play in that AFC Championship Game, I was never more confident, and still have not been to this day, that the Pittsburgh Steelers were destined to win an NFL title.