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'The Road to the Super Bowl Goes Through Pittsburgh:' Bum Phillips, Numbnuts Nedney and a storied NFL rivalry

The Titans dating back to the Oilers have a rich and hateful history with the Pittsburgh Steelers. While the Steelers had the advantage back in the days of the Oilers, Houston had some excellent teams.

Ronald Martinez - Getty Images

The Houston Oilers were the only original AFL team in the AFC Central Division. When the NFL merged with the AFL, there were more NFL teams and Art Rooney and Art Modell agreed to move the Steelers and Browns into the new AFC Central Division. They received handsome payoffs for the move. Paul Brown's Cincinnati Bengals were established in 1968 as an AFL team, but with a promise that they would play in the NFC when the merger was completed. The fourth team in the division would be the Oilers.

Early on, the Oilers were weak sisters in the division. but they drafted well on the defensive side of the ball, and by 1974, Sid Gillman's second year as head coach, they developed into a quick, tough physical team.

They showed just how tough they were on December 1, 1974.
It was a very dark and overcast Sunday afternoon at Three Rivers Stadium, and the Oilers proceeded to stonewall the Steeler offense,and may have even out-physicaled the Steel Curtain. Terry Bradshaw was 6 for 20 for 61 yards, and completed only two passes to wideouts as he was busy running for his life. He was replaced by Terry Hanratty,
who was even less effective. Rat was 0 for 5 with two interceptions.

A couple of Skip Butler field goals were the margin of difference, as the Oilers bested the Steelers 16-10.

Mean Joe Greene was so furious at the offensive ineptitude that he angrily stormed out of the locker room. Must have had some effect, because the Steelers didn't lose another game for the rest of the year, and defeated the Vikings in the Super Bowl. But on that deep and dark December afternoon, they couldn't run, couldn't throw, couldn't catch, and couldn't block.

I was heading out of town on business that afternoon and I ended up hitching a ride on the Oilers' bus to the Greater Pittsburgh Airport. After the game, it started snowing big time and their flight and my flight were both delayed. Weather was bad up and down the east coast.

While waiting, we were told that the Baltimore Colts' plane had crashed and all on board were killed. There was a stricken silence, and some of the Oilers' players looked like they were going to be sick. Several others said they weren't going to get on their plane unless the weather got better.

About five minutes later, we were told that the Colts' plane crashed taking off from another airport, en route to pick up the Colts, with a crew of three on board. There was a sense of relief that swept the waiting area, but the horrible thought remained in everyone's mind that a team plane had just crashed in this storm.

1974 was Gillman's last year as head coach of the Oilers, and he was replaced by the guy who put that defense together, Oail Andrew (Bum) Phillips.

One of the most colorful and quotable characters in NFL history, Phillips once told Bob Costas the reason he took his wife on road trips was, "because she's too ugly to kiss goodbye."

Phillips once observed, "there's two kinds of coaches. Them's that's fired, and them that's gonna be fired." He also knew that the Oilers, who had become one of the NFL's top teams, had a Steel Curtain standing between them and greatness. Many observers considered the Steelers and Oilers the two best teams in the NFL.

"The road to the Super Bowl goes though Pittsburgh," Phillips said.

The rivalry was on, but for the Oilers, the road to the Super Bowl usually dead-ended in Pittsburgh.

There was some terrific hitting in the series....and I believe it was Donnie Shell whose hit on Earl Campbell is still regarded as one of the hardest hits in league history.

The game I remember most was the 34-5 romp,where the indoors cats were forced to play in 27 degree temperatures and a freezing rain. It was January 7, 1979.

"The field got wet and it got wetter," read one press report.

"The ball got slick and it got slicker."

"We got behind," said Bum Phillips. "And we got behinder."

It was the AFC Championship game, and I remember the players and the ball sliding all over the icy wet surface at TRS, and I think it was Dan Pastorini's worst nightmare. They never had to put up with weather like that inside the Astrodome.

There were a dozen fumbles, six by each team. Houston had nine turnovers. The Steelers took advantage, scoring 17 points in 48 seconds as the second half drew to a close, taking a 31-3 lead into the locker room. Houston turned the ball over four times in the six second half possessions.

Two weeks later, the Steelers beat the Cowboys in the Super Bowl.

I'm not sure if it was that game or another one where Pastorini played the entire game and had a total of one yard total offense, when you added together his passing yards and the net yards lost when he was sacked something like seven or eight times.

One yard.

Dante was a dandy and could be a helluva quarterback, but the Steelers' had number seven's number.

And there was the January, 1980 playoff game where the refs disallowed a touchdown pass to Mike Renfro. This was before the league began using instant replay to overturn calls. The replay showed feet in bounds, catch good. And for years, there were complaints about how they wuz robbed. Conspiracy and all that, you know.

Homer doesn't buy into that "replays appeared to show" crap.

The refs screwed it up. They robbed Renfro of a touchdown.
But it was in the second quarter. The Steelers scored twice after that, but the Oilers never again crossed the Pittsburgh goal line.

The Steelers won 27-13, on their way to another Lombardi Trophy.

Eventually, Bum Phillips was replaced by Jerry Glanville, and later by Jeff Fisher. And the Oilers moved out of Houston.

The rivalry faded away with realignment, when the Oilers/Titans moved out of the AFC Central, but if there's any bad blood left over, it comes from the hit that barely happened or didn't happen at all. That was the famous Numbnuts Nedney flop that didn't win an Academy Award but did get a roughing - or running into - the kicker award in overtime. With the score tied 31-31, he missed a field goal attempt that would have ended the game. But the flag gave him another chance, and he nailed his mulligan.

It ended the season for the Steelers, and Homer still can't say the kicker's last name without saying Numbnuts first.

DeWayne Washington barely grazed him, if he touched him at all, but Numbnuts did a flop that would put at Italian soccer player to shame. And if the Academy gave out an Oscar for Best Performance by a Douchbag, Ol' Numbnuts prolly would win not only that, but get a Lifetime Achievement Award.

And, of course, there was the December 21, 2008 game when LenDale White and his less overweight teammate Keith Bullock decided to desecrate the Battle Flag of Steeler Nation in Heinz Field, stomping on a Terrible Towel after using it as a snot rag or something. This, as the Titans were kicking the Steelers' behinds, 31-14.

They were about to learn a very important lesson.

The Titans lost the next weekend, and were one and done in the playoffs. And they opened the next season with five consecutive losses.

In fact, they did not win another regular season game for 314 days.

The Steelers, meanwhile, went on a winning streak of sorts.

Finally, some disc jockey or sports talk guy down there got White and Bullock to apologize, to buy a Towel, and write an apology on the Towel and send it to the Allegheny Valley School. I believe they also sent a donation to the school.

AVS publicized all this and put the towel up for auction. Somebody bid several thousand dollars for it, and the Titans won their first game of the season that week. Their apology and contrition had lifted the curse of the Towel.

That, dear friends, is what we call a teachable moment.

There are probably a dozen other games just as memorable as the ones I best remember, because the Steelers-Oilers rivalry was a great one back in the day, second only to Steelers-Raiders.

That's about it for Homer's memories of the rivalry, except to point out what Mechem says about the Oilers and Titans. We hate 'em and they stank, just like that Numbnuts guy. Damn him anyway.