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Memorable Steelers Games: Steelers Beat Baltimore (Colts) in the Playoffs

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BTSC writers are collaborating on a series highlighting their favorite memories involving Steelers games. Whether these are wins or losses, in this decade or the last, Steelers games mean something different to everyone. Here is an installment in that series. - nc

Unless you are a season ticket holder, and perhaps even if you are, attending a Steelers playoff game can be a pretty special event. I consider myself fortunate to be able to count as one of my life memories a divisional playoff game against the Baltimore Colts in 1976.

The opportunity was a surprise on a number of different levels. First of all, no one was expecting the Steelers to make the playoffs that year. Most had written them off after a horrendous 1-4 start and the loss of quarterback Terry Bradshaw for most of the year after Cleveland Brown defensive end Joe ‘Turkey’ Jones had driven Bradshaw’s head into the ground like a tent stake in an early season game. Rallying behind what many consider one of the great sustained defensive performances of all time and 1,000 yard rushing performances from both Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, Pittsburgh managed to crawl back into the playoff picture.

The circumstances of the team’s comeback had a particular benefit for me as well. I had been living in Philadelphia since the beginning of the 1970s and had watched the Steelers dynasty from afar. Earlier that year my brother had gotten married to a woman from Baltimore. And while he had since moved to California, I remained closely connected to my sister in law’s family. The game was to be played in Baltimore, so I called to determine if it were possible to obtain tickets to the game. I wasn’t optimistic. After all, this was a playoff game. So, you can imagine my surprise when the response to my request was; no problem. There are plenty of tickets available. How many do you need?

On a mild, sunny, Sunday morning, I made the two hour drive down I-95 to Baltimore with a friend and my fiancé. We met with four in laws at their parent’s house and then walked a mile or so to old Memorial Stadium to take in the game. To this day I have no idea why there was no greater interest among Baltimore fans. It was a great match up, at least on paper. The Colts had a solid team led by quarterback Bert Jones, like Bradshaw a brash, Louisiana kid. The Steelers were the two time defending Super Bowl Champs. As it turned out the stadium was full that day, but largely because of a phenomena that we are all familiar with today. At least a quarter of the crowd and probably more were Steelers fans.

Our seats were near the 50 yard line directly behind the Colts’ bench. So close, in fact, that we had to stand throughout the game just to see over the heads of the players at the action on the field. The perspective was one I had never experienced before and it deeply enriched how I viewed and understood the game.

Pittsburgh received the opening kickoff, run back by Rocky who was crushed and injured by the Colts’ coverage unit. Although we weren’t close enough to hear exactly what they were saying, it was clear that the Colts bench was taunting the Steelers, laughing at them. As the Steelers medical staff was ministering to Bleier, the offensive line took the field; Jon Kolb, Sam Davis, Mike Webster. I could see their faces as the glared at the Colts bench. As the old saying goes, if looks could kill. The Colts were feisty, certain that a tone had been set that would result in their dominance this afternoon.

The Steelers broke the huddle and lined up for their first play. Everyone in the stadium, and I suspect, watching on national television knew what was coming next. Steeler football. Franco to the right, or Franco up the middle, or Franco to the left, right? What actually happened seemed like a scene from a bad football movie. Bradshaw gave a play action fake and set up to pass. Although football is generally speaking, a very telegenic game, there are certain advantages to watching a game at the stadium. You can often see a play unfold in a manner that the restricted focus of a television set does not reveal. And what was unfolding at that moment in Memorial Stadium caused Colts fans to gasp in horror as Steelers fans watched in giddy disbelief. Wide receiver Frank Lewis was fleeing down the near sideline at least ten yards beyond the nearest Colt defender. Lewis was the Mike Wallace of his day; the Grambling wide out was the fastest player on the team. This is why it seemed like something out of a bad football movie, because in real life nobody ever gets that open. Bradshaw lofted a perfect pass that caught Lewis in stride. At that point it looked like a touch football game played in the backyard when you catch a pass over your eight year old cousin. Lewis, who could not have been caught if he had just a step on a defender, romped to the end zone, rotating the ball around his waist in celebration every step of the way. The competitive phase of the game was over.

However, the Steelers were in no way finished with punishing the Colts. Someone once described watching the 70s Steel Curtain defense like being at the circus when the bears were loose. The Pittsburgh front four of Dwight White, Ernie Holmes, Joe Greene and L C Greenwood were clearly intent on killing Bert Jones. I could hear them being egged on and encouraged from the Steeler bench across the way as they overwhelmed the Baltimore offensive line. The only reason that Jones survived is that he was a mobile quarterback who, though sacked and hit often, managed to avoid the ‘kill’ shots that the Steeler pass rusher were seeking to deliver. Meanwhile, back on offense, Franco was rushing for 150 yards…in the first half. They shouldn’t have messed with Rocky.

Baltimore was taking a beating in the stands as well. I don’t consider myself much of a smack talker, but I was talking smack that day; as was every other Steelers fan that I could see. The bulk of the Steelers fan contingent was located in the baseball bleachers. They were making a constant celebratory din. I don’t think I would have behaved that way if I have been in Cleveland, and certainly not in Philadelphia. But there was a pathetic passivity that characterized the Colts fans. And there was absolutely no fear on the part of the Pittsburgh fans. I usually associate playoff games as tense sort of white knuckle affairs for the most part. The stakes are so high and the games are often close throughout. But this was a butt whippin’ from the get go; the type of game you wish for but normally never get, sixty minutes of almost pure enjoyment. My fiancé who was not born in America became a Steelers fan that day. My friend who was a Philadelphian developed a secondary allegiance to Pittsburgh as well.

The final score was 41-14, and believe me the game was not nearly that close. In fact, I’m at a loss to remember how the Colts managed those two touchdowns. I am one of those who believe that this particular Steelers team was the greatest that the franchise has ever fielded. How could that be if they never earned a Lombardi? In spite of the absolute dominance exhibited in this game, the seeds of tragedy were sown that afternoon. Late in the game, Franco would suffer a rib injury. We were unaware then, but neither Franco nor Rocky would be available for the conference championship game the following week. With a backfield consisting of Bradshaw and Frenchy Fuqua, Pittsburgh would fall to the Raiders in Oakland, ending their season.

Is tragic too strong a term? A little context might help. As difficult as it might be to believe, the defending world champs went into the playoffs being viewed as a Cinderella team, so amazing and heroic was their comeback during the season. They were on the brink of being the first team to win three Super Bowls and to do so consecutively. But, not only did they lose, they lost to the Raiders.

Let me explain something to younger readers or to those who are relatively new to following this team. We have some pretty potent rivalries that are ongoing. I dislike the Ravens. I dislike the Patriots. And I don’t have much use for the Ohio teams. But in the 70s the operative word for the Oakland Raiders was HATE. The rivalry was relatively short lived, but incredibly intense and meaningful. Both teams were highly talented, breathtakingly mean and wore black as their primary colors. Doesn’t that pretty much describe Steelers/Ravens you ask? With due respect, no. Sure, there are mean folks and rough play associated with Steelers/Ravens; Ray Lewis and James Harrison (or Joey Porter), Terrell Suggs and Hines Ward. But the Raiders had Jack Tatum, a strong safety who paralyzed a man (New England WR Darryl Stingley) in a preseason game and was pretty much unapologetic for having done so. On the Pittsburgh side, in spite of the well deserved reputations for belligerence earned by the likes of Joe Greene and Jack Lambert, the most genuinely feared player was defensive tackle Ernie Holmes who once shot and wounded an Ohio State Trooper with a high powered rifle. The actions and rhetoric exchanged was such that members of the two organizations eventually ended up in court.

Nor was this just about a bunch of bullies brawling in some back alley. For five consecutive years these two teams met in the playoffs beginning with the Immaculate Reception Game. In three of those five games the winner went on to be World Champion. The only good thing about this was the fact that the two communities were separated by thousands of miles, therefore civilian casualties were kept to a minimum.

A final note on the Colt playoff game. It was around sunset when we started walking back from the stadium. After walking a couple of blocks we had to dodge fire engines rushing back toward the stadium. This being in the pre cell phone era, we were unaware of what transpired until we were able to get in front of a television set some time later. A small airplane crashed into the upper deck of Memorial Stadium not long after the conclusion of the game. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured.