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Steelers Throwback Thursday: An improbable L.A. story

BTSC harkens back to a time when a young, 8-7 club needed to beat the defending champs in their own yard to make the playoffs.

Louis Lipps carries Photo by Tony Duffy/Getty Images

Christmastime as a Steelers fan when the team had playoff aspirations was always a cool time for me as a young Steelers fanatic-in-training. That’s why the BTSC Delorean time circuits are set to a period when Madonna was crawling her way to the top of the charts in a wedding dress with “Like A Virgin”, Beverly Hills Cop and Eddie Murphy were sticking bananas in the tailpipes of the competition, we were a few days away from the Bernie Getz incident on a New York subway that brought the word vigilante to the forefront of the national lexicon, and NBC was about to air a Christmas special called “A Christmas Dream” that same night starring the incomparable Emmanuel Lewis and the immortal Mr. T. Now that’s entertainment.

Equally as entertaining, and as much of a head-scratcher, were the 1984 Pittsburgh Steelers, who were up-and-down all season. They had, however, won two of their last three and were playing much better football, despite a very young team and a patchwork offensive line featuring the likes of Pete Ruscosky, Blake Wingle, Randy Rasmussen and TE Darrell Nelson. But stalwarts of the 70s like Donnie Shell, John Stallworth and Mike Webster remained to guide the young club. Their final game of a crazy year was a do-or-die situation for a team that, much like the future trio of Beyoncé Knowles, Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams, seemed to be every bit destiny’s child.

The 11-4 defenders of the Lombardi, the Raiders, were looking for a win to seal the right to host the Wild Card Game the following week against Seattle. Either way, they were in the playoffs. On the other side of the coin, the Steelers desperately needed a win to capture the AFC Central and simply to make the postseason. Cincinnati had won big earlier in the day, so the pressure was on against a team that throttled them 38-10 in the playoffs in the very same venue less than a year before.

1983 AFC Divisional Playoffs: Pittsburgh Steelers v Los Angeles Raiders Photo by George Rose/Getty Images

In the first quarter, a steady diet of runs by Walter Abercrombie (averaging 4.3 ypc) and Frank Pollard on the ground helped the Steelers march into enemy territory on their first drive. But of course Mark Malone had to drop back to pass sometime and the results were not good. Mike Haynes picked off a ball intended for Stallworth at the ten and returned it all the way to the Steelers’ 47. A major opportunity had been wasted. But the Steelers’ defense shut Marc Wilson and the Raiders down again and took over at their own 20 after the legendary Ray Guy punted. The Steelers went back to the ground game and marched into Los Angeles real estate again. On 3rd and 8, Malone threw over the middle and found No, 82 at the 15 for a very important first down. But the drive stalled when a pass from Malone to lineman Tunch Ilkin was batted away by the Raiders’ Van McElroy. Stallworth was forced to exit with an injury and the Steelers settled for a Gary Anderson field goal. With 2:52 left in the first quarter, the Steelers’ lead was 3-0.

Pittsburgh had what appeared to be good field position following a Mike Meriwether sack. It was sack number 15.5 in 1984 for No. 57. Unfortunately, Scoop Gillespie was called for roughing the kicker on the resulting punt and the Raiders retained possession. However, the staunch Steelers’ defense held once again and the Raiders’ Hall of Fame punter came on to boot a 57-yarder that Louis Lipps returned 25 yards into Raider territory.

On the very first play of the second quarter, the Black-and-gold dodged a major bullet. Malone completed a six-yard pass to Weegie Thompson, but the ball popped loose when he was on the ground and Lester Hayes gobbled it up and took the ball all the way into the end zone for an apparent score. But Thompson was correctly ruled down and the whistle was blown, so the Steelers kept possession and averted disaster. Chuck Noll’s crew was in good position to get at least a field goal on third down from the Los Angeles 31, but Malone made a mental mistake. The Tom Selleck look-alike got trapped for a 10-yard loss when he was sacked by Rod Martin. Out of field-goal range, Craig Colquitt was brought in to punt.

Later in the second quarter, the Steelers looked like they were on the move again and approaching midfield, but a Pollard fumble thwarted that threat. The Raiders took over with good field position at the Pittsburgh 46. A questionable pass interference penalty on Dwayne Woodruff, who was covering Malcolm Barnwell, set the Raiders up at the 10. A holding call on (Bellefonte-born) TE Todd Christiansen moved the Raiders back to the 20-yard line. On the next play, Wilson came out firing and launched the ball to Dokie Williams in the left corner of the end zone. The Steelers got a gift, however, when the veteran Donnie Shell leapt and made a beautiful interception for the 42nd time in his great career. With 4:42 left in the half, the Steelers had the ball again, but Pollard fumbled the ball away again and the Raiders took over. The remainder of the half was either great defense or inept offense by both squads and a Howie Long sack of Malone concluded the half with the exciting score of 3-0 Steelers.

After the Steelers’ first series of the second half fell flat, the NBC commentators got their wish when Jim Plunkett sauntered in for the struggling Wilson amid cheers from the crowd. A hip pointer and an abdominal muscle injury had kept the long-time Raider out for nearly half of the season. Plunkett’s first drive didn’t amount to anything, though, as the Steelers’ defense continued to harass Raider quarterbacks, no matter the name on the jersey. The Steelers’ offense returned to the field for the second drive of the half and begin moving the ball both in the air and on the ground. Rich Erenberg converted a third down for 14 yards to keep the drive moving. When the drive stalled at the Los Angeles 22, Gary Anderson came in to attempt a 39-yard field goal. A sure-footed Pro Bowler in 1984, Anderson missed the kick as it sailed wide right. With 5:49 remaining in the third quarter, it was still 3-0 in favor of the Steelers. Those who took “the over” were getting nervous.

The Raiders and Plunkett seemed to come alive at that point. The two-time Super Bowl winner threw big completions to Williams and Christensen to break into Steeler territory and then some. As the rushing of Frank Hawkins got them down to the Steelers’ 21, Tom Flores’ team found themselves inches short on fourth down. Instead of going for the three points from Chris Bahr and a tie score, L.A. looked to Marcus Allen to get the first down. Allen, who found himself spinning his wheels all day against the tough Steeler defense, was stopped short by a catapulted David Little and the Silver-and-black turned the ball over on downs.

The Steelers took advantage of that strategy a few plays later. Malone threw a screen to Abercrombie. The Steelers’ top choice in 1982 rambled 59 yards after the catch and was tripped up a yard short of the end zone as the quarter ended. But they wasted no time in the fourth, as Pollard slammed it in from the one. It was 10-0 in favor of the road dogs.

Mark Malone finds a receiver Photo by Tony Duffy/Getty Images

Then something curious occurred after the next Raiders’ drive concluded with a punt. Louis Lipps, who was ten yards shy of the all-time record for punt return yardage in a single season with 656, fielded the ball and took off. But the whistle blew as it was deemed that the rookie had signaled for a fair catch. Replays showed no shred of evidence for that, but No. 83 lost his opportunity. When the next Raider drive stalled as Eric Williams sacked Plunkett, Lipps again couldn’t break the record. Guy’s next offering sailed out of bounds after traveling only 29 yards. Pittsburgh took advantage of the great field position, though, as Anderson converted a 38-yarder for a 13-0 Steeler lead with less than six minutes remaining on the clock.

The Raiders wouldn’t surrender though. After driving down the field via completions to Williams, Christensen and Hawkins from Plunkett, No. 16 found Dokie Williams in the back of the end zone over Sam Washington. If the replay rule was in force, the TD would most definitely not have counted, for Williams was clearly out of the end zone. But the score was now 13-7 with 3:04 remaining in the crucial game. Steelers Nation wasn’t only feeling hot under the collar, but said collar was feeling tight.

After a quick 3-and-out for Pittsburgh, The Raiders had the ball with 53 yards to go for a tying touchdown and a chance to win via the extra point. The Colosseum was rocking as Plunkett led his offense onto the field for what fans felt would be a sure victory. But on the very next play, the veteran quarterback was intercepted again by Shell. No. 31 had never before intercepted a Raiders QB in his illustrious 11-year career, but in less than three hours, the veteran picked-off two of them.

The Steelers had 2:30 left to protect the lead and they did just that. As the sun was fading in the December L.A. sky, it was still shining bright on the franchise and their loyal fans. Pittsburgh would get a much needed week off before traveling to Denver to face John Elway and his 13-3 Broncos. You can refer to last March in the BTSC archives to read the account of that contest. But spoiler alert...Pittsburgh won. Even though they would lose in Miami in the AFC Championship three weeks later, this was a very special holiday surprise for a very special team of whom I have fond memories.

As excited as I was, this was still a confusing time for me. At the age of 12 and at the gate of my teens, I was experiencing more and more by the day. But I had been mostly shielded from the stark reality of death. This weekend was different, though, as I had just learned about the death of one of my great-aunts that morning. Like most any family, when you grow up in an Italian and Catholic environment, you get close to a lot of members of the family. Although I’ve been to the funeral home before for viewings, I always stayed to the back. But this was more significant and, not only was I planning on going to pay my respects at the casket, I was also going to attend my first funeral the next day. My mother was quite heartbroken due to her aunt’s death, so there was a cloud over the usual Christmas anticipation and Steelers Sunday.

The improbable victory, coupled with that same win over the hated Raiders was the conversation that not only helped us heal at the viewing, but temporarily gave us relief from our collective sadness. I found myself very comfortable talking about it to my adult relatives, it helped me wade through the nervous waters I was jumping into by going up front. The game didn’t overshadow the reason we were there, it was just a joyous thing to mitigate the feelings of sorrow. It was something we all needed a lot more than Mr. T and Webster in Santa hats.