For longer than any of the current members of the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers have been alive, the NFL has been playing a 16-game regular season schedule. All this is about to change this upcoming season as the 17th game was officially added in March and reflected in the recently released schedule . Before we know it, it will feel as natural as a 16-game season even though the different number of home and away games seems absurd at this time.
Since 1978, the NFL has used the 16-game regular season schedule with the exception of 1982 and 1987 which were shortened due to labor disputes. The strike-shortened season of 1982 had NFL teams only playing nine games while 1987 still had teams playing 15 games. While these two season stand out for extenuating circumstances, it’s not that the NFL intentionally changed the number of games.
For those of us who were alive in 1978 (which happens to be the year of my birth), it was a very special season for the Pittsburgh Steelers. After winning back-to-back Super Bowls in 1974 at 1975, the Steelers started 1-4 in 1976 before rolling off nine straight wins to end the season. After stomping on the Baltimore Colts in the divisional round of the playoffs, the Steelers fell 24-7 in Oakland to the Raiders, the team the Steelers opened their season with a three-point loss. In 1977 the Steelers ended their five-year streak of double-digit regular season wins, a feat much more impressive with only 14 games being played at the time, and were bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the Denver Broncos.
With the expanded regular season in 1978, the NFL began its season two weeks earlier on Labor Day weekend. Rather than push back the end of the season like the NFL is doing in 2021, they moved up the start date and kept the Super Bowl in the middle of January.
Even if you are a younger Steelers fan, knowing how the Steelers started in 1978 was something spoken of regularly last season. With the Pittsburgh Steelers starting the 2020 season with 11 straight wins, they broke their previous record of seven straight wins in 1978. It wasn’t until Week 8 of 1978 when the Steelers fell 24-17 to the Houston Oilers where they have their first defeat of the season. Unlike the 2020 Steelers, the 1978 Steelers followed up their first loss with two straight wins before dropping a 10-7 defeat in Los Angeles to the Rams. But it didn’t slow the Steelers down as they rattled off five straight wins to end the regular season with a 14-2 record.
It was only the second time in NFL history a team had achieved 14 wins during the regular season. The only other time was in 1972 when the Miami Dolphins went undefeated with a 14–0 record on their way to a Super Bowl VII victory. But even with the season expanded to 16 games, the Steelers and Dolphins stood alone with 14 regular season wins until 1983 when the Washington Redskins followed up their Super Bowl victory the previous year with a 14-2 record.
Getting back to the 1978 Steelers, they rolled through their first two playoff games putting up more than 30 points and surrendering no more than 10 in each contest. Playing the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII at the Orange Bowl, the Steelers fell behind 14–7 in the second quarter when the Cowboys returned a fumble 37 yards for a touchdown. Adding two touchdowns of their own before the half, the Steelers didn’t look back from their 21-14 halftime lead as they jumped out to a 35-17 advantage before giving up two late touchdowns but ultimately securing the 35-31 victory.
After a wonderful stroll down memory lane, the whole point is the only team to win the Super Bowl following an expansion of the number of regular season games is the Pittsburgh Steelers. And while the 2021 Steelers’ team has plenty of obstacles to overcome as they seek a seventh Lombardi trophy, perhaps they can find magic yet again to bring home a championship in the first year of an expanded regular season.