The Pittsburgh Steelers have played in 63 Postseason Games in in their history, and they all elicit memories in Steelers fans both good and bad. In those contests, the Steelers have played in 16 AFC Championship Games and are .500 in those games with a record of 8-8 with six of those leading to Super Bowl victories. BTSC takes a look back at the entire catalog of Steelers AFC Championship Games in Part 1 of a three-part series.
Here’s a brief tale of the tape of the Steelers history in AFC Championship Games:
Home Record: 6-5
Road Record: 2-3
Points: Steelers 349, Opponents 339
Home Points: Steelers 239, Opponents 204
Away Points: Steelers 110, Opponents 135
Biggest Win Margin: 29 - Steelers 34, Oilers 5 (January 7, 1979)
Biggest Loss Margin: 19 - Patriots 36, Steelers 17 (January 22, 2017)
Closest Game: 3 - Denver Broncos 24, Pittsburgh Steelers 21 (January 11, 1998)
Overtime Games: None
Here’s a brief tale of the tape of the 1970s Steelers in AFC Championship Games:
Home Record: 3-1
Road Record: 1-1
Points: Steelers 123, Opponents 86
Home Points: Steelers 94, Opponents 49
Away Points: Steelers 31, Opponents 37
Biggest Win Margin: 29 - Pittsburgh Steelers 34, Houston Oilers 5 (January 7, 1979)
Biggest Loss Margin: 19 - Oakland Raiders 24, Pittsburgh Steelers 17 (December 26, 1976)
Closest Game: 4 - Miami Dolphins 21. Pittsburgh Steelers 17 (December 31, 1972)
Overtime Games: None
December 31, 1972 - Miami Dolphins 21, Pittsburgh Steelers 17 (1972 AFC Championship Game)
In their 40th season, the renaissance of the Pittsburgh Steelers finally showed signs of legitimacy as Art Rooney Sr.’s team put together a record of 11-3 in the fourth season of the Chuck Noll era. Making the playoffs for only the second time in franchise history (1947 being the first), the Steel City entry of the National Football League celebrated their first-ever division title and had their first winning-season since 1963.
Of course, we all know about the advancement the Steelers made a week before with a well-known play called the Immaculate Reception. Because of the NFL’s rotation of home playoff games back then, the last-second home win over Oakland gave the Men of Steel home-field advantage for the AFC Championship Game against unbeaten Miami on New Year’s Eve. The Steelers got on the board first after safety Glen Edwards intercepted Earl Morall and luck prevailed as the Steelers retained possession of two fumbles by Franco Harris and Terry Bradshaw. Brad was trying to find the end zone on a keeper, but the Dolphins nailed the Steelers QB and the ball careened out of his hands. Luckily Gerry “Moon” Mullins alertly fell on the ball in the end zone for the touchdown and a Roy Gerela kick-after made the score 7-0. There was major concern though when Bradshaw remained on the Three Rivers turf, and when he wasn’t right upon his return in the next series, forcing another exit that some speculate was a shoulder injury, but ultimately proved to be a concussion. It seemed that the Steelers were on track when L.C. Greenwood helped s field goal shut down the Dolphins offense and force a punt, but a huge play for Miami came on punter Larry Seiple’s run on a fake punt to set up an Earl Morrall to Larry Csonka touchdown toss (where he flattens Mel Blount in the process) to tie the score at 7-7. With Terry Hanratty replacing Bradshaw, the offense was stalling, but the Steel Curtain flummoxed the Dolphins attack as well for a dead-knotted score at halftime.
After intermission, Hanratty came out firing to move the Steelers down the field. But the big play was a 24-yard run play courtesy of Frenchy Fuqua that looked like it could go all the way. But the French Count slipped in the open field and was brought down at the 13. The Men of Steel ultimately had to settle for a 14-yard field goal on the drive and a 10-7 deficit for the undefeated Phins. But Don Shula’s bold decision to replace Earl Morrall at quarterback in the second half with Bob Griese, who’s injured ankle sideline him for most of the season, paid off. Initially, Joe Greene and the Steelers defense harassed No. 12 in white, but a 52-yard pass play to speedster Paul Warfield got the Dolphins down deep. It looked like the Steelers would thwart that attempt, but a timely Jack Ham interception was negated when an off-sides penalty on Dwight White was called. Jim Kiick’s touchdown run from the two gave Miami their first lead and one they would never relinquish. Hanratty was ineffective, however good enough to get Chuck Noll’s team into position for a Gerela field goal that was blocked. Jim Kiick’s second touchdown run, this time from the three, gave Shula and Co a 21-10 lead. Despite being groggy and no such thing as a concussion protocol or blue tents back then, Bradshaw returned and got the home crowd on their feet with a 12-yard pass to Al Young. Excitement was in the air as the Steel Curtain held Griese’s offense to a three-and-out. However, TB12 wasn’t right and that disallowed the offense to fire on all cylinders. An interception by linebacker Nick Buoniconti didn’t seal the deal though, as Edwards and White stuffed Czonka on a 4th and one from the Steelers 10. Another miracle wasn’t to be though, as Mike Kolen intercepted Bradshaw to end the Steelers fantastic season.
As Bradshaw trotted into the locker room, the home fans gave the blonde bomber a thoughtful ovation, just knowing deep down that this wasn’t the end, but merely a beautiful beginning for Steel City football. Win or lose, the game would become insignificant when news emerged of the tragic death of the Pirates legend Roberto Clemente in a plane crash on a humanitarian mission traumatized the city and shocked the sports world.
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December 29, 1974 - Pittsburgh Steelers 24, Oakland Raiders 13 (1974 AFC Championship Game)
It was a blissful time for the inhabitants of the City of Steel as their 11-3-1 Pittsburgh Steelers found themselves on the precipice of their first Super Bowl after winning won the AFC Central division title, and an entry in the playoffs for the third consecutive season. However, Head Coach Chuck Noll’s team first needed to vanquish an already hated rival in John Madden’s Oakland Raiders. The Raiders had fabled names such as Ken Stabler, Fred Belitnikoff, Cliff Branch, Art Shell, Gene Upshaw, Jim Otto, Bubba Smith, Phil Villapiano, George Atkinson, Jack Tatum, Otis Sistrunk, Dave Casper, Willie Brown, Dave Dalby, George Blanda, and Ray Guy. They were a team that very easily could have been the team of the decade had it not been for the upstart visitors wearing white. However, the Steelers were riled up after an impassioned pregame speech by Noll. The speech was inspired by Madden’s comment after beating Miami the week before by saying that “the NFL’s two best teams just played”.
With the stakes being a trip to New Orleans to face the Minny Vikes (who had beaten the Rams earlier in the day) in the Super Bowl on the line, both teams needed to be in top form. But it didn’t exactly start that way for the Steelers. Guy booted a 56-yarder that Lynn Swann fumbled after a 13-yard return to set up the Raiders at the Pittsburgh 28. But the staunch Steel Curtain tightened up when Glen Edwards broke up a sure first down when he rocked Cliff Branch with a monstrous hit. The ancient Blanda kicked a 40-yarder for a 3-0 lead. After starting with good field position, Bradshaw rallied the Steelers down to the Oakland three. Roy Gerela shanked a 20-yarder. The Steelers, with a good starting spot again, stalled at the six. But this time Gerela connected to tie the score.
In the second, it had appeared that the Steelers finally took the lead on a gorgeous one-handed grab in the corner of the end zone by John Stallworth. However, the rookie was ruled out of bounds. In this day and age of instant replay, it would have been overturned. Two plays later, Bradshaw threw an interception and an angry Stallworth got called for a late hit on the return. On the ensuing drive, Branch beat Mel Blount on a reception that got him down to the one. However, the legendary Otto fell trying to stop the fevered rush by Mean Joe and inadvertently tripped him. The big gain was negated by the tripping penalty and the Raiders brought out Blanda for a 38-yard attempt and a 6-3 lead. But Jack Lambert blocked it, and the halftime score was 3-3.
In the third, Rocky Bleier fumbled at his own 39 and the Raiders were in business. But Jack Ham stepped in front of a Stabler pass for a pick at the 22 to stop the Raider drive. But it amounted to nothing for Pittsburgh. The Raiders who were struggling on the ground (Clarence Davis’ four-yarder on the game’s first handoff was Oakland’s longest run of the day) went to the air. Branch beat Blount badly again on a long pass play, but it went off of his fingertips. But Stabler went to that well again and the NFL’s leader in TD catches (13) burned No. 47 again, this time holding on to the ball for a 38-yard score. 10-3 Oakland. On their next drive, the offensive line opened up holes as Bleier and Harris dominated the Raiders. On the first play of the fourth, Harris scored from eight yards out to tie the game at 10-10
The unflashy Ham was a superstar that day when he thieved interception No. 2 and rumbled to the nine. A few plays later, Bradshaw connected with Lynn Swann for a six-yard score. 17-10 Steelers. With nearly eight minutes remaining, Branch (9 catches for 186 yards) continued his stellar day with a 43-yard reception, followed by a ten. But with a fourth down from the Steeler 7, Madden sent out Blanda who hit from 24-out. It was now 17-13.
The Raiders had two more chances but couldn’t convert. With Oakland down by four and driving with 1:18 left, the Steelers gang rushed Stabler and sacked him, but J.T. Thomas was nailed for holding in the secondary. Enraged, he picked up the flag and spiked it. Today that would have definitely drawn more of a penalty. On the next play, Thomas intercepted a Stabler duck and returned it 38 yards to the Oakland 25 with one minute remaining. The game was sealed when Franco scored from 21 out two plays later.
The Steelers were carried by Franco’s 111 yards and Rocky’s 98. On defense, a pair of Jacks, a Joe and a J.T, snuffed the life out of Al Davis’ team. After 41 years, Art Rooney finally found his team in the Super Bowl, and we all know what followed. It was a dynasty.
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January 4, 1976 - Pittsburgh Steelers 16, Oakland Raiders 10 (1975 AFC Championship Game)
After finally arriving as a legitimate contender and emerging victorious in Super Bowl IX, the Pittsburgh Steelers could either continue their quest to build a dynasty or prove that they were merely one-hit wonders on the top of the charts. In 1975, the black and gold finished at 12-2 and boasted one of the greatest defensive teams of all time. The Rooney Family’s franchise realized their best defensive statistics since 1946 and scored more points than any other Steelers team in their 44-year history. After winning another AFC Central crown and beating Baltimore in the divisional round, a rematch with a familiar foe stood in their way to get back to the Super Bowl.
It could get cold in Oakland, but John Madden’s Raiders we’re not really accustomed to temperatures in the teens, wind chills of -1- and playing with several inches of snow on the ground and a surface that was icy along the sidelines where the edge of the top blew off in the high winds. With a trip to Miami and Super Bowl X on the line, the Steelers-Raiders rivalry was never hotter despite the arctic air. “The ice may have been worse than the cold, especially the ice along the sidelines,” said Raiders coach John Madden. “It made it tough for our receivers, because we use them for turning and cutting and working their way back to the ball. A lot of times when we thought we had something going, we couldn’t use those things.” In a game without Joe Greene, the Steelers needed to take advantage of Joe DeNardo’s forecast.
The weather hindered both teams, in fact, the Steelers surrendered eight of the game’s 13. The carnage started early with the Raiders Jack Tatum intercepting Terry Bradshaw with the home team marching towards the end zone. In fact, Bradshaw was picked off twice by Tatum in the first quarter, the second an overthrow to Frank Lewis to set up Madden’s team. However, the Steelers defense held strong, as the Raiders were slipping and sliding, and limited the visitors to merely a 38-yard field goal attempt by George Blanda that went wide right. In the second quarter, Mike Wagner’s diving interception return of 20 yards set up the Steelers with good field position with 10;30 to go in the half. Intended receiver Marv Hubbard slammed down Wagner on the frozen synthetic turf, and No. 23 retaliated through a sea of white jerseys on the Oakland sideline. The turnover set up a true Roy Gerela field goal of 36 yards. The kick sailed through the uprights for a 3-0 lead. Oakland looked to counter, but the cold air and an even more frigid Stabler wouldn’t allow it as receivers dropped passes and Jack Ham, along with Wagner, had near interceptions for the Steelers. While the Steelers dropped balls by Bradshaw, the Raiders hung on to their theft opportunities as Lonnie Johnson picked off a deep ball to Lynn Swann at the end of the half.
In the third quarter, the defenders of the Lombardi began to assert themselves as the aggressors with Bradshaw going pick-free and the Steelers defense exerting a punishing suffocation mode on the men in white, silver and black. This was done by Ernie Homes and Andy Russell recording the first two sacks of the game for the Steelers, Jack Lambert dropping a sure pick-six, but recovering 3 Raider fumbles. The Steelers were giving the ball away themselves as Mike Collier coughed up a punt and Swann surrendered the ball after a nasty hit by Tatum relegated No. 88 to be hauled off on a stretcher.
In the fourth, Franco Harris (137 yards from scrimmage) took a handoff on a running play designed to go between the tackles, but it turned into a 44-yard touchdown when Harris bounced outside, took advantage of John Stallworth’s downfield block, and ran to paydirt on a slick sideline dash. Inspired, Stabler started looking for tight end Dave Casper for stability and finished off the drive with a 14-yard pass to Mike Siani over J.T. Thomas for the touchdown that cut the Steelers’ lead to a mere 3 points at 10-7. After a stop of the black-and-gold offense later in the quarter, the Ravens had a chance to tie or even take the lead, but Marv Hubbard ran into the Steel Curtain and the ball squirted loose for Lambert to pounce on for her third fumble recovery of the game at the Raiders 25-yard line. One play later Stallworth made a stellar catch in the back corner of the end zone. The snap for the extra point was fumbled, and the Steelers led by the score of 16-7. The Raiders were unable to move the ball on their next possession, and the game seemed to be on ice both figuratively and literally. However, Harris lost a fumble with the Steelers trying to drain the clock, putting Pittsburgh people in parkas in a petrified position. But the Steelers defense continued to dominate, forcing a fourth-and-long and Madden chooding to go for a 41-yard field goal by Blanda with :17 seconds left. After Blanda converted to make it 16-10, the Raiders made things even more uneasy when came up with the onside kick. Then, with :07 seconds left from the Oakland 48, Stabler completed a a 37-yard pass at the Steelers 15-yard line, but Mel Blount tackled Cliff Branch in bounds and the clock ran out in a game where the elements were as harrowing as each of the opposing defenses.
When asked about the conditions, Noll quipped, “You couldn’t do the things you do normally. You couldn’t play perfect football, but it was a true test. It brings out character. Nobody wants fumbles, but you have to overcome them.” Nonetheless, the Steelers were on their way to their second Super Bowl in sunny Miami and despite the temperatures, everybody in the Iron City had a warm feeling.
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December 26, 1976 - Oakland Raiders 24, Pittsburgh Steelers 7 (1976 AFC Championship Game)
In what is widely thought to be the greatest Pittsburgh Steelers team in the history of the franchise that has never won a championship, the 1976 Steelers were snake bitten by a 1-4 start and a rash of injuries all year long, before going on a roll and finishing the regular season at 10-4. Terry Bradshaw was a big name on the list after he sustained a neck injury when he was body slammed by Joe “Turkey” Jones in Cleveland, causing the Steelers QB to miss six weeks of the ‘76 season. By the time of the 1976 AFC Championship game, Bradshaw was back, but the Steelers offense was missing two 1,000-yard rushers in the form of Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier injured a week earlier against Baltimore in the divisional game. Silver and Black defense and the not the famed “Steel Curtain” of Pittsburgh. The Oakland Raiders’ defense would hold the Steelers to just seven points, while the offense racked up 24. During the opening quarter, it seemed both teams’ defenses would dictate the tempo of this AFC Championship game.
The game was dominated by defense on the first four possessions of the game, including a partially blocked Bobby Walden punt that set up the Raiders’ offense at the Steelers’ 38-yard line for a six-play fifth drive and an Errol Mann 39-yard field goal. Those would be the only points of the quarter as the Raiders led 3-0. The defensive battle continued in the second quarter as both offenses were left impotent. The black-and-gold’s second drive of the quarter ended up in disaster for the visitors and in delight for the hometown Raiders. Bradshaw dropped back to pass at his own 19 and said pass was intercepted by inside linebacker Willie Hall and returned to the 1-yard line. Clarence Davis blasted in for the game’s first touchdown three plays later for a 10-0 Raider’s advantage. Pittsburgh’s offense got in gear and looked to get on the scoreboard. Bradshaw passes, two to Lynn Swan and another to Frank Lewis, set up a three-yard touchdown run by RB Reggie Harrison. Harrison’s score would cut the Raiders’ lead to three, but it would be the last points put up by Pittsburgh in the contest. However, the next drive saw “The Snake” quarterback his team to a 14-play, 69-yard drive that featured plenty of runs and passes. When Stabler threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Warren Bankston the first-half scoring halted with the Oakland Alameda County Stadium scoreboard showing the Oakland Raiders 17 and the Pittsburgh Steelers 7.
Punts concluded the first three possessions of the second half until the Raiders behind Pete Banaszak and Mark Van Eeghen runs combined with passes from Stabler to Cliff Branch and Bankston saw the autumn wind blowing Oakland into the end zone again with Banaszak catching a TD score. After an Errol Mann extra point was successful, the game was pretty much out of hand at 24-7.
The depleted Steelers defense had no answer and fans of John Madden’s eventual Super Bowl Champs stormed the field as their Raiders upended the defending champs and, perhaps, the best Steelers’ team of the seventies, but one that wasn’t at full strength. The loss didn’t spell the end for the Steelers quest to add more championships to their resume’. It was merely the beginning of a brief hiatus that would end with two more titles just two years later.
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January 7, 1979 - Pittsburgh Steelers 34, Houston Oilers 5 (1978 AFC Championship Game)
The 1978 Steelers were a team looking to get back to the promised land that is the Super Bowl after a two-season hiatus. Chuck Noll’s crew began the campaign with seven-straight triumphs and ended their season with five-consecutive victories before climaxing the regular season at 14-2. The two games that Pittsburgh lost were to the to the Los Angeles Rams and the second-place team in their AFC Central, the Houston Oilers by a combined 10 points. Playing in the rubber match for the conference crown, Bum Phillips brought his baby blue Oilers and one of the best runners in the game in the form of Earl Campbell, from the comfort of the Houston Astrodome to a drenched and slippery Three Rivers Stadium in frigid Pittsburgh, PA.
The Oilers got the ball first and had to punt after the Steel Curtain smothered Dan Pastorini and the Oilers’ attack when Ron Johnson cut down Rich Caster to force a punt. Pittsburgh capitalized easily with Lynn Swann’s long reception and a flurry of Franco Harris runs, including a 7-yard touchdown run. After another Cliff Parsley punt, Bradshaw hooked up with Randy Grossman twice to get down to the enemy 19. This time, though, Willie Alexander stepped up when Lynn Swann fell down at the 11 and intercepted the football. However, Mel Blount picked off Dan Pastorini two plays later and returned the ball 16 yards to the Houston 25. They would add no points though, as the inconsistent Roy Gerela (12 for 26 on the season) went wide right on his 40-yard attempt. Houston would again get only two plays though, and they weren’t good as L.C. Greenwood sacked Pastorini, and then Campbell coughed-up a football and Jack Ham recovered the fumble at the Houston 17-yard line. On the very next play, the Steelers almost gave it right back when Ted Washington knocked the ball out of Franco’s mitts, but luckily an alert Gerry Mullins was there to recover. With new life, Houston came on a safety blitz and Rocky Bleier broke two initial tackles before going on a 15-yard dash to glory. After Gerela’s point after, the Steelers led 14-0 with 1:09 remaining in the first.
In the second quarter, a bad pass interference call on Mel Blount gave Houston a 1st and goal at the 4. But the Steel Curtain hunkered down and a Toni Fritsch 19-yard field goal was all that would come out of it to make the score 14–3. Bradshaw would move his offense all the way inside the 10 at the Houston 7, but his second interception landed in the grasp of Greg Stemrick. The Oilers couldn’t put anything positive together though, and Pittsburgh finally got back to their scoring ways by putting 17 points on the scoreboard during the last :48 of the second quarter. First, Ronnie Coleman lost a fumble, and Bradshaw connected with Swann for a 29-yard touchdown reception and a bigger lead at 21-3. On the ensuing kickoff, Johnnie Dirden fumbled the ensuing kickoff with Rick Moser recovering, which led to John Stallworth’s 17-yard touchdown grab. After the Oilers got the ball back, Coleman fumbled again with Steve Furness recovering this time. To follow, Roy Gerela kicked a 37-yard field goal to increase the Steelers’ lead to 31–3 at intermission.
Things got even worse for the Houston Oilers after halftime as they turned over the ball four times in their six second-half possessions. First, Jack Ham intercepted Pastorini at the Oiler 15, setting up a 27-yarder by Gerela for a 34-3 drubbing. After another Parsley punt, the weather continued to make ball protection a problem as Bradshaw fumbled the ball away at his own 19. But Pastorini, in great position to get into the end zone, threw an interception into the end zone that Donnie Shell would apprehend at the 1⁄2 yard line. The turnover was good, but Ted Washington’s safety by tackling Rocky Bleier in the end zone with 3:47 left in the third quarter made the score 34-5. The free kick brought the white, baby blue-and-red got in the red zone, but Pastorini threw up a prayer on 4th and 8 and rookie Ron Johnson intercepted to give the ball back to the black and gold.
Early in the fourth, Gerela came up short on a field goal from 40-out, but the Steelers got the ball upon another interception, this time by Lore Toews to seal it. The Steelers dominated the Oilers by forcing nine turnovers, sacking Pastorini four times and only allowing five points. The Steelers went back to the Super Bowl and beat Dallas 35-31 for their third title in five seasons.
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January 7, 1980 - Pittsburgh Steelers 27, Houston Oilers 13 (1979 AFC Championship Game)
Sporting merely a record of 12-4, the Pittsburgh Steelers of 1979 were thought to have taken a step back from 14-2 the previous season and losing head-to-head to the San Diego Chargers helped support that misconception. However, the three-time champs were a scoring machine that led the NFL in points, while ranking 5th in points allowed overall. But most-impressive about these Heroes in Hypocycloids was the fact that Chuck Noll and the Rooney Family put together a team featuring players that never suited-up for another franchise. Yes, the complete home-grown Steelers featured 40 original draft picks and six free agents out of college. After defeating the Miami Dolphins, the week before in the AFC Divisional Game, and the Chargers getting upset at home by Houston, the Steelers welcomed the always dangerous Oilers into Three Rivers for a second-straight AFC Championship matchup and an all-access pass to appear in Super Bowl XIV as a feature performer.
Houston came into the title game with the seventh-ranked defense and the most takeaways in the NFL. That seemed to potentially bode well for the Oilers against the team that gave the ball away a league leading 52 times. Leading the takeaway charge for Houston was Safety Mike Reinfeldt with twelve interceptions to lead the NFL in 1979 and Vernon Perry, who was the defensive star the week before in San Diego with four interceptions and a field goal block that he returned 57 yards before being tackled by the holder. But the defending champs still had three Lombardi Trophies on their resumé and were hosting a dome team on a frozen field in 22-degree weather. Even Pirate World Series MVP Willie Stargell was on hand for this one.
The Steelers won the opening kickoff and elected to receive. The black-and-gold were in Oiler territory almost immediately, courtesy of Terry Bradshaw passes to John Stallworth and runs by Franco Harris. However, Vernon Perry wasn’t done yet and intercepted a Bradshaw pass to Bennie Cunningham from the Oiler 36 and returned it 75 yards for the touchdown. Two-and-a-half minutes in, Bum Phillips’ team led 7-0. After the Steelers punted later in the quarter, Dan Pastorini and the Oilers took the field for their first drive of the game. However, the league’s leading rusher, Earl Campbell, was stopped for 2 yards on two carries and LC Greenwood sacked Pastorini to force a punt. Behind a timely pass to Swann and a scramble on third and 14 from Bradshaw for 25 yards, Pittsburgh was threatening deep in Oiler territory. The drive stalled at the Houston four. Matt Bahr hits from 21 and the Steelers cut the lead to 7-3. The Oilers began to storm back with a 72-yard drive though. Behind a 45-yard screen pass reception for Tim Wilson and Pastorini connecting with Ronnie Coleman for 32 yards, Houston was driving at the Steeler 16 at quarter’s end. The Steel Curtain stiffened once more and Austrian Tony Fritsch added a 27-yard field goal to extend the Houston advantage to 10-3.
Bradshaw and the top-scoring offense of 1979 got back to business on the next drive at their own 33. The “Blonde Bomber” tore up the Houston defense with swift passes to Bleier, Harris and twice to Swann with 9:55 remaining in the first half. Bennie Cunningham caught a pass from No. 12 over Vernon Perry for a 16-yard touchdown and a 10-10 tie. On their next possession, Houston was driving despite Earl Campbell‘s (15 yards on 17 carries the entire game) inability to get going. Pastorini was connecting with Mike Renfro. But No. 82 was changing hands and fumbled at his own 49 after being hit by Donnie Shell with Mel Blount recovering. To follow, great running by Bleier and Harris on trap blocks by Gerry Mullins (subbing for Steve Courson) set up a Bradshaw touchdown pass to John Stallworth from 20 out with 2:35 remaining in the half. Houston tried to answer, but rookie Dwayne Woodruff intercepted Pastorini at the Pittsburgh 45, and Matt Bahr missed a 46-yard field goal to close out the half.
Down 17-10, The Oilers got the football to start the second half and an opportunity to tie the score. The problem though was that George Perles’ defense was a picture of absolute dominance, as they forced a Cliff Parsley punt. This was temporarily good news for both squads as Theo Bell slipped trying to field the ball at his own 38 and the pigskin squirted into Houston’s hands at the Steeler 42. But once again, Houston squandered their best field position of the day. For a short time in this game, Houston lost communication in their headsets. So, the Steelers had theirs disconnected and both teams had to use hand signals temporarily. After another Steeler punt, Pastorini lined up under center with good field position again in an attempt to tie. He was walloped by LC Greenwood and left for a play and came back less than 100%. The Three Rivers crowd then came in to play on 4th and 2 from the Steeler 37 and what appeared to be a first down was nullified when Houston failed to get the snap off in time. Cue Parsley to punt again. On a drive which Mike Renfro recovered a fumble in the vicinity of five Pittsburgh defenders, drew Mel Blount into a chuck penalty and caught a key first down, the second-year man from TCU was involved in one of the most controversial calls in Title Game history. With 1:30 left in the third, Pastorini threw a six-yard rainbow to Renfro for an apparent touchdown in the corner of the end zone over Ron Johnson. The replay showed that Renfro had clear control of the ball with his left foot down and his right foot hitting the pylon. NFL Films much later showed some movement in Renfro’s hands. If instant replay was in effect, the call on the field very well could have been reversed and Pittsburgh fans would have been hard pressed to argue it. (It was much more borderline than what first appeared on NBC television.) The officials conferred and referee Jim Tunney ruled it out of bounds. Houston was livid. Steeler fans accepted the gift. It was now second down and goal from the six and the Steeler defense held the Oilers to a field goal. It was 17-13 at the end of the third.
In the fourth quarter, the Steelers iced it. It started on third and 20 when Bradshaw found a sliding Swann for a first down. After a five-minute, clock-draining drive, Matt Bahr kicked a 39-yard field goal. It was still only a touchdown lead. Pittsburgh 20 and Houston 13 was prominently displayed on the Three Rivers’ scoreboard. With Houston nearing desperation mode, the irrepressible Pastorini began to engineer a game-tying drive at his own 11 with 9:42 remaining. But after No. 7 in white found Guido Merkens over the middle, disaster struck for the cause known as Love Ya Blue. Mel Blount jarred Merkens and Donnie Shell recovered at the Houston 45 with 5:46 left in regulation. Bradshaw, only needing to get his team in field goal range for the victory, went for the kill shot. Rocky Bleier caught and ran for two first downs while the precious seconds ticked away. Then, on third and goal from the five, Bleier took the hand off and burst into the end zone with less than a minute remaining.
In their sixth AFC Championship appearance in eight seasons, Chuck Noll’s Steelers triumphed in what is still labeled as controversial fashion. However, as unfortunate as the Renfro play was, Pastorini claimed after the game that it was not the sole reason that his team lost. What a lot of people forget is that the play occurred in the third quarter and that Houston had other opportunities to reclaim the four points lost in the 27-13 final and failed to do so. In the end, the Steelers were conference champions once again and went on to Pasadena to win 31-19 in a tough game over the Los Angeles Rams for their fourth title in six seasons.
To watch the full game, click HERE