Since we started this most recent reboot of Throwback Thursday in January of this year, the farthest back we ever went was December of 1983 for the original TB12’s final game. So, I decided to dial back the time circuits on my mind’s Delorean and go back to the earlier stages of the glory years of Bradshaw and the Steelers in the 1970s.
This time around, we travel back in time to the day time when Mekhi Phifer entered this world, Gerald Ford was celebrating his first Christmas as president, radio listeners were requesting Angie Baby by Helen Reddy and movie goers were going in droves to see acting stalwarts such as Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, William Holden and O.J. Simpson in the great disaster flick set in San Francisco, The Towering Inferno.
Across the bay at Oakland Alameda County Stadium, the 11-3-1 Pittsburgh Steelers were meeting up with (already) a hated rival in John Madden’s Raiders. The Raiders had fabled names such as Stabler, Belitnikoff, Branch, Shell, Upshaw, Otto, Bubba Smith, Villapiano, Atkinson, Tatum, Sistrunk 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 Chuck 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. Bobby Walden for the Steelers (wearing the No. 39) and Ray Guy were busy early on booting the ball. After their first possession that halted due to a one-handed Joe Greene sack of Stabler, 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, it would have been overturned. But there was not an instant replay rule then, even though everybody watching knew it was a true catch. 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 Johnstown’s 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 ten.
After that, my fellow Johnstowner nabbed his second pass 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 drew 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. After 41 years, Art Rooney finally found his team in the big game and we all know what followed.
The Steelers were carried by Franco’s 111 yards and Bleier’s 98. On defense, a pair of Jacks, a Joe and a J.T, snuffed the life out of Al Davis’ team,
I was told by my family that I watched that game with them, but I was a mere three years and 25 days old. I have no earthly recollection of that game (I just watched it for the first time in full, a day before this article first appeared), but I like to imagine that as I marveled from my playpen...only tears of joy fell upon my blankie.