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Why Super Bowl XIV was the defining moment for the 1970s Steelers

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In front of more than 103,000 fans, the Steelers defeated the Los Angeles Rams 31-19 on January 21, 1980. Here's a few facts about the final of the Steelers' four Super Bowl titles during the reign of the Empire.

"You're seeing the end of a dynasty."

35 years later, my mom still remembers my dad telling her this following the Steelers' 31-19 victory over the Rams in Super Bowl XIV. So sure was he that that would be the final Super Bowl for the '70's Steelers, my parents traveled from Columbus to Pittsburgh later that week for the victory parade, wanting to be a part of that moment for the final time.

Maybe it was seeing the decline in the aging defense. Maybe it was seeing the Steelers offense commit the most turnovers in the NFL in '79. Maybe is was witnessing the fight of the youthful Rams, who at times looked like the superior team in Super Bowl XIV. Maybe it was just my dad being my dad, who, years later, wondered why Kurt Warner didn't didn't throw the ball away earlier on the final play in order to avoid the Steelers' celebration of their sixth Lombardi.

Regardless of why or how, my dad knew Super Bowl XIV was the Steelers' swan song (no pun intended). I feel like Super Bowl XIV is the least remembered of the four Super Bowls Pittsburgh won during that six-year span, even though it was the best of the four games.

In front of a Super Bowl-record crowd of 103,985 in the Rose Bowl, the first Super Bowl played in the 1980s was expected to be nothing more than a coronation for the Steelers. They were 10.5 point favorites over the Rams, who were not given much chance to win the game despite advancing to the playoffs for the seventh straight year and being one of just two teams to beat the '78 Steelers, 10-7.

The reason the Rams were given no shot? They had limped to a 9-7 regular season record, and in the process, lost quarterback Pat Haden for the year. His replacement was 25-year-old Vince Ferragamo, who had thrown five touchdowns against 10 interceptions in his five regular season starts in '79. But he did guide Los Angeles to a 4-1 record, bolstered by a defense that featured two Youngbloods, Jack and Jim (no relation). Years before the Steelers and Giants made their historic playoff runs as high-seeded squads, the Rams shocked Dallas and Tampa Bay on the road to advance to the Super Bowl, the latter a 9-0 victory that reinforced how good the L.A. defense was that season.

If this game didn't have enough of a David vs. Goliath feel to it, Jack Youngblood played in Super Bowl XIV with a broken leg suffered weeks earler in Dallas. It would be his spirit that would fuel the Rams to a near upset of Pittsburgh that would have been surpassed only by the Jets' victory over the 19.5-point favored Colts in Super Bowl III.

The game's first half was a spirited, evenly fought battle that mirrored the intensity seen a year earlier in Pittsburgh's duel with Dallas in Super Bowl XIII. After falling behind 3-0, the Rams took a 7-3 lead after Cullen Bryant scored the first rushing touchdown permitted by a Steelers defense in Super Bowl competition. Franco Harris' short-range touchdown temporally gave Pittsburgh the lead again before the Rams booted two field goals to take a 13-10 halftime lead, with the final three points aided by a fourth and eight conversion on Ferragamo's 10-yard pass to Billy Waddy.

The Rams had momentum on both sides of the ball. While Ferragamo moved the Rams' offense with the poise of a seasoned veteran, the Steelers offense was at a stalemate. With Pittsburgh's running game nearly non-existent, Los Angeles' secondary played back in coverage, with Dave Elmendorf's interception of Terry Bradshaw setting up the final points of the first half.

Hollywood served as the perfect backdrop for the drama that ensued in the second half. Bradshaw decided to call the Rams' bluff, throwing through the secondary and hitting Lynn Swann for a balletic 47-yard touchdown pass to regain the lead.

The young Rams didn't gawk at Swann's and Pittsburgh's greatness. They responded with gusto, as Ferragamo fired a 50-yard pass to Waddy that set up  halfback Lawrence McCutchen's touchdown pass to Ron Smith. Pittsburgh defensive back J.T. Thomas threw his arms up in angst following the touchdown, symbolizing how the Rams seemed to have the Steelers' number at that juncture in the game.

As the once baby blue sky dimmed to darkness, it appeared the Steelers would follow suit. The Steelers running game had vanished, and by game's end, would gain just 84 yards on 37 tries. As NFL Film's narrator John Facenda eloquently said, "Terry Bradshaw still had Lynn Swann to throw to. But even that ray of reassurance faded when Swann was knocked out of the game by Pat Thomas."

With no Swann and no running game, Bradshaw forced the issue, throwing two more picks in the third quarter to preserve L.A.'s 19-17 lead heading into the fourth quarter.

A little-known fact, seen only by the Rose Bowl crowd, but captured on game film, may have been the game changer in Super Bowl XIV. At the end of the third quarter, the Rams sprinted to the other end of the field, appearing eager to finish off the victory. The Steelers stood in place on the field, watching the Rams run. Several Steelers said later that it made them mad, and inspired their play the rest of the way.

A positive heading into the final stanza was the Steelers defense, which had gained momentum by shutting down the Rams offense for the remainder of the third quarter. With Pittsburgh's defense holding its own, could Bradshaw find the answer and keep the Steelers dynasty in tact?

The Blonde Bomber's answer was an emphatic yes. Facing a third and long from his 27, Bradshaw found John Stallworth straight down the field in single coverage (NFL Films later revealed that a blown defensive assignment in the Rams secondary led to Stallworth being single-covered). Bradshaw took advantage of his mismatch and hit Stallworth in stride for a 73 yard scoring strike that gave the Steelers the lead once again.

Just as they had on three earlier occasions, the Rams quickly responded following a Steelers score. Ferragamo willed the Rams inside Pittsburgh territory against a Steelers' defense that was on their heels. But with Waddy wide open down the sideline, Ferragamo missed him and instead fired a pass to Smith down the middle. Ferragamo also did not see Jack Lambert, who anticipated the pass and picked it off inside the Steelers red zone. It was Ferragamo's first, and last, mistake of Super Bowl XIV.

You know the rest of the story, as Bradshaw hit Stallworth again (this time correctly double teamed but it mattered not) for a 45 yard catch, resulting in Franco's clinching touchdown with just minutes remaining. The 31-19 victory over the Rams was not surprising to the millions that watched the game, but the way the game played out led to Sports Illustrated calling it the greatest Super Bowl ever in its following edition.

In the end, it looked like every other Super Bowl the Steelers had won, with Bradshaw flashing the No.1 sign, Chuck Noll breaking out a victory smile, and commissioner Pete Rozelle handing Art Rooney Sr. the Vince Lombardi Trophy. But this Super Bowl was different. It took the Steelers digging deeper than they had in any other Super Bowl to gut out a  victory over a Rams team that continued to battle into the night. It took the Steelers relying on their brains, and not their brawn, the win this one. And as Joe Greene  told Sports Illustrated after the game, it took the Steelers overwhelming talent, talent the Rams couldn't match, to come through and make the critical plays when it most mattered.

The 1979 Steelers are seldom mentioned among the greatest Steelers teams. I've heard more praise about the 1976 team that lost in the AFC Championship than I have in regards to the '79 team. While I agree that this was the most mortal of Pittsburgh's four championship 70's teams, I believe that the 1979 Steelers should be cherished and remembered for it's unwavering belief in itself, even in the darkest of moments, that they were champions. That spirit was epitomized in Super Bowl XIV, which is my most cherished memory of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers.