"It's the same for both teams."
Al Davis didn't buy commissioner Pete Rozelle's attempt to soothe his anger for a second.
Legend has it that the tarp that covered the Three Rivers Stadium turf leaked the night before the game. Coincidentally, it rained that night, and the rain that seeped through the tarp froze into ice by the following morning. While the entire field was compromised, the worst part of the field was outside of the hash marks. The iced sidelines made for a treacherous day for wide receivers in regards to not only being productive, but staying safe against the physical defensive backs of the Steelers and Raiders.
While the iced sidelines and 18 degree weather neutralized both teams passing attacks, Davis and the Raiders always felt that the Steelers purposely froze the field to stonewall Oakland's vertical passing attack, led by quarterback Ken Stabler and receivers Cliff Branch and Fred Biletnikoff. Branch had victimized Pittsburgh a year earlier in the AFC Championship in Oakland, hauling in nine passes for 186 and a touchdown that saw him beat Hall of Fame defensive back Mel Blount.
The ice, and the Steelers defense, held Oakland's passing game in check. Stabler suffered through an 18-of-42 passing day that included two picks, both compliments of Steelers safety Mike Wagner. Branch was held to two catches for 56 yards.
"Every time I'd take off, I'd slip," Branch said at the time to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "The coverage wasn't a problem. It was the field."
The field wasn't as big of a problem for Steelers receiver Lynn Swann. The Raiders vicious secondary was, led by Jack Tatum and George Atkinson. It was Atkinson's forearm to Swann's head that knocked No.88 out of the game, leading to the iconic scene of Joe Greene, bad arm and all, trying to carry the unconscious Swann off the field.
Ironically, it would be another Steelers wide receiver that would deliver the critical blow. With the Steelers ahead 3-0 in the fourth quarter, John Stallworth took out two Raiders that freed up Franco Harris on his 25 yard touchdown run. After Oakland trimmed the deficit to 10-7, Stallworth pulled down a 20 yard touchdown pass from Terry Bradshaw that appeared to put the game on ice.
"The elements were the big factor," Bradshaw told the Post-Gazette following the game. "It was slippery, and we were frozen. I was losing the feeling in my fingers."
Despite the nine point deficit and the horrid conditions, the Raiders battled back. As the late Dwight White said years later, "You never went to bed early during a Raiders game."
After kicking a field goal to inch closer, Oakland got one last chance at victory with seconds remaining. But Stabler's 37-yard pass to Branch on the game's final play fell 15 yards shy of the end zone.
The contest, a hockey game in cleats, featured 12 turnovers, 12 punts, and bad feelings from the Raiders that continues to this day. Nearly 40 years later, the question still lingers whether or not the Steelers intentionally froze the field prior to the game. If the Steelers did indeed freeze the field, would it have been poetic justice? We're talking about the Raiders after all, the team that played with hard molded casts as pads (and would wear the same colored pads as their jerseys-as coach John Madden revealed years later-so that the referees couldn't see their linemen holding) and, per former Raiders linebacker Matt Millen, the team motto was: "Rule No.1, cheating is encouraged. Rule No.2, see Rule No.1"
For the record, I don't think Pittsburgh iced the field intentionally. The Steelers, a proud team led by Joe Greene and Andy Russell, wouldn't have wanted any advantages other than the ones possessed by their superior talent over an opponent. They wouldn't have stooped to the Raiders' putrid level of sportsmanship. The Steelers were good enough to win on their own and without gimmicks, and showed it in that game throughout the decade.
Unlike the Patriots' most recent scandal (which the NFL confirmed Wednesday that the Patriots did indeed cheat by deflating 11 of their 12 game balls), we may never know the truth of what occurred on that cold Saturday night in Pittsburgh. We do know what happened the next day, and fortunately for Steelers fans, the 16-10 victory was just another chapter on the way to football immortality.