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Pittsburgh's going to the Super Bowl

Posted Apr 3, 2011

1974 AFC Championship Game




The AFC Championship Game on Dec. 29, 1974 was the second of that day’s television doubleheader, which only made sense since it would be played on the West Coast, in Oakland. The NFC Championship Game had the Los Angeles Rams facing the Vikings in Minnesota, a much more appropriate pick for the 1 p.m. EST slot. It was still hours before kickoff of Steelers-Raiders, but many of the players already were on site. L.C. Greenwood was stretched out on a couple of folding chairs in a hallway of Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, and he was focused on a small television set that was sitting on a shelf attached to the wall some 10 feet off the floor. A Raiders player was on the way to his own locker room and made an effort at polite conversation. “L.C., whaddya watching?”

Greenwood was matter-of-fact. “Just watching to see who we’re going to play in the Super Bowl.”

Another in a series of stories chronicling the 52 playoff games in Steelers history

*            *            *
During the opening weekend of the 1974 NFL Playoffs, the same weekend the Steelers were dispatching the Buffalo Bills in Pittsburgh, the Raiders had pulled off a dramatic win over the two-time defending champion Miami Dolphins in Oakland. The Dolphins had scored a late touchdown to take a 26-21 lead, but then Ken Stabler directed a perfect drive and capped it off with a touchdown pass in the final seconds to pull out a 28-26 win. In the early days of the Super Bowl, there were periods where teams took turns winning them, and the progression had been from Green Bay to Dallas to Miami. Everybody who watched the Raiders pull off that dramatic come-from-behind victory over the Dolphins simply assumed the torch had been passed.

“The two best teams in football played today,” said Dolphins guard Larry Little. Added Raiders coach John Madden, “When the best plays the best, anything can happen.”

A couple of time zones away, Noll was livid. He gathered his team on the Monday before the AFC Championship Game and delivered a succinct message.

Joe Greene remembered it this way: “The thing that really, really gave us the impetus and the mind-set, and gave us – as Chuck always said – the refuse-to-be-denied attitude – came on the Monday after we beat Buffalo in the first round of the playoffs in 1974. People on the outside would always hear things like the refuse-to-be-denied attitude and call it a cliché, but to us it was real. But anyway, we were sitting in the team meeting room over at Three Rivers Stadium, and Chuck said, ‘You know, the coach of the Raiders said the two best teams in football (Miami and Oakland) played yesterday, and that was the Super Bowl.’ Then he said, ‘Well, the Super Bowl is three weeks from now, and the best team in pro football is sitting right here in this room.’

“I’m telling you, I think I levitated right out of my seat when I heard that. Saying that was very un-Chuck-like, and that’s why it had so much power to it.”

Later when he met the media for his weekly news conference, Noll was no less defiant. “We always enjoy our games with Oakland because it’s a test. From what I understand, they’re the self-proclaimed best. But they still have the playoff system to determine that, I think.”

There was an intensity surrounding the Steelers as they readied themselves for their second AFC Championship Game in a three-season span, but the preparation went beyond the rah-rah to the attention to details that can be the difference in a game. Offensive line coach Dan Radakovich noticed on film that Raiders defensive tackle Art Thoms could be trap-blocked from certain defensive alignments. It was installed into the game plan by Noll.

Meanwhile, Chuck Noll seemed to have found himself as an NFL head coach. Never warm-and-fuzzy with his players, Noll could come across as cool, distant, business-like. Simply, not a people person. “We choose people on their ability to motivate themselves,” said Noll in 1974 on the eve of the playoffs. “That’s a high priority. A game like (the meaningless regular season finale vs. the Bengals) tells who wants to play badly. If it’s not important to the players, we get other people.”

But now, Noll was confident in his players, and his demeanor told them he meant it. He was all business when it was time for that, but Noll wasn’t reacting to the pressure of this situation at all. The team was going to play for the conference championship and a spot in Super Bowl IX, and even though the Steelers had been close before and lost, Noll was having fun and encouraging his players to do the same.

“This is what we’ve worked like hell for,” said Noll. “Our whole football team has learned from the experience of just being there. We’re wiser in all departments. The players know what to expect.”

The Raiders players, however, got much more than they expected.

The teams traded field goals in the first half, and the Steelers were denied a chance for a halftime lead when John Stallworth’s one-handed catch in the end zone was ruled incomplete. While fending off the coverage, Stallworth caught the ball in one hand as he toe-tapped the sideline. Even though Stallworth had complete control of the ball through the end of the play, officials ruled it incomplete because the receiver only had one hand on the ball. It was a bad call, and the Steelers knew it.

“During the course of that game – in my mind and I believe in the minds of my teammates – we were thinking that these Raiders don’t have a chance,” said Greene. “Just before halftime, John Stallworth caught a touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone with his left hand and the cornerback was holding his other arm. Stallworth somehow crossed over with his feet and stayed in bounds. The officials called him out. The amazing thing was that none of us complained about it. We all could see that it was a touchdown, but we didn’t complain about it, and when we walked off the field and through the tunnel where all the Raiders fans were lined up, we ran off with a confidence that we’re going to beat you. You have no chance. We’re going to give you that touchdown.

“I had never felt that way – ever. It all just stemmed from Chuck – the quiet, steady confidence that he had in us at that time, and that was because he had built it and he knew what was happening.”

Oakland took a 10-3 lead in the third quarter on a 38-yard pass to Cliff Branch, and Steelers defensive coordinator Bud Carson was so angry with Blount’s overall play against Branch that he pulled him from the game. Later, Blount’s absence was explained as a chance to “get him a breather.”

If there was a defining moment to this game, to this season, to the Steelers first successful run at a championship, it began with the kickoff following Branch’s go-ahead touchdown. The Steelers’ offense responded to this 10-3 deficit with a nine-play, 61-yard touchdown drive capped with an 8-yard run by Franco Harris.

The Steelers offensive line had been re-made to a degree through the techniques taught by Dan Radakovich – involving hand placement and the ways doing that properly created an advantage over the opponent – and on this drive the front five plus tight end Larry Brown began to carve huge holes in the Raiders defense. Art Thoms’ susceptibility to being trapped, which Radakovich noticed earlier in the week, began to be exploited regularly. Eight times over the course of the game, Terry Bradshaw came to the line of scrimmage and noticed the Raiders in that defense; eight times he audibled to a trap play, one of which was the tying touchdown by Harris.

With the game suddenly tied, the defense stepped up and contributed the kind of big play that had characterized this unit all season. The 1974 Steelers finished the regular season with 52 sacks and 47 takeaways – in 14 games. To put this degree of dominance in perspective: New England led the NFL in 2010 with 38 takeaways, and Steelers led in sacks with 48 – in 16 games.

Now was the time for the defense to deliver, and Jack Ham read Ken Stabler like a dime novel and intercepted a pass that he returned 24 yards to the 9-yard line. Bradshaw fired a strike to Lynn Swann and it was 17-10.

At this point, the Raiders were totally incapable of mustering anything with their running attack against the Stunt 4-3. They finished with 29 yards on 21 attempts, which meant the Steelers pass rushers were free to hunt Stabler, and a front four that combined for 29 sacks in 14 games during the regular season did exactly that.

Harris rushed for 111 yards, and Rocky Bleier added 98. The last of Stabler’s three interceptions led to a possession that ended with 21-yard touchdown by Harris that accounted for the 24-13 final.

“They beat our butts,” said Madden.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were going to the Super Bowl.

“People tended to forget about Pittsburgh with all the talk about Oakland and Miami,” said Jack Ham.

Added Greene, “I’ve been in locker rooms since that time when you get all kinds of speeches and platitudes, and they don’t mean a thing. All Chuck said was, ‘Play the way you’ve been coached.’ That’s what developed the consistency in that football team.”

Steelers

 

0

3

0

21

 

24

Raiders

 

3

0

7

3

 

13

 

TEAM

QTR

PLAY

Oak

1

Blanda 40 FG

Pit

2

Gerela 23 FG

Oak

3

Branch 38 pass from Stabler (Blanda kick)

Pit

4

Harris 8 run (Gerela kick)

Pit

4

Swann 6 pass from Bradshaw (Gerela kick)

Oak

4

Blanda 24 FG

Pit

4

Harris 21 run (Gerela kick)

 

TEAM STATISTICS

 

Pit

Oak

First Downs

20

15

Third Downs

9-16 (56%)

4-13 (31%)

Total Net Yds

305

278

Plays-Avg

67-4.6

57-4.8

Rushing Yds

224

29

Att-Avg

50-4.5

21-1.4

Passing Yds

81

249

Att/Comp/Int

17-8-1

36-9-3

Punts-Avg

4-41.0

5-43.4

Penalties-Yds

4-30

5-60

Fumbles-Lost

3-2

0-0




Previous Playoff Game Stories:

- 1972 AFC Divisional Playoff
- 1972 AFC Championship Game
1973 AFC Divisional Playoff
- 1974 AFC Divisional Playoff
- 1974 AFC Championship Game
-

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