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Steelers 'ice' Raiders for AFC title

Posted May 9, 2011

1975 AFC Championship Game



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


This was the way it was supposed to be, the way it almost had to be. This was what everybody wanted.

Pittsburgh vs. Oakland, for the 1975 AFC Championship and the right to play in Super Bowl X. These teams had played five times in the previous three seasons, three times in the playoffs. Besides Tex Schramm in Dallas and Don Shula in Miami, everybody else involved in the NFL had come to the understanding that the Steelers and the Raiders were the league’s dominant teams of the era.

The Steelers were the defending Super Bowl champions and since hiring Chuck Noll in 1969 they had gone from 1-13 milquetoasts to a team that was feared by opponents. The Steelers had made the playoffs for the fourth straight season in 1975, and they had a 5-2 record in the postseason – with one loss to the undefeated Dolphins team in 1972 and one loss to the Raiders in Oakland in 1973. The Oakland franchise had won the 1967 AFL Championship and then lost Super Bowl II in Vince Lombardi’s last game as coach of the mighty Packers, but this group of Raiders had won four straight division titles and sent the two-time defending champion Dolphins home with a 21-17 win in the 1974 AFC Divisional Playoffs.

Steelers-Raiders games were affairs where the hitting was vicious, and sometimes vicious just to be vicious, and the history between the teams just intensified everything. There was the Immaculate Reception in 1972, and the Raiders still considered that a conspiracy to commit grand larceny. The following regular season, there was a game in Oakland after which the Steelers accused the Raiders of writing obscenities on the football, greasing the jerseys of their offensive linemen and sneaking an under-inflated football onto the field when Pittsburgh was about to attempt a field goal. Then in 1974, after the Raiders had defeated the two-time defending champion Dolphins in an AFC Divisional Playoff game, there was a faction of the sporting press that automatically christened the Raiders as the heir apparent. Before that 1974 conference championship game, Chuck Noll believed he had the better team, and he had used it to motivate his team before they traveled to Oakland. One year later, he hadn’t changed his mind.

“You know, a lot of people win the Super Bowl before the season starts. My observation has always been that that’s what we play the season for,” said Noll. “Yes, I think our players are the best, but they have to prove it. I have to prove it every week. Some people have the luxury of not having to back up what they say.”

The Steelers were good enough in 1975 to be defending their championship despite the absence of some key players due to injury. When asked about Joe Greene, who didn’t play against the Colts in the AFC Divisional Round and likely would miss the game against the Raiders with groin and neck injuries, Noll said, “Fats Holmes is having a helluva season. Dwight White is. Jack Lambert. You can do two things in this situation: Say, ‘We lost Joe, so we better hang it up,’ or everybody can look for reasons to win. That’s what we do. That’s the mark of a championship club.”

Before the 1975 season, the NFL had awarded homefield advantage for the conference championship games on a rotating basis, which is why the Steelers had hosted the undefeated Miami Dolphins in the 1972 AFC Championship Game. The switch to tying homefield advantage to regular season records was not as obviously more fair to those team owners as it is today, but things wouldn’t have been different this time even if they left the rule untouched. In 1975, it was the Central’s year to host the AFC Championship, and the Steelers’ 12-2 record was the best in the conference anyway.

And so the Raiders were coming back to Pittsburgh, a city that would greet them this time with temperatures in the teens and several inches of snow on the ground. Noll was happy to talk about the weather and Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler’s nagging knee injury all at once. “He looks healthy to me,” said Noll. “We’ll see how it feels in 17-degree weather.”

Noll ended up predicting the kickoff temperature right on the button, but he apparently forgot to mention the wind chill factor of minus-10 degrees or the ice that formed when the thermometer fell to 2-degrees the night before the game.

“The ice may have been worse than the cold, especially the ice along the sidelines,” said Raiders coach John Madden after the game. “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.”

It was some time later that the Raiders would insinuate that the Steelers had created this icy situation on purpose in an effort to neuter the Oakland passing attack. The Three Rivers Stadium grounds crew had set up a system where heaters were blowing hot air underneath the tarp that covered the artificial surface field in an effort to prevent the playing surface from becoming rock-hard. But the high winds ripped the tarp overnight and created the situation where the field under the edges of the tarp became icy. Since the tarp was built to fit over the playing surface almost exactly, the ice formed primarily around the sidelines and in the back of the end zones.

The weather, the stakes and the mutual hatred combined to turn this game into a battle of attrition. The footing was treacherous, the football was slick, and the gloves available to players at the time weren’t a lot better than mittens. That, plus the way the players went at each other on every snap, led to 13 turnovers in the game, eight committed by the Steelers.

The Raiders intercepted Terry Bradshaw twice in the first quarter, but the Steelers defense rose up and allowed only a 38-yard field goal attempt, which George Blanda missed. The Raiders managed little with their running attack, and then Mike Wagner’s interception and 20-yard return in the second quarter had set up Roy Gerela’s 36-yard field goal for a 3-0 halftime lead for the Steelers. Starting with the third quarter, the Steelers and Franco Harris began to assert themselves.

With 137 yards from scrimmage in 32 clock-draining touches in the game, Harris’ performance included a bit of the special to go along with the workmanlike. One of those touches began as a simple 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 deftly navigated the same sideline the Raiders claimed was a sheet of ice.

That touchdown broke the dam. Raiders running back Clarence Davis had dropped three passes in previous third-down situations, so Stabler started looking for tight end Dave Casper to convert. Stabler finished off the drive with a 14-yard pass to Mike Siani for the touchdown that cut the Steelers’ lead to 10-7.

“This was the coldest weather I’ve ever played in,” Clarence Davis said afterward. “It gets pretty bad in Denver sometimes, but this was the worst. Your feet get cold and your fingertips get numb. There’s no way you can keep warm on the field. I warmed up with gloves but I took them off for the game. I’ve never played with gloves before.”

With Greene unable to play, middle linebacker Jack Lambert was all over the field, and his third fumble recovery of the game came at the Raiders 25-yard line. One play later Stallworth made a tough catch in the back corner of the end zone. The snap for the extra point was fumbled, and the Steelers led, 16-7. “I block because it’s my job,” said Stallworth, who was a critical component of both Steelers’ touchdowns. “It’s nothing I enjoy, like I enjoy catching passes.”

The Raiders were unable to move the ball on their next possession, but Harris lost a fumble with the Steelers trying to run out the clock, which kept the suspense alive. Faced with a fourth-and-long, Madden opted for a 41-yard field goal by Blanda with 17 seconds left. After Blanda got the ball through the uprights to make it 16-10, the Raiders came up with the onside kick. It was only when Mel Blount tackled Cliff Branch inbounds after a 37-yard catch at the Steelers 15-yard line that the clock ran out.

“Cold as hell,” said Noll. “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.”

The Steelers did, and so they were going to the Super Bowl. Again.

Raiders

 

0

0

0

10

 

10

Steelers

 

0

3

0

13

 

16

 

TEAM

QTR

PLAY

Pit

2

Gerela 36 FG

Pit

4

Harris 25 run (Gerela kick)

Oak

4

Siani 14 pass from Stabler (Blanda kick)

Pit

4

Stallworth 20 pass from Bradshaw (snap fumbled)

Oak

4

Blanda 41 FG

 

TEAM STATISTICS

 

Oak

Pit

First Downs

18

16

Third Downs

7-18 (39%)

5-13 (38%)

Total Net Yds

321

332

Plays-Avg

76-4.2

64-5.2

Rushing Yds

93

117

Att-Avg

32-2.9

39-3.0

Passing Yds

228

215

Att/Comp/Int

42-18-2

25-15-3

Punts-Avg

8-37.8

4-38.5

Penalties-Yds

4-40

3-32

Fumbles-Lost

4-3

5-5





- 1972 AFC Divisional Playoff
- 1972 AFC Championship Game
1973 AFC Divisional Playoff
- 1974 AFC Divisional Playoff
- 1974 AFC Championship Game
- Super Bowl IX
- 1975 AFC Divisional Playoffs
- 1975 AFC Champiionship Game
-