It'll be Steelers-Oilers again

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

After the 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers became the first NFL team in history to win three Super Bowls, and after doing it by defeating the team that had been the defending champions – the Dallas Cowboys – and after getting to Super Bowl XIII by crushing the Houston Oilers in the AFC Championship Game following a league-best 14-2 regular season, many looked at a star-studded roster being coached by a living legend and decided the only team capable of beating the Pittsburgh Steelers was the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In 1979, they gave it a run. Beating themselves, that is.

History shows the 1979 Steelers finished with a 12-4 regular season record, won the AFC Central Division and hosted another conference championship game, the third time in the five years since the NFL went to a merit-based system for determining homefield advantage in the playoffs. The Steelers scored more than 30 points in nine of 16 regular season games, quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw 26 touchdown passes and fullback Franco Harris scored a dozen himself. And they led the NFL with almost 400 yards of offense per game at a time when the average team was gaining a little more than 300 per game.

They also were minus-10 in turnover ratio, which is the beating themselves part.

The 1979 Steelers were somewhat schizophrenic during the regular season. Perfect at home and often still dominant, they beat the Oilers, 38-7; the Broncos, 42-7; the Redskins, 38-7; and in a game referred to at the time as Super Bowl XIII½, they handled the Cowboys, 14-3, as well.

On the road, they could be a disaster. Their first loss of the season was a four-turnover game in Philadelphia. At 5-1, they went to Cincinnati, turned the ball over nine times and lost, 34-10, to the 0-6 Bengals. They went to San Diego, turned the ball over eight times and allowed Bradshaw to be sacked four times in a 35-7 loss. Actually, Bradshaw was helping the Chargers that day, unwittingly as it turned out, by becoming predictable with his snap count. At one point, after another third down sack, Noll met Bradshaw as he was coming off the field and screamed, "Change the (bleeping) count."

Age also was becoming an issue. When the season started, Joe Greene was 33. So was L.C. Greenwood. Jack Ham was 31, and Dwight White, 30. Cornerback Mel Blount was 31, and the NFL had changed the rules on him to limit the effectiveness of his physical style. On offense, Sam Davis was 35, Rocky Bleier was 33, Jon Kolb was 32. Franco Harris was 29 and had 2,344 NFL carries on his body, including playoffs. When the playoffs began, Ham was on the injured reserve list with a dislocated ankle. Starting safety Mike Wagner, 30, also was hobbled for the start of the playoffs.

"We'll make the changes and adjustments we have to make, and we'll play with the kind of intensity we have to play with," said Greene as the postseason was to begin. "I don't believe you can use history as a measuring stick, saying that we always rise to the occasion."

The opponent in the AFC Divisional Playoff round was the Miami Dolphins, and guard Bob Kuechenberg had a definite opinion about the Steelers' place in history. The Dolphins were coming to Pittsburgh as the only team to beat the Steelers in a playoff game at Three Rivers Stadium – that having happened in the 1972 AFC Championship Game – and Kuechenberg figured doing it again would open some eyes.

"The World Football League did what the NFL could not do – stop the Dolphins," said Kuechenberg about Miami's loss of Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield to the upstart league after the 1974 season. "What would the Steelers have done if they lost Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier and Lynn Swann? I don't think they would've done too much without those three players. We lost Larry Csonka, Paul Warfield and Jim Kiick (to the WFL) and didn't get anything for them."

More from Kuechenberg: "I like to think of the Dolphins as the team of the 1970s. We went to Oakland (in 1974) and waged a war. We beat each other so bloody that Oakland had nothing left to give Pittsburgh. That particular year, Pittsburgh wasn't the best team. They were the third-best team."

When the ball was kicked off on Dec. 30, 1979, there was no doubt which was the best team on the Three Rivers Stadium turf.

On their first possession, the Steelers drove 62 yards in 13 plays for a touchdown run by Sidney Thornton; on their second, it was 62 yards in nine plays capped by a 17-yard touchdown pass to John Stallworth; on their third, it was 56 yards in six plays capped by a 20-yard pass to Lynn Swann. With the Steelers defense dealing the Dolphins consecutive three-and-outs on their first two offensive possessions, the Miami deficit got big very quickly.

It was 20-0 before the first quarter was over, and the Steelers defense had been on the field for less than two minutes of game-clock time. The Dolphins never got within double digits again and lost, 34-14.

"The most disappointing thing to us was that all game we never really challenged them," said Coach Don Shula. "We never got down to hard-nosed football in a game that means so much to us. We got dominated by Pittsburgh, and the first quarter killed us. Our defense just couldn't contain them on their first three possessions, and on our first two, it was three plays and out."

During this Divisional Round of the 1979 AFC Playoffs, there also was some scoreboard-watching, at least by Steelers fans. By defeating the Steelers in the regular season, the San Diego Chargers had earned the top seed in the AFC Playoffs based on the head-to-head tiebreaker. In that game, their pass-happy offense seemed to be a bad matchup for an injured and ailing Steelers defense, and the Chargers front four had dominated the line of scrimmage and transformed Terry Bradshaw into a turnover machine. The Chargers won, 35-7, and the play on the field had been every bit as dominant as those numbers on the scoreboard.

The Houston Oilers, 11-5 during the regular season to the Steeler5s' 12-4, entered the 1979 playoffs as a Wild Card and opened with a 13-7 win over the Denver Broncos. But in that game, All-Pro running back Earl Campbell, starting quarterback Dan Pastorini and top wide receiver Ken Burrough all had been injured. When the Oilers traveled to San Diego for the AFC Divisional Round game opposite Dolphins-Steelers, they played without Campbell and Pastorini, and with Burrough able to play only a limited role. The Oilers needed a hero, and they found one in safety Vernon Perry.

Despite not having Campbell, the Oilers rushed for 148 yards thanks to Rob Carpenter, Tim Wilson and Boobie Clark, and their defense shut down the Chargers rushing attack. Gifford Nielsen started for Pastorini and completed only 10 passes, but one of those was good for a 37-yard touchdown to Mike Renfro. With San Diego unable to run the ball, the Oilers laid in wait for Fouts' passes, and Perry intercepted four of them, and then later blocked a field goal in Houston's 17-14 victory. Despite a lot of gaudy regular season offensive statistics, the Chargers passing attack failed spectacularly in the playoffs, with five interceptions and two sacks more than negating the 333 yards Fouts posted.

And so, there would be no AFC Championship Game in San Diego. Instead, the AFC's spot in Super Bowl XIV would be determined at Three Rivers Stadium, and it would be Steelers-Oilers. Again.

"The 16 regular season games are for the fans," said Greene. "The playoffs are for us."

Dophins

0

0

7

7

14

Steelers

20

0

7

7

34

TEAM

QTR

PLAY

Pit

1

Thornton 1 run (Bahr kick)

Pit

1

Stallworth 17 pass from Bradshaw (Bahr kick)

Pit

1

Swann 20 pass from Bradshaw (Bahr kick)

Mia

3

Harris 7 pass from Griese (Von Schamann kick)

Pit

3

Bleier 1 run (Bahr kick)

Pit

4

Harris 5 run (Bahr kick)

Mia

4

Csonka 1 run (Von Schamann kick)

TEAM STATISTICS

Mia

Pit

First Downs

16

27

Third Downs

7-19 (36%)

11-14 (78%)

Total Net Yds

249

379

Plays-Avg

65-3.8

72-5.3

Rushing Yds

25

159

Att-Avg

22-1.1

40-4.0

Passing Yds

224

220

Att/Comp/Int

40-22-2

31-21-0

Punts-Avg

4-36.3

2-29.5

Penalties-Yds

4-35

8-41

Fumbles-Lost

0-0

3-3

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