Steelers feel the weight of expectations
Another in a series of stories chronicling the 52 playoff games in Steelers history.
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The hunter had become the hunted.
In 1972, the Pittsburgh Steelers had experienced a whole bunch of franchise firsts, and come the end of the calendar year they had become the toast of the sports world. Much of that could be traced directly to the affection for Art Rooney Sr., who had gotten his first opportunity to experience some real winning with the football team he founded 40 years before. Professional sports is a cut-throat business, but nobody hated the Chief, and the men who worked for the nation's newspapers then responsible for the bulk of the sports coverage absolutely loved him.
But as the page turned to 1973, the very same people throughout the NFL who had been tickled to see Rooney's Steelers get a little taste the previous season were interested only in beating the pants off them this season. Guys like George Halas and Paul Brown and Art Modell may have sent congratulatory messages after the Immaculate Reception, but that was over. From now on, the mere appearance of the Steelers on a team's schedule got the competitive juices flowing.
This was all new to the Steelers, being the team favored to win, and learning to deal with that is a process to be learned. One season removed from the euphoria of so many franchise firsts – first division title, first home playoff game, first playoff win, first appearance in a conference championship game – the Steelers were trying to achieve another series of franchise firsts, only this time with the added pressure of expectations.
The 1973 Steelers opened the season trying to become the first team to defend a division title, the first to make the playoffs two years in a row, the first to win playoff games two years in a row. And having also come within one win of getting to the Super Bowl, the Steelers had marked themselves as a legitimate contender for a championship at a time in NFL history when the trophies were supposed to end up in Dallas or Miami or Kansas City or Minnesota.
"For the baker, it's that big pie, or that big batch of donuts. For us, it's that Super Bowl," said receiver Ron Shanklin during training camp in 1973. "We got a glimpse of it last year. Now we want to go back and see – was that what I thought I saw?"
What the Steelers showed throughout the first couple of months of the season was that their showing in 1972 had been no fluke. They opened with four straight wins, including a 33-6 trouncing of Cleveland at Three Rivers Stadium and a 36-7 thrashing of the Oilers in Houston. They lost, 17-9, in Cincinnati before reeling off three more wins, including a 20-13 payback to the Bengals. They were 7-1 and going to Oakland to meet the Raiders.
There, without starting quarterback Terry Bradshaw, the Steelers were hammered statistically but found a way to win the game, 17-9. It was all toughness and resiliency and want-to, really the stuff of a championship team. On the road, against a very talented Raiders team also smarting from being the foils every time the footage of the Immaculate Reception rolled. It seemed as though the Raiders had the football all day, but the Steelers countered with Mike Wagner recovering a fumble, and Mel Blount, Glen Edwards and Dwight White (with two) combining for four interceptions.
As the Steelers' flight from Oakland crossed back into the Eastern time zone, the team aboard was 8-1 in spite of injuries that would have reduced a lesser group to a sub-.500 season. It was a team in complete control of the AFC Central Division, a team that now had beaten the Raiders three straight times. Life was good.
Maybe too good.
The Denver Broncos (4-3-2) were due in Pittsburgh the following Sunday, and Terry Hanratty had been around pro football long enough to see it coming. "This will be an interesting game," he had said. "We never had a cushion before."
When it was over, and the Broncos had won, 23-13, Denver coach John Ralston was diplomatic while Chuck Noll was not. "In fairness to Pittsburgh, we caught them at an ideal time," said Ralston. Snapped Noll, "We were either tired or fat."
Two more losses – in Cleveland and in Miami – tightened the AFC Central Division race considerably, but the Steelers rolled over a couple of patsies in the Oilers and San Francisco 49ers by a combined 70-21 over the final two weeks of the regular season to finish at 10-4. But those losses to Denver and Cleveland – third-place teams in their respective divisions – would cost the Steelers dearly when it came to NFL Tiebreaker No. 3. Tied with the 10-4 Cincinnati Bengals, the Steelers were sent into the 1973 playoffs as a wild card team based on a 7-4 conference record. The Bengals were 8-3.
The first round of the AFC Playoffs sent the Bengals to Miami for a game against the 12-2 Dolphins, and the Steelers would open the second playoff run in franchise history against the same opponent that had opened the first. It was to be another matchup against the Raiders – the fourth in the last two seasons – only this time the playoff game would be staged in Oakland. And because the regular season ended on the same West Coast, in fact just across the bay in San Francisco from where they would face the Raiders just one week later, the Steelers decided to stay in Palm Springs for a week to get ready for the game.
Anyone who ever has spent any time in Palm Springs knows it as a paradise in the desert. It's a place people go to unwind, to relax, to escape any and all rigors of real life, and all of that made Palm Springs the worst place for a football team looking to get ready for a playoff game against the Oakland Raiders of the 1970s. Bad idea, because the intensity that was going to be required to beat the Raiders in the playoffs for a second straight year is not typically to result from a week at a posh resort.
The Raiders had convinced themselves they had been cheated the previous postseason at Three Rivers Stadium, and their demeanor for this Dec. 22 playoff game was very un-Palms-Springs-like.
As it was during the regular season meeting between these teams, the Steelers offense sputtered, but this time the defense couldn't take the ball away. After Bradshaw threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Barry Pearson in the second quarter, the Raiders' lead at halftime was just 10-7, but there was an air of inevitability about the outcome.
Oakland rushed for 232 yards and averaged 4.2 a carry, Stabler completed 14-of-17, and the Raiders had no turnovers. Bradshaw threw another touchdown pass in the second half, but also an interception that Willie Brown returned 54 yards for an Oakland touchdown. The final was 33-14, and that seemed about right.
When Noll spoke to the team in the locker room after the game, he made a promise. "We're too good a team to be losing. We're going to take a long, concentrated look at the season. We're going to find out where the mistakes came, and why. All I can say now is, Merry Christmas."