Another in a series of stories chronicling the 52 playoff games in Steelers history.**
Once, it had been Steelers vs. Raiders. Then it came to be that it was Steelers vs. Oilers.
Throughout the decade of the 1970s, representing the AFC in Super Bowls meant dealing with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Oakland Raiders and the Houston Oilers. In the 10 AFC Championship Games played in the decade, nine either were won by one of those three teams or by a team that had to beat one of those three teams head-to-head in the playoffs.
At the back end of the 1970s, the Steelers and the Oilers were the bullies of the conference. During the 1978-79 seasons, the Steelers were 26-6 and the Oilers were 21-11. In head-to-head competition, they had split four regular season games, and the Steelers had crushed the Oilers, 34-5, for the 1978 conference championship. These Pittsburgh-Houston games were physically brutal, but there also was an underlying professional courtesy that never was a part of Steelers vs. Raiders.
The 1979 AFC Championship Game was supposed to be Pittsburgh-San Diego II, a rematch of the regular season meeting between the Steelers and the Chargers, but the Oilers stepped in and sabotaged that by going to the West Coast and winning a Divisional Round game despite playing without running back Earl Campbell, quarterback Dan Pastorini and with wide receiver Ken Burrough severely limited. Houston ran the football and limited the mistakes, while the Chargers passed for a bunch of yardage only to turn it over five times and have a field goal attempt blocked.
The San Diego offense, dubbed Air Coryell, had been explosive and entertaining throughout a 12-4 regular season, but the Chargers had lost to an Oilers team that still played the game the old-fashioned way. That's why the Steelers and the Oilers were vying for this conference championship, and everybody knew what kind of game it was going to be.
"I could tell we were ready to play on Thursday at practice," said defensive tackle Steve Furness. "The tempo of our defense had picked up to the point where it was almost a full scrimmage. Finally, Franco stepped back and told (rookie) Greg Hawthorne to run for him. Franco only came in on passing plays. He said he was afraid he might get killed."
The Steelers defense was preparing for Earl Campbell, a back with a power-speed combination that was frightening to face, a back who was healthy enough to play after having missed the game in San Diego. This was the sixth time the Steelers defense lined up opposite Campbell in two seasons.
"Campbell walks onto the field, it's a challenge," said Jack Lambert. "The way you stop Earl Campbell is by getting 11 guys around him who want to make a tackle. A guy like Campbell will give you nightmares. I've seen him on film. I've seen him on TV a dozen times. He takes a handoff. Innocent-looking play. All of a sudden, he sheds a tackler and he's gone. Hey, it's not easy facing that guy three times in one season."
So the Steelers did their homework and relied on their experience against the Oilers and Coach Bum Phillips to know what was coming. When the Oilers were in a one-back set, Campbell typically would take the handoff and then follow a man in motion to a hole off-tackle; in two-back sets, Campbell usually ran to the weak side; and in the I-formation he would take a pitch and look for a cutback lane. Besides knowing these tendencies, the defense also has to win some individual matchups, and the Steelers did. As usual, this started with Joe Greene.
Greene, in his sixth AFC Championship Game among his 11th NFL seasons, was great once again for the Steelers in yet another critical game. He finished with six tackles, including two for loss, to lead a defense that limited the Oilers to 2 yards rushing in the first half, 24 for the game on 22 attempts. Campbell carried 17 times for 15 yards, an unprecedented accomplishment against the Oilers' All-Pro.
"We knew where he was going and we shut off the gaps," said Greene. "Listen, if Earl had been running the football well, we wouldn't have won the game."
Added Campbell, "I was 100 percent, but unfortunately so were the Steelers. Running against that team is not like running against everybody else. They come off the ball so fast you don't have time to pick a hole. They hit you right away. Their pursuit – it's like running against 15 guys."
The other half of this drama – Steelers offense vs. Oilers defense – revealed again what had been a weakness for the Pittsburgh club all season. Turnovers.
Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw had the offense moving well to open the game, but his pass to Bennie Cunningham over the middle was intercepted by Vernon Perry, the same Vernon Perry whose four interceptions and blocked field goal in San Diego had carried the Oilers here in the first place. Perry returned this interception 75 yards for the game's first points just 150 seconds into the game.
"I was so mad about that," said Bradshaw. "I thought Bennie was going one way and he went the other. I was a little cautious in the game today, but I've found that you can't let yourself get intimidated in a game like this."
The Steelers were too seasoned to let one interception kill them, and besides, their defense was too busy roughing up Earl Campbell to notice.
"The key to our team is that we know we're good and we've been there before," said Rocky Bleier, "so we didn't panic when Perry picked off that pass and put them on the scoreboard right away."
After the teams traded field goals on the next two possessions, Bradshaw directed back-to-back touchdown drives and ended both with passes – 16-yards to Cunningham and then 20 yards to John Stallworth. That 17-10 Steelers lead was threatened late in the third quarter, but Oilers receiver Mike Renfro was ruled not to be in possession of the ball as he crossed the end line and catching a Pastorini pass, and Houston settled for a field goal. Had Renfro been ruled to be in possession of the ball, the touchdown would have tied the score, 17-17, but the ruling of incomplete had the Oilers settle for a field goal and a 17-13 deficit.
"Even after I look at the films, I'm not going to blame the officials," said Coach Bum Phillips. "They're human. The Renfro play might have changed the outcome, but the game's over now. It's done with and the Steelers won. I don't even want to talk much about it."
It wasn't easy for the Steelers, this game and achieving this outcome. The 27-13 final was bloated by a Bleier touchdown run in the game's final seconds, but the legitimacy of the final margin didn't change the fact the Steelers still were on their way to a fourth Super Bowl and with it a chance to defend a championship for the second time during the decade.
"I don't think anybody can beat Pittsburgh except Houston," said Phillips, "and we didn't."
Perry 75 interception (Fritsch kick)
Bahr 21 FG
Fritsch 27 FG
Cunningham 16 pass from Bradshaw (Bahr kick)
Stallworth 20 pass from Bradshaw (Bahr kick)
Fritsch 23 FG
Bahr 39 FG
Bleier 4 run (Bahr kick)
Total Net Yds
- 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
- Super Bowl X
- 1976 AFC Divisional Playoff
- 1976 AFC Championship Game
- 1977 AFC Divisional Playoffs
- 1978 AFC Divisional Playoff
- 1978 AFC Championship
- Super Bowl XIII
- [1979 AFC Divisional Round
](http://www.steelers.com/news/article-1/Itll-be-Steelers-Oilers-again/062ee32f-49b2-4494-b547-3a497d73c9ea)- 1979 AFC Championship