I’ve decided to have a little fun this Saturday and write an article that most Steeler fans aged 40 and over can enjoy. Because the Steelers are playing the “franchise formerly known as the Houston Oilers” this Sunday, I thought it would be a great idea to take a look back at the three playoff games that were played between these two former A.F.C. Central rivals. So hit the “More” button and let’s blast off:
A.F.C. Championship Game
January 7, 1979
Steelers 34 – Oilers 5
When one points to a dynasty, there usually is one team in the franchise’s string of championship runs that really stands above the rest. Sure, everybody loves the gritty 1976 Steelers who fought back from a 1-4 start to a 14 game season, featured arguably the greatest Defense in N.F.L. history, and came so-close-yet-so-far to attaining a Three-Peat for the Steelers. Yet in my opinion, and the opinions of many other Steeler fans, the 1978 team was probably the greatest of those 1970’s teams, and one could make a strong case that they still remain the greatest team ever assembled in the franchise’s 79 year history.
The team that finished 14-2 in the regular season started out 7-0, and their 2 losses came by a combined 10 points. Their Steel Curtain Defense led the League in points allowed, and 1978 League M.V.P. QB Terry Bradshaw led the League in passing TD’s (28). Coupled with the strong running of Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier, and Sidney Thornton, the pass receiving of Lynn Swann and Johnny Stallworth, and the road-grading Offensive Line, the 1978 Steelers were as complete a team as has ever been assembled in the N.F.L. After the Steelers had dispatched Denver 33-10 in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, Pittsburgh faced one of the two teams to beat them that season in the A.F.C. Championship Game: their division rivals and upstart Houston Oilers.
Houston on the other hand came into the game as the cocky upstarts fresh off consecutive road playoff wins against Miami and New England. The key to stopping the Oilers that season was simple: keep Rookie of the Year RB Earl Campbell from destroying your team on the ground. The Oilers had a remarkably average Offense in 1978 outside of Campbell. QB Dan Pastorini had thrown more INT’s (17) than TD’s (16), and ranked 14th in the League in Points Per Game and 16th in Total Offense (Yards). Their only real Offensive weapon was Campbell who had 1,450 yards rushing and 13 TD’s in his Rookie season. Although nobody needed to remind the Steelers of how awesome Campbell was in 1978. In fact, the Steelers’ first loss of the season was to Houston at Three Rivers Stadium on Monday Night Football in a game where Campbell rushed for 89 yards and 3 TD’s. The stage was thus set for what many were hoping would be a nail-biting classic game between these two division rivals. What happened that cold January day however was a classic asswhooping that the Steelers laid on the underdog Oilers. And Pittsburgh proved without a shadow of a doubt that they were the best team in the A.F.C. that season.
The Steelers came storming out of the gate riding behind their running attack led by their Hall of Fame FB Harris and their gritty RB Bleier. Both of Pittsburgh’s scoring drives of the 1st Quarter ended on rush TD’s. The first came on a 7 yard run behind the right side of the O-Line by Harris, and the second came on a 15 yard scamper off the right side of the O-Line again by Bleier. Before Houston could even get out of the blocks, they were already down 14-0 when the 1st Quarter ended. The first time I watched this game online I could really tell how uncomfortable Houston was playing outside in extremely inclement weather and how Pittsburgh really oozed confidence because they had been in a Title game situation before.
Houston could have waltzed into Half Time after their worst 1st Half performance of the 1978 season down 14-3 after Toni Fritsch booted a 19 yard Field Goal in the 2nd Quarter. Yet in the last minutes of the 1st Half, all hell broke loose, and Houston literally lost themselves the game with 3 consecutive turnovers. Pittsburgh forced a fumble while the Oilers were backed up and Lynn Swann caught a 29 yard TD from Bradshaw and the Steelers went up 21-3. A turnover on the kickoff gave the Steeler cake field position again, and Bradshaw fired another TD pass, and John Stallworth’s 17 yard TD reception (his only catch that day) put the Steelers up 28-3. Another Houston turnover in the waning moments of the 1st Half gave the Steelers enough time for Roy Gerela to kick a 37 yard Field Goal and put the Steelers up 31-3 at Half Time.
The 2nd Half in essence was a formality. Up by 28 points and their Defense laying the wood to the poor Houston Offense that probably wanted to just get on the plane back home the Steelers. The Steelers added a 22 yard Roy Gerela Field Goal to make the score 34-3, and the 20 consecutive points that the Steelers had scored since the Fritsch Field Goal finished turning the lights out on Houston’s 1978 season. The Oilers got a garbage Safety when Rocky Bleier was tackled in the end zone and Houston finished the scoring that day and the game ended by a score of 34-5.
You remember that scene in “Boondock Saints” where Detective Duffy is talking to the dead bodies and asked them: “Where you goin’?” and then answered “NO-WHERE!” That’s basically what the Steelers’ Defense did to the Oilers’ Offense that day. They just didn’t give Houston any sort of breathing room, and they only allowed 3 total points as a unit all day.
The weather conditions that day probably had something to do with the ball being turned over so much as well. Just looking at the rain soaked and cold Three Rivers Stadium that day brings chills up my spine, and I’m positive that it had some sort of psychological effect on a dome-team like Houston as well. Regardless, The Steel Curtain had a masterful performance and limited Campbell to only 62 yards on 22 carries that day. In addition the Defense and Special Teams forced 9 turnovers! That’s right 9! They Intercepted Pastorini 5 times and didn’t allow the Houston Offense to score a single point in the 2nd Half by shutting them down and collecting turnovers. What made their dominance even more ridiculous was that the Steelers’ Offense committed 5 turnovers themselves, including 2 INT’s by Bradshaw.
The following week the Steelers would go on to beat “America’s Team” in Super Bowl XIII 35-31 and become the first team in N.F.L. History to win 3 Super Bowls. It was the final notch on the belt of arguably the greatest team in Steeler history. Yet to get there, the Steelers still had to avenge their earlier loss to Houston and issue one of the greatest Conference Championship beat-downs of all-time.