Almost everywhere across the pro football landscape last weekend there was a heartfelt vote for the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was difficult not to show sympathy for a team so snake bitten that it had suffered its whole long life, 40 years, without a single championship and, despite the kindliest owner in all sportsdom, had acquired little more throughout its history than curious draft choices, holding penalties and halfbacks certain to drown on a sprint through a car wash. Even if you do not get dewy-eyed about Cinderella stories—particularly ones with a 40-year-old Cinderella—there seemed no finer way to ring out a so-so year than by cheering the Steelers on to victory.
But after weeks of favoring her with bountiful blessings, the fairy godmother suddenly failed to touch Cinderella with her magic wand. Instead, she strung along with the inexorable Miami Dolphins, that acquisitive bunch of opportunists that she has been dating steadily. And so it is the Dolphins who will now meet Washington in the Super Bowl. They repeated as American Football Conference champions by hanging a 21-17 defeat on the Steelers in Pittsburgh's bedsheet-bedecked Three Rivers Stadium on Sunday.
It was Miami's 16th consecutive victory, and for all those sign-carrying zealots who witnessed the Steelers' first home defeat this season this was a greater cause for limiting New Year's Eve alcoholic euphoria in Pittsburgh than the W.C.T.U. could ever hope to dream up. It was also one fine game—a dandy little looking-glass war—which ultimately turned on Miami's extreme reluctance to lose and a few ill-timed Steeler mistakes. To the very end, it seemed that Pittsburgh might be able to employ the same kind of wicked lightning that it had used in the last seconds to execute the Oakland Raiders on Dec. 23. But Miami's well-publicized No-Name Defense precluded another miracle by twice intercepting Terry Bradshaw in the waning minutes of the game.
"The Dolphins have got a lot of talent and their defense is the toughest type to play against," Pittsburgh Center Ray Mansfield had said earlier in the week. "Against a defense that relies on a few great individuals, you'll get dropped for some big losses, but once in a while you can also break for a big gain. But those guys on Miami never get out of position, and you never break a big play against them. Of course, we're a lot like Miami. Both of us have disciplined defenses with just a few stars and everybody doing what he's supposed to do."
Mansfield's analysis turned out to be a generally accurate one, but Miami probably won the war because it also won the celebrated battle of stars between Larry Little, the Dolphin who may be the best offensive guard in the game, and Mean Joe Greene, the Steeler tackle who may be the best defensive lineman.
Greene is used to being double-teamed and, while he admits that the ploy once frustrated him, he has grown to understand that such personal concentration helps the team. "It's not important who makes the play, but just that the play is made," he says. "I think that's the basic reason for our success—we're unselfish. And when anybody double-teams me, it's going to help someone else up front."
Little was so proficient, however, that he was able to handle Greene by himself, almost never requiring backup blocking support. Not once did the Steelers sack a Miami quarterback, and twice when the Dolphins drove to a first down in a fourth-and-short situation near the Pittsburgh goal they actually elected to run straight over Greene. Little, who explained that he had been "in a deep concentration bag" all week, understood the stakes of his man-to-man match. "I know if I don't do the job on him, we won't win the game," he had said. "If I do, we'll win. I have a lot of pride and I can't see myself getting beat."
This is certainly not to suggest that the awesome Greene was the man who cost the Steelers the game. Overall, if only occasionally, the Steelers showed the effects of a championship debut by suffering lapses of poise and concentration. In contrast, the Dolphins showed a penchant for the gamble—but with a cool head and steady hand. Miami was not afraid to risk fourth-down runs instead of playing it the usual dull NFL way and taking the easy field goal. "You have to go for the short ones if you want to be the champ," Coach Don Shula said.
The first Dolphin touchdown came with Miami trailing 7-0 and stalled near midfield. Punter Larry Seiple looked up, saw no Pittsburgh rush, and decided to run. When he finally was stopped, he had gone 37 yards to the Steeler 12 and the Dolphins were on their way. "It wasn't in the play book, and I never thought of it until the situation opened up," Seiple said afterward. Two plays later, Earl Morrall tossed a nine-yard swing pass to Larry Csonka to tie the score.
Pittsburgh went back on top 10-7 and forced Shula to replace Morrall with Bob Griese in the second half. Griese got the Dolphins moving, but showed the effect of his long injury-induced layoff by throwing an interception to Pittsburgh Linebacker Jack Ham. Unfortunately for the Steelers, the play was nullified because End Dwight White had jumped offside. The drive restored, Jim Kiick ran behind Little on fourth down for a first down at the two. Two plays later, Kiick carried the last two yards for his first touchdown and now Miami led, 14-10.