In fairness to Pittsburgh," said Denver Coach John Ralston afterward, "we caught them at an ideal time. They just had three emotional games. We were in the right spot on their schedule."
On their schedule? In their entire history! It must be noted, in fairness to the Broncos, that they played well last Sunday in beating the Steelers 23-13. But they had the good fortune to be encountering Pittsburgh on the one weekend in the team's 41 and 10/14ths seasons when it was sitting pretty.
The Steelers were sitting, more specifically, on their first 8-1 record ever and a reasonably cosy lead in their division. They had a 13-game regular-season home-field winning streak going and they were playing in their own Three Rivers Stadium, which the Steelers believe is inhabited by "the great god Tar-Tan"—an allusion to the Tartan surface on which visitors have been stumbling.
The Broncos, however, pawed it, galloped over it and ate it up. Denver Running Back Floyd Little managed in the dressing room to confuse the metaphor as well as he had the Steelers' defenses on the field. "The hungry dog," he explained, "hunts best."
Steeler Coach Chuck Noll was advised of Little's remark. Noll does not waste words. "That's said well," he said. "We were either tired or fat."
How about that? The Steelers, after all those lean years, suddenly found fat, reminded that they put their pants on one leg at a time, more or less like everybody else. ( Cus D'Amato, the fight manager, used to hold his pants low and jump into them with both feet to refute any conceivable speculation that he was ordinary. He may be doing it yet.)
Furthermore, it could be argued that the Steelers' greatest strength, their pass rush, had not been sapped but instead had been used against them. "They have the best defensive line we've seen," said Little, who ran for 88 yards through and around it. "We didn't want them flying about in the backfield. We made them commit themselves, and then ran away from them."
Traps, draws and 13 passes whose combined length was only 86 yards, all orchestrated by the Broncos' wily veteran quarterback, Charley Johnson, left the Steelers in a mighty but misdirected lurch. Lending a helping hand were the Steelers, who fumbled three times. One, by Rocky Bleier on the opening kickoff, resulted in the first of Jim Turner's three field goals; another, by Steve Davis returning a fourth-period kickoff, resulted in Denver's final score, a two-yard touchdown pass, Johnson to Riley Odoms. Pittsburgh had but one moment of glory, Terry Hanratty hooking up with Ron Shanklin on yet another of their long, prayerful touchdown plays, this one covering 42 yards early in the fourth quarter to tie the game 13-13.
"You're always supposed to stop the run first and make them pass," reflected Pittsburgh Defensive Tackle Tom Keating. His emotions as a former employee of Al Davis had been gratified in the previous week's win over Oakland, during which the Steeler rush reached a great crest. Against the Broncos, said Keating, "We started out rushing the passer." And the rush's wave broke.
That left the Steelers, the parvenus of the NFL, gasping on the beach. Noll, whose first season record with the Steelers was 1-13 and who has patiently steered them to their current prosperity, had warned of such a possibility during the preceding week.