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A longtime Steeler executive says of Swann, whose touchdown was his sixth of the year, "He gets more fun out of playing this game than anyone I've ever seen," but Lynn's elation was short-lived. Early in the second quarter a Pastorini punt bounced off his face mask, Mark Cotney recovered for Houston and the Oilers had their first touchdown seven plays later. Pastorini, who completed 15 of 33 passes for 203 yards, moved his team 31 yards before Ronnie Coleman crashed the final three.
In a cameo of his performance for the afternoon, however, Bradshaw scrambled away from a potential sack with two minutes left in the first half to throw an eight-yard scoring pass to Tight End Larry Brown, whose seven receptions were a career high. The play gave Pittsburgh a 17-7 lead and, despite the pressure that came later, made good a prediction by Andy Russell, the Steelers' veteran linebacker.
"I don't feel that different about Houston just because they're coming in this time with a 6-1 record," he had said Friday afternoon. "They always give us trouble, but this time I think we're more confident. We believe we have the ability to win the big game. Winning the Super Bowl last year has made us determined to do it again. We're not guilty of any fat-cat philosophy. I think there's going to be a real team feeling that the Oilers can take something away from us, so I think we're going to be ready."
Along with that psychological armament Pittsburgh had a quarterback who posed a dilemma for the Oilers. "The Steelers present some big problems," said Ed Biles, the Houston defensive coordinator. "One of them is that you've got to stop their running game, headed by Franco Harris. Secondly, their concept of the passing game is to go to their outside receivers, which puts a lot of pressure on outside linebackers, who have to be ready to move against the run and also have to get back and help on deep pass coverage. And that Bradshaw's so strong the Steeler receivers run deeper patterns than you normally see, but if you blitz Bradshaw and miss, he'll scramble and run with the ball, and he's got great running ability."
In fact, Bradshaw picked up 16 yards on three frenetic excursions out of the pocket as the Steelers ran for 183 yards, almost twice as many as the Oilers. Together, Harris and Bleier had 140 yards on 32 carries.
When the Steelers won the Super Bowl the key factor was their defense. Last Sunday, with Mean Joe Greene sidelined by an injury and L.C. Greenwood missing the second half with a sprained ankle, Pittsburgh still forced three turnovers and sacked the quarterback four times.
But a more effective offense directed by a Bradshaw with consistent poise foretells an ever better performance in a Super Bowl rerun. The quarterback who was once scorned as a bumpkin is nobody's fool today. This season he has completed 100 of 166 passes for 1,251 yards and 10 touchdowns and has thrown just four interceptions.
Still, the Steelers' win and Bradshaw's new image should not be allowed to crowd the Oilers out of the picture. Houston is a contender that will give rivals trouble all season long just as surely as Coach Bum Phillips, in denim and cowboy hat, looks like the Western movie extra who says, "Why wait for the judge? Let's string 'em up now."
He won't have a long wait for a Steeler rematch. The clubs meet again on Nov. 24 in a Monday night game that may blow the roof off the Astrodome, and how many people remember that it was not too long ago that the AFC Central was a dog's division called the NFL's answer to the Big Sky Conference? Some dogs.