Another couple of Steeler games like the one last week in Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium and you will have to accept the following as sanctified National Football League holy writ: 1) Terry Bradshaw is the coolest quarterback in the game; 2) after taking 41 years to get on stage the first time, the Steelers have reserved dressing room space for a Super Bowl rerun; and 3) Steeler Coach Chuck Noll will wince mighty often as he hears the word "dynasty."
All of which is to say that the Steelers, who won everything pro football had to offer just 10 months ago, look red hot and ready to do it again.
Hardly any other conclusion could be drawn from last Sunday's AFC Central Division showdown with the tenacious Houston Oilers, who closely stalked the Steelers before they were overcome by Bradshaw's quick release, two fast whistles and the lingering psychological edge that is part of the arsenal of a champion. In one of the best games of the season Pittsburgh rebounded from a tie in the last 38 seconds for a 24-17 victory, its seventh in eight games, the 50th since Noll took over in 1969 and the best evidence yet that this is a better club than the one that humiliated Minnesota last January in New Orleans.
At the end two factors were clearly evident: Bradshaw is more competent and his teammates more confident. In earlier years the Steelers would have wilted under the pressure and Bradshaw would have collapsed.
On Sunday, the big quarterback was a study in aplomb as he completed 17 of 28 passes for 219 yards and three touchdowns, and in the hysteria at the finish it was Bradshaw who took the Steelers on a 78-yard march to the winning score. On the way he ran once for eight yards and completed three of four passes for 68 more. One of those was a 21-yard strike to Wide Receiver John Stall-worth that knocked the Oilers out of the Central Division's three-way tie for first. Cincinnati, which had fallen to the Steelers just a week before for its first loss of the season, hung in by squeaking past Denver, 17-16.
Good as the Steelers were against a tough Houston team, they might not have won but for two officials' calls Oiler fans will be raging over for a long time. The first came at the end of the second quarter when Billy Johnson, the Oilers' one-man special team, slithered into the left corner of the end zone, with Mel Blount close enough to bite his right ear lobe, and grabbed a Dan Pastorini pass. At least, it looked as if Johnson had grabbed it. For the briefest instant the ball was in Billy's possession and then it was neatly stripped out of his hands by Blount. Interception.
Then, with little more than six minutes remaining in the game and the Steelers backed up to within an eyelash of their end zone, Rocky Bleier was sprung loose on a trap play and fumbled. Houston's rookie Linebacker Robert Brazile picked up the loose ball and ran 14 yards for a touchdown—to no avail. The ball had been blown dead.
Steeler fans, shaking the stadium with bellows of "Dee-fense, dee-fense," also had their moment of frustration. In the last three minutes, as Houston refused to lie down and die, Blount was called for interference on a Pastorini pass to Ken Burrough that the Oiler receiver could not have reached with a skyhook. The ensuing penalty put the ball on the Steeler one, from where Fred Willis, a ballet student who took up the art for the purpose of stretching his hamstrings, danced over for the touchdown that made it 17-all.
The frenzy that marked the game's finish hardly could have been forecast from its opening scenes. The Steelers, who usually have to struggle against Houston (they lost one game to the Oilers last year and barely beat them in another), looked as if they would put this one out of reach before halftime.
Roy Gerela, the kicker with the choirboy countenance, booted a 22-yard field goal midway through the first quarter on the Steelers' second possession, and little more than three minutes later Bradshaw threw his first touchdown pass, an eight-yarder to Lynn Swann. The 53-yard drive, which began after Mike Wagner recovered a Burrough fumble, took only five plays.