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It had been billed as the Battle of the Forearms and When Mouths Collide and even, with a certain amount of romance, as Super Bowl XI�. It was the Oakland Raiders, led by Machine Gun Atkinson and Baby Face Stabler, against the Pittsburgh Steelers, led by Pretty Boy Lambert and Public Enemy No. 1 Franco Harris. Bonnie coaching one side, Clyde the other. Everybody knew what to expect, of course. Lynn Swann would undoubtedly come away from Three Rivers Stadium with a lobotomy, helmet and all. However, when the game finally got around to being played, it wasn't any more violent than a slumber party, except for the 16-7 bruise that Oakland put on the Steelers.
Actually, the Steelers had an awful lot to do with their own embarrassment, at a time when they were supposed to be up to the business of getting even with the Raiders for last season's two painful losses, and for the part of Swann's head that was still stuck to George Atkinson's forearm. Trouble was, when it seemed to count the most, Terry Bradshaw threw the ball to as many Raiders as he did Steelers. Three interceptions and two fumbles is not how you go about beating Oakland. And when it was all over, the way the Raiders had calmly and almost routinely taken advantage of Pittsburgh's mistakes made them look like a team that can hardly get much better than it already is.
The Steelers' inability to move the football from their own 20-yard line contributed to two of Errol Mann's three field goals, while a fumble and an interception put the Raiders in splendid position for Mann's other three-pointer and Mark van Eeghen's touchdown. In fact, thanks to the disappearance of Pittsburgh's offense. Oakland began its scoring drives at the Steelers' 38-, 43-, 30- and 34-yard lines, putting the game out of reach when van Eeghen's touchdown made it 16-0 early in the fourth quarter. Sure, Pittsburgh was charitable to Oakland, but the manner in which Kenny Stabler and the Raiders did not blow their opportunities was certainly impressive.
On the first occasion, Stabler quickly hit Tight End Dave Casper for a 27-yard beauty, and right away the Raiders were close enough to come away with at least a field goal. When Pittsburgh's defense rose up, Mann kicked it from 21 yards out. The next time, Stabler chose to prove to the Steelers that Oakland could run on them. Van Eeghen carried four times for a total of 19 yards, and Mann kicked a 40-yarder for a 6-0 lead. That didn't wake up the Steelers, either. When they needed to move the ball, all the Steelers did was clip or let the Raiders sack Bradshaw. Then they got a weak punt from Bobby Walden, and Oakland was back again.
It is always pleasant to be able to congratulate a coach for doing something intellectual. Oakland's John Madden did it right here. After one play, a seven-yard burst through the middle by Clarence Davis, Oakland was on the Pittsburgh 23. There were still 25 seconds left before the half—an eternity, at times, in the NFL—but the Raiders had no timeouts left. Madden knew that a completed pass might well use up the clock. So on second down he sent Mann in to kick his third field goal in slightly more than six minutes, a 41-yarder. A smart call. And suddenly that 9-0 lead looked far larger than nine-point leads usually do, because the Raiders held it.
In the third quarter Stabler simply seemed content to rest on that 9-0 margin, but then he stuck the knife into the Steelers and twisted it after Bradshaw threw his most killing interception, with Willie Brown gathering in the ball on Pittsburgh's 34 at the start of the last period. In three plays Stabler had a touchdown. Van Eeghen made four yards, Stabler hit Fred Biletnikoff crossing over the middle for 22, then van Eeghen rammed eight tough yards into the end zone, knocking tacklers down as if he were some kind of Bronko Nagurski instead of a Colgate alumnus.
Midway through the final quarter the Steelers were spared the humiliation of being shut out before the home folks, scoring on one of those plays that combines talent with good fortune. Bradshaw shot a pass to Bennie Cunningham from midfield. Surrounded by all sorts of white-jerseyed Raiders at the 38, Cunningham somehow caught the ball. Then, strangely enough, the Raiders began glancing off the big tight end and bumping into each other, so Cunningham loped in for a touchdown.
There were those who thought Cunningham's catch might signal a Steeler revival, but Bradshaw broke their hearts. Slowly. He threw a 40-yard pass to John Stallworth, the same Stallworth whose fumble after a reception had set up Oakland's first field goal, then he ran for 13 yards to pick up a first down at the Raiders' 27. But just when people were beginning to think miracle, Bradshaw threw a pass to Charles Phillips, who plays for Oakland. Phillips had no recourse but to intercept it at the 11.
Stabler said later, "Turnovers and field position really killed Pittsburgh. Are we better than last year? Well, our defense definitely is. But I don't think this game proves Pittsburgh won't make the playoffs. I wouldn't be surprised if we played them again."