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It was billed as the AFC championship, but Sunday's showdown between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Houston Oilers could have been called the Soup Bowl. Played in Three Rivers Stadium, it might as well have been played in the three rivers themselves. Still, not rain nor sleet—both of which fell continuously—nor Earl Campbell or even Dan Pastorini's bulletproof flak jacket could stay the Steelers from a Super Bowl date with Dallas. Pittsburgh pounded Houston 34-5, causing Oiler Coach Bum Phillips to admit, "The best team won. The weather didn't beat us. Pittsburgh did."
As imposing as the Steelers were, it was impossible to ignore the way the weather affected the game. Before halftime, the Oilers and Steelers had set a championship-game record by fumbling 11 times. That was one more fumble than the New York Giants and Chicago Bears managed in 1934 in their so-called Sneakers Game, a championship played on a field that was frozen so hard the Giants switched to basketball shoes at halftime for better traction. The final fumble tally was 12, six for each team. Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris of the Steelers, and the sensational Campbell, established an additional record by fumbling three times apiece. Early in the second quarter they fumbled on consecutive plays. Shades of Larry, Moe and Curly.
The downpour and the subfreezing temperatures made life on the field so miserable that Pittsburgh Running Back Rocky Bleier was sent to the locker room in the third quarter, suffering from chills. Appropriately enough, the longest run in the game, a mere 23 yards, was made by a Steeler whose nickname is Hydroplane—Jack Deloplaine. Said Oiler Cornerback Willie Alexander, "My teeth were chattering the whole game. I wish we could have brought the Astrodome with us." Most of the Steelers tried to make light of the weather. "Hey, this was a championship game," said Pittsburgh Defensive End L. C. Greenwood. "I'd have played it in the ocean if I'd had to, and I can't even swim."
The bottom line was that the Steelers conquered the Oilers as well as the elements. They outgained Houston 379 yards to 142, displaying all the weapons that have made them the winningest team in the NFL this year. They won in the pits, too. The Oilers had allowed a league-low 17 sacks this season, but the Steel Curtain defense sacked Pastorini four times. Pastorini also threw five interceptions. And the Steelers held Campbell to 62 yards rushing, most of them after the game was out of reach.
Meanwhile, the Steelers gave Bradshaw so much protection that he could have dialed the weather bureau while waiting for Lynn Swann and John Stallworth to get open. Bradshaw was never sacked as he completed 11 of 19 passes for 200 yards and two touchdowns, one each to Swann and Stallworth.
Phillips summed up the flow of the game when he said. "The behinder we got, the worse we got." And the Oilers fell behind the first time their opponents had the ball. The Steelers moved 57 yards to a 7-0 lead in just five plays, Harris skirting right end for the touchdown from the seven. The scoring play was a neat piece of deception. Pittsburgh lined up with both wide receivers, Swann and Stallworth, on the right side. As the Oilers knew, the Steelers had done nothing but pass from this formation all season. So, when Swann and Stallworth cut in toward the middle of the field, the Oiler linebackers and secondary followed them. But Bradshaw handed off to Harris, who slid into the end zone practically untouched.
Later in the first quarter, Pittsburgh made it 14-0 when Bleier sloshed around right end for a 15-yard touchdown. That score was set up by Linebacker Jack Ham's recovery of Campbell's second fumble, at the Houston 17-yard line. Ham also recovered another fumble, intercepted a Pastorini pass and sacked the Oiler quarterback for a nine-yard loss.
Though showing almost no offense, Houston got on the scoreboard early in the second quarter when Toni Fritsch kicked a 19-yard field goal after Harris had fumbled the ball to the Oilers at the Pittsburgh 19. The Steelers, meanwhile, kept threatening to turn the game into a rout. Only an end-zone interception of a Bradshaw pass by Oiler Cornerback Greg Stemrick and another fumble by Harris kept Houston alive. Then, with less than two minutes to play in the half, Running Back Ronnie Coleman carried a Pastorini pass to the Steeler 30-yard line and the Oilers seemed to be on the verge of cutting into the Steelers' 14-3 lead. However, Ham stripped the ball from Coleman and pounced on it. And suddenly Houston was hit by a Pittsburgh deluge worse than anything that was falling from the skies. In the space of just 54 seconds, the Steelers scored 17 points and put the AFC championship away.
The first seven points came on a perfectly thrown 29-yard pass from Bradshaw to Swann. On the following kick-off, Houston's Johnnie Dirden returned the ball 11 yards and then, even though no one had touched him, dropped it. Rick Moser of the Steelers recovered at the Houston 17, and two plays later Bradshaw hit Stallworth for a touchdown. The Oilers didn't fumble on the next kickoff, but on their first play from scrimmage Coleman did, again. This time the ball was stripped from him by Defensive Tackle Steve Furness, who recovered at the Houston 24. Four seconds before the half Roy Gerela booted a 37-yard field goal to make the score 31-3. An Oiler official said, "Now I know how Jim Bowie must have felt at the Alamo."
The second half was played for no ostensible reason. After Gerela made the score 34-3 with a 22-yard field goal, the Oiler defense added Houston's other two points on a third-quarter safety, Linebacker Ted Washington tackling Bleier in the end zone. In the remaining minutes, the Oiler offense contributed four more turnovers, bringing its total for the game to nine.