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Two days before Pittsburgh routed the Miami Dolphins, Lynn Swann was asked why the Steelers always seem to perform so superbly in playoff games. "I just think this team has pressure ballplayers," Swann said. "There's something about the character of most of our guys that makes them get up even more for a big game. In a playoff game, that's where you find emotional intensity—and we respond to that."
Memorable big-game heroics have been provided by Franco Harris, the NFL's alltime leading ground-gainer in postseason play; by Terry Bradshaw, the MVP of Super Bowl XIII; and by Swann himself, the MVP of Super Bowl X. But while the big names performed creditably, as usual, on Sunday at Three Rivers Stadium, it was the unsung members of the Pittsburgh offensive line who got most of the raves.
"Our offensive line manhandled Miami's three-man line," said Bradshaw. He had particular praise for 6'5", 244-pound Left Tackle Ted Petersen, who started for ailing All-Pro Jon Kolb, and 6'1", 260-pound Right Guard Steve Courson, who filled in through much of the day for nine-year veteran Gerry Mullins.
Petersen and Courson opened holes for Harris and Sidney Thornton by bowling over Dolphin linemen or blocking down on the linebackers, and they pass-protected so ferociously that Bradshaw could have relaced the ball while observing his receivers run their routes.
Petersen and Courson dominated the scrimmage-line as Pittsburgh scored a touchdown the first three times it had the ball. The Steelers had a 20-0 lead after 14:09, and that eliminated the biggest worry for Mean Joe Greene and the other members of the defense.
"The big key to this game is we got to stop [Larry] Csonka and their running game," Greene had said. "We think Csonka is the catalyst. He gets them fired up and makes things work. If we stop Csonka, we stop their running game, and then we force them into passing situations we can control."
Forced into playing catch-up after Thornton had scored on a one-yard smash and Bradshaw had connected on touchdown passes to John Stallworth and Swann, the Dolphins were never able to use Csonka or any other running back effectively. Miami, which has lost its last three playoff games, finished with a miserable 25 yards on 22 rushes, 18 of those yards coming in the fourth quarter, and on the short end of a 34-14 score.
By winning, the Steelers qualified for their sixth AFC championship game in the last eight years; they have won three of their five title games, including last year's 34-5 romp over the Oilers. Also, the Miami triumph was the Steelers' ninth without a loss this season at Three Rivers Stadium, where they have won 23 of their last 24 games and 68 of 81 overall. And, yes, the Steelers will be at home when they play Houston for the AFC title and a trip to Pasadena for Super Bowl XIV.
Against Miami, the performances of Petersen and Courson were matched on the Steeler defensive unit by Free Safety J. T. Thomas and Linebacker Dirt Winston, who filled in for Mike Wagner and Jack Ham, respectively, with no falloff in efficiency. It may be too early to hail the Steelers as certain champions of Super Bowl XIV, but Coach Chuck Noll certainly has no dearth of talent.
Having lost Ham (ankle, out until next season), Kolb (shoulder) and Wagner (hamstring) before the game, and Swann (hamstring) before the half, Pittsburgh played most of the way without the four All-Pros. Yet the Steelers won with ease. Bradshaw completed 21 of 31 passes for 230 yards and the two touchdowns. Stall-worth, Bradshaw's primary target this season, caught six passes for 86 yards, and his 17-yard touchdown reception was something special.