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After all the extravagant talk before the game, it was only natural to expect that the Steelers and the Raiders would play one of those instant classics that Pete Rozelle would air-express to the Hall of Fame on the next available jet. The Steelers described the "spiritual and emotional uplift" that Mean Joe Greene would summon in them if he could trot his injured body onto the field for even a few plays, and they suggested that the statisticians would need a dozen extra pages to record all the yards that Franco Harris would be gaining against Oakland's three-man line. For their part, the Raiders promised to unleash the bushy-haired Mad Stork—Linebacker Ted Hendricks—against Terry Bradshaw, Franco, Mean Joe and even Old Mr. Rooney if necessary, and they kept implying that Ken Stabler and Cliff Branch would be giving Defensive Back Mel Blount a live replay of his 1974 playoff humiliation when Branch caught nine passes against the Steelers and sent Blount to the bench in disgrace.
So after all that, when the teams finally put on their thermal underwear and played the AFC championship game at Three Frozen Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh last Sunday, what did they give Rozelle's filmmakers? Another X-rated flick that, as one Steeler grumbled, "should be burned before they let anyone else see it." There were nine fumbles in all, including one sequence of four in eight plays, all but one of which were recovered by the defense. There were five interceptions, too, one of which, naturally, was fumbled. There was even a blocked field-goal attempt, after which, in the weirdest scene since Garo Yepremian's last attempted pass, came the unbelievable sight of Pittsburgh's panic-stricken Roy Gerela trying a left-footed dropkick for an extra point following a mishandled snap from center. And, at last report, there were 86 cases of frostbitten fingers and toes.
Although the Steelers were overly generous to the Raiders until the very end, they somehow won this farcical contest by the score of 16-10 and now get to thaw in sunny Miami, where they will defend their Super Bowl championship against the Dallas Cowboys on Jan. 18. For a time, though, Pittsburgh threatened to pull this week's version of the Minnesota caper and blow a supposedly safe lead in the closing seconds.
The Steelers slid into the final 98 seconds with a 16-7 margin on the scoreboard and, best of all, in possession of the ball at the Oakland 36. Bradshaw was on the sidelines, having just been kicked in the head after skidding into a wall of Raiders, and Terry Hanratty was under orders to hand the ball off while the clock ticked away. Sure enough, Harris promptly fumbled at the Oakland 35, the Raiders recovered and, six plays later, with 17 seconds on the clock, George Blanda was kicking his longest field goal of the season, a 41-yarder, to narrow Pittsburgh's lead to 16-10. Now all Oakland had to do was recover an on-side kick and have Stabler do what Roger Staubach had done the week before—hit some receiver for the game-winning touchdown in the last seconds. The Raiders came pretty close.
Ray Guy squibbed his kickoff right at John Stallworth, the normally sure-fisted Steeler receiver who earlier had made a difficult catch of a Bradshaw bullet in the end zone for the touchdown that put Pittsburgh ahead 16-7. This time Stallworth bobbled the ball, and Oakland's Marv Hubbard, who had set up the Bradshaw-to-Stallworth touchdown with a disastrous fumble at his own 21, recovered near midfield. Seven seconds on the clock and the Oakland version of Heartbreak in Minnesota was on.
Unfortunately, Stabler could not duplicate Staubach's curtain lines. He did connect with Branch at the Pittsburgh 15—it was only their second collaboration of the game—but the clock struck 00 as Branch desperately tried to get out of bounds. "One more play," said Stabler. "One more play was all we needed. Why is it that time always runs out on us?"
Those closing pyrotechnics aside, the teams spent most of the game handing each other the ball as if it were flaming, not frozen, and making headlong sprints for the propane heaters behind their benches. Pittsburgh Coach Chuck Noll attributed most of the fumbles to "the hardest hitting I've seen all season," but on one play Oakland's Pete Banaszak flat-out dropped the ball before he was hit when the Raiders were inside the Steeler 20-yard line and threatening to take a 7-3 lead in the third quarter. How did they get there? By recovering a Pittsburgh fumble, of course.
Both Bradshaw and Stabler complained of poor traction on the slick Tartan, and they frequently threw the ball behind, over and under their receivers, who wore gloves, and directly into the hands of the opposition. "We normally avoid the middle of the field and work the sidelines," said Stabler, trying to explain his two interceptions, "but the sides were all ice and our receivers couldn't move well out there."
Pittsburgh hit Oakland with a "spiritual and emotional" downer right at the start when the massive Greene removed his black cape, flexed his muscles, slapped his helmet into place and galloped onto the field. Joe had not started any of Pittsburgh's previous five games after suffering a pinched nerve in his neck and a pulled groin muscle, and he was supposed to be employed only on special occasions against the Raiders. But there he was in black-and-gold living color. "We saw Jaws on our flight from the Coast," said Oakland Coach John Madden, "and that shark reminded me of Mean Joe."
Greene was more of a mental deterrent than a physical obstacle against the Raiders. His mere presence helped the Steelers confine the Oakland running game and, in the end, to shut it off completely. "If we don't stop the Oakland run," Steeler Linebacker Jack Ham said before the game, "we all get to watch the Super Bowl on TV because Stabler will be able to pick us apart." Obviously respectful even of a half-mean Greene, Oakland ran only five plays in his and sidekick L.C. Greenwood's direction during the game, gaining a mere nine yards. "We took one side of the field completely away from them," Ham said.