Saturday History Special! The Steelers vs. Oilers Playoff Games

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A.F.C. Championship Game

January 6, 1980

Super Bowl XIII.5

Steelers 27 – Oilers 13

Same time, same game, same place, same teams, same rivalry.  The Steelers and Oilers took the field on this cold January day to determine who would be the A.F.C. representative in Super Bowl XIV.  It was assumed by many in the media that this game would be sort of a Super Bowl XIII.5 because this game featured probably the two best teams in the N.F.L. at the time and were vastly better than the N.F.C. teams duking it out for the right to go to the Super Bowl.  The Steelers had won the division with a 12-4 record, a game better than the Oilers’ 11-5 mark in 1979.  Houston had won their playoff games in the previous two weeks against Denver and San Diego on the strength of some great defensive play.  Oiler Safety Vernon Perry stifled the top-seeded San Diego “Super Chargers'” “Air Coryell” Offense at Jack Murphy Stadium and picked off 4 Dan Fouts passes to pull off the upset of the 1979 playoffs.  Pittsburgh had easily dispatched Miami the week before and now both teams faced each other in a winner take-all game for the second year in a row at Three Rivers Stadium.

Houston was hell-bent on upsetting the Steelers, and it showed on Pittsburgh’s opening drive.  Vernon Perry did his best to play the hero again when he picked off a Terry Bradshaw pass deep in Houston territory and raced 75 yards down the sideline to put the Oilers ahead 7-0 early in the 1st Quarter.  It was a back-breaking play that many teams like San Diego at the time wouldn’t be able to recover from.  Yet this was the “Team of the 70’s,” and they didn’t let the Perry pick-6 get too far under their skin.

The Steelers calmly moved down the field on their following drive and managed to get the ball deep into Houston territory again.  But when their drive stalled Matt Bahr was called upon to kick a 21 yard Field Goal to cut into the Houston lead.  Bahr’s kick was true and the Steelers were back in the game and down by a score of 7-3.  Houston to their credit did not falter in the 2nd Quarter.  QB Dan Pastorini led the Houston Offense down the field and while their drive faltered, Toni Fritsch kicked a 21 yard Field Goal to increase the Oilers’ lead back to 7.

Down 10-3 on their frozen home turf in the 2nd Quarter of an A.F.C. Championship Game, many teams would falter.  Yet this was the 1979 Pittsburgh Steelers.  They were a team that had won 3 Super Bowl titles and were trying to add a 4th to their trophy case.  They were a veteran team that had faced so much adversity throughout their time together and knew exactly how to handle a situation.  So Terry Bradshaw and the Steeler Offense went right to work and produced not one, but TWO big Touchdowns!  Bradshaw threw the first one with a bullet in the back of the end zone to TE Bennie Cunningham to tie the game at 10.  On the second one, Bradshaw found his Hall of Fame WR John Stallworth for a 20 yard TD to increase the Steeler lead and put them ahead 17-10, a lead that they would take into Half Time.

It certainly appeared that Houston was on the ropes and probably would not be able to withstand the 14 unanswered points that the Steelers put up to end the 2nd Quarter.  Yet Bum Phillips’ team hung tough in a scoreless 3rd Quarter and by the end of the 3rd Quarter Pastorini had his troops moving to score.  Houston eventually got the ball inside the Steelers’ 10 yard line and they were poised to score a game-tying TD right before the 4th Quarter began.

I can only imagine how tense of a moment it was at Three Rivers Stadium during that Houston drive near the end of the 3rd Quarter.  What probably made it even more perplexing is that up until that point in the game, The Steel Curtain Defense had held the Oilers Pro Bowl RB Earl Campbell in check all game (he would finish the game with a stat line of 17 carries for 15 yards and a long of 7).  Regardless, Pastorini called a pass play to the corner of the end zone for WR Mike Renfro to score the equalizer.  The pass itself was kind of flukey and Steeler CB Ron Johnson to his credit had some damn fine coverage on Renfro.  Yet Renfro came down with a circus-like catch and miraculously appeared to drag both feet in bounds and looked to have scored the game-tying TD.  But in a moment of sad foreshadowing for Oilers fans, T.V. commentator Dick Enberg exclaimed: “Touchdown!  Or is it?”

Well, it wasn’t.  The official didn’t see Renfro’s feet come down after the catch.  And without the benefit of Instant Replay and probably basing at least some of his decision on the fact that he was in Three Rivers Stadium, the call was Incomplete!  Houston couldn’t punch the ball in, and had to settle for a Toni Fritsch 23 yard Field Goal right after moving to the other end of the field after the 4th Quarter started.   In terms of how this play should be remembered, I’ll always look at this play as a little bit of a make-up call for the botched onside kick call made by the refs. that had handed the game to Houston and prevented Pittsburgh with a late-chance to tie the game at The Astrodome no more than a month before.  Sure, the call was totally botched.  But sometimes teams need to “nut up” after a chinsy call that goes against them in a big game (cough*Seattle Seahawks*cough*Hasselbeck cut block*cough).  Houston couldn’t punch the ball in for a TD so they sent out Toni Fritsch to make a 23 yard Field Goal as the 4th Quarter started.

The Steelers had dodged a bullet and wouldn’t allow Houston to get back in the game after they had survived Houston’s only legitimate parry of the game.  The 4th Quarter after the Fritsch Field Goal that made the score 17-13 was controlled by the Steelers.  The Steelers padded their lead when they added a 39 yard Matt Bahr Field Goal to increase their lead back to 7, and the score stood at 20-13.

In their true championship form, the Steeler Defense shut Houston out the rest of the way.  The Steelers scored one final time on a Bleier 4 yard TD run to make the score 27-13 and the game ended by that final margin.  Houston had tried their hearts out to get revenge for their 34-5 defeat the year prior in the A.F.C. Championship Game against the Steelers, but due to a poor running game, a bad Defensive 2nd Quarter, and their failure to make up for the missed call on the Renfro phantom-TD they simply came up short.

It was no complex formula, the Steelers won this game on the strength of their RB’s Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier (combined 34 carries for 137 yards), an efficient passing game (Bradshaw was 18 for 30 for 219 yards and 2 TD’s), and a Defense that didn’t give up the big play and stopped the Oilers’ best player dead in his tracks.

This would be the last time that both of these teams would be truly at the top of their games for close to a decade.  Moreover, it would be the last A.F.C. Championship that they would play in while they were stationed in Houston believe it or not.  The Oilers of the late 80’s and early 90’s featured some outstanding teams and high flying Run ‘N Shoot Offenses.  Sadly for them and for whatever reason, they always choked horribly to inferior competition in the playoffs.  Probably the most telling example was their blowing a 32 point lead in the 2nd Half in January 1993 against the Bills.  But in 1989, Houston had their first real playoff choking performance, and it just happens to be the final game on this list.