Greatest Sports Rivalries: Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Oakland Raiders
To make a truly good sports rivalry it isn't just about two teams playing close games against each other. Something has to be at stake. The games have to be intense and the players recognizable. Many fans always liked to peg the Dallas Cowboys as the greatest rival of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the 1970s. After all, the two teams met in the Super Bowl twice in that decade. However, anyone who followed the NFL at that time will say the same thing. There is no team that gave the powerful Steel Curtain more problems than the Oakland Raiders.
An Immaculate Beginning
The best rivalries in history don't have quiet beginnings. If anything, the more controversial the moment, the better the rivalry becomes. Football fans won't find a more reviewed, questioned play in history than the famed Immaculate Reception. The year was 1972. Pittsburgh was in the playoffs for the first time since 1947. Oakland came in as a perennial contender expected to move on to the AFC championship. For three quarters it was a defensive battle. With the score tightened at 6-0, the Raiders gambled by replacing long-time starter Daryle Lamonica with a young man named Ken Stabler. Despite knee injuries robbing him of most of his speed, the "Snake" as he would later be called took off on a 30-yard scramble for the go-ahead touchdown.
Things looked over for the Steelers. On 4th down with 22 seconds left, quarterback Terry Bradshaw dropped back for one last pass. Hurried by Oakland defenders, he scrambled around long enough to heave a pass downfield for fullback John "Frenchy" Fuqua. This is where the play gets cloudy. According to the best video evidence what happened next was the ball, Fuqua and Raiders safety Jack Tatum collided at virtually the same time. According to league rules at that time, if the ball hit Fuqua then no other Steeler player was allowed to touch it. Instead the ball bounced back towards the line of scrimmage where Pittsburgh running back Franco Harris appeared to catch it just before it hit the ground.
From there he ran up the field along the sideline for the game-winning touchdown. Oakland head coach John Madden complained later that his anger about the play wasn't whether the ball hit Fuqua or the ground when Harris caught it. He argued that it took way longer than it should've for the referees to signal touchdown, leading him to believe they thought it was an incomplete pass but were too afraid to make the call because of the potential backlash from the frenzied Pittsburgh fans. The Raiders never forgot that, and made sure the Steelers wouldn't either.
Raising the Stakes
Luckily Oakland got what it wanted a year later. Drawing the Steelers in the first round, this time at home, the Raiders followed the lead of Stabler who was developing a knack for second half heroics. With the game 10-7 at halftime, he led the Silver and Black to 16 unanswered points in the third and fourth quarters. They ended up winning the game 33-14. Sadly the effort was wasted as they lost to the eventual world champion Miami Dolphins a week later.
The rivalry took on a new dimension a year later when the two teams met for the first time in the AFC championship game. Winner of that contest went to the Super Bowl. After what happened the year before and adding in the fact Oakland was fresh off ending the two-year reign of Miami, everyone expected the Raiders to put a talented but inconsistent Steelers team to bed. For most of the game it seemed like that was how things would go. Stabler put Oakland in front 10-3 in the third quarter. Barely eight seconds into the 4th, however, Pittsburgh ignited a three-touchdown outburst that gave them the lead for good and an improbable 24-13 triumph. They rode this momentum straight into Super Bowl IX where they defeated the Minnesota Vikings for their first championship.
Three Rivers Ice War
By far the most memorable game of the rivalry took place in the exact same spot a year later. Pittsburgh was hosting the 1975 AFC championship. Bitterly cold weather conditions were expected for the game. So in an effort to provide a good playing surface, the grounds crew put a large tarp over the field and heaters underneath to keep the ground from freezing. Once again controversy took over. The way the story goes is at some point the night before the game the tarp ripped open. Hot air from the heaters soon mixed with the frigid night winds to create condensation. By game time almost the entire field was coated in a layer of ice.
Oakland, who won with the deep passing game at the time, believed the Steelers intentionally let the field get that way so their speedy receivers couldn't hope to run on the outer boundaries where the ice was thickest. Pittsburgh denied the accusations, and so the game that followed soon developed into a bitter grudge match. Everything that could happen did happen. There were late hits, helmets ripped off, low blocks, clubbing forearms and above all: turnovers. Between the two teams the ball was given away 13 times, eight by Pittsburgh. Yet somehow the Steelers clung to the lead into the 4th quarter. With the score 16-10, Oakland recovered an onside kick. Stabler had nine seconds left to take a shot at a Hail Mary. Receiver Cliff Branch caught the 37-yard pass but was tackled at the 15-yard line as time expired. The Steelers escaped for their second-straight AFC crown and won their second-straight Super Bowl two weeks later.
One Last Silver and Black Attack
By this point fans in Oakland were starting to feel cursed. The 1975 championship game was the sixth they'd lost in seven years. There were only so many chances a team got. Still, Coach Madden believed more strongly than ever in his men. They got their chance to prove it the very first game of the year against the defending champions.
After a quiet first half at 7-7, Pittsburgh broke the game open with two touchdowns between the third and fourth quarters for a 21-7 lead. Stabler, displaying a rare calm in the face of a mighty Steelers defense, narrowed the gap shortly later with a touchdown pass. Pittsburgh didn't let up, going on an 84-yard drive capped by a Franco Harris touchdown run. Things looked bleak when the Steelers had the ball on the Oakland 19-yard line with 5:42 left to play. That changed when Raiders defender Monte Johnson stripped Harris and recovered the fumble. Stabler quickly led the team to another touchdown.
As time dwindled Oakland got their needed defensive stop, then turned the momentum big time when Warren Bankston (ironically a former Steeler who was traded to Oakland) blocked the attempted punt. Pittsburgh's vaunted defense clamped down after that, forcing the Raiders into a 4th and 10 situation. Once again though Stabler made a big play, finding Branch on a crossing route who then ran 27 yards to the 2-yard line. From there Stabler ran the ball in himself for the tying score. It appeared with 1:05 left the game was destined for overtime. However when the Steelers took over Terry Bradshaw attempted a risky pass to try to get his team down field quickly. The Raiders deflected the pass and linebacker Willie Hall intercepted it. With 21 seconds to go Madden sent out his field goal team who put Oakland up permanently 31-28.
It was a fitting way to start the season and proved to become a catalyst for the Raiders. They ended up going 13-1 in the regular season. Again, ironically, their last game meant a great deal. Having wrapped up homefield advantage for the playoffs, Oakland had a decision to make regarding their opponent, the Cincinnati Bengals. If they lost the game, Pittsburgh would miss the playoffs. If they won, Pittsburgh was in. Everyone expected the Raiders to make the safe decision and call it a day to let the Bengals win. Instead the ever surprising Silver and Black annihilated Cincinnati 35-20, following the lead of their head coach who championed the belief that there was no excuse for not trying to win.
Fittingly, this decision brought the two rivals together for the third-straight year in the AFC championship. This time though the Raiders didn't flinch. They quickly took the lead in the game and never let it go. By halftime they were up 17-7 and put it away in the third quarter on a Stabler touchdown pass. Having at last conquered their rivals, Oakland made it count by routing Minnesota in the Super Bowl.
The two teams would meet only once more in the postseason in 1983. As if by fate, that Oakland victory led to their third championship.