From the PG Archives: Miracle Play Saves Steelers, 13-7

Franco's Fantastic Touchdown Stuns Raiders, Ricocheting Pass with :05 Left Wins


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This story from the Post-Gazette archives was first published on December 24, 1972.

The God of all the losers who have ever been smiled down through a ghostly gray sky yesterday, and in the last desperate seconds of a mean, bitterly-fought football game did truly wondrous things.

History would have had it no other way. And after 40 endless years of spilling salt and breaking mirrors and walking under ladders, the Steelers were smiled upon by a benevolent fate.

Through the luck that could only grace a loser of standing, and through the quick, quick hands of Franco Harris, the Steelers rudely jerked a 13-7 decision out of the hands of the benumbed Oakland Raiders and staggered into the AFC championship game here next Sunday against the survivor of today's Cleveland-Miami encounter.

It was almost unbelievable. It happened this way, and if you can't bring yourself to believe it, don't worry -- neither did the 50,350 wild folk who stumbled from Three Rivers Stadium in the kind of daze they might have known had the field opened and swallowed the Tartan-Turf:

Shackled until the final 1:13 by a Steeler defense which had yielded just 21 points in the previous 21 quarters, Oakland snatched a 7-6 lead when backup quarterback Ken Stabler scrambled 30 yards on a busted pass play to cap an 80-yard drive.

But nobody messes around with history and fate, and all the game's first touchdown brought the Raiders was titillation.

Desparation rolled up its sleeves then. The Steelers worked the ball to their own 40 following the Raider score and with only seconds left, quarterback Terry Bradshaw retreated to pass on a fourth-and-10 play. Evading the Oakland hands plucking at his jersey, he gunned the ball to Frenchy Fuqua.

Fate didn't like his choice. Oakland safetyman Jack Tatum, who had swatted down Bradshaw attempts on the previous two plays, either did or did not deflect the ball off Fuqua's chest.

We'll never know -- Tatum said he didn't; Tatum just leered -- but the ball ricocheted off toward the sideline, where Franco Harris whisked it off his shoetops at the Oakland 42, got a partial block from tight end John McMakin, then outran the Raiders; other safetyman, Jimmy Warren, to the end zone. There were five seconds left when he crossed the goal line.

He was greeted by pandemonium and some confused officials, undecided whether Tatum had touched the ball, making the play legal, or had not touched it, making it illegal.

After deliberating with league officials and watching a television replay in a nearby dugout, referee Fred Swearingen confirmed what everyone had suspected: Sooner or later, everyone gets lucky. Oakland had five seconds to reclaim the victory, but no such luck.

"Whatever it takes . . . that's the story of this team, isn't it?" Chuck Noll smiled and smiled. "Whatever it takes . . . even if it's a little luck. One busted play got them a touchdown, why shouldn't it get us one? 'An eye for an eye.' "

Elsewhere in the Steeler dressing room, there was delirium.

"I can't believe it. I saw it, and I can't believe it," said guard Bruce Van Dyke. "When they scored, my damn brain was gone. I can't believe it."

For three quarters and change it was a wholly believable game. Noll's "magnificent defense" controlled the third-most potent running game in the AFC and choked three turnovers out of the raiders, who had given up five when they lost here in the opener. The third one was costly.

The Steelers drove 67 yards to the Oakland 11 with the second-half kickoff to grab a 3-0 lead on Roy Gerela's 18-yard field goal. After an interception by Jack Ham and a fumble recovery by Glen Edwards had stalled two earlier drives. Mike Wagner fell on a fumble by Stabler at the Oakland 35 and five plays later Gerela was true from the 29 to make it 6-0.

The Raiders clung to life after the ensuing kickoff. Stabler completed four passes -- three on third-down plays -- to drive Oakland to the Steeler 30, at which point Fate went out to lunch.

The slim Oakland quarterback, nicknamed the snake for reasons which were immediately apparent, slipped outside a hard charge by rookie defensive end Craig Hanneman and fled 30 yards untouched into the end zone.

"I don't know what I would have done if ...." sighed Hanneman, who had just entered the game to replace Dwight White. "I put an arm out, but he did a reverse pivot. I was outside because we had a safety blitz going and I closed down. I should have smelled a rat."

Down by one with just 22 seconds left, Noll sent in a pass play with rookie receiver Barry Pearson.

"The pass was called to Pearson," explained Noll, who said he "could've kicked myself" for a fourth-and-one gamble from the raider 32 in the second quarter that misfired.

"Pearson got hung up and Frenchy adjusted his route, and Terry went to him. Tatum hit the ball and Franco made a fantastic catch. Franco had been blocking on the play and then went out. He was hustling . . . and all good things happen to those who keep hustling."

Harris was hustling and so was McMakin, whose partial block got him some precious running room. "I just fell down in front of somebody," said McMakin. "I can't believe it either."

The rest -- and in reality there wasn't anything else but those final five frantic seconds -- read from a mundane script. Neither team could control the line of scrimmage; consequently, neither could sustain a running game.

Possessed of the second-best ground game in the league, the Steelers rushed for only 108 yards, and a game plan built around throwing to the backs wasn't successful with the exception of the third-quarter march that brought Gerela's first field goal.

Armed with one of the more versatile offenses, Oakland got a meager 216 yards total offense, and Marv Hubbard, a 1000-yard-plus back, was held to 44 yards in 14 attempts. And Lamonica and Stabler, who entered with 11 minutes left and the Raiders plodding along, completed only 12 of 30 passes for just 78 yards.

Oakland was wedged into poor field position throughout the game by the Steeler defense and the punting of Bobby Walden, who got pressure punts of 59 and 62 yards, both of which set AFC playoff records.

Eight of the Raiders' 12 offensive series began inside their 22-yard line, and until they scored their deepest penetrations carried to the Steeler 47 and 44-yard lines.

Losing a first-round playoff game for the first time -- and dropping its fourth straight post-season game on the road -- Oakland suffered at the hands of the Steelers secondary. Fred Biletnikoff, who has led the AFC in receiving the past two years, made only three receptions and was just one of several Oakland receivers to drop good passes.

"Our coverage was just fine and we pressured them," said Noll.

Terry Bradshaw was more articulate.

"There aren't any words for our defense," he smiled.

"Luck? Sure we were lucky. After 40 years, why shouldn't we be? Who deserves it more?"

Who, indeed.



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