This story from the Post-Gazette archives was first published on December 23, 1980.
SAN DIEGO -- Pride couldn't go before the fall of the four-time Super Bowl champs, it had to follow.
The reign of the Steelers had fallen on Sunday when New England dumped New Orleans. For the first time since 1971, the Steelers were ending their season like 17 other teams whose pre-season dreams were destroyed by regular-season reality.
"One of the things about being on top is that you will be falling and that fall will be bad," Steelers cornerback Mel Blount said. Last night, the Steelers proved that pride can follow the fall.
No, the Steelers didn't end the National Football League's craziest season with an upset win over San Diego. In fact, they lost 26-17. No, an innovative defensive game plan that used five defensive backs couldn't stop San Diego from gaining 488 yards in total offense, particularly 308 through the air. No, this was the "happy-never-after ending" that fit the Steelers' 9-7 season, good for only third place in the American Conference Central Division.
Yet, the Steelers showed pride. If you can't beat them, just have a lot of fun. So the Steelers and Chargers entertained 51,785 fans and a national television audience with a game that was as exciting as space fights in Star Wars. The game featured 30 plays that had gains of at least 10 yards, 790 yards in total offense, 561 yards in passing, offense and 43 first downs.
In the end, the Chargers wound up with an 11-5 record and their second straight American Conference Western Division championship.
San Diego's victory eliminated New England, bumped AFC West rival Oakland to a wild-card showdown against Houston and forced the Oilers to step out of the "Luv Ya Blue" Astrodome to visit Al Davis, the Raiders owner who Raiderized Bum Phillips.
Much of the football world wondered if the Steelers would roll over and play dead Super Bowl champs. Oddsmakers favored the Chargers by four points.
The Chargers feared the Steelers might arise from the dead. Their fears were justified. Four times the Steelers stopped the pass-crazy Chargers inside the Steeler 14. Were it not for Rolf Benirschke's four field goals, the Chargers might have been joining the Steelers in a Christmas toast to the also rans.
The Steelers tried. That they didn't do it was an indictment of the pride of the team. Steeler coaches even worked overtime last week devising a fresh way of defensing the Chargers unstoppable receivers, John Jefferson, Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow. Linebacker Robin Cole was replaced by defensive back Dwayne Woodruff.
"It's nothing new," safety Mike Wagner explained. "Because they are running three and four wide receivers, we put a defensive back in for a linebacker to take the pressure off a slower linebacker to stop a faster receiver."
It seemed like a good idea, particularly on the first play when cornerback Rob Johnson stuffed Winslow a the line of scrimmage.
"If I were covering the Chargers, I would double-cover Jefferson and Joiner and put single coverage on me," said Winslow, a 6-6, 252 pound second year phenom. "I'm the biggest and I'm the slowest. You can only double-cover so many people or you start taking away people from your pass rush."
But he may be the best. Chargers quarterback Dan Fouts threw to Winslow 15 times. Winslow caught 10 for 171 yards. To counteract the Steelers' five-back defense, Jefferson and Winslow would continuously move in motion to any side. By the end of the game, Winslow caught passes in so many places, he was tackled by seven different defensive players.
"They scouted us well," Blount said. "They knew what we were doing."
When the game was over, All-Pro middle linebacker Jack Lambert found the solution to stopping Winslow. "Use a .44 Magnum," Lambert said with a serious face.
When Winslow wasn't catching, Chuck Muncie was running for 115 yards. The Uniontown native became the second player this year to gain more than 100 yards against the Steelers.
When Winslow and Muncie weren't leveling the Steelers' defense with their power, Fouts was picking it apart with his gentle release. Fouts completed 21 of 38 passes for 308 yards, setting an NFL record for the most 300-yard games in a season -- eight.
While on the subject of records, the Chargers finished the season with an NFL record 6,414 yards in total offense, breaking a 19-year-old mark set by the Houston Oilers of the American Football League (6,288). Winslow won the NFL pass-receiving championship with 89 catches. Jefferson was fourth with 82; Joiner had 71.
"I think nobody will stop the Chargers in the playoffs," said Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw, who completed 16 of 32 passes for 272 yards.
The Chargers look like the team to beat, but they did last season when they had the home-field advantage for the playoffs but lost to Houston in the first round. At that time, Winslow was sidelined with a broken leg. Benirschke was several pounds lighter because of the intestinal ailment, Chron's Disease. Muncie was missing planes and practices in New Orleans.
"No one player can make that much of a difference," Winslow said. "You can't say we would have gone to the Super Bowl if I was playing. That's history."
And Winslow dislikes history.
"Pittsburgh's playoff streak lasted longer than any other team, but the Steelers aren't gods," Winslow offered. "They've got a good team. But the NFL goes in cycles. When you think of Pittsburgh, you think of an unbeatable team even though they aren't going to the playoffs. But they are just people like everybody else."
The humbled Steelers didn't start the game like disabled veterans. Bradshaw completed passes to Lynn Swann and Theo Bell against Chargers cornerback Willie Buchanon. But placekicker Matt Bahr, who sprained his left ankle in practice Sunday, sent a 29-yard attempt wide left.
Then Fouts began attacking. Twice he hit Winslow for 21 yards and handed off seven times to Muncie for 30 more. But the big play that set up a 38-yard field goal by Benirschke was a 15-yard pass to Muncie on a third-and-7 from the Steelers' 36.
Linebacker Jack Ham charged through the line untouched, but Fouts released a swing pass to Muncie. Defensive end L.C. Greenwood was stunned and watched as Muncie raced for 15 yards.
The Steelers struck back. Instead of going for a fourth-and-1 at the Chargers's 15, Steelers Coach Chuck Noll summoned Bahr, who booted a 32-yard second-quarter field goal to tie the score.
That is when air Coryell attacked by land and by air. In five plays of runs and passes, the Chargers moved from their 7 to the Steelers' 20, but the drive stalled. Benirschke booted a 26-yarder. The 25-year-old kicker booted another 26-yarder with two seconds left in the half to give the Chargers a 9-3 lead.
The game was won on the first play of the second half. Winslow ran the sidelines and got 7 yards behind Blount. Fouts lofted a perfect pass that Winslow converted into a 59-yard gain. On fourth down from Steelers' 1, Fouts went into the line for a touchdown to open an uncatchable 16-3 lead.
"We decided at halftime that we weren't going to sit on anything," Winslow said. "Nobody was going to give us the game."
Neverthless, the Steelers showed their character by fighting back. Even on the last play of the game, the Steelers were fighting for a meaningless touchdown. Bradshaw found Bennie Cunningham for a 16-yard touchdown that cut the deficit to nine points.
"You don't give up," running back Franco Harris said. "A lot of things we hoped would happen this season just didn't happen.Maybe it's a good thing. We will sit back in the offseason and have time to look at it and hopefully master it. Not everybody has had the chance to win three Super Bowls in a row."
"I'm optimistic that we will be back next year," Blount said. "We've learned a lot of things this year. It's a good year to look back on and realize that we will have to work harder next season."
As the game entered the final minutes, two Chargers fans in the end zone posted the paper sign that said, "Sore Thumb in '81," a takeoff on the Steelers' "One for the Thumb in '81," slogan. The Steelers left the field with sore thumbs, but their thumbs were pointed up. They left Charger stadium with their dignity.