Chuck Noll's Steelers team in 1977 needed Houston to win in order to clinch a playoff berth — and win the Oilers did, earning themselves some nice new luggage from the guys back in Pittsburgh.
By Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It all will be so instantaneous today. As you watch the Steelers try to earn a playoff berth in Cleveland, they will need help simultaneously in Buffalo. There, the Bills must beat the New York Jets to give the Steelers half the equation they need to make it as a wild card in the AFC.
You won’t have trouble finding updates on the Bills-Jets game. CBS’ broadcast of the Steelers-Browns will be all over that. Or you can turn to Twitter, NFL.com, ESPN.com or most any other dot.com that is NFL related.
It was not that way in 1977.
A dime’s worth of hope
The Steelers were trying to squeeze into the playoffs with a shot to become the first team to win three Super Bowls. At 8-5, they played their final game in that 14-game season at San Diego, a 4 p.m. start. It was meaningless to them, win or lose.
What held all the meaning that day was an earlier kickoff in Houston, where the Oilers played Cincinnati. The Oilers were already eliminated. But if they beat the Bengals, it would give the Steelers the AFC Central Division title by virtue of tiebreakers. If the Bengals won, they were the champs and the Steelers would not make the playoffs.
Cincinnati was on a roll, having won four in a row, including a 17-10 victory against the Steelers the previous week at Riverfront Stadium. Asking the Oilers to win was a long shot.
I covered that game in San Diego for the Tribune-Review in Greensburg. At the hotel beforehand, we watched the Bengals and Oilers play until it was time to leave for the Steelers game. Just before we did, Pittsburgh Press writer Glenn Sheeley received a phone call in his room from Joe Gordon, the team’s public relations man.
Gordon told Sheeley the Bengals-Oilers game was not on the TV at the stadium. He asked Sheeley to leave his TV on and put the hotel phone next to it. He did, and when we arrived at the stadium in San Diego, Gordon was on a payphone in a room off the side of the press box. He was listening to the Bengals-Oilers game back in Sheeley’s hotel room and relaying the information to a growing crowd around him that included Steelers brass and the press.
That was the only way anyone in the Steelers party could follow the outcome of the game that would either put them in the playoffs or keep them out of it.
In those days before the Internet, cell phones and text messages, it all came down to a payphone connected to a sports writer’s hotel room.
Gordon would relay what he heard on the TV. “Curt Gowdy says …” Finally, the game ended and Houston indeed pulled the upset victory, 21-16, to send the Steelers into the 1977 playoffs.
Word, I assume, was relayed to Chuck Noll and his players on the field, where they muddled through a meaningless 10-9 victory.
The Steelers players were so appreciative that they took up a collection and bought nice, leather briefcases for each Oilers player and coach. It is something that likely was never done before nor since.
Given new life, the Steelers of that ill-fated 1977 season went out to Denver for their first playoff game and fell flat. The Orange Crush Broncos beat them, 34-21, so there was no happy ending. A nice, unique story though.
And when the Steelers played in that same San Diego stadium with that same press box this year, I checked out the room where Gordon used the payphone to let the Steelers know they made the playoffs. The payphone, like most others, was gone.
A dazzling perfecta of good luck
The scene and the circumstances were much different in 1989, when the Steelers entered their final game of the season needing too many other things to go right for them to even take their playoff chances seriously.
But they had a chance. They had won four of their previous five games to almost shockingly climb back into the wild-card race with an 8-7 record after an ignominious start that included opening losses to the Browns and Bengals by a combined 92-10.
Their final game took place Christmas Eve in Tampa, Fla., against the Buccaneers. They needed to win that game and have a gazillion other things happen right up to the Monday night game the next day. They needed the Giants to beat the Raiders, the Saints to beat the Colts, the Chiefs to beat the Dolphins and, finally, the Vikings to beat the Bengals Monday night.
One thing they did not need to happen, but it did — it snowed in Tampa. A light snow, but enough to see white on palm branches and ice on bridges. Maybe that was a sign.
It was so cold the electricity went out in our hotel room overnight and into the next morning. The Steelers then went out and did their part, beating the Buccaneers, 31-22.
Every other piece of the puzzle fell into place. All that remained was a Bengals loss Monday night to the Vikings. Minnesota led, 19-0, then held off a furious Cincinnati comeback to win, 29-21. The loss dropped the Bengals to 8-8, last in the AFC Central and out of the playoffs. All the other Central teams made the playoffs — the Steelers and Oilers wild cards at 9-7 and the Browns the champs at 9-6-1.
The Steelers upset the Oilers in their first playoff game when Gary Anderson hit a 50-yard field goal in overtime in the Astrodome. They had John Elway and the Broncos on the ropes next in Denver until some typical late-game Elway drive won it, 24-23, as the Steelers offense came up short at the end.
Had the Steelers won that game, they would have played for the AFC championship the following week in Cleveland, a juicy proposition. Instead, the Browns followed their career path and lost again to the Broncos, 37-21, in the AFC title game. Then the Broncos fell to 0-4 in Super Bowl visits by getting pasted by the San Francisco 49ers, 55-10.
Nevertheless, that 1989 team can serve as a lesson, as well as that from the more successful one in 2005: Just get in the playoffs, because after that, anything might happen.
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