The Pittsburgh Steelers dominate the contests with the Cincinnati Bengals and this season’s opening win in Cincinnati saw them increase their win total to 68-38. In Pittsburgh their dominance is 35-17.
Although the Steelers dictated the exchanges in the seventies, it was the Bengals who went to the playoffs first. While Coach Noll was still building his team in Pittsburgh, the Bengals won the AFC Central in 1970, but lost the divisional game.
On their way to their first two Super Bowl victories, Pittsburgh had to brush aside their division rivals to progress to the playoffs.
The Steelers went into the 1976 season as back-to-back world champions and the team everybody wanted to beat. They went 5-2 in preseason and felt they were ready for the season opener in Oakland. They came up short losing 31-28, but a win over Cleveland the following week appeared to have kick-started their season.
Three defeats followed that win, including a loss in the Cleveland return game. The Steelers season looked to be over already when they prepared for the visit of the Bengals. One jokester paid for a classified advertisement in the Pittsburgh Press suggesting the demise of the Pittsburgh Steelers season.
When the Bengals traveled to Pittsburgh, they were tied on top of the AFC Central division with the Houston Oilers.
The Steelers would be without Terry Bradshaw who suffered back and neck injuries while being sacked in the Browns loss. Rookie Mike Kruczek, who had thrown just 4 passes in the NFL, would be his replacement as the Steelers looked to break their three-game losing streak. Neil Graff was Kruczek’s backup.
With Bradshaw out, the Bengals were realistic about their chances of winning. “The Steelers may not have Bradshaw,” said defensive end Gary Burley, “but all Harris and Bleier need is someone to hand them the ball. Their passing game could hurt us, but not as much as their running game. I don’t think anyone can shut off Harris and Bleier, but we can keep them to a minimum.”
The (1-4) Steelers vs (4-1) Bengals; October 17, 1976
Behind their rookie quarterback, the Steelers tactic of running the ball took time to get into gear. While they could only make one first down in their first three series, the Bengals took the lead with a 22-yard field goal.
As Franco Harris began to find his feet, he moved the Steelers into position for Roy Gerela to kick a 42-yard field goal. With the offense sparking into life, the defense also played their part. A Jack Lambert interception that he returned 22 yards swung the game Pittsburgh’s way. Seven plays later Harris plunged through the Bengals’ defense for a 1-yard touchdown.
On Cincinnati’s next drive, Lenvil Elliott caught a pass, but a hit from Lambert saw the ball come loose which he recovered to give the Steelers the ball on their opponent’s 42. Gerela’s field goal from 19 yards gave Pittsburgh a 13-3 halftime lead.
The Bengals controlled the third quarter but could only manage a 19-yard field goal after they intercepted a Kruczek pass.
As the game entered the final period, Kruczek put together a drive when it was most needed. He completed three times on third downs as the Steelers went 67 yards in 13 plays finishing with another 1-yard touchdown run from Harris.
Using Harris to take seven minutes off the clock, Kruczek moved the chains before Gerela added a 30-yard field for the final score. During the drive, Kruczek was hit out of bounds producing a Bengals penalty and the wrath of Lambert who leapt from the sideline to administer his own justice on the offending Bengal.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 23 vs the Cincinnati Bengals 6
Franco Harris set an NFL record with his 41 carries, and it remains the franchise record. His 143 yards rushing saw Harris become the Steelers all-time leading rusher with 4,485 yards, moving ahead of John Henry Johnson (4,383).
Harris still holds the overall franchise records with 11,950 yards rushing and 91 rushing touchdowns. Harris will be honored for the Immaculate Reception in December, but he should be remembered for more than just one play.
“I was proud of the way Mike Kruczek played,” said Coach Noll. When a reporter suggested Kruczek appeared shaky in the beginning, Noll replied, “I thought he looked pretty damn good myself.”
“I hate losing more than anything,” admitted Jack Lambert. “Nothing makes me madder.” On his sideline altercation, “Some of our guys have been getting banged around quite a bit lately. In my opinion, he was out of bounds when he got hit, and we’re in a position where we can’t lose Mike Kruczek.”
With Houston losing, the Steelers improved their position in the division, but still needed to win all their remaining games to make the playoffs. This they did when on the final day of the regular season they beat the Oilers in Houston. Against all the odds they won their third straight division title.
The Steelers rolled over Baltimore in the playoffs but came up short in the AFC Championship game in Oakland. Without Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier who were injured, Pittsburgh struggled. After the loss, Coach Noll noted, “If they were in, we would have won.”
A season that had begun so badly before blossoming into a run of ten wins finally wilted in the playoffs without their rushing tandem. Steeler fans would have to wait another season before seeing their team return to the Super Bowl.