The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Denver Broncos are evenly split at 7-7 when they meet in Pittsburgh, but Denver hold a 13-5-1 advantage playing in the rarefied air of Mile High. Last season the game was played in the Steel City where the Steelers edged a 26-21 victory.
After winning their first pair of Super Bowls, the Steelers fell short the following two years losing in the playoffs. When the 1978 season began, Coach Noll wanted to rid the team of the distractions that had adversely affected it the previous year.
“We’re trying to rid ourselves of distractions,” he said before adding, “We can’t have another season like last year. We’ve got to work like hell to get the distractions settled.”
Ernie Holmes was the first part of the peace process put in motion by Coach Noll when he was traded to Tampa Bay for a couple of low draft picks,
Steve Furness approved of the trade suggesting, “I think Ernie really hurt our team. “With him gone, we have a lot faster guys and we can do so much more.” With a touch of ridicule, Furness added, “You need guys that can run to rush the passer and you can’t run when you are fat.”
With revitalized and happier players who were hungry to return to the championship game, the Steelers only lost two regular season games before playing the Broncos in the finale. The Steelers took a three touchdown advantage into the second half before the Broncos fought back to within touching distance, although the Steelers held firm to take the 21-17 win.
The previous season’s divisional playoff game in Denver saw Terry Bradshaw throw three interceptions as the Broncos won 34-21. Before the divisional playoff game in Pittsburgh, Bradshaw acknowledged, “That’s all in the past. Last year, we weren’t together as a team. We had problems. This year we’ve always felt like we’re gonna win. It’s a good feeling, but it hasn’t been easy.”
Bradshaw held a 4-1 record in post season games played in Three Rivers Stadium. “I’m going to relax and have some fun,” he said. “But I’m alert. I’m wired up. I’m ready to get going.”
“Seems like nobody can beat the mighty Steelers,” observed Denver’s quarterback Craig Morton. “They’ve talked themselves into having already won the game. On the plane on their way back from the last regular season game, they were praying they’d get us. Well, they got their wish. We won’t out-talk them. Nobody can do that. Maybe we can out-play them.”
It was after the regular season win that apparently a few Steelers poked fun at the Broncos. After a few comments made the newspapers, Denver’s coach Red Miller handed them out to his players to motivate them for the playoffs.
The Steelers (14-2) vs the (10-6) Broncos December 30, 1978, AFC Division playoff game
Denver put the first points on the board with a 37-yard field goal, but the Steelers then took the ball and control of the game. Terry Bradshaw led his team 66 yards on eight plays with Franco Harris taking it over for a 1-yard touchdown. With the conversion failing, Pittsburgh took a 6-3 lead into the second quarter.
As early as the second quarter, Broncos’ coach Red Miller decided to replaced his ineffective quarterback Craig Morton with Norris Weese, while Harris was continuing to rack up the yards for the Steelers. A further 18-yard sweep from Harris for a touchdown increased the Steelers lead before Roy Gerela added two field goals either side of a Broncos touchdown. The Steelers led 19-10 at the half.
With eight minutes remaining in the third quarter as the Broncos pressed to close the deficit, Joe Greene struck. Greene knocked Denver’s center back five yards before blocking the Broncos’ 29-yard field goal attempt. The missed field goal brought an abrupt end to any thoughts of a Broncos comeback.
As Denver’s energy wilted, Bradshaw and the Steelers were able to turn the screw. Bradshaw launched touchdown passes of 45 and 38 yards to John Stallworth and Lynn Swann respectively.
Those two strikes came within 44 seconds of each other. Bradshaw led the team on a drive of 79 yards for the first. On the ensuing kickoff, the Broncos fumbled the return and Pittsburgh’s Dennis Winston recovered to set up the second score to close out the Steelers victory.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 33 vs the Denver Broncos 10
Harris rushed for 105 yards and Stallworth had 156 yards receiving from 10 catches which set an NFL divisional playoff record.
“We went into the game figuring they were going to take away Lynn Swann by double covering him,” admitted Terry Bradshaw. “So, we intended from the start to get the ball to John. I keep saying he’s as good a receiver as Swann and he showed it today. I had a lot of room and I just kept firing away at them.”
“Terry Bradshaw was incredible. We knew if he got hot, we’d be in trouble, and he got hot!” observed Denver’s defensive end Lyle Alzado. “That was the best offensive performance against us in the last two years. They’re a better football team, and they’ll probably win the whole thing.”
And win the whole thing the Steelers succeeded in doing after rolling over the Houston Oilers 34-5 in the AFC Championship game. The Steelers went on to meet the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII when they produced a formidable performance to win 35-31 and bring their third Lombardi back to Pittsburgh.