LaMarre: Final farewell to the greatest rivalry from NFL's Golden Era

Pittsburgh, PA, USA; General view of the statue of Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris (32) at the Pittsburgh International Airport to commemorate the immaculate reception against the Oakland Raiders in the 1972 AFC Divisional playoff game. Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

John Vella: “If it weren’t for the Steelers, we would have won five Super Bowl rings in the ’70s instead of one.”

In reality, one of the greatest rivalries in NFL history comes to an official end Sunday when the Pittsburgh Steelers play what is almost surely their last game in Oakland against the Raiders, who will move to Las Vegas by 2020.

In its heyday, it was the best the NFL could offer. So, with all due respect to the outstanding broadcast crew at FOX, for many it was sad to see this game flexed from NBC prime time Sunday to a 1:30 kickoff.

Surely, FOX's pre-game antagonist, Terry Bradshaw -- the Steelers' quarterback when this series sizzled -- will give the great rivalry a proper burial.

It all started with “The Immaculate Reception” on Dec. 23, 1972, at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, but there was much more to the rivalry between the Oakland Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers during the 1970s.

Pre-game meal: At dinner this week, Franco Harris (L), former Raiders LB Phill Villapiano (R) with former Raiders QB Jim Plunkett (standing)

Franco Harris (L), dined with former Raiders LB Phil Villiapiano before final rematch in Oakland. QB Jim Plunkett stands behind them

The teams play for the 23rd time during the regular season on Sunday at the Oakland Coliseum, but the rivalry is not even close to being what is was when it always deserved prime time attention.

The Raiders played the Steelers on 11 occasions during the decade of the 1970s -- and these games were part of the reason that was known as the Golden Era of the NFL. Although Oakland won six of those games, it was the Steelers who won three of the five fierce playoff games that were played in consecutive years from 1972-76.

It’s not a stretch to claim the Steelers won their four Super Bowls in the ’70s on the backs of the Raiders.

“If it weren’t for the Steelers, we would have won five Super Bowl rings in the ’70s instead of one,” Raiders tackle John Vella said.

Among the Raiders who would go on to the Pro Football Hall of Fame were guard Gene Upshaw, tackle Art Shell, center Jim Otto, quarterback Kenny (Snake) Stabler, wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff and tight end Dave Casper on offense, plus cornerback Willie Brown and linebacker Ted Hendricks on defense, along with quarterback-kicker George Blanda and punter Ray Guy.

The Steelers in the Hall from that era include defensive tackle Mean Joe Greene, middle linebacker Jack Lambert, linebacker Jack Ham and cornerback Blount from the Steel Curtain defense, plus running back Franco Harris, quarterback Terry Bradshaw, center Mike Webster and wide receivers John Stallworth and Lynn Swann.

Head coaches John Madden of the Raiders and Chuck Noll of the Steelers also are enshrined at Canton.

Those Raiders-Steelers games might be where the term “smash-mouth football” was first uttered.

“When we met the Steelers, we could have played the first half without the football and no one would have noticed,” Upshaw said.

In 1977, Noll was sued for libel by Raiders safety George Atkinson after a comment the coach made after a vicious hit by Atkinson on Swann. “You have a criminal element in every society, and apparently we have it here in the NFL, too,” Noll said, obviously referring to Atkinson.

Noll was found not guilty, but not until after admitting on the stand that Blount and some of the Steelers played the game the same way Atkinson did.

It was a different era and that was simply the way things were in the National Football League.

“When I woke up on the morning of a game against the Steelers, I knew I was going to get into a fight that day,” Vella said.

NFL Films has chosen “The Immaculate Reception” as the greatest play of all-time. After Stabler scrambled 30 yards for a go-ahead touchdown in the final minutes, Harris scored on what also is the most controversial play in history on a pass from Bradshaw give the Steelers a 13-7 victory.

That one has been replayed so many times, there is no reason to do it again here, but as mentioned earlier, it was only the beginning for the Raiders and Steelers.

In 1974, one week after the Raiders eliminated the two-time Super Bowl champion Miami Dolphins, Harris ran for the go-ahead touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter and the Steelers beat the Raiders, 24-13, in the AFC Championship game before defeating the Minnesota Vikings to claim their first Super Bowl title.

The next year in the bitter cold at Three Rivers, the Raiders reached the Pittsburgh 15-yard-line in the final seconds on Stabler’s long pass to Cliff Branch, but time ran out. The Steelers won, 16-10, and went on to beat the Dallas Cowboys in the Super Bowl.

“When we got to the Super Bowl after the 1967 season when I was a rookie, we thought we would get there every year, but we kept losing in the playoffs,” Upshaw said. “It was always wait ’til next year.”

Next year finally came for the Raiders when they went 16-1 in 1976. Stabler led the Raiders to two late touchdowns to beat the New England Patriots, 24-21, on his touchdown keeper behind Upshaw in the closing seconds of the playoff opener.

The Steelers were waiting in the AFC Championship Game.

This time, the Raiders dominated, 24-7, as Harris and fellow running back Rocky Bleier were out with injuries, and after the game Greene met Upshaw under the stands at the Coliseum to pass the torch.

“He told me we had to win to uphold the AFC’s superiority in the Super Bowl,” Upshaw said.

The Raiders did, with a resounding 32-14 victory over the Vikings at the Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena, but there were nonbelievers in Steel City.

When the Raiders traveled east for the second game of the 1977 season, the media and fans in Pittsburgh were calling the game “the real Super Bowl,” and that things would be different with Harris and Bleier healthy.

But the Raiders had other ideas and pounded out a 16-7 victory on the rock-hard turf at Three Rivers in what might have been the most physical game these two great rivals every played.

Both teams lost several players to injuries in the last of their classic playoff matches of the memorable decade and neither team reached the Super Bowl that year.

But the Raiders and Steelers fans who witnessed them will never forget, not to mention the players.

When Lambert was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990, he said: “Every player here would like the chance to play one more game. If I could play one more, it would be against the Oakland Raiders, because that was real football.”

It hasn’t be been that for a while. And after Sunday it will be buried once and for all in halls of NFL history.

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Jay Casey
Jay Casey

Those were brutal and beautiful games. Both teams were all in every time