Wide receiver John Stallworth and Franco Harris led Pittsburgh to a 33-10 bridling of the Denver Broncos today and earned the Steelers the right to play for the American Football Conference title Jan 7.
Stallworth made a surpassingly aristic catch of a 45-yard touchdown pass from Terry Bradshaw to start a 14-0 Steeler blitz in the fouth quarter. He had nine other Receptions and totaled 156 yards receiving.
Harris kept the Broncos honest with 105 yards in 24 carries and Bradshaw hung in there despite savage pressure to complete 16 of 29 passes for 272 yards and two touchdowns, after getting off to a good start in the first 30 minutes with 10 completions in 18 attempts for 130 yards.
Now the Steelers will watch Sunday's televised game between the New England Patriots and Houston Oilers to see which they will play here next week for the right to go to the Jan. 21 Super Bowl.
The Steelers just might pick up a tip or two from the telecasts, as they did from watching Denver films last week.
Stallworth said the game plan dictated that Bradshaw go to him because the Steelers knew the Broncos would be concentrating on the other wide receiver, Lynn Swann, who had 61 receptions and 11 touchdowns coming into today's game.
"We went deep on defensive back Steve Foley in our last game of the regular season (a 21-17 victory over the Broncos in Denver) and scored a touchdown. They play a lot of zone defense.
"It worked initially today for us and it worked for the whole game. Late in the game they moved over a linebacker and safety Bill Thompson to help Foley."
Bradshaw passed 38 yards to Swann for a touchdown, within 34 seconds of the 45-yarder to Stallworth.
Stallworth said the touchdown pass to him originally was designed to go to Swann, "But I saw Bradshaw get pressure and I pointed to where I could get open. He just threw it a mile high. I thought it never would come down. I usually can outjump most defensive backs (because) I was a high jumper before I went to college."
Stallworth went up for the ball with Foley, cornerback Louis Wright and Thompson. Foley was closest and highest in his challenge to Stallworth.
The Broncos were behind by only 19-10 in the third quarter when they reached the Pittsburgh 11-yard line and Jim Turner lined up for a 29-yard field-goal attempt.
It would have put the Broncos in a position to win the snug defensive battle with a seven-pointer, since Roy Gerela of the Steelers had missed a conversion attempt in the first quarter after the first of two touchdown runs by Harris in the first half.
Steeler defensive tackle Joe Greene blocked Turner's attempt. He said it resulted from something that had been seen in Denver films.
"We noticed that center Bobby Maples would come off the ball a little high. Steve Furness (defensive tackle) and I double-teamed Maples. We got underneath him, got enough penetration and rushed in with our hands over our heads.We tried it on a Denver conversion and another field goal attempt."
Harris' touchdown runs of one and 18 yards gave him 12 TDs in playoff competition, an NFL record. Stallworth's 10 receptions set a division playoff record.
The Steelers eventually rolled up 425 yards total offense to 218 for the Broncos and chased starting Denver quarterback Craig Morton in the second quarter after he had hit three of five passes for 34 yards.
He was replaced by the more-mobile Norris Weese, who completed eight of 16 passes for 118 yards, ran four times for 43 yards and was sacked five times for losses totaling 30 yards.
Denver's only touchdown came on a three-yard run by Dave Preston 1:56 before halftime to trim the Pittsburgh lead to 16-10
"I thought the momentum might have turned our way a little bit when we scored, but they came right back at us," Weese said.
"It was like their offense was telling their defense, 'We're still here to play.'"
But the Brocos could not move the ball on the ground for more than 87 yards.
This was the Steelers' 56th victory against 12 defeats in nine years at Three River Stadium.
The agony the defending AFC champion Broncos felt after the rout was diminished somewhat by a belief that the Steelers are the odds-on favorites to win the Super Bowl.
"I don't know what else to tell you except they beat us, they're a better football team, and they'll probably win the whole thing," said Denver defensive end Lyle Alzado. "Bradshaw is incredible. We knew if Terry got hot he'd hurt us, and he got hot."
A year ago the Broncos crushed the Steelers, 34-21, in an AFC semifinal before a Denver crowd delirious with Broncomania. This year the tables were turned in rainy Three Rivers Stadium, as Pittsburgh fans decked out in Steeler slickers waved their black, gold and yellow lucky charms, bathroom linens known as "terrible towels."
I think the home field is always an advantage," Denver Coach Red Miller said, "but I don't think we were fearful coming in here. We knew it would be rough and rowdy, and that's the way it should be.
"We faced a very good football team, and we didn't play up to our potential. The difference was their control of the line of scrimmage both ways-their ability to control the ball by running and passing-and our inability to run the ball coupled with the excellent passing of Bradshaw and a few calls that didn't go our way."
Of those calls, the one that probably hurt most was made against Foley, who was covering Stallworth when he hauled in the 45-yard Bradshaw pass at the rear of the end zone. Stallworth came down with one foot out of bounds, but the referees ruled Foley had pushed Stallworth out in mid-air.
"I thought he was out," Foley said. "I asked Stallworth and he said he didn't know. I think the referee was watching for interference and didn't see the feet. There was a bit of contact, but both of us were going for the ball. It was a bigh play because it put us down 16 points in the forth quarter.
"But," Foley added, "we shall return. CAPTION: Picture 1, Steeler John Stallworth makes difficult touchdwon catch in fourth quarter, one of 10 completions for a playoff records. UPI;Picture 2, Denver's Bill Thompson flings Steeler receiver Lynn Swann to turf, but officials allowed fourth-quarter score. AP; Pictures 3, Franco Harris of the Steelers is chased by Louis Wright of the Broncos. Harrisscored his second Touchdown of game. UPI