Trouble was, the Oilers never established their swimming game. Pittsburgh beat Houston, 34-5, today to gain entrance to the Super Bowl. They played in a freezing rain that transformed Three Rivers Stadium into One Big Lake. The winning quarterback is the husband of an ice skater, and maybe that explains today's mysteries as well as anything.
Terry Bradshaw of the Steelers is better known in figure-eight circles as Mr. Jo Jo Starbuck. Skating in cleats today, Bradshaw threw passes as if warmed by the summer sun. His opposite number, Dan Pastorini, was an abominable snowman. Bradshaw had two touchdown passes and 200 yards; Pastorini threw for only 96 yards and put up five interceptions.
"Just goes to show ya football ain't meant to be played outdoors," said the Oiler publicity master, Jack Cherry. Houston's comfy Astrodome would have reduced the incidence of pneumonia in the 49,417 raincoated crazies who dared the 26-degree temperature. But had the game gone on in Martinique, say, the Oilers had no chance.
The Steelers are the best team in fooball. They beat Denever, 33-10, a week ago and could have named the number today. Someone wondered if the teams would change uniforms at halftime to get dry, and a wise guy said, "If the Oilers are half smart, they'll put on black-and-gold uniforms."
They would have fumbled the pants.
The Oilers fumbled six times in the first half. The best running back alive, Earl Campbell, fumbled three times in a stretch of four carries. With 83 seconds to play in the first half, Pittsburgh led by only 14-3.
Then began what a football purist might have called a vaulgar parody of his beloved sport.Everyone else was laughing his socks off. Franco Harris of the Steelers had fumbled for the fourth time, giving Houston hope, but Houston fumbled the ball back.
Bang, Bradshaw hit Lynn Swann for a touchdown. I's 21-3 with 52 seconds to play in the half.
And here comes the Oilers' Johnnie Dirden returning the next kickoff. The Steelers are steaming downfield. And before anyone gets within five yards of Dirden, the guy fumbles. The ball suddenly pops up in the air.Pittsburgh recovers.
Bang, Bradshaw hits John Stallworth for a touchdown. It's 28-3 with 33 seconds left.
On Houston's first play, another fumble. Bang, Roy Gerela kicks a field goal and it's 31-3.
In 48 seconds, the Steelers scored 17 points while the Oilers ran exactly one play from scrimmage.
By halftime, there had been 11 fumbles. Someone suggested issuing suitcases to the runners in the second half, the better to carry the slithering spheroid. Pastorini took the heat off his ball-carriers by throwing all those interceptions. Running or throwing, Houston was going nowhere against Pittsburgh defenders whose only weakness may be Kryptonite.
That defense won the game early in the second quarter when Pittsburgh led, 14-0. A Harris fumble set up the Oilers deep in Pittsburgh territory and it came to second and goal at the three. Campbell gained nothing in a crash at the middle, but a teammate was offside, so the Steelers had a choice.
Would they move the Oilers back five yards and give them two tries from eight yards away? That would be the obvious choice. Or would the Steelers refuse the penalty and leave the Oilers so very close to a touchdown that would make it 14-7?
The Steelers declined the penalty. They said, in effect, "Come on, Houston, nobody gains three yards on us, not even if he's Earl Campbell."
Dared so, Houston gave in. It kicked a field goal.
The Steelers will play the National Football Conference champion Dallas Cowboys for the NFL title in the Super Bowl Jan. 21 in Miami.
With Bradshaw operating beautifully to his elegant wide receivers Swann and Stallworth... with Rocky Bleier and Harris running well... with that mighty defense denting Pastorini's flak jacket at will, Pittsburgh brought to an end a season that Campbell still could call "a dream come true."
Before Campbell's arrival at Houston this season, the Oilers were an incomplete team. He gave them a running game. They won games narrowly; 10 of 12 victories were by a touchdown or less. With Pastorini in distress today, the Oilers needed a big game from Campbell. Instead, he fumbled and fumbled.
"Sometimes you think you have it, and it goes floating," he said afterward. He was composed, a gracious loser who said he hopes the Steelers win it all. He had played in such terrible conditions only once, he said. But he was "about 90 percent effective." No excuses.
"I'm disappointed, the way it went today," Campbell said. "I felt kinda left out."
Then the rookie smiled.
"I love playing with these guys on this team," Campbell said. "They lay it on the line every play. Next year is a long time off, but we'll be better because now we know what it takes to get here. We'll be back here.We'll be standing right here with a few more smiles."