At last, a Super Bowl game that dares to be great, a contest that seems to justify all the hype and hoopla, is upon us.
The Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers, a pair of teams with few flaws and oh-so-many fabulous football players, meet at the Orange Bowl Sunday at 4 p.m. (WRC-TV-4). The winner will become the first team ever to prevail in three Super Bowl games.
Oddsmakers say the Steelers, 16-2 this season, with a seven game-winning streak, are 3 1/2-point favorites over the defending world-champion Cowboys, a team that started slowly, then won its last eight games for a 14-4 mark.
The weatherman may make some last-minute adjustments in the point spread. A 50 percent chance of rain is forecast here for Sunday afternoon, conditions that could favor the Steelers. Pittsburgh wiped out the Houston Oilers, 34-5, in a freezing rainstorm to win the AFC title game and the right to play Dallas.
Both teams feature big-play offenses and body-battering defenses, and both teams have demonstrated a distinct disdain for each other during the week-long pregame buildup.
The basic commandment of professional football -- Thou Shalt Not Insult Thy Foe -- has been broken many times. Players on both sides have been talking intimidation all week, and Thomas Henderson, the loud linebacker backer from Dallas, has been spouting offensive one,two- and three-liners ad nauseam.
But all that silliness seems unnecessary as the two very best teams in football come together for the first rematch in 13 Super Bowl games. The Steelers prevailed, 21-17, in 1975 when, as Henderson said, "We were just little kids. We're grown up now. And we owe them one."
The Steelers hope to put the Cowboys deeper in debt with an offense that leans even more heavily on the arm of quarterback Terry Bradshaw than it did four years ago.
The combination of Bradshaw to Lynn Swann was the decisive factor in the 1975 game. Swann caught four passes for a record 161 yards and the game-winning touchdown that day.
Swann continues to make the graceful grab for the Steelers, with 61 receptions during the regular season. Bradshaw also aims frequently at deep threat
John Stallworth, who had 41 catches and average almost 20 yards per reception.
"Those are the guys we have to stop," said Cowboy safety Cliff Harris. "When they catch the ball -- I should say if they catch the ball -- they are going to pay for it. They are going to get hit hard, and they are going to get hit a lot."
"I hope he has the opportunity to hit me 10 or 12 times, because that'll mean I'll have the football," said Swann, who insists he has no problems with a bruised left foot suffered in a freaky practice-field accident early in the week.
"I know those guys are going to take an extra tough shot at me, but you conquer that by doing something to get even. You catch the ball. I won't get hit unless I have the ball, so I'll take my chances.
Bradshaw has enjoyed his finest year as a professional quarterback, completing 56 percent of his passes and throwing for 28 touchdowns, a club record. Like his Cowboy counterpart, Roger Staubach, he will be the staring quarterback in next week's Pro Bowl, a game that will feature 10 Steelers and nine Cowboys.
"Terry's play-calling and maturity this year have been phenomenal," Swann said the other day. "Time after time, he's made the great call or made the great play. We have all the confidence in the world in him."
Bradshaw has another potent weapon in his arsenal, a tank with speed in fullback Franco Harris. Harris gained 1,082 yards this season, and only fumbled the ball once in 310 carries. "When he hits you," said Cowboy safety Charlie Waters, "he hurts you."
The Cowboys have some super stingers of their own, and also have the advantage over the Steelers in whoosh power. Dallas tailback Tony Dorsett gives the Cowboys a dimension Pittsburgh lacks -- speed to the outside -- and receivers Tony Hill and Drew Pearson can be as effective as Swann and Stallworth.
Staubach was no slouch either this year, hitting 56 percent of his throws and connecting for 25 touchdowns, also a team record. He also picked up 182 yards running and threw only 16 interceptions, four less than Bradshaw.
The Cowboys led the NFL in scoring during the regular season with 384 points, while the Steelers were No. 1 in scoring defense, allowing only 195. A Steeler offense that scored 356 points goes against a Dallas defense that yielded 208.
Both teams use the 4-3 defense, and both teams' major weakness appers to be in the secondary, particularly at cornerback. The Steelers start Ron Johnson on the left side. Johnson is the only rookie starter in the game, and Staubach will probably test him early.
Cowboy cornerback Benny Barnes has been a weak link all year, although Cowboy safeties Harris and Waters frequently come to his rescue in double-coverage situations. The safeties also blitz far more often than their Steeler counterparts.
The Cowboys led the NFL in quarterback sacks, with 58, and the Steelers are most concerned about Dallas tackle Randy White, even if the former Maryland All-America goes into the game with a broken left thumb.
Sam Davis, the Steelers' 12-year veteran left guard, draws the Blocking assignment opposite White in one of the game's most critical matchups. "You don't see me here shaking in my boots," Davis said. "Randy's a great player, but I don't get beat too often. By anybody."
Both teams seem rather evenly matched in the kicking game, with one major exception. While Cowboy placekicker Rafael Septen made 16 of his 26 attempts, including 13 of 16 inside the 40, the Steelers' Roy Gerela has had a mostly abominable year.
He managed only 12 of 26 field-goal attempts during the regular season, with three-for-eight accuracy from the 30 to 39 and three-for-nine from the 40 to 49. He has made a comeback in the playoffs, with a four-for-four performance inside the 39.
With the exception of Henderson, who says 31-0 in Dallas' favor sounds about right, most players and coaches on both sides say they believe the game will be decided by a handful of points, and probably by one very big play.
"You have two great football teams here," said Steeler Coach Chuck Noll in the understatement of the week "I have a feeling people are really going to enjoy this game."