The message from the Cleveland Browns to the Washington Redskins today was: don't expect to surprise us next Sunday; we have seen everything. And don't expect us to quit under fire.
The Pittsburgh Steelers got in the first good punches against Cleveland, but the Browns got up off the deck facing a 27-0 deficit and scored 35 points before time ran out on them.
Terry Bradshaw threw three touchdown passes and Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier ran 71 and 70 yards, respectively, for touchdowns against the Browns for a 51-35 runaway that moved the Steelers into undisputed possession of first place in the AFC Central with a 5-1 record.
The Browns slipped into a tie for second place with Houston, at 4-2, but Brian Sipe rode out the firestorm, throwing five touchdown passes, and producing 458 yards of offense without his chief weapon, running back Greg Pruitt, who did not suit up because of an injury.
Two weeks ago, after spurting into a 21-0 lead on the way to a 26-7 upset of Dallas, Browns' fans chanted, "We want Pittsburgh . . . we want Pittsburgh." The crowd of 81,260 was silenced by Bradshaw's air strikes and the infantry assaults of Harris, Bleier and Sidney Thornton, who combined for 316 rushing yards in a total offensive gush of 522 yards.
Then, when the Steelers ran out of incentive, they flirted with the awful prospect of a come-from-ahead loss.
Without Greg Pruitt, the Browns were outrushed, 361 yards to 93, and had the ball for only 24 running plays to 45 for the Steelers.
Yet, Sipe demonstrated for future reference that he can play catch-up football to the extent of being a constant menace, as Cleveland outgained Pittsburgh in passing, 365-161.
Sipe connected on 22 of 41 passes even though the Steeler pass rushers were able to tee off on him with complete abandon.
Bradshaw needed only 21 pass attempts to get his job done, completing 12 while escaping interceptions and sacks.
He passed seven yards to tight end Bennie Cunningham, 10 to running back Thornton, and 14 to wide receiver Jim Smith for touchdowns, while Harris was rushing for 153 yards in 19 carries and scoring on runs of 71 and 25 yards. Thornton rushed for 98 yards in 18 attempts and scored on a pass; Bleier rushed for 81 yards in four carries, mostly on his 70-yard scoring sprint.
The Steelers said they will not have to look at the films of today's big plays to know what made them go. They noted that Harris and Bleier both broke their touchdown sprints on third and one from deep in Pittsburgh territory.
They saw in films of previous Cleveland games last week that middle linebacker Robert L. Jackson, playing in place of injured regular Dick Ambrose, had a tendency to over-pursue and set him up with counter plays.
Defensive end Lyle Alzado of the Browns was steaming at Cleveland's inadequacies. "It was pretty embarrassing," he said. "It was a basketball game, not football."
Free safety Thom Darden, last player to have any chance of catching Harris on his 71-yard dash, was more philosophical:
"It was hard once he got that big start. It's going to be hard to keep the Steelers out of the Big One (the Super Bowl). When Bradshaw is right, they can even get by without Lynn Swann (who didn't dress today because of an injury)."
Coach Sam Rutigliano kept his composure and tried to help the Browns keep their self-respect. He remarked that, despite the 86 points scored by both teams, "It still came down to the Steelers' last drive; we were only nine points down then."
Leading by 44-35, the Steelers went 94 yards, leaving only 31 seconds of the last nine minutes on the clock after Thornton scored from a yard out for his second touchdown.
Bradshaw called the march "a thing of beauty." (It included eight rushes plus a 16-yard pass to wide receiver John Stallworth and a 15-yarder to Cunningham.) "It came in a crucial situation on clutch downs in a 'must' game."
He said that when the Browns scored their last touchdown, with 9:10 remaining, he began thinking about the fast finish by Dallas in the Super Bowl, which the Steelers won, 35-31.