The question being asked before the game today was whether it would be the Steelers' Super Bowl. If Miami failed, who else has a chance? The Houston Spoilers? Vince Ferragamo? Doug Williams?
Bum Phillips realized long ago that the path of Pasadena and the Sugar Bowl eventually would wind through Pittsburgh. What is becoming obvious is that the Steelers have set up impregnable black-and-gold road-blocks just outside town.
Jack Lambert bestrides the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Franco Harris and Joe Greene straddle the rivers and some others who resemble mobile redwoods also are ready to bury the poor Houston cripples before they ever arrive at Three Rivers Stadium.
The Steelers were about as vulnerable today as they may be for some time. Forty percent of the offensive line was on the sideline nursing injuries. Linebacker Jack Ham and safety Mike Wagner had even more serious injuries and Sidney Thornton and Lynn Swann did not play in the second half.
What other team anywhere -- perhaps even anytime -- could play without four regulars, two of them All-Pros, and in the first quarter dash to a 20-0 lead against a fine defense? Then the Steelers lost their most productive rusher, Thornton, and best receiver and scored two more touchdowns. p
"It wasn't exactly a little-leak-in-the-dike situation," said the Dolphin strong safety, Tim Foley. "More like a massive combination of disasters."
"In my quest for growth as a human being," he said, "I find that humility is just one pass away."
He was ever so humble late in the second quarter, when Swann eluded him by an acre or so and the scrambling Terry Bradshaw ducked a Dolphin and hit his receiver in the end zone from 20 yards.
It was not a turning point, for that had taken place when the Steelers drove 62 yards in nine plays on the game's opening series. There would be no playoff upset here today. No Pittsburgh Jonas.The Dolphins were swallowed early and thoroughly.
And when it was over some Dolphins took a look backward at themselves and the Steelers -- arguably the NFL's best teams of the '70s -- and did not like what they saw. Miami had won two Super Bowls, one of them capping an unbeaten (17-0) season, but Pittaburgh had won three.
A victory today, though, would have allowed Miami to debate Pittsburgh supremacy. There were no Dolphin doubters by dusk.
"Nobody's close to Pittsburgh," said offensive tackle Bob Kuechenber. "I'm not saying they can't be beaten. But they were the best in the league this season -- for five or six years in fact. They were lucky when they won their first Super Bowl, 'cause Oakland and us bloodied ourselves up and they sneaked by.
"From that point on, though, Pittsburgh has been tops."
Kuechenberg turned to his linemate, the once-peerless Larry Little, who is considering retirement. Or perhaps Don Shula is making the decision for him. Anyway, history was on their minds.
"One thing they can't take from us is those 17 diamonds, eh, chicken?" Kuechenberg said, twisting the Super Bowl ring on his stubby finger. "No pieces of coal on this ring.But that's all Pittsburgh's left us. They're taking everything else."
"Everything other than that," Little agreed.
Kuechenberg smiled and said, "There's something cruel, something wrong with a situation where only one of 26 teams can be happy after a season. If you have to be champs to be happy, something . . ." his voice trailed off a moment . . . "but that's how it is, though.
"I guess there has to be one champion. Guess the only solution is that it should be you every year. But let's not detract here from Pittsburgh. I'm a strong believer in the Church of What's Happening Now -- and they are the best."
The Steelers are happy. Not much more, not much less. They have been in this position so often they realize, as few teams ever do, what is necessary to get here and what it takes to move upward.
"Teamwork, trite as it sounds," said center Mike Webster. "Everybody picking up the slack. The first player to the 45th gets the same attention from the coaches; everyone is expected to contribute."
So the, oh 27th and 28th players, blockers Ted Petersen and Steve Courson, replaced regulars Jon Kolb and Gerry Mullins today and helped No. 1, Bradshaw, to a splendid performance.
And the 23rd player, the linebacker named Dennis Winston whom nearly everyone calls "Dirt," replaced all-pro Ham and intercepted a pass when Miami could have injected some drama into the affair.
"This (Houston versus Pittsburgh here for the AFC title next week) is something everyone expected," Webster said. "If you're going to the Super Bowl, they say you should beat the best. And Houston might be the best right now.
"I was bursting with pride when they beat San Diego without Campbell Pastorini and Burrough. You can't help but admire courage in that situation, sucking it up, playing as hard as you can.
"Tell you what? At this stage I'd just as soon play San Francisco."