Pittsburgh was the big winner in the NFL playoffs last weekend, in more ways than one. The Steelers not only overpowered Miami, 34-14, but also saw the two strongest threats to their fourth Super Bowl title eliminated when Houston upset San Diego and Los Angeles surprised Dallas.
The Chargers had the potential, offensively, to stop Pittsburgh in San Diego this Sunday. Just how San Diego managed to lose to the injured Oilers is something only Coach Don Coryell and his assistants can explain. Dallas posed less of a threat to Pittsburgh but the Cowboys, with Roger Staubach, would have been the NFC's most formidable entry at Pasadena Jan. 20.
Now the prospect is that Pittsburgh will rule an 11-or-more-point choice over Los Angeles or 14-or-more-point favorite over Tampa Bay, according to Bob Martin, the Head Linesman. The Steelers are listed at 2 to 5 in the Las Vegas Super Bowl futures, with Los Angeles 3 to 1, Houston 4 to 1 and Tampa Bay 10 to 1.
The price on the Buccaneers represents a drastic reduction from the opening quotation, which had Tampa Bay with the longest odds on the board, at 45 to 1, in the eight-team field.
"One book stands to lose a million dollars if Tampa Bay goes all the way," Martin informed.
"The book has nothing to worry about," I replied.
"Wonderful," Martin responded. "You mean you have nothing to worry about. Convince them of that."
What is rapidly taking shape is one of the least exciting Super Bowls in the event's 14-year history. The Steelers should embarrass Los Angeles or Tampa Bay. Both NFC teams must establish the run, or their offense falls to pieces, and neither team has a prayer of running on Pittsburgh. Sunday, in Three Rivers Stadium. The Oilers, crippled as they are, are much more physical than either the Rams or the Bucs and have the best chance of the remaining teams to stand up to the Steelers. The Houston defense is sound as its offensive line is better than most observers realize. But beating Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh? That would take a minor miracle, an even bigger one than Houston managed last week in San Diego.
Earl Campbell and Ken Burrough are expected to play Sunday for the Oilers. Dan Pastorini and Mike Barber are questionable. I doubt, however, that Campbell will be the Campbell that the nation's TV fans are accustomed to seeing. One wrong step and he could be gone from the game -- and Pittsburgh has had excellent success in stopping this great back even when he is healthy.
Houston will not run on Pittsburgh. No one does, when the Steeler defense is primed. This means that substitute quarterback Gifford Nielsen or the hurting Pastorini will have to go to the air, with two of their top receivers either sidelined or performing at considerably less than 100 percent.
Pittsburgh also has its physical problems. Jon Kolb did not play against Miami, and he provides Terry Bradshaw with tremendous pass protection.
Jack Ham and Mike Wagner are lost to the Steeler defense. Lynn Swann probably cannot go at full speed. But Pittsburgh has the deepest bench in the NFL. There seem to be quality backup people at every position. I don't know if Pittsburgh will cover the 10-point spread, but I can't take Houston. I will risk an imaginary $250 on the Steelers. They are the best.
Los Angeles at Tampa Bay offers a much more even matchup. The Rams were favored by 3 1/2 points Sept. 23 in Florida when the Bucs won going away, 21-6. L.A. scored its only touchdown on a pass interception.
The spread is 3 1/2 again, Los Angeles favored. That number dictates taking Tampa Bay right back. Neither team figures to run on the other with any real success, although the Los Angeles backs are more likely to fumble and create a big turnover. This means the game should be decided by the quarterback who makes the fewer mistakes. That is a tossup. I can see Vince Ferragamo and Doug Williams turning this contest into a comedy of errors before it is all over.
One important consideration centers on Ram defensive end Jack Youngblood. He is listed as "doubtful" because of the broken shinbone he suffered in Dallas. But the veteran end is the heart and soul of the L.A. defense. He is as tough as they come and the odds are he will be in the lineup when the whistle blows. He better be, or the Rams are in trouble.
Youngblood's absence would make Tampa Bay much more appealing. Still I will stick with "the dog" (underdog) at home for an imaginary $250, hoping to build the bankroll a little for Super Sunday.