The Pittsburgh Steelers, acclaimed last week as the team of the 1970's, flipped the calender of the new decade by landing in their fourth Super Bowl in the last six seasons today.
Their 18-13 victory over the Houston Oilers accounted for the second straight American Football Conference championship against that team at Three Rivers Stadium, and it was a thoroughly convincing one despite an officials' ruling that appeared on television replays to take away a touchdown from the Oilers in the third quarter.
His team trailing, 17-10, and on first down at the Pittsburgh six-yard line, Dan Pastorini passed to wide receiver Mike Renfro. He caught the ball, landed on one foot and got his next step down before crossing the back line of the end zone.
Side judge Donald Orr did not signal immediately, but huddled with other officials. Referee Jim Tunney said later in a statement to a pool reporter, "In conferring with the side judge, and back judge, we ruled no catch.
"The call was made by Donald Orr, the side judge. He saw two feet come down, but the catch was made after he (Renfro) came down. He didn't have the possession that he must have."
Tunney explained why there was a conference of the officials. "We wanted to double-check and be sure we agreed. Bill O'Brien, the field judge, didn't have a good shot at the call, and said, 'I can't help you.' But Orr wasn't overruled. We were in agreement."
On second down, Tim Wilson gained one yard and on third a pass from Pastorini to Wilson gained another yard to the four. Toni Fritsch then kicked a 23-yard field goal to cut Pittsburgh's lead to 17-13, on the first play of the fourth quarter.
The Oilers did not get beyond their own 35-yard line after that. The Steelers drove 55 yards before Matt Bahr kicked a 29-yard field goal. Pittsburgh then recovered a Houston fumble and drove 45-yards to score, on a four-yard run by Rocky Bleier.
The Steelers bounced back from an 0-7 deficit in the first quarter. The Oilers had opened the scoring when defensive back Vernon Perry, who had four interceptions and a blocked fiedl goal against San Diego the week before, intercepted a pass, by Terry Bradshaw and ran 75 yards for a Houston touchdown. Pittsburgh scored two touchdowns in the second period for a 17-10 advantage, while holding Earl Campbell to a net of two yards in 11 carries.
Campbell led the NFL in rushing for the second straight season, but ended up with an average of nine-tenths of a yard today with 15 yards in 17 carries, as the entire Houston team was limited to a net of 24 yards.
Coach Chuck Noll of Pittsburgh was asked before the game how he planned to stop Campbell and said, "With a great deal of respect."
"We used what was like a goal-line defense," he explained, "with as many as eight men on the line of scrimmage. We wouldn't do that for many other runners. It did invite the pass," the coach said, referring to Pastorini at times capitalizing on the Steelers' concentration on Campbell to move the ball overhead.
Noll noted that Bradshaw converted 13 of 19 third-down situations into first downs and, while praising the offense, quipped, "We'll also take credit for the Oilers' first seven points (Perry's runback). So what did the Oilers score, two field goals?"
The game was played in 22-degree temperature and Noll was asked if the weather was a factor in the outcome. "The field was nice," he said.
When asked if Campbell was inadvertently "tipping" off the Steelers, when he was going to run the ball, Noll smiled and remarked, "No, we caught their signals from the sideline."
It was an allusion to the Oilers' reportedly having stolen the signals of the San Diego Chargers in a 17-14 voctory in a big upset last week.
Bradshaw was asked if he worried after he was intercepted by Perry and said, "No, I forgot about it right away (as he mocked his statement by rolling his eyes mischievously)."
On his next pass he threw behind Rocky Bleier, then was sacked, and tight end Bennie Cunningham made the first of three drops before the quarterback got the Steelers rolling.
He passed 15 yards to wide receiver Lynn Swann, ran 25 yards to the Houston four-yard line, and after missing running back Sidney Thornton in the end zone, Matt Bahr kicked his first of two field goals, a 21-yarder, in the first quarter.
Houston went 72 yards, much of it on a 32-yard pass by Pastorini to running back Ronnie Coleman, and Fritsch kicked his first field goal, from 27 yards, on the first play of the second period, for a 10-3 lead.
The Steelers tied the score by going 67 yards as Bradshaw passed 17 and 11 yards to Swann and, on third and seven from the Houston 16, Bradshaw's victimized strong safety Perry with a touchdown pass to tight end Cunningham.
Pittsburgh went ahead to stay after Pastorini passed 19 yards to wide receiver Mike Renfro, who fumbled the ball away to defensive back Mel Blount at the Houston 49-yard line.
Franco Harris, who outgained Campbell 85 yards to 15 on 21 carries, ran for 12 yards, to the Houston 20-yard line, and Bradshaw went for the Oiler jugular -- rather cornerback Greg Stemrick's -- on first down.
The quarterback had oodles of time before he lofted the ball to wide receiver John Stallworth in the end zone, and Perry kicked the artificial turf as the Steelers went ahead 17-10.
Bradshaw completed 18 of 30 passes for 219 yards and was sacked three times. Pastorini was sacked only once as he hit on 19 of 28 passes for 203 yards. He was intercepted once, under pressure of a safety blitz.
The Oilers got a break in the third quarter when punt returner Theo Bell of the Steelers fumbled away the ball at the Pittsburgh 41-yard line.
But tight end Mike Barber could not hold Pastorini's pass, Campbell was thrown for a four-yard loss, and wide receiver Guido Merkens dropped a throw by Pastorini.
Later as Campbell's luck would have it, he had a first down on a fourth-and-two gamble, but it was wiped out by a delay-of-game penalty.
His longest run, seven yards, drew mock cheers from the Pittsburgh partisans in a crowd of 50,475, and when thrown for a loss of a yard on the next play, he had to suffer even meaner taunts.
Rarely an expansive talker, he quoted singer Lou Rawls after the game: "Thank God I'm alive and there's a tommorow. We'll be back." He forgot the time-honored cliche about there being none in the single-elimination NFL playoffs.