Terry Bradshaw said, "we wuz robbed" out of one touchdown in the first half. So trusting to providence to even things up, he threw the ball up for grabs in the fourth quarter and "hoped and & prayed" that John Stallworth would catch it.
The wide receiver did and finally the Pittsburgh Steelers ended the suspense for a record crowd of 54,386 in Three Rivers Stadium with a 31-17 conquest of the Houston Oilers.
It was a 50-yard pass that Bradshaw managed to get off after tearing out of the grasp of defensive end Andy Dorris. Dorris had the quarterback by the arm before Bradshaw shook loose and lofted the ball to the Houston two-yardline where the receiver was being crowded by corner back Greg stemrick.
Stallworth timed his leap better, then battled his way into the end zone.
There was some question about the application of a recent rule change that ends a play when a defender has a passer securely in his grasp, but a National Football League spokesman explained that the defender has to have the passer in his grasp "and under control."
A team official's ruling on a pass to wide receiver Lynn Swann in the end zone in the second quarter was not as convincing. After the game, side judge Royal Cathcart issued a statement in which he said, "the receiver juggled the ball. When he finally got control of it he was only able to get one foot down inbounds."
Instant replays on television showed Swann indeed juggling the ball but he secured it to his breast, took three steps, then planted both feet on the playing field before going out of bounds. The apparent touchdown was disallowed or the Steelers would have had a 24-0 lead at halftime instead of 17-0.
At the juncture it didn't appear as though it would matter because quarterback Ken Stabler of the Oilers already had been intercepted four times, his receivers had dropped six of his throws, and running back Earl Campbell had been held to 34 yards rushing and had dropped two passes.
But the contest was to evolve as if there were three separate games. The Steelers spurted for the 17 point first quarter, the Oilers answered with a 17 point third, and the Steelers showed why they have been able to win four Super Bowls.
They put together a 14 point final quarter while their defense shut out the Oilers, dashing Houston's hopes with a fifth interception, the second by strong safety Donnie Shell.
Coach Chuck Noll of the Steelers said they underwent a "downer" after a sparkling first half. Bradshaw reported that he told the coach during the Oilers' big third quarter, "I've got to get a little more aggressive."
Bradshaw touched off an 80 yard drive that he personally ended with a quarterback sneak from a yard out for a 24-17 advantage at the start of the fourth quarter.
Shortly after tht he successfully put the ball up for grabs by Stallworth for the insurance touchdown and the Steelers had one down and 15 games to go in their quest for "one for the thumb in the '81 (fifth Super Bowl ring)." g
For the Oilers, who have been promising to "kick down the door" to the throne room of Super Bowl participation after losing the penultimate game to the Steelers the last two seasons, the door they kicked down today was that of a lion's cage.
Houston bounded back from being mauled in the first quarter and gave the Steelers a scare in the third quarter when Campbell turned the first pass of his professional career into his first touchdown throw. It was a 57-yard heave after starting to his right as if to run, then hitting wide receiver Billy (White Shoes) Johnson on the Pittsburgh 22-yard-line. Johnson spun away from cornerback Ron Johnson and continued on for the score.
With their advantage narrowed to 17-10, the Steelers put more excitement into the game when punt returner Theo Bell fumbled to the Oilers on the Pittsburgh 21. Then Campbell took charge. He caught a pass for 10 yards, swept in for nine more, but on a plunge from the two, he fumbled.
Fortuanately, offensive tackle Conway Hayman, one-time Redskin, recovered at the one-yard mark and Campbell's touchdown run on the next play tied the score at 17-17 midway in the third quarter.
Noll took note of the bedlam of noise throughout the game by saying, "I don't know if the game lives up to the billing it got this week, but it certainly was exciting on the sidlines."
He acknowledged, "I did not see Stallworth's big catch near the end, but I heard the crowd roar so I figured we scored."
Was he amazed by Bradshaw's desperate throw?
"yes, but Terry knows his receivers well. We have that feeling -- our people can go and get those passes. John does that."
And the pass to Swann in the end zone that was disallowed?
"from my vantage point it was a catch. He did juggle it at first, but he had possession."
Bradshaw conceded that he probably could have run for a first down on his touchdown throw to Stallworth: "I saw Stallworth leap. He's 6-3. He can do that. And the receiver can play that type of ball better than the defender."
It was remarked to Stabler afterward that he didn't have much luck today.
"If we have to depend on luck we're in a hell of a lot of trouble," he said.
"No, I never say anything to guys who drop passes; they feel bad enough. They never say anything to me when I get intercepted. I guarantee you they'll catch more than they drop.
"I've had too many passes caught that shouldn't have been caught to say anything about some that are dropped.
"This is just one of 16 games; we can't dwell on this one."