For the first time in his career, Terry Bradshaw had started doubting himself.
The doubts began early in the season and soon affected the rest of the team. After last week's embarrassing loss to Seattle, the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers had been reduced to just another .500 team with problems they couldn't understand.
"The thought that we were letting this happen to us was sickening," said Lynn Swann. "We decided we had to pull ourselves together and get our attitudes straight."
It finally came together for the Steelers today against the Atlanta Falcons. Pittsburgh, on the strength of Bradshaw's five touchdown passes, stepped up pursuit of a playoff spot by defeating the slumping Atlanta Falcons, 34-20.
The Steelers rose to 6-5 and dropped the Falcons to 5-6.
Bradshaw threw his last two touchdown passes, 14 yards to Randy Grossman and 22 yards to Swann, in the fourth period when he was dragging a painful hyperextended left knee along.
Injuries and just plain time have caught up with the Steelers. Their situation probably can be explained that simply. They are no longer the intimidators they were in the 1970s, but they showed today that they can yet find ways to win games when it is absolutely necessary.
"We aren't ready to die yet," said Bradshaw.
"We've dedicated ourselves to winning the last six games and Atlanta was just the first stop. It's been a tough year for all of us. We've handled it well and searched ourselves as to why, but we don't know why. All we could do was keep working and clawing and today it popped. This was the biggest win of the year for us. Sure, I was starting to question myself. I'm only human, but I was doing the best I could."
"It's a matter of attitude," added Swann.
Before last week's game, Bradshaw asked Coach Chuck Noll to call the plays for him and Bradshaw said that today he audibled only "seven or eight times."
"I like Chuck calling the plays," Bradshaw said, "because he's calling plays that are forcing me to do things I wouldn't normally do and that makes me a better quarterback.
"For instance, three of my touchdown passes were on the very same play. I never would have called the same play that many times down there on my own, but he called them and they worked."
"Terry had one of his best days in a while," Noll said. "Terry was in control today."
Bradshaw completed 14 of 22 passes for 253 yards with one inteception. "Everything I threw just seemed to go for a touchdown," he said of this first five-touchdown passing day of his career.
Atlanta's Steve Bartkowski completed 33 of 50 for 416 yards and two touchdowns, but was overshadowed. Running back William Andrews set a Falcon record by catching 15 of Bartkowski's passes.
The Steelers moved to a 14-0 lead. Bradshaw completed an 18-yard touchdown to tight end Bennie Cunningham in the first quarter and a six-yarder to wide receiver John Stallworth in the second.
After a 35-yard touchdown pass from Bartkowski to Alfred Jackson, Bradshaw came back to Stallworth for 19 yards and a 21-7 advantage.
Bradshaw's only interception led to a 43-yard Mick Luckhurst field goal in the third period to cut the Steeler lead to 21-10.
On Pittsburgh's next possession, Bradshaw was sacked by Jeff Yeates, incurring a hyperextended knee. He played another down, then limped off in pain as the Steelers punted.
Steeler linebacker Jack Lambert recovered a Wallace Francis fumble and returned it 23 yards to the Atlanta 29. Bradshaw limped into play, handed the ball off twice and then threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Grossman. The extra point was blocked.
Atlanta got that score right back on a 30-yard pass, Bartkowski to Alfred Jenkins, 90 seconds into the fourth quarter and the Falcons trailed by 27-17.
Midway through the period, Noll sent in a trap play, but Bradshaw audibled a deep post pattern to Stallworth: a 53-yard gain. Three plays later, he read a blitz coming and got off a 22-yard touchdown pass to Swann.