It made it that much sweeter for the Cincinnati Bengals today, to wrap up the AFC Central title and a first playoff berth in six years by defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"It's about time we won one," defensive tackle Rod Horn said after the Bengals' 17-10 victory. "I've been getting tired of watching the Steelers in the playoffs."
The Bengals now are 11-4, the Steelers 8-7.
Pittsburgh, which has followed its two Super Bowl championships with two early vacations, was ineffective through three quarters today, but it fought back gallantly enough in the fourth to earn the cheers of 50,623 chilled spectators.
Down 17-3, the Steelers pulled within a touchdown on Mark Malone's two-yard pass to Franco Harris with 2:51 left. Then, stopping the Bengals with 1:59 on the clock, the Steelers came as close to a tie as the few inches separating Jim Smith's fingers from the ball when he could not quite reach Malone's pass in the end zone.
The hero was Cincinnati quarterback Ken Anderson, who threw two touchdown passes and completed 21 of 35 despite playing with a hyperextended big toe on his right foot, an injury that kept the starting assignment doubtful until the pregame warmup.
"It hurt some before the game, but once you're out there, you tend to forget things like toes and knees," Anderson said afterward, peeling eight socks off his right foot and then cutting the tape that further guarded the toe.
"I'm tired of playing for pride at the end of the year. I want to play for a championship, especially against the Steelers, and any way I could walk on that field, I was going to."
Asked if this were the highlight of his 11-year pro career, Anderson said, "Unequivocally yes. I won't dodge that one."
The goat was Pittsburgh linebacker Jack Lambert, despite a game-high 18 tackles, 13 unassisted, and a pass interception.
In the second period, with the score tied, 3-3, and Cincinnati lining up for a 54-yard field-goal attempt on fourth and three, Lambert charged offside. The Bengals, benefiting from the first down, went on to score the game's first touchdown on a two-yard pass from Anderson to Isaac Curtis and took a 10-3 lead at halftime.
"There was confusion whether to get our field-goal team or our punt-return team on the field," Lambert said. "There wasn't too much time left in the half, and I thought it was fourth and more than five. I wanted to save the timeout for our offensive team, so rather than take a timeout I took a penalty.
"I was wrong, it was less than five. It was a bonehead play, but unfortunately, we have to react instantly out there. We can't sit down and proofread what we do. Nobody feels worse about it than I do."
Forrest Gregg, the Bengals' coach, acknowledged that it was a vital play, but indicated that he deliberately had sent the field-goal unit in late.
"It was a 54-yard kick and his (Jim Breech's) maximum is 52," Gregg said. "What we were going to do I won't tell you."
Late in the third period, the Bengals boosted their margin to 17-3 after linebacker Reggie Williams intercepted a pass by Malone at the Pittsburgh 29. On third and three from the 22, Anderson completed a short pass over the middle to Steve Kreider. Kreider took a stutter step to break safety Donnie Shell's tackle at the 18 and went on to score.
The Bengals were moving toward another score in the fourth quarter when a holding penalty on guard Max Montoya nullified a first down at the Steeler eight. On third and 22 from the 31, a pass by Anderson was intercepted by Lambert at the 17 and returned to the 30. It was Lambert's sixth interception of the season.
Pittsburgh, ineffective offensively for three quarters with regular quarterback Terry Bradshaw out with a broken right hand, then marched 70 yards in nine plays to keep its hopes alive. One big play was a 22-yard pass from Malone to John Stallworth. It was Stallworth's first reception of the day and extended his club-record reception streak to 61 games. Another major play involved a 21-yard interference penalty on cornerback Ken Riley, for bumping Stallworth.
On fourth and two at the five, Malone, making his first NFL start, ran left and cut in, diving to a first down at the two. Harris then took Malone's pass in the right corner of the end zone for his fifth of seven receptions.
Although Cincinnati awaited an onside kick with 2:51 remaining, Pittsburgh Coach Chuck Noll ordered a long kick. He almost got more than he bargained for. Archie Griffin and Mike Fuller were at the 15 and they had to back up. Fuller caught it at the goal line, with one foot on the playing field, then backed into the end zone, effecting a touchback. Had both feet and the ball been on the playing side of the goal line, it would have been a safety.