After being the worst NFL franchise over their first 39 years of existence, the Pittsburgh Steelers have been league’s best team over the last 39 years, including a 6-3 start to the 2010 season.
The Steelers won their first playoff game in 1972 when Franco Harris’ Immaculate Reception helped defeat Oakland, 13-7, in the AFC divisional round. But a youthful Pittsburgh squad, a team that had not posted a winning record since 1963, also opened that season with a signature upset win over the Raiders, thus announcing its arrival as a playoff contender.
Since then nearly every time these two bitter rivals meet, seemingly at least one of their entire seasons is greatly impacted positively or negatively based on the result of this one game. And both teams’ 2010 campaigns may well be defined by today’s game in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers looked like arguably the best team in the NFL over the first half of the season, but are coming off a blowout loss at home to the Patriots on prime-time television and have been battered with key injuries to their veteran-laden roster, particularly on both lines of scrimmage.
A loss today would likely mean the Steelers will collapse in the second-half of the season, as they did in 2009 when a 5-game losing streak late in the year was highlighted by a home loss to a Raider squad that entered the game 3-8.
The host Steelers were in control throughout the afternoon, but yielded a trio of fourth-quarter touchdown passes to journeyman Bruce Gradkowski in a 27-24 loss. Moreover, then-rookie, reserve corner Joe Burnett (who has since been cut) dropped an easy lob pass for an interception that would have sealed the win, just one of a plethora of Steeler mistakes in that meltdown. Burnett catches that ball and Pittsburgh goes to the playoffs as a wild-card team even with its disappointing second-half of the season.
In 2006, the Steelers were defending Super Bowl champions, but finished a horrifically under-achieving 8-8, one win away from a postseason berth. They were ultimately kept out of the playoffs due to a midseason 20-13 loss to an Oakland squad that finished 2-14.
Pittsburgh out-gained the Raiders 360-98 total yards that day, but Ben Roethlisberger – clearly hindered by the effects of a concussion from the previous week – threw four interceptions, and Bill Cowher was stubborn, wrong and dumb in not pulling a clearly injured Roethlisberger from that game.
Dating back to the 1970s, the Steelers and Raiders met in the playoffs five consecutive season beginning with the Immaculate Reception game. The following season in 1973, Pittsburgh looked like a legitimate title contender after a 17-9 win at Oakland improved the Steelers’ record to 8-1 on the season. However, the Steelers then lost their next three games and were eventually dominated by the host Raiders, 33-14, in the AFC divisional round.
The Raiders continued their control of Pittsburgh early in 1974 with a 17-0 drubbing. However, the Steelers got their revenge later that winter by upsetting the host Raiders in the AFC Championship, 24-13, as Pittsburgh went on to beat Minnesota in Super Bowl IX.
More controversy and distrust came in this rivalry the next year when Pittsburgh upended the Raiders again, 16-10, in an AFC Championship game featuring 12 turnovers on a soaked and iced Three Rivers Stadium field that Al Davis claimed the Steelers purposely made slick to neutralize the Raiders’ deep passing attack. Pittsburgh went on to win a second consecutive Super Bowl title.
Oakland, however, got its revenge in the 1976 season by beating the Steelers, 31-28, in the season opener and then stopping a 10-game Pittsburgh win streak with a 24-7 victory in an AFC championship game in which Pittsburgh starting running backs Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier both missed with injuries. Oakland dominated the Vikings two weeks later to win its first Super Bowl championship.
The Steelers’ dynasty of the 1970s ended in 1980 when a 9-7 Pittsburgh squad failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons. Oakland defeated Pittsburgh, 45-34, in the regular-season that year and went on to become the first wild-card team to ever win a Super Bowl. If the Steelers had beat the visiting Raiders that year in a much-hyped game, New England would have taken Oakland’s playoff berth.
The Steelers surprised many by making a nice run to the playoffs in the 1983 season, but were dismantled, 38-7, by the host Raiders in the AFC divisional playoffs, as Oakland went on to capture its second Super Bowl title in four years and third over an eight-year span.
There have been other important Steeler-Raider games since. But maybe none that was as important for both teams as today. A win over the 5-4 Raiders and the Steelers can look at last week’s poor showing as an aberration for a solid team that can beat anybody in a balanced NFL. The Steelers would be in great shape to make the playoffs, and still in strong contention for both an AFC North title and a first-round bye.
Oakland is one of the surprise teams in the NFL this fall. The Raiders are tied with the Chiefs atop the AFC West standings, and both sit a game ahead of the Chargers. However, Kansas City has the easiest remaining schedule and as normal, San Diego is playing very well in the second half of the season and remains the most talented team in that division. Win today and Oakland is a legitimate playoff contender. Lose and the Raiders will be lucky to finish .500 with their remaining schedule.
Expect Pittsburgh to play inspired football today, irritated by both the Patriots’ domination at Heinz Field last week and the team’s horrific collapse against the Raiders in 2009. Pittsburgh should win, 20-10. But if not, you can start worrying about draft positioning and Ike Taylor’s upcoming free agency.