If Houston running back Earl Campbell ever wanted to see a good horror movie, he discovered it playing Sunday in Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium. Unfortunately, he was cast as the victim in this "screenplay," which found him repeatedly pursued by the Black swarm, alias the black-clad Pittsburgh defense.
By limiting the National Football League's top rusher to a mere 15 yards in 17 carries, the Steelers laid the groundwork for a 27-13 victory over Houston in the American Conference championship game. The victory earned them a trip to Pasadena, california, where on Jan. 20 the defending NFL champions will take on Los Angeles. The Steelers will be seeking to become the first team to win back-to-back Super Bowls twice (they won titles in 1974 and 1975).
Stopping Campbell, making the big plays -- a Steeler trademark -- and getting the breaks were the keys sunday.
Only five plays into the game, however, the Pittsburgh crowd was stunned to uncharacteristic silence when Houston's Vernon Perry opened the scoring with a 75-yard runback of Terry Bradshaw's errant pass.
A week before, Perry had picked off four San Diego aerials in the Oilers' upset of San Diego. Once again he was in just the right spot and Houston had an important ice-breaking touchdown, something it never generated in a lopsided defeat to the Steelers in last season's AFC title game.
For a moment, the Pittsburgh faithful let their Terrible Towels down. Even Myron cope, the radio commentator who started the towel craze, confessed that the game wasn't going to be a "sleigh ride the way it was last year."
If Perry's return looked ominous, it shouldn't have. Terry Bradshaw, too mature and confident to let one setback rattle him, passed 19 more times in the first half and wound up with 14 completions, including a 16-yard touchdown to tight end Bennie cunningham and a 20-yarder to John Stallworth that gave Pittsburgh a 17-10 lead at the intermission.
Houston quarterback Dan Pastorini (20 of 29 for the day) was Bradshaw's match in the accuracy department, yet the potential momentum supplied by Perry's interception never carried over to the offense, which didn't cross the goal line. This, at least is what the official game record says. The Oilers, and perhaps millions of TV viewers, would argue that a third-quarter pass to Mike Renfro should have been ruled a touchdown. On the controversial play, Pastorini lofted the ball into the end zone corner, where Renfro, planting both feet just in bounds, made the catch behind Ron Johnson.
The action required a split-second judgment, yet the official nearest the play wasn't prepared to render it. After an abnormally long delay, he weakly signalled the pass incomplete, thus denying the Oilers a game-tying touchdown. Renfro was outraged, as was the Houston bench, which watched the officials huddle to determine the play's outcome.
Replays showed Renfro's feet in bounds, but the officials ruled that he didn't have possession of the ball at that instant. Houston failed on two more tries inside the 10 and settled for a 23-yard field goal, Toni Fritsch's second of the day.
That cut Pittsburgh's margin to 17-13, but the Steelers fattened it up to seven points with Matt Bahr's 39-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter. Rocky Bleier finally put the game on ice in frigid Three Rivers when he slanted into the end zone from four yards out and only 54 seconds remaining.
The run capped a 52-yard day for the gutsy veteran, who was awarded one of several game balls for his performance replacing Sidney Thornton.Bleier, a master at following his blocks, teamed up with Franco Harris, the ever-dependable playoff fullback, to give the Steelers the run-pass balance the Oilers never enjoyed.
A shrewd defensive strategy, as executed by some of the games's best tacklers , bottled up Campbell, who never really had the necessary running room. "Earl likes to cut back a lot," explained Steeler defensive lineman L. C. Greenwood. "But instead of gambling the way we did the last time we played Houston, we jumped in the holes and didn't give him any daylight."
Indeed, Campbell couldn't have turned the corner if he had run to the Monongahela. The Black Swarm was at work. And at the end, so were the fans with their Terrible Towels.