There was a time when the rivalry between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders was the most competitive in the NFL. When these titans met on the gridiron there was no question it was going to be a battle and often with a lot on the line.
Between 1972 and 1983, the Steelers and Raiders met in the playoffs six times, including three straight times in the AFC Championship Game. The winner of each of those three games (Pittsburgh in 1974 and 1975 and Oakland in 1976) went on to win the Super Bowl.
With classic moments including the Immaculate Reception by Franco Harris and a big hit on Lynn Swann by George Atkinson that resulted in a lawsuit, the Steelers and Raiders did not like each other and were ready for a war whenever they met on the field.
Our Classic Rewind is not one of their playoff meetings, but instead a Monday Night Football encounter from 1980 that featured the defending Super Bowl Champion Steelers against an Oakland team that was destined to succeed the Steelers as champions.
Surprisingly, despite the fact that both teams were known for their defense, this game was a high scoring affair that featured a number of big plays both on offense and defense.
The Matchup: Oakland Raiders at Pittsburgh Steelers
Series Record: The Raiders hold a slight 12-11 overall series edge, but Pittsburgh has won five of the last seven meetings. Each team has won three of their playoff matchups, with Pittsburgh holding a 2-1 advantage in AFC Championship Games. Oakland won the last meeting between the two teams during the 2006 season.
The Game: October 20, 1980, Three Rivers Stadium, Pittsburgh
Team Records: Oakland 3-3, Pittsburgh 4-2
Overview: The defending champion Steelers were dealing with significant injuries on offense as future Hall of Famers Franco Harris, John Stallworth and Lynn Swann were all out of the lineup. They entered this game with a one game lead in the AFC Central over the Houston Oilers and Cleveland Browns. Oakland was also dealing with a key injury as backup quarterback Jim Plunkett was making his second start in place of starting quarterback Dan Pastorini, who suffered a broken leg in the fifth game of the season. The Raiders trailed the San Diego Chargers in the AFC West, but were coming off a big victory over the Chargers in Plunkett’s first start.
Coaches: Oakland – Tom Flores (2nd year); Pittsburgh – Chuck Noll (11th year)
Notable Raiders: Jim Plunkett (qb), Kenny King (rb), Mark Van Eeghen (rb), Bob Chandler (wr), Cliff Branch (wr), Raymond Chester (te), Art Shell (t), Gene Upshaw (g), Dave Dalby (c), Jon Matuszak (de), Cedric Hardman (de), Matt Millen (lb), Ted Hendricks (lb), Rod Martin (lb), Lester Hayes (db), Chris Bahr (pk), Ray Guy (p)
Notable Steelers: Terry Bradshaw (qb), Cliff Stoudt (qb), Rocky Bleier (rb), Greg Hawthorne (rb), Russell Davis (rb), Jim Smith (wr), Theo Bell (wr), Bennie Cunningham (te), Jon Kolb (t), Mike Webster (c), L.C. Greenwood (de), Joe Greene (dt), Jack Ham (lb), Jack Lambert (lb), Mel Blount (cb), Donnie Shell (ss), Mike Wagner (fs), Matt Bahr (pk)
Interesting Notes: This was the first game for the Raiders after trading future Hall of Fame tight end Dave Casper to the Houston Oilers. The two placekickers were the brother tandem of Chris (Raiders) and Matt (Steelers) Bahr. The classic Monday Night Football broadcast team of Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell and Don Meredith provided commentary and entertainment during the telecast.
The Game: Even without future Hall of Famers Harris, Swann and Stallworth in the lineup, Terry Bradshaw marched the Pittsburgh offense down the field on their opening drive. He connected on a 19-yard scoring pass to Jim Smith to complete a six-play, 67-yard drive to give Pittsburgh the early lead.
They quickly added to the advantage as a fumble by Kenny King on the first offensive play by the Raiders led to a Matt Bahr field goal and a 10-0 Pittsburgh lead.
Undaunted, King recovered from his miscue to score the first touchdown of the game for the Raiders on a 27-yard run that completed a 6-play, 85-yard Oakland drive. The drive proved costly to the Steelers as Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert suffered an injury on the drive and missed the remainder of the game.
That proved to be all the scoring in the first quarter, but served as an exciting prelude to a second quarter that resembled a track meet.
The Steelers increased their advantage to 17-7 as a one-yard touchdown run by Greg Hawthorne completed a 10-play, 84-yard drive.
Later in the quarter the Raiders answered with a one-yard touchdown run of their own by Mark van Eeghen following an interception by future Hall of Famer Ted Hendricks.
Oakland took the lead for the first time at 21-17 as a sack of Bradshaw by Cedric Hardman resulted in a fumble and a 34-yard return for a touchdown by Rod Martin.
The hit by Hardman knocked Bradshaw out for the remainder of the first half.
Now led by Cliff Stoudt, the Steelers suffered their third straight turnover as Hendricks intercepted a Stoudt pass for his second pick of the quarter.
Oakland increased their lead to 28-17 as Jim Plunkett hit Morris Bradshaw on a 45-yard touchdown pass with 1:22 remaining in the half.
That proved to be plenty of time for Stoudt as he led the Steelers down the field and cut the halftime lead to 28-24 with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Smith.
Proving that statistics can often be deceiving, Pittsburgh dominated the offensive production in the first half as they out-gained the Raiders 340 yards to 160 and held the ball for more than 20 minutes. However, three turnovers proved to be key as the Raiders converted each one into a touchdown and the 28-24 advantage.
On their first possession of the second half, Plunkett hit Cliff Branch with a 56-yard touchdown pass to give the Raiders an 11-point lead at 35-24.
Terry Bradshaw returned for the Steelers in the second half and as he did in the first half, led the Steelers to a touchdown in their first possession of the half. He connected with Theo Bell on a 36-yard touchdown pass to make the score 35-31.
Seeing extensive action due to the injuries to Stallworth and Swann, Bell finished the game with five catches for 114 yards and a touchdown. In his entire four-year career entering the contest, Bell had caught only 13 passes for 173 yards and two touchdowns.
The Steelers maintained the momentum when they forced a fumble by van Eeghen that was recovered by Robin Cole. However, for the second time, the Steelers were unable to turn an Oakland fumble into a touchdown. Instead, they settled for a 32-yard field goal by Matt Bahr to make the score 35-34.
Oakland answered in the fourth quarter as Plunkett hit Cliff Branch for a 36-yard touchdown to again make it a two-possession game.
The Raiders defense continued to batter Bradshaw and the Steelers were unable to move the football. With Harris on the sidelines for the entire game, the lack of a consistent running attack by Pittsburgh allowed the Raiders defense to spend the game pressuring Bradshaw. The Steelers rushed for 117 yards while passing for 384.
Oakland put the game away with a time consuming drive in the final minutes that culminated in a 36-yard field goal by Chris Bahr to make the final score 45-34.
Plunkett finished the game with 247 passing yards on 13 of 21 completions for three touchdowns and no interceptions. Bradshaw completed 18 of 27 for 299 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Stoudt connected on six of 11 passes for 85 yards, an interception and a touchdown.
Cliff Branch, arguably the best receiver not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, caught five passes for 123 yards and two touchdowns. Kenny King rushed for 70 yards and a score.
Post Script: Coupled with a home loss the previous week to the Cincinnati Bengals, the loss to Oakland marked the first time Pittsburgh had lost back-to-back home games since the opening of Three Rivers Stadium in 1970.
The victory continued the mastery by the Raiders on Monday Night Football as they improved to 14-1-1 since the beginning of MNF in 1970.
After the beating he took against the Raiders, Bradshaw was unable to play the next week against the Cleveland Browns as the Steelers fell to 4-4 on the season. They finished the season with a 9-7 record and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1971.
The Steelers had been trying to “win one for the thumb”, but it would not be until 2006 that the Steelers would claim their fifth Super Bowl victory.
Under the guidance of Plunkett, whose career was resurrected by Al Davis and the Raiders after a disappointing two-year stint in San Francisco, the Raiders went 13-2 and won Super Bowl XV over the Philadelphia Eagles.