December 23, 2011
Since entering the NFL in 1933, the Pittsburgh Steelers had appeared in just one postseason game prior to December 23, 1972, and had lost. There had been a great deal of underachieving and disappointment over the years. But in ’72, their 38th year in the NFL and fourth season under Head Coach Chuck Noll, they won the AFC Central with an 11-3 record and were to face the Oakland Raiders in the Divisional playoff round. The team’s strength was its defense, anchored by All-Pro DT “Mean Joe” Greene and including ends Dwight White and L.C. Greenwood, linebackers Andy Russell and Jack Ham, and CB Mel Blount. The offense was directed by third-year QB Terry Bradshaw and had gained a star at running back in rookie Franco Harris, who rushed for 1055 yards and had an enthusiastic group of backers called “Franco’s Italian Army”. Even PK Roy Gerela had his fan club, known as “Gerela’s Gorillas”.
The Raiders, coached by John Madden, went 10-3-1 in winning the AFC West. They were a sound club on both sides of the ball, with QB Daryle Lamonica throwing primarily to WR Fred Biletnikoff and TE Raymond Chester or handing off to FB Marv Hubbard, who ran for 1100 yards, or HB Charlie Smith, who came back from an injury to contribute 686. While the defense was in transition, it was still highly effective.
There were 50,237 fans in attendance at Three Rivers Stadium on a relatively warm, mid-40s December Saturday in Pittsburgh. They witnessed a defensive struggle with the punters having outstanding days in the battle for field position (each club ended up punting seven times). The tone was set on Oakland’s first possession when Lamonica was intercepted by Russell at the Pittsburgh 36. Another series by the Raiders that made it to midfield ended when Hubbard fumbled and FS Glen Edwards recovered for the Steelers.
The first half was scoreless, with Pittsburgh coming closest to putting points on the board. The Steelers advanced to the Oakland 31 yard line, but instead of attempting a field goal on fourth-and-two, Coach Noll decided to go for the first down and Harris was stopped for no gain by hard-hitting FS Jack Tatum.
On the first possession of the third quarter, the Steelers finally scored as Bradshaw completed five passes for 55 yards to get to the Oakland 11, where the drive stalled. Gerela kicked an 18-yard field goal to make it 3-0.
That was still the score in the fourth quarter. By then, the flu-weakened Lamonica had been replaced by his young backup, Ken Stabler, but he fumbled when hit by Greenwood and that led to Gerela’s second field goal, from 29 yards, that made it 6-0 with under four minutes left on the clock.
With time running out, Stabler threw two incomplete passes but then connected with TE Raymond Chester for nine yards. On a fourth-and-one play, he handed off to Charlie Smith for a crucial four-yard gain then went to the air and hit RB Pete Banaszak for 12 yards on a screen pass, Fred Biletnikoff for 12 more, and WR Mike Siani for a seven-yard gain to the Pittsburgh 30. With the Steelers blitzing, Stabler took off and ran the remaining 30 yards for a touchdown. George Blanda kicked the extra point and the Raiders, who had gone 80 yards in 12 plays, were ahead at 7-6 with 1:13 to play.
There was no return on the kickoff and Pittsburgh took possession at its 20 yard line. Two Bradshaw passes got the Steelers to the 40, but the next three were incomplete - two of them knocked down by Tatum - and, with the time down to 22 seconds, it was a fourth-and-10 situation. Noll called for a pass over the middle to WR Barry Pearson, but both of Oakland’s defensive ends (Tony Cline and Horace Jones) quickly penetrated into the backfield and Bradshaw was forced to scramble. Seeing HB John “Frenchy” Fuqua near the Oakland 35, he fired a pass, but Tatum was there to defend. Fuqua, Tatum, and the ball all came together, with the football ricocheting back to the Pittsburgh 40. Catching it at his shoetops on a dead run was Harris, who took off toward the goal line without breaking stride (pictured below). A block by TE John McMakin helped clear the way and only Raiders DB Jimmy Warren came close to stopping Harris as he raced 60 yards for the game-winning touchdown (pictured at top).
But was the play legal? At that time, the rule was that two offensive players could not touch a pass in succession – it would have had to have come into contact with a defensive player in between or it was incomplete (the rule was changed in 1978). John Madden and Raiders players screamed that the ball had hit Fuqua and caromed directly to Harris without being touched by Tatum, making the catch illegal. The referee, Fred Swearingen, held off on signaling a touchdown and checked with the league’s supervisor of officials, Art McNally, who was seated in the press box. Of the officials on the field, only umpire Pat Harder and field judge Adrian Burk (both former players) had seen the catch and indicated that both Fuqua and Tatum had touched the ball. McNally, viewing the replay on television screens in the press box, came to the same conclusion. Swearingen finally signaled touchdown, the home crowd erupted into bedlam, Gerela added the extra point, the last five seconds were run off, and the play that Pittsburgh radio announcer Myron Cope dubbed “the immaculate reception” became a part of pro football lore. In as improbable a manner as has ever decided a NFL playoff game, the Steelers came away with a 13-7 win.
“I can’t believe it,” said Terry Bradshaw of the game’s ending. “I’ve been playing football since second grade and haven’t seen anything like this before.”
As Franco Harris explained, “I was supposed to block on the play. When I saw Terry throw the ball, I headed downfield. All of a sudden, I saw the ball in front of me. I put my hands out and caught it. I was in the right place at the right time and that’s luck.”
“I felt we had it won,” summed up a disappointed John Madden. “I won’t forget it for a long, long time.”
The statistics reflected the closeness of the game, and the domination of the two defenses. The Steelers outgained Oakland by 252 yards to 216 while both teams generated 13 first downs apiece. Bradshaw was sacked three times by the Raiders, for a loss of 31 yards, but the Steelers got to Oakland’s quarterbacks on four occasions for 24 yards in losses. The Raiders also suffered four turnovers, to one by Pittsburgh.
Franco Harris rushed for 64 yards on 18 carries and was also the top receiver with 5 catches for 96 yards and the decisive touchdown. Terry Bradshaw completed just 11 of 25 passes for 175 yards with a TD and an interception.
For the Raiders, Daryle Lamonica was successful on 6 of 18 throws for only 45 yards and was picked off twice. For his part, Ken Stabler also completed 6 passes, out of 12 attempted, and gained 57 yards. Charlie Smith was the leading ground-gainer with 57 yards on 14 carries and Marv Hubbard was held to 44 yards on his 14 attempts. Raymond Chester had 40 yards on three receptions and Fred Biletnikoff also caught three, for 28 yards.
There were no miracles for the Steelers the next week, although they gave the undefeated Miami Dolphins a good battle in the AFC Championship game before succumbing 21-17. The ’72 season marked a major turning point in the franchise’s fortunes – the Steelers became fixtures in the postseason in the 1970s and won four NFL titles. However, in 1973 the Raiders exacted some measure of revenge when they again met Pittsburgh in the Divisional playoff round and won convincingly by a 33-14 score.