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WEEK NINE CRYSTAL BALL - THURSDAY: A Game that Changed the Game
My friends, the Titans (3-4) visit Pittsburgh (4-3) this evening and it takes me back to a big game between these franchises years ago. A contest that played a significant role in changing the game for the better.
It was the 1979 season, and THE GURU was a wee lad of nine years old, probably only weighing in at a couple of hundred pounds. The Titans franchise, then known as the Houston Oilers, were the rage of the football world with Earl Campbell running over dudes, the defense laying the wood and Bum Phillips coaching ‘em up.
A year earlier, the Oilers were NFL postseason neophytes, but the rookie Campbell was a proverbial bull in a China shop, taking Phillips & Co. all the way to the AFC title game. Opponents were no match for Campbell, like a virtual wallet against THE TRE MAN or the 1988 All-American Bowl sundae bar vs. yours truly.
Unfortunately, Houston’s season ended with a thud that day as the Steelers pummeled the interlopers to the tune of 34-5 while forcing a mind-boggling nine (!) turnovers. Two weeks later, Chuck Noll lead Pittsburgh to its third Super Bowl win in five years while the Oilers were off licking their wounds.
The whipping was expected given the Steelers’ pedigree and the fact that, at 14-2, they finished four games ahead of second-place Houston in the AFC Central. But, in the 1979 campaign, the worm turned with Pittsburgh (12-4) besting the Oilers by just one game in the final standings.
Among the Steelers four losses was a hard-fought late-season defeat at Houston, 20-17, a game that gave the Oilers momentum against their more-accomplished rivals. In that game, Pittsburgh argued that an officiating call in the final two minutes cost the chance to win the game but, as both teams would find out in the playoffs, that ruling was child’s play.
The big day was January 6, 1980. An AFC Championship rematch between Houston and Pittsburgh. Upstart vs. Dynasty. Oil vs. Coal. Barbecue vs. Pierogies.
Houston got off on the right foot when Vernon Perry picked off a Terry Bradshaw pass and took it 75 yards to the end zone for a 7-0 Houston lead. The teams traded field goals before Bradshaw threw two second-quarter TD passes to go up 17-10 at the half. The Steelers were dominating the game with a yardage lead of 251-99 but held only the slim advantage.
With 90 seconds remaining in the third quarter, the Oilers earned a first down at the Pittsburgh six-yard line. And then madness ensued.
Houston QB Dan Pastorini, a future dragster and hydroplane racer, threw a gorgeous ball to wide receiver Mike Renfro in the right corner of the end zone. Renfro made the catch just inbounds, and slid out of the end zone, pulling Houston within a point of the hosts. Or did he? You can watch the full video here.
Side judge Don Orr, a former Vanderbilt quarterback and (ouch) Nashville resident, didn’t make a signal. The officials conferred as a group and then referee Jim Tunney ruled it an incompletion. Pittsburgh stuffed Houston on the ensuing two plays, Toni Fritsch kicked a 23-yard field goal, and it was 17-13.
From there, the Steelers owned the game, closing with 10 more points to claim the AFC title, 27-13. In truth, Pittsburgh had a handle on the game throughout and, even if Houston had scored on Renfro’s apparent catch, it seems doubtful the Oilers would have won. But who knows?
The Steelers claimed another championship two weeks later in their Super Bowl XIV win over Dallas, their last title until the 2005 season. Houston made the playoffs the following year, 1980, but didn’t make the AFC’s ultimate game until 1999 when they beat the Jaguars to advance to Super Bowl XXXIV, a loss to the St. Louis Rams.
The play did have a lasting impact as instant replay was eventually instituted during the 1986 season. It took just three plays for the first major call to be overturned and our football lives haven’t been the same since.
It’s unlikely tonight’s game will be as impactful as the 1979 AFC tilt but it’s certainly a key evening for both teams. Tennessee (3-4) can even its record and Pittsburgh (4-3) can pull within a game of division-leading Baltimore (6-2).
Last week, Titans rookie quarterback Will Levis made his first NFL start and tossed four touchdown passes in a win over Atlanta while Pittsburgh lost QB Kenny Pickett and a game, falling to Jacksonville, 20-10.
However, Pickett expects to play this evening and that’s good news for a team that needs a win. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick - St. Peter’s Prep’s finest - is out with a bad hammy but I still think Pittsburgh finds a way. STEELERS, 20-18.
That’s it for now folks. Tune in later this week when I make the rest of my weekend picks. God bless!
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