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The Narrative Of The 1975 NFL Season

The Pittsburgh Steelers had broken through in 1974, winning their first championship after over forty years of existence. It didn’t take nearly as long to win the second title. The 1975 NFL season ended with the Steelers winning a repeat Super Bowl.

Pittsburgh’s great Steel Curtain defense continued to be the foundation of their success. The second-best unit in the league, as measured by points allowed, had 1st-team All-Pros in defensive end L.C. Greenwood and linebacker Jack Ham. Joe Greene on the defensive front had two recent Defensive Player of the Year honors to his name. And the Steelers also had the man won Defensive POY in this ’75 season—cornerback Mel Blount, with his physical play and eleven interceptions

The offense had Pro Bowlers at the key skill positions. Terry Bradshaw enjoyed what was then the best season of his career. Lynn Swann was emerging as a star at wide receiver. And the league’s fifth-most productive offense was ultimately fueled by Franco Harris and his over 1,200 yards rushing.

In their 1974 title run, Pittsburgh had gotten to the playoffs with the help of a soft schedule. This season was quite different. The Cincinnati Bengals and Houston Oilers had big years as they sought to challenge the Steelers in the old AFC Central.

Cincinnati had a passing game that was, at least in part, developed by the great Bill Walsh, who was then on the Bengals staff. The combination of Ken Anderson throwing to Isaac Curtis led the Bengals. The defense ranked sixth in the NFL. In the final season for the legendary head coach Paul Brown, Cincinnati was poised to make a run.

Houston had their own passing combination, Dan Pastorini throwing to Ken Burroughs. The Oilers had a dynamic duo on the defensive line, with All-Pro nose tackle Curley Culp and defensive end Elvin Bethea combining for 21 ½ sacks. The Houston defense ranked fifth in points allowed.

In what was then a 14-game season, the Steelers, Bengals and Oilers all reached double-digit wins. The difference came in the head-to-head battles. Pittsburgh swept their four games against Cincinnati and Houston. November was the crucial month. It opened with the Steelers getting a 30-24 win over the Bengals. A week later, Pittsburgh edged Houston 24-17. On the Monday Night prior to Thanksgiving, the Steelers hammered the Oilers 32-9.

Amidst all of this, Houston had pulled out a 20-19 win over a good Miami Dolphins team. It wasn’t enough to help the Oilers get to the playoffs, but it did help Cincinnati. Even though the Steelers won the AFC Central’s final battle on a Saturday in December, beating the Bengals 35-14, Cincinnati’s 11-3 record still got them what was then just one wild-card berth, beating out 10-4 Miami along with 10-4 Houston. As for Pittsburgh, they were 12-2 and rolling back into the playoffs.

The AFC East was another lively race. The Dolphins were one part of that, joining the Baltimore Colts and Buffalo Bills in a joust for division supremacy. Miami had four straight AFC East titles under their belt and were only two years removed from winning back-to-back Super Bowls. Baltimore had the league’s second-best offense, with versatile Lydell Mitchell in the backfield and Bert Jones at quarterback. The Colt defense was led by Fred Cook and John Dutton up front, who combined for 33 ½ sacks. Buffalo relied on a running back named O.J. Simpson to try and cover for a shaky defense.

Buffalo was the one who came firing out of the gate. The Bills had made the playoffs a year earlier. O.J. would enjoy an 1,800-yard campaign this season. Both he, and guard Joe DeLamielleure ended up All-Pro. And they won their first four games, a stretch that included wins over Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

But a defense that ranked 21st in a 28-team league wasn’t going to cut it. Buffalo faded. They lost shootouts to the Dolphins and Colts as the season wore on and were blown out by the Minnesota Vikings in December. The Bills finished 8-6 and out of the money.

That left the Dolphins and Colts to fight it out. The head-to-head games came later in the season. They were two very different games, one a 33-17 offensive game and the other a 10-7 defensive slugfest. The common thread? Baltimore won both. So when they tied for first, it was the Colts advancing to the playoffs.

The three-divisional format of the era was rounded out by the AFC West. The Oakland Raiders had taken this division over in recent years and the 1975 NFL season was more of the same. Even with Ken Stabler throwing 24 interceptions, the Raiders had the fourth-best offense in the league, while the defense ranked seventh. Oakland knocked off Miami 31-21 on Monday Night Football in September and then beat Baltimore 31-20 a week later.

No one else in the division was over .500. Prior to this season, that would have rendered the Raider regular season essentially meaningless. But the NFL instituted a welcome change to the playoff format. Finally, homefield advantage would be determined by record, rather than a pre-determined rotation among the divisions. That gave Oakland something to play for. With an 11-3 finish, they beat out Baltimore for the 2-seed and the right to play the first postseason game at home.

The hottest division race on the NFC side came in the East. The Dallas Cowboys, the perennial power of this division, had slipped in 1974 and missed the playoffs. The Cardinals, then in St. Louis, were the defending champs. The Washington Redskins had made the postseason each of the previous four seasons and reached a Super Bowl in 1972.

St. Louis had a creative mind at head coach with Don Coryell. The had a Pro Bowl quarterback in Jim Hart and a good backfield. Fullback Jim Otis pounded out over 1,000 yards. Terry Metcalf was versatile, able to both run and catch. Each made the Pro Bowl.

Washington’s “Over-The-Hill Gang” of veterans had a 36-year-old quarterback in Billy Kilmer. On the defensive side, linebacker Chris Hanburger and safety Ken Houston were All-Pro.

As for Dallas, there were question marks. Not just the non-playoff year of 1974, but the breaking in a number of young players. What the Cowboys did have going for them was the great Roger Staubach behind center. The 33-year-old future Hall of Famer delivered another Pro Bowl season. Dallas knocked off the Los Angeles Rams and St. Louis before September was out and put the league on notice that they weren’t going away quietly.

An exciting race ensued. The Redskins knocked off the Cardinals on a Monday Night in October. The Cardinals returned the favor in the mid-November rematch. In the earlier part of November, Washington won an epic 30-24 overtime battle over Dallas. The race was tight into December.

St. Louis beat Dallas 31-17, the key win in vaulting the Cards to an 11-3 record and repeat NFC East title. But it was also apparent that the wild-card would come out of this division. Six days later, on a Saturday afternoon, the Cowboys met the Redskins in what was essentially a de facto playoff game. Dallas won it 31-10 to get back into the postseason.

One year earlier, Minnesota and Los Angeles had been a cut above the rest of the NFC, with the Vikings getting to the Super Bowl. For the regular season in 1975, it looked like more of the same. Minnesota and Los Angeles both went 12-2 and tied Pittsburgh for the best record in the NFL.

Viking quarterback Fran Tarkenton had the best season of his Hall of Fame career, winning the MVP award. Chuck Foreman ran for over 1,000 yards. John Gilliam was a Pro Bowl wide receiver. Ron Yary had an All-Pro campaign at offensive tackle. The great Purple People Eaters defense was littered with Hall of Famers, from Alan Page and Carl Eller up front, to Paul Krause at safety. Minnesota ranked third in the NFL for both scoring offense and defense. And they cleared the field in the NFC Central by five games.

The Rams were fueled by the league’s top scoring defense. Jack Youngblood, one of the game’s best defensive ends, was an All-Pro with 15 sacks. Fred Dryer and Merlin Olsen each made the Pro Bowl. L.A.’s offense wasn’t great—11th in the league. But it was more than enough to win and Los Angeles routed the NFC West by a seven-game margin. The only thing that didn’t work for Los Angeles was the tiebreaker—Minnesota got the 1-seed while Los Angeles settled for #2.

Postseason play began two days after Christmas. Baltimore visited Pittsburgh to kick off Divisional Round Weekend. The Steelers were sloppy and turned it over five times. That helped the Colts take a 10-7 lead into the third quarter. But Pittsburgh was otherwise controlling the football game. By the time the fourth quarter started, the Steelers led 21-10 and 28-10 was the final.

Later that afternoon in Los Angeles, the Rams made their bid to return to the NFC Championship Game. That great defense was ready to go. Youngblood intercepted a pass and brought it back for a touchdown, as did defensive back Bill Simpson. L.A. jumped out to a 21-0 lead and then kept things under control thereafter for a 35-23 win.

Minnesota had reached the Super Bowl three times in the previous seven years, but had never won it. The Vikings felt like 1975 was going to be their year and they hosted the Cowboys in the early game on Sunday afternoon. When Minnesota led 14-10 with under a minute to go, they were poised to advance.

Then Staubach completed a difficult throw to get a needed first down and get the ball to midfield. From there, Staubach launched a desperation pass to Drew Pearson who hauled it in near the goal line and walked in for a stunning touchdown. Minnesota fans were furious, believing Pearson had committed offensive interference to get open. It’s a play that can ignite debate among football fans to this day. The Viking season was over. The Cowboys were, quite improbably, going to Los Angeles.

Later on Sunday afternoon, Stabler played good football for Oakland and threw three touchdown passes as the Raiders built a 31-14 lead in the fourth quarter. They held off a late charge from the Bengals to preserve a 31-28 win. The career of Paul Brown, along with this year’s Divisional Round, was over.

The 1975 NFL season marked the fourth straight time the Steelers and Raiders met in the playoffs and it was their second straight showdown in the AFC Championship Game. The game was hard-fought and physical, as these battles always were. The turnovers kept coming—seven for Pittsburgh and five for Oakland. But Bradshaw gave his team more efficiency in the passing game than Stabler was able to. The Steelers chiseled out a 16-10 win.

If Minnesota had thought 1975 was their year a week earlier, then Los Angeles certainly had to feel it now. The Rams were a solid 6 ½ point favorite over the Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game. Let’s just say that this one didn’t exactly play out as the experts forecasted.

The Dallas defense stuffed the L.A. running game. Staubach ripped off four touchdown passes and the score was 28-0 by the early part of the third quarter. The final was 37-7. A Cowboy season marked by uncertainty at the outset had seen them upend the NFC’s two best teams. Dallas was returning to the Super Bowl for the first time since their championship year of 1971.

For three quarters on what was then the artificial turf of Miami’s Orange Bowl, Dallas seemed to have one more shocker left in them. The Cowboys took a 10-7 lead into the final quarter. Pittsburgh, favored by a touchdown, finally started to assert themselves. The Steelers took a 15-10 lead. The stage was set for the game’s biggest moment.

On his own 36-yard line, Bradshaw dropped back to pass. Dallas brought the blitz. Bradshaw was leveled, but he got a deep throw off. Swann made a spectacular catch and got into the end zone. It was the clinching play in what ended as a 21-17 win. Swann’s receiving numbers of four catches for 161 yards were very good in this run-oriented era. That, combined with this catch, got him game MVP honors.

Pittsburgh had back-to-back championships. And while there would be no three-peat in 1976, this 1970s Steeler Dynasty was only halfway done.