By Phil Musick, The Pittsburgh Press
The mighty O.J. was left for pulp by the Steeler defense, but on a day given over to vengence, it was the Steeler offense, that onetime child of misfortune, which brought about a ridiculously easy 32-14 victory over Buffalo in the quarterfinals of Pete Rozelle's annual tournament.
When it was over, no one said it better than Ray Mansfield:"They were good; we played super football." No pun intended.
Before 48,321 of the faithful gathered on a crisp, lovely afternoon to watch the Steeler defense dual O.J. Simpson to the death (Ed. Note: Ironic choice of words, eh?) at Three Rivers, Terry Bradshaw authored "the best game I've ever had here".
When the half had ended, the Buffalo Bills were dead, and Terry Bradshaw had triumphantly scaled a year of bad times to know his finest moment as a professional.
True, others of the Steelers were valiant. The Steeler defense buried Simpson, who got only 49 yards on 15 carries, eight of which produced just 2 yards or less. And there were indivdual Steelers who gleaned a full measure of personal satisfaction.
Larry Brown, for instance. For weeks the world had been saying his hands were really waffle irons in disguise, but yesterday he made a brilliant, leaping stab of a Bradshaw pass to set up the last of four Steeler touchdowns in the second quarter, the one that sucked the final drop of intrigue from the proceedings.
And there was Lynn Swann, the Steelers No. 1 draft pick who caught eight passes in his first 10 games and had half the scouting department hiding in the men's room when the coaches were around.
Yesterday, he was magnificent, running 25 yards on a reverse to set up one touchdown; making a diving catch to set up another.
Certainly, the entire offense deserved the game balls it was awarded, lifting its eyes to the defense with a leer. "We carried you guys today," Mansfield told Jack Ham, who simply said,"I know it."
But, mostly, the day and the triumph belonged to Terry Bradshaw and you could at times see in his amused expression the question. How dumb am I now? And the only answer was like a fox, baby, like a fox.
Adversity's handmaiden, Bradshaw had lost his job in training camp and again following the loss in Cincinnati, but yesterday he prevailed.
"The thing I pride myself on is that I've been able to come back," he said. "It's a great feeling to face adversity, overcome it, and rise to the top."
Poised like a prima ballerina, Bradshaw did it all. He was 12 of 19 for 203 yards in his finest passing performance in 29 games and almost three years. But it was his composure rather than his arm that was the most impressive.
He threw a 27-yard strike to Rocky Blier to give the Steelers a 9-7 edge early in the second quarter only because he had the cool to move to the fringe of the pocket for a better view and an extra second that let him loft a strike over Buffalo linebacker Doug Allen.
Six minutes later, his passing to Swann accounted for another score. In the next minute, Mike Wagner left-hooked the ball from Bills running back Jim Braxton, Ham recovered and Bradshaw threw 35 yards to Swann. Zap, another touchdown.
Then, Buffalo's hopes fading as quickly as the halftime clock, Bradshaw calmly passed the Steelers 54 yards in 85 seconds for their fourth touchdown of the quarter, which set a playoff record.
However, Mansfield was more impressed by a 5-yard lob Bradshaw completed to Franco Harris with Buffalo defensive end Earl Edwards hanging on him like a shirt.
"A year ago you know he wouldn't have dumped that ball off to Harris, he'd have run," said Mansfield. "I can't say enough about Terry. He just seems a lot more mature. He ignores criticism now. He seems almost cocksure in the huddle now."
Bradshaw agreed. "I've just gotten so much more confident the last few weeks," he said. "And that's the key to winning. You start believing in the things you can do."
Ironically, it was Bradshaw's I.Q. that did in the Bills as much as his passing. Early on, being chewed up by the Steelers' inside running game, the Bills junked their normal three-man defensive front alignment. They switched to their "80 defense," which is a 4-1 alignment, and Bradshaw hacked it to bits with good, old reliable P-10.
Although is sounds like a jazzy World War II fighter plane, P-10 is bread and butter--Harris up the gut.
The blocking is straight ahead, Harris reads the movement of the defender over the center and the bodies begin to fall. "That's the play we go to when we're in trouble," Mansfield said.
The Steelers were not in trouble after the mortar-shell second quarter brought 26 points. It also put to rest the theory that Bradshaw possessed a million-dollar arm and a 40-cent head.
"It all goes back to Terry," said Mansfield. "If there was anything our offense needed it was his leadership."
Nobody had to tell Bradshaw, who had seemingly proven that no longer is he the guy who in a game three years ago became so rattled when the crunch time came that he couldn't call a play and had to have someone else do it.
"If ever I had a problem," he was saying,"it was in pushing too many things."
The biggest of those things was his apparent need to prove his leadership capabilities from the day he signed. At an informal barbecue held by one of the veterans shortly after Bradshaw signed, Steeler veterans spotted a lack of confidence. "It was a fiasco," said one. "It was like he thought he could prove himself to us by telling a lot of jokes and smiling."
Bradshaw is no longer the smiling young man of naivete' who last season after suffering a painful injury and being booed as he left the field, waved to a group of teenagers while driving home and got an obscene gesture in return.
"I think I can provide leadership by what I do on the field," he said quietly. "In the past, when I didn't play well, I'd worry and it would fog my mind. I'm trying to flash that stuff out of my head now."
Apparently, Bradshaw has succeeded in becoming less anxious. Yesterday, he "slept a solid 13 hours" and arrived at Three Rivers just an hour and 20 minutes before the game.
"I tried not to get too high for this one," he said. "In the past, I took too much responsibility. Now I just let things roll. I think that comes from not playing. It gives you a sense of awareness."
Obviously, there's a difference in Bradshaw's play. "We handled everything like a championship team today," he said. "I never felt so much in control. I've had great games in the past, statistically speaking. But I was doing that searching here, searching there thing. It was different today. I was in complete comtroll."
Because Bradshaw was, so were the Steelers.