When a coach has 193 career wins – and 209, counting the playoffs — as Chuck Noll did, some games are certain to stand above the others. In Noll’s case, a lot of them do, because the Steelers won 14 playoff games just in the 1970s, in addition to experiencing seven seasons of 10 wins or more.
Narrowing down the list to the five best is difficult and, of course, is subjective – one man’s top win is another man’s No. 10.
But here is a list of five exceptional Noll-led wins – and not all of them were in the Super Bowl.
1-STEELERS 24, Raiders 13, at Oakland, AFC Championship Game, Dec. 29, 1974. Maybe the Steelers took the first step towards becoming the Team of the Decade with the Immaculate Reception and an 11-3 record two seasons before in 1972, but this is the game that started their playoff dominance. First, look at the date – nearly a month sooner than AFC title games are played today; the NFL played only a 14-game schedule, so the regular season was over by Dec. 15. There was no week off between the end of the season and the division playoffs, either, so there was little time for regrouping.The week before, the Steelers routed the Bills and O.J. Simpson, 32-14, in the divisional playoffs at Three Rivers Stadium (the following season, Simpson would rush for 227 yards and a TD as Buffalo came back to Pittsburgh and won, 30-21). The Raiders were favored after beating the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Dolphins the week before in a game that was billed as the “real” AFC title game. It wasn’t, as Joe Greene explains.
“It was Monday (the day after the Bills game). He (Noll) made a comment about the Oakland-Miami, and how it was being called a championship game even though it was only a divisional game. And he said those people in Oakland said the championship game was played yesterday, that the best two teams in football had played. He said, ‘I want you guys to know that the Super Bowl is played three weeks from now. And the best team in football is sitting right here in this room.’ That statement doesn’t mean a whole lot if he said something like that every week. Chuck never said anything like that prior to that or after that. Not in that way. That was a great impetus for us winning that football game. The Raiders up to that point had been a nemesis for us. At that point in time the Raiders, after Chuck talked to us, they had no chance of winning that ball game. I felt that feeling never changed throughout the course of our preparation and during the game.”
The Raiders had won in Pittsburgh, 17-0, earlier in the season. But the Steelers dominated the fourth quarter of the title game after trailing 10-3 after three quarters, getting three touchdowns – a pair of Franco Harris runs and a Terry Bradshaw to Lynn Swann TD pass play of 6 yards. The Raiders ran for only 29 yards on 21 carries – it was one of the first big days by the Steel Curtain – and Ken “the Snake” Stabler threw three interceptions on his home turf.
“They just weren’t going to win the game,” Greene said.
The Raiders didn’t the next season, either, losing, 16-10, despite seven Steelers turnovers in the AFC title game at icy Three Rivers Stadium.
2-STEELERS 35, Cowboys 31, Super Bowl, at Miami, Jan. 21, 1979. One of the best-played Super Bowl games – and most entertaining – even though the Steelers narrowly missed squandering an 18-point lead after they made it 35-17 in the fourth quarter. The Steelers won a third Super Bowl under Noll and denied Tom Landry a third with the Cowboys. The Steelers also bounced back after losing to the Raiders in the 1976 AFC title game and having a 9-5 record in 1977, the year of the Noll “criminal element” trial involving the Raiders’ George Atkinson. Last year, a nationwide panel of experts picked the 1978 Steelers as the greatest team in franchise history for the Trib.
This is the game that began to establish the Steelers as one of the great teams of all time. If they’d won on the 1974 and 1975 Super Bowls, they would have been viewed as a very good team – but winning a third made people realize this was a very special team. They followed it up by winning the 1979 season Super Bowl over the Los Angeles Rams in Pasadena, the first time that one of the participants was essentially a home team.
3-STEELERS 27, Oilers 13. AFC Championship Game, at Three Rivers Stadium, Jan. 6, 1980. This game would be the springboard for the Steelers’ fourth Super Bowl – and for the NFL adopting instant replay. The Steelers beat the Oilers in the AFC title game at rainy, icy Three Rivers the season before, and then manhandled them again 35-7 early in the 1979 season. But the Oilers prevailed, 20-17, in a Monday night game in Houston, and Oilers coach Bum Phillips had promised to “kick down the door” to allow the Oilers to get past the rival Steelers. After upsetting the favored Chargers the week before, the Oilers looked like they might do it when they opened a 7-0 lead. But after a pair of touchdown drives put the Steelers ahead 17-10, Dan Pastorini tossed what looked to be a tying, 6-yard touchdown pass to Mike Renfro in the back of the end zone in the third quarter. But Renfro was ruled to be out of bounds, even though it appeared he made the catch with inches to spare, and the Steelers – the momentum now on their side – went on to score the final 10 points. It took a few more years, but the Renfro play was cited frequently as a reason the NFL ultimately adopted instant replay.
4-STEELERS 21, Cowboys 17, Super Bowl, at Miami, Jan. 18, 1976. It almost seems unfair to list two Cowboys-Steelers games here, yet both were extremely pivotal to the Steelers becoming known as the Team of the Decade. First, the 1975 Steelers clearly were the best team in franchise history to that time; they went 12-2 during the season, and one of the losses was a meaningless, end-of-season Saturday loss at Los Angeles. The Steelers were 12-1 at the time. Second, both the AFC title game (the 16-10, glare-ice win over the Raiders at Three Rivers) and the Super Bowl were extremely competitive games that could have gone either way; lose either, and the Steelers probably aren’t remembered as arguably the best team of all time. They had only two regular-season losses in each of the two seasons they met the Cowboys in the Super Bowl, and those teams arguably were the two best of the Noll era (the 1978 team went 14-2).This was the game that featured two acrobatic and almost impossible-to-make catches by Lynn Swann; if he doesn’t make these catches, he might not be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The two Cowboys-Steelers Super Bowls are often cited as being two of the best of all time because they featured the NFL’s two most popular teams at the time and two distinct styles, the Cowboys’ always-effective offense and the Steelers’ blanketing, Steel Curtain defense. Classic matchups, classic games. Want to know how those two Cowboys games resonate in Dallas to this day? When Noll died Friday, the Dallas Morning News headline the next day referred to him as the coach who beat the Cowboys in two 1970s-ers Super Bowls – not as the only coach to win four Super Bowls.
5-STEELERS 34, Raiders 28, at Three Rivers Stadium, Sept. 17, 1972. Surprised this game isn’t on the list? You shouldn’t be. This was the first big high-quality win for the Steelers under Noll after they went 12-30 in his first three seasons. It quickly established the 1972 Steelers weren’t the same old Steelers of the past four decades, and it helped give them the confidence and momentum to go on to a 11-3 record – easily the best in franchise history.There’s also this – for all of the Raiders’ complaining about how they were robbed in the Immaculate Reception AFC title game that would follow 3 ½ months later, they never cite the fact they lost to the Steelers TWICE that season – so much for the fluke element. The Steelers opened up leads of 17-0 and 34-14 as Terry Bradshaw RAN for two touchdowns, then held on despite two late Raiders touchdowns. This was Franco Harris’; first NFL game, and he would carry 10 times for only 28 yards and catch two passes. The next time he faced the Raiders, he was a much, much bigger factor. Oh, and after this game – for the first time in Steelers history – it became difficult to get tickets for regular season games. They began selling out every game starting that season, a streak that continues through today.