1976 Pittsburgh Steelers: Best 10-Game Winning Streak In NFL History?
The 1976 season got off to an excellent start for the defending Super Bowl Champions … or so it seemed. Victory seemed to be in the bag when the Steelers sprinted to a comfortable 4th quarter lead, 28–14, against the Oakland Raiders. But the Raiders staged a furious comeback, scoring 17 unanswered points to win the game, 31–28.
Things seemed to be back to normal the following week when Pittsburgh scored an easy 31–14 win over the Cleveland Browns. But the Steelers then went on a three-game losing skid. To make matters worse, starting quarterback Terry Bradshaw suffered an injury in the fifth game. One more loss and the 1–4 Steelers could kiss the playoffs goodbye.
Was The End Near For The Champs?
How could a team that had won consecutive Super Bowls be facing dire straits? Some thought the team was still suffering a hang-over from their hard-fought victory over the Dallas Cowboys in the Super Bowl, but one thing was for sure–the '76 team had lost four games to excellent teams–Oakland, Minnesota, New England, and Cleveland.
Oakland would win the Super Bowl that year, and Minnesota won the NFC Championship. New England went 11–3 and qualified for the playoffs, and Cleveland finished 9–5.
And quality opponents didn't end with that bunch. Dating back to mid-December 1975 (excluding pre-season) through mid-October 1976, the Steelers had played eleven straight games against high-caliber teams. Pittsburgh won seven of those eleven games, losing the other four by an average of only five points a game.
Still, the cost is a huge part of the story: playing top-notch teams week after week exacts a physical and mental toll.
Backs Against The Wall
And, now, these Steelers had their collective backs against the wall. At 1–4, they had to beat the next team-up–the 4–1 Cincinnati Bengals, and they did, 23–6. Important as that win was, it's not the big story of the Steelers' 1976 season.
The Steelers not only won that game but also beat every other team on the regular-season schedule–converting a 1–4 start into a 10–4 finish. Here's how they did it.
Pittsburgh followed the Bengals' win with a trio of shutouts–the Giants (27–0), the Chargers (with Bradshaw back, 23–0), and the Chiefs (45–0). In the next game, Pittsburgh almost made it four shutouts in a row when the Dolphins went down, 14–3. Counting the Bengals' game, the Steelers had not allowed a touchdown in five games, and the Steel Curtain had allowed only three field goals during that span.
A Rejuvenated Team
The Steelers were not only back but better than ever!
The shutout string ended in Week 11, but the Steelers still managed to double the score against the Oilers, 32–16. And that win set up a do-or-die showdown with the division-leading Bengals. Because the Steelers started 1–4, the division lead over Pittsburgh would have grown to three games had Cincinnati won the game. Result?
Cincinnati would clinch the division, and the Steelers would drop into third place behind the 8–4 Browns, a team that had won earlier that day. The game was played at Riverfront Stadium on a cold, snowy day, and, not surprisingly, it was a hard-hitting, defensive battle.
The Bengals took a 3–0 lead on a first-quarter field goal, and that lead held into the 3rd quarter when Franco Harris scored from four yards out. Pittsburgh's four-point lead, 7–3, was enough to grab the win mainly because The Steel Curtain defense held the Cincinnati offense to 225 total yards and forced two turnovers.
That was the good news for Steelers fans. The bad news is that the Bengals still held the division lead, which meant Pittsburgh remained with its back to the wall.
To respond, the team did what it had done before–throw shutouts–this time, consecutive shutouts against Tampa Bay in Week 13 and, then, in Week 14, Houston to close out the regular season. Both wins came by way of blow-outs, too, to the tune of 63–0 total scores.
Winning was necessary but not sufficient. The Bengals still had a one-game division lead going into their Week 13 Monday Night game against the Raiders. Pittsburgh needed Cincinnati to lose that game because winning the division was likely the only way the Steelers would get into the playoffs.
That's because three other teams were in the race with the Steelers for a Wild Card berth. The Patriots and Colts stood at 10–3, and Cleveland was at 9–4. Winning the division was a sure way (and perhaps the only way) for the Steelers to get into the playoffs and defend their Super Bowl championship.
Before the Monday Night Match-Up between Oakland and Cincinnati, there was a lot of speculation that the Raiders (who had already clinched their division) might deliberately lose to the Bengals, thereby giving the Steelers little hope of making the playoffs.
How did the division- and -playoff race turn out? The Bengals lost to the Raiders, 35–20, and then overpowered the lowly Jets, 42–3, the following week. Meanwhile, the Steelers closed out the campaign by shutting out the Oilers. Ending the season tied for first place in the division, Pittsburgh held the tie-breaker because the Steelers won both times against the Bengals. It was a bitter pill to swallow for the Bengals, too. They lost the division title and failed to capture the Wild Card spot, which went to the Patriots.
1976 NFL Playoffs
In the playoffs, the Steelers wanted to make the most of their good fortune … and they did. Despite facing the formidable 11–3 Baltimore Colts, Pittsburgh smashed the AFC East winner, 40–14, to score its tenth win in a row. Impressive as that was, perhaps even more impressive was how the Steelers played during the streak, winning games by an average score of 27–4.
The 14–1 Oakland Raiders were next in the AFC Championship Game.
The task, difficult enough as it was, became all the more challenging because Pittsburgh would have to play the game shorthanded.
Both starting running backs, Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, were injured against the Colts. The Steelers' ten-game winning streak ended that day, as the Raiders walked away with a 24–7 victory.
Some analysts and fans believe that the Steelers would have won if Franco and Rocky had played. Of course, that's speculative, and it might be wishful thinking, too. After all, it's not like the Raiders had never been able to contain the Steelers' running game.
They held Harris and Bleier to 95 yards in the 1975 AFC Championship, and they held them to 87 yards in a 1977 regular-season game. The Steelers are not the only team to have played a Championship Game without two of their best players. For comparison, in the 1973 NFC Championship Game, the Cowboys played the Vikings without two top players–running back Calvin Hill and defensive lineman Bob Lilly.
Dallas lost by 17 points, 27–10. Would the Cowboys have been more competitive if Hill and Lilly had played? Yes, most likely. Would the Cowboys have won? No, probably not.
I feel the same way about the Steelers vs. the Raiders. Besides, it's important to give Oakland its due. A week later, the Raiders dominated the Vikings in Super Bowl 11, winning 32–14. Let's also give credit to the 1976 Steelers–a team that came back from the brink to play in the AFC Championship game.
But there's another chapter in this story. How does the '76 team stack up against the other Steelers' teams of the 1970s? Furthermore, was the '76 team the best Steelers squad ever? (I've heard that said.)
Pittsburgh lost five games in 1976 and didn't play in the Super Bowl that season. I don't rank the '76 team above the Steelers' Super Bowl winners of that era.
In my book, the 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers had perhaps the most impressive ten-game win streak in NFL history, but ten games do not make a season.