The 1978 NFL season was marked by dramatic changes. The schedule was expanded to 16 games and significant rule changes were implemented to make it easier for the passing game to function. The postseason format itself was not exempt from the prevailing winds. The NFL, which then used a three-division-per-conference format made an addition to the playoffs. The number of wild-card teams was increased from 1 to 2, making it identical to what major league baseball went to in 2012. For the first time, there would be four weekends of postseason football.
The league had to be happy with the first result of the new format. Two teams that had never made the playoffs in the Super Bowl era, the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles, played the first wild-card game on Christmas Eve afternoon. And it was a thriller—the Falcons trailed 13-0 at home before Steve Bartkowski threw two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter. Eagles kicker Mike Michel, who’d already missed an extra point, then missed a field goal that would have won it.
The second game of the wild-card doubleheader saw the playoff debut of the league’s brightest young star. Houston Oilers’ running back Earl Campbell had shared the MVP award with Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback Terry Bradshaw, and the Oilers were another team making their postseason debut. They would also become the first 5-seed to advance in the playoffs, going to Miami and beating Don Shula’s Dolphins.
Campbell’s Oilers kept it going the following week in Foxboro. The second-seeded New England Patriots were in turmoil—head coach Chuck Fairbanks had announced he was leaving for Colorado, left the team and then been summoned back to finish the year. Houston rolled a lifeless Patriot team 31-14.
On the other end of the career spectrum, while Campbell was saying hello, Minnesota Viking legend Fran Tarkenton was saying goodbye. The Hall of Fame quarterback had been a staple of the playoffs through the 1970s and taken the Vikings to three Super Bowls, though he never won one. Tarkenton’s Vikings also tended to own the Los Angeles Rams. But everything comes to an end and the NFC’s top-seeded Rams sent Tarkenton into retirement with a 34-10 loss.
That brings us to the Steelers and Cowboys. Both were vying to become the first team in league history to win three Super Bowls. Dallas had to survive a tough fight with Atlanta in the divisional round—Cowboy quarterback Roger Staubach was knocked out with his team trailing 20-13 in the second half and backup Danny White had to rally the troops for a 27-20 win. But Pittsburgh coasted past defending AFC champ Denver.
Championship Sunday produced one of the great combined displays of dominance we’ve ever seen in that round of play. Pittsburgh opened the day in the sleet and ice of old Three Rivers Stadium by shutting down Campbell in a 34-5 rout. Dallas went west to Los Angeles and though the game stayed close to the fourth quarter, the Cowboys broke it open and won 28-0. Two great franchises had made definitive statements on their way to the Super Bowl
Super Bowl XIII in Miami’s Orange Bowl was widely considered the best Super Bowl ever played up to that point. For three quarters the game went back and forth, as the heavyweights traded blows. But the biggest blow was an unforced error. Cowboy tight end Jackie Smith dropped a third-down pass in the end zone that would have tied the game at 21 in the third quarter. Smith was all alone and Staubach’s pass had been perfect. As bad as anyone can feel for Smith, this was the Bill Buckner play of Super Bowl lore.
The Steelers burst out to a 35-17 lead after a controversial pass interference call and later Dallas turnover. Staubach rallied the Cowboys with two touchdowns and they had an onside kick attempt with 22 seconds left. Rocky Bleier covered it for Pittsburgh and the Steelers were the first three-time champs.