The 1974 NFL season began with one team—the Miami Dolphins—clearly on top of the heap. The Dolphins were on a run of three straight AFC titles and two consecutive Super Bowl championships, one of which ended as a perfect season. They had made the first bid to be this decade’s defining dynasty. But there were worthy challengers nipping at their heels—notably the Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders. It would be those two teams that ultimately settled the AFC crown. And the Steelers, in winning it all, not only displaced the Dolphins for this year, but began a run that would see Pittsburgh become the Team of the 1970s.
1974 opened with quarterback controversy in Pittsburgh, as Joe Gilliam was the starter. But this would be the season that Terry Bradshaw finally claimed the job as his own. Terry had a 1,000-yard Pro Bowl running back in Franco Harris who led the offense.
What really defined this Steeler team though, was its defense. Jack Ham at linebacker and L.C. Greenwood at defensive end were each 1st-team All-Pro. Andy Russell was a Pro Bowl linebacker. And no one in the league was better on the defensive side of the ball than Joe Greene. “Mean Joe” won his second Defensive Player of the Year award in three seasons and Pittsburgh’s defense ranked second in the NFL in points allowed.
Oakland was built around the league’s top scoring offense. Ken Stabler had his career year at quarterback, winning the MVP award. Cliff Branch was one of the game’s top wideouts. Stabler got protection from an offensive line anchored by the great combo of Art Shell and Gene Upshaw.
The Raiders and Steelers went head-to-head at the end of September and Oakland got a 17-0 win. Both teams pulled away in their divisions. Oakland’s record of 12-2 easily captured the AFC West. Pittsburgh went 10-3-1 and cruised home in the AFC Central.
Miami wasn’t going anywhere though. The Dolphins got a Pro Bowl season from quarterback Bob Griese. Paul Warfield, a game-breaking wide receiver could still make big plays as well as anyone in the league. Griese and Warfield helped make up for a running game that wasn’t quite as potent as the previous two years. Injuries in the backfield kept Miami from making the most of an offensive line that had 1st-team All-Pro players in Jim Langer and Larry Little.
Defensively, the Fish had a top pass rusher at defensive end with Bill Stanfill. They ranked third in points scored and sixth in points allowed.
What the Dolphins had that the Steelers and Raiders did not, was a credible challenger in the division. Buffalo had contended to the very end of the season in 1973 for what was then just a single wild-card spot to go with three division winners. The Bills were led by the now-infamous O.J. Simpson at running back and had excellent defensive backs in Robert James on the corner and Tony Greene at free safety.
The Juice didn’t match the production of his historic 2,000-yard MVP campaign from 1973, but his 1,100-plus yards in a 14-game schedule was excellent by any other measurement. Buffalo opened their season on Monday Night Football by nipping Oakland 21-20 and sending a message that they would be a contender again.
Miami still demonstrated their superiority over Buffalo. The Dolphins won a Week 2 head-to-head game 24-16, and then got a 35-28 mid-November victory in the rematch against the Bills. The head-to-head results were the difference in an AFC East race where Miami went 11-3 and Buffalo finished 9-5. Both teams went to the playoffs.
The Minnesota Vikings had been knocking hard on the door themselves. The Vikings reached the Super Bowl in 1969 and lost as a two-touchdown favorite. They made it back in 1973 before losing handily to Miami. The Vikes had a Big Three of Pro Bowlers at the offensive skill positions. Fran Tarkenton, the great 34-year-old scrambling quarterback was still going strong. Chuck Foreman led the running game. John Gilliam stretched the field at wideout. Up front, Ron Yary was one of the league’s best offensive tackles. Minnesota’s offense ranked fifth in the NFL.
But this era of Viking football is remembered for “The Purple People Eaters” defensive line. Alan Page was a 1st-team All-Pro and Carl Eller was another Pro Bowler. A great safety in Paul Krause backed them up. Minnesota’s defense ranked third in points allowed.
Another hopeful was the Los Angeles Rams. As much as the defenses in places like Pittsburgh and Minnesota are rightly remembered for their excellence in this era, it was the Rams D that allowed fewer points than anyone in 1974. The defensive line combo of Jack Youngblood and Fred Dryer went for 15 sacks apiece. Offensively, the Rams relied on the running of 1,000-yard back Lawrence McCutcheon.
The Vikings and Rams did not have serious challenges within their respective races in the NFC Central and NFC West. Minnesota got some big wins over NFC East contenders in the Dallas Cowboys and St. Louis Cardinals. Los Angeles knocked off San Francisco twice, including a tough 15-13 win on the Monday Night stage. The Vikes and Rams cleared the field with room to spare, and went head-to-head on November 24. Los Angeles pulled out a 20-17 win. Both teams went into the playoffs at 10-4.
The league’s best race in 1974 came in the NFC East. The Cardinals and Cowboys were joined by the Washington Redskins, a consistent contender under George Allen, in a lively three-way fight for the division title and the wild-card spot.
Jim Hart was a Pro Bowl quarterback in St. Louis, his 20-8 TD/INT ration being very good for the era. Terry Metcalf, a versatile running back was ahead of his time as a back who could run and catch passes. Mel Gray was a big-play receiver who averaged nearly 20 yards a catch.
Washington didn’t have that kind of explosive personnel, save for the great Charley Taylor at wide receiver. But the Redskins actually scored more points, finishing fourth in total offense while the Cardinals were ninth. Washington had a better defense, with tackle Diron Talbert, linebacker Chris Hanburger and safety Ken Houston leading another unit that was fourth in the league.
What the Redskins did not do was close the deal in the two head-to-head games. St. Louis won 17-10 on September 22 and 23-20 on October 27. Furthermore, Washington lost a legendary Thanksgiving Day game in Dallas when backup quarterback Clint Longley came off the bench to throw two touchdown passes and beat the ‘Skins 24-23.
But Dallas couldn’t quite put it all together. A bit of an off-year from their Hall of Fame quarterback, Roger Staubach was one reason. A defense that was good—10th in the league—but not great—was another reason this would be the one time in the 1970s that the Cowboys failed to make the playoffs.
Washington got a big October victory over Miami, 20-17. The Redskins won their home game with Dallas, 28-21. And the ‘Skins got a big Monday Night win over the Rams in the season’s penultimate game. Washington, along with St. Louis, went 10-4 and made the playoffs. Dallas settled for 8-6 and went home.
The NFC East might have had the best race for the regular season, but their teams seemed a step behind Minnesota and Los Angeles. The playoffs showed that. The Vikings got the postseason started on the Saturday before Christmas with a 114-yard game from Foreman and pulled away from the Cardinals in the third quarter, winning 30-14.
The divisional round was concluded the following day when the Rams held off the Redskins. Holding a 13-10 lead, L.A. linebacker Isiah Robertson intercepted Sonny Jurgensen and went 59 yards to the house. The Vikings and Rams would settle the NFC title.
On the early part of Sunday afternoon, Pittsburgh similarly took care of business. The Steelers shut down O.J., erupted for four second-quarter touchdowns and beat the Bills 32-14.
But the game this round of the postseason is really remembered for came in Saturday’s late afternoon time slot. Oakland and Miami played one of the sport’s greatest games. The Dolphins ran the ball like they had the previous two seasons, going for 235 yards as a team on the road. Stabler played like the MVP he was, going 20/30 for 293 yards and four TD passes. The game went back-and-forth throughout. In the closing moments, the Raiders trailed 26-21, but were on the Dolphins eight-yard line.
What followed next became known as “The Sea of Hands” in NFL lore. Stabler lofted a pass towards a tightly covered Clarence Davis coming out of the backfield. Davis and several Miami players put up their hands. It was Davis’ hands that the pass nestled into. Oakland had won 28-26. There would be a new champion in 1974.
The 1974 NFL season would be the end of an era in one welcome way—this was the last time the league did not award homefield advantage or seed its playoffs based on record. A rotation system decided who would play who, and where. It’s why the Raiders and Dolphins, with the best two records in football, had to play in the divisional round. And it’s why the NFC Championship Game would be played in Minnesota, rather than Los Angeles.
A great battle is remembered for what happened on the goal line in the third quarter. The Vikings led 7-3, but the Rams were inside the 1-yard line. Guard Tom Mack was whistled for illegal motion. Los Angeles now had to throw and the pass was intercepted in the end zone. Minnesota subsequently began a long drive for a touchdown to go up 14-3. The Rams didn’t quit. They cut the lead to 14-10, got the ball back and got past midfield on their final drive. But the Purple People Eaters stiffened and closed the deal. Minnesota had its second straight NFC crown and its third Super Bowl appearance in six years.
Oakland and Pittsburgh already had a good rivalry going. They had met in the postseason in both 1972 and 1973. Each team had one win, with the Steelers’ controversial 1972 victory still rankling Raider fans to this day. This season would begin a run of three straight seasons where Pittsburgh and Oakland would play in the AFC Championship Game.
A physical 3-3 game got its first touchdown in the third quarter when Stabler went up top to Branch for a 38-yard touchdown pass. The Raiders, playing at home, were poised to close it out…until Pittsburgh completely took over the fourth quarter. The Steelers outrushed the Raiders 224-29 and that difference showed up down the stretch. Pittsburgh won it 24-13.
Tulane Stadium was the site of the Super Bowl down in New Orleans. Pittsburgh was a three-point favorite. With two of the league’s signature defenses playing, and the weather damp, a low-scoring game was anticipated. And it met expectations. The only points of the first half came when Steeler defensive lineman Dwight White got to Tarkenton in the end zone for a safety. It was 2-0 Pittsburgh at intermission.
The Steeler ground game was again in complete control, though. Franco Harris, the ultimate game MVP, would rush for 158 yards on the day, including a nine-yard TD jaunt that extended the lead to 9-0. The Vikings made it interesting when their great special teams unit produced a blocked punt for a touchdown and cut the lead to 9-6. But they only ran for 17 yards on the game. Tarkenton was intercepted three times. Pittsburgh added an insurance touchdown and sealed the 16-6 win.
Pittsburgh’s franchise had come into existence in 1933 and this 1974 NFL season was finally their first title. They would spend the rest of the decade making up for lost time.