Through the first part of the 1970s, the Oakland Raiders and Minnesota Vikings had each been excellent teams that couldn’t quite take the final step. The Raiders kept getting blocked in the AFC by the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Vikings could reach the Super Bowl out of the NFC, but had were 0-3 in that last hurdle. The 1976 NFL season saw Oakland and Minnesota each get to the Super Bowl, and it would be John Madden’s Raiders that got the monkey off their back.
Oakland’s offense was led by Ken Stabler, the veteran southpaw who had another Pro Bowl campaign. Stabler had a big-play target in All-Pro wide receiver Cliff Branch. Tight end Dave Casper, another All-Pro, was Stabler’s target underneath. The Raiders a had 1,000-yard rusher in Mark van Eeghen. They finished fourth in the NFL in points scored.
Madden’s defense wasn’t vintage, ranking 12th, in what was then a 26-team league. But it was good enough to win. And the Raiders did a lot of winning. They opened the season with a 31-28 win over their nemesis in Pittsburgh. In the month of October, Oakland put the AFC West race to bed, beating their main competition, the Denver Broncos, twice. By season’s end, the Raiders were 13-1, the #1 seed in the AFC and primed to finally make the Super Bowl.
Minnesota had a veteran Pro Bowl quarterback of their own. At the age of 36, Fran Tarkenton was still scrambling and still making plays. He had a young target in Pro Bowl wide receiver Sammy White. Chuck Foreman rolled up 1,155 yards on the ground and made the Pro Bowl, running behind the great offensive tackle Ron Yary.
The Viking offense ranked 9th in the league. The defense, even though no one made All-Pro in 1976, still had the great veterans that compromised the Purple People Eaters unit that dominated during this decade. Players like Alan Page, Carl Eller, Paul Krause and others were still going strong and this defense was the second-best in the NFL.
Minnesota benefitted from the fact that no one in the NFC Central was particularly good. They split a pair of one-point games with Walter Payton’s Chicago Bears, but the Bears were a .500 team. In the meantime, the Vikings knocked off the Steelers on Monday Night Football and rolled up an 11-2-1 record. They looked headed for the #2 seed in the NFC after closing the year with a 29-7 win over Miami. Then, on late Sunday afternoon, the Dallas Cowboys lost, dropped to 11-3 and the road to Super Bowl was set up to go through Minneapolis.
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys were the teams to beat, having been to the Super Bowl in 1975. Both were in lively three-team divisional races in an era when there was only one wild-card playoff spot available.
The season couldn’t have started much worse for the two-time defending champion Steelers. Terry Bradshaw was hurt and the offense had to turn to backup quarterback Mike Kruczek for six starts. They lost four of their first five games. But the running game stepped up—Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier each enjoyed 1,000-yard seasons.
And the defense? The Steel Curtain D, knowing the pressure was on ramped up and had its best season of the entire decade. Linebacker Jack Lambert won Defensive Player of the Year. Another linebacker, Jack Ham, was All-Pro. Pittsburgh’s defense delivered five shutouts. They got hot and the by the final weekend of November, the Steelers were back in the hunt.
The Cincinnati Bengals had gone to the early lead in the AFC Central. The Bengals had a Pro Bowl quarterback in Ken Anderson and a terrific pass-rushing defensive end in Coy Bacon, who rang up 21 ½ sacks. Tommy Casanova was the NFL’s best strong safety in 1976. Cincinnati knocked off Denver 17-7 to start the season. They beat the Cleveland Browns twice.
It set up a big showdown on November 28. Cincinnati had an opportunity to put Pittsburgh away. But a defensive battle was right up the Steelers’ alley and they won 7-3.
Cincinnati still controlled their own destiny, but the AFC Central was coming down to the wire and Cleveland was also in the mix. On the season’s penultimate Monday Night, the Bengals faced the Raiders. There was question as to whether Oakland, with everything all sewn up, might mail this one in, for the sake of knocking out their nemesis in Pittsburgh. But the Raiders played to win and that’s what they did, 35-20.
Thus, the Steelers, Bengals and Browns were all 9-4 coming into the final week of play. Pittsburgh, having swept Cincinnati and split with Cleveland held the tiebreaker. The Steelers put the finishing touches on their comeback in an appropriate way—with a shutout. A 21-0 win over Houston wrapped up the AFC Central. Cincinnati closed at 10-4, while Cleveland dropped their finale and clocked in at 9-5.
Over in the NFC East, Dallas was led by the NFL’s fifth-best defense. John Dutton at defensive end and Cliff Harris roaming at free safety were the All-Pro players in ’76. The Cowboy offense wasn’t vintage—Roger Staubach still had a Pro Bowl year at quarterback, throwing to All-Pro wide receiver Drew Pearson. But the running game struggled and the Dallas offense ranked 10th in points scored.
The St. Louis Cardinals had won this division a year earlier, even if it was Dallas reaching the Super Bowl out of the wild-card spot. The Cards had their own Pro Bowl QB in Jim Hart. One of the league’s top offensive lines was anchored by Tom Banks at center and Dan Dierdorf at tackle. Roger Wehrli was one of the NFL’s best corners. And the Cardinals were again in the hunt.
A year earlier, in a similar three-team joust, it was the Washington Redskins who were left standing without a playoff chair when the music stopped. The Redskins got an 1,100-yard season from Mike Thomas and were a contender again in ’76.
Three weeks in October summed up how closely the NFC East was contested. In sequence, the Cardinals beat the Cowboys, the Redskins beat the Cardinals and the Cowboys beat the Redskins. It was a four-day stretch in November that damaged St. Louis. The Redskins again beat the Cardinals on the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving. Then St. Louis had to travel to Dallas for Turkey Day. The Cowboys won that game.
On the final day of the season, the Cardinals won their game in the early afternoon spot to finish 10-4. Dallas had the division locked up at 11-2 and was playing 9-4 Washington in the late afternoon. This was the regular season’s most significant came. The Cowboys were playing for the 1-seed in the playoffs. The Redskins were playing to get in. Washington won it, 27-14. They were in the postseason. St. Louis was going home. Dallas was relegated to the 2-spot and Minnesota had homefield advantage in the NFC playoffs.
The AFC East produced two playoff teams. Baltimore Colts’ quarterback Bert Jones ripped off his career year and won the MVP award. Lydell Mitchell ran for over 1,200 yards and led the team with 60 receptions. Roger Carr was a Pro Bowl wide receiver.
Meanwhile, the New England Patriots—who had yet to make the postseason since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, had the league’s second-best offense. Steve Grogan was behind center, Pro Bowl tight end Russ Francis was the prime target and guard John Hannah was merely one of the great offensive lineman of all-time.
The Patriots sent a message about how good they were with a 48-17 shellacking of the Raiders in the season’s early going. The Colts got a big early win over the Bengals, one that would prove decisive in shaping the final playoff picture. Baltimore and New England each finished 11-3, thus knocking Cincinnati out of the playoffs. The Colts had the tiebreaker thanks to divisional record and took the 2-seed.
The eight-team playoff field was completed in the NFC West. The Los Angeles Rams had top-3 units on both offense and defense. They had a top rusher in Lawrence McCutcheon and a Pro Bowl receiver in Ron Jessie. The Ram defense had All-Pro performers on every level—Jack Youngblood up front, Isiah Robertson at linebacker and Monte Jackson on the corner. Los Angeles went 10-3-1 and outpaced the San Francisco 49ers by 2 ½ games for the division title.
Playoff action started the week before Christmas and the top seeds from Minnesota and Oakland were in action on Saturday. The Vikings had an easy time of it. With 100-yard games from both Foreman and Brent McClanahan, Minnesota led by as much as 28-3 and closed out a 35-20 win. The Raiders, on the other hand, had it considerably more difficult.
The Patriots spent more than three quarters showing that their breakout year and blowout win over Oakland during the regular season were no fluke. An eight-point underdog, New England led 21-10 deep into the fourth quarter.
Then the Raiders rallied. They closed to 21-17. On the last-gasp drive, a fourth-down pass by Stabler fell incomplete. But there was a flag on the play—a controversial roughing the passer penalty was called on the Patriots’ Sugar Bear Hamilton. Oakland took advantage of the break, scored and won 24-21. Long before the existence of Tom Brady and the Tuck Rule, a Patriots-Raiders playoff game ended awash in controversy.
Pittsburgh’s slow start might have had them on the road in Baltimore, but it didn’t matter. Bradshaw threw a 76-yard touchdown pass to Frank Lewis and the Steelers were off to the races in a 40-14 rout. They were back in the AFC Championship Game.
Dallas would not be as fortunate. Their running game woes persisted at home against the Rams. Staubach was erratic and threw three interceptions. Los Angeles chiseled out a 14-12 win and got to the NFC Championship Game for the third straight year.
If Minnesota had problems in the Super Bowl, then the NFC title game was the Rams’ stumbling block. For the third straight year, they lost it. Viking defensive back Bobby Bryant, a great special teams player, blocked an early field goal and brought it back 90 yards for a touchdown. Minnesota forced four turnovers, built a 17-0 lead and won 24-13. They would get another chance at taking the final step.
Oakland might have been the team with the 13-1 record and playing at home. But Pittsburgh’s playoff pedigree, their surging hot streak and the difference in the way both teams had looked in the divisional round, led to the Steelers being installed a 3 ½ point road favorite. But after two straight years of losing to Pittsburgh in this round, it was finally Oakland’s year.
Both Harris and Bleier had been injured during the Colt game, and Bradshaw was unable to make up the slack. The Pittsburgh offense could do nothing. Oakland played efficiently, didn’t turn the ball over and Stabler broke it open in the second half with a couple of short touchdown passes. A 24-7 win had the Raiders in the Super Bowl for the first time since 1967 and the first time ever under Madden.
And in another “first time ever”, the Rose Bowl would host a professional football game. Pasadena was the venue when the Raiders and Vikings met on January 9. Oakland was a four-point favorite.
Minnesota made the first big play, a blocked punt that set them up on the doorstep. But the Vikes fumbled that chance away. And after a scoreless first quarter, the afternoon would belong to the Raiders. They outrushed Minnesota 266-71. Fred Biletnikoff caught four passes for 76 yards. In this run-heavy era that was significant enough to get Biletnikoff game MVP honors. Oakland cruised to a 32-14 win.
The phrase “can’t win the big one” is generally unfair, as teams have to win multiple big ones to get to the big one. The final game of this 1976 season at least meant that no one could apply it to John Madden’s Oakland Raiders.