As part of The Sports Notebook’s NFL Championship Sunday extravaganza, we’re featuring two years that represent different types of NFL championship history. In 1978, the games weren’t especially competitive, but you had two of the league’s signature teams step up and make the mark. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys were each gunning to be the first franchise to three Super Bowl wins as they got set for Championship Sunday following the ’78 season.
Pittsburgh won consecutive Super Bowls in 1974-75, and won the AFC Central each of the ensuing years before losing in the playoffs (the Central of this era was the Steelers, Houston Oilers—now the Tennessee Titans, the Bengals and the Browns). This was the era of the “Steel Curtain” defense and the Pittsburgh D was the NFL’s best. A tough front four was led by end L.C. Greenwood and tackle Joe Greene.
The linebacking posts were manned by future Hall of Famers in Jack Lambert and Jack Ham. Mel Blount and Donnie Shell were in the secondary and also among the league’s best. And we haven’t even gotten to the offense, with Terry Bradshaw at quarterback, Franco Harris running the ball and a dynamic receiving duo of Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. The Steelers’ offensive line was a tough, physical unit personified by its center and anchor, Mike Webster. A 14-2 season produced a runaway division crown and an easy playoff win over Denver set them up in this game.
If the Steelers were the traditional power, then Houston was the up-and-comer. The Oilers drafted Heisman Trophy running back Earl Campbell and hoped he could do what the previous years’ Heisman winner Tony Dorsett had done for Dallas, and that’s win the Super Bowl his rookie year. There was not tremendous talent around Campbell, but it was manageable, and head coach Bum Phillips, father of today’s Texan coordinator Wade, put it all together. After a 3-3 start, Houston rallied to a 10-6 finish, then decisively beat Miami and New England to reach the AFC Championship Game.
Dallas had won the Super Bowl the prior year, but in this first season of the 16-game schedule (they’d gone 12-2 the year before), the Cowboys took some time to find their rhythm. They were sitting at 6-4 after a couple midseason losses, before righting the ship, winning six straight and getting the #2 seed in the NFC playoffs. They would play the Los Angeles Rams. Each team had finished 12-4, but the Rams won a Week 3 game in LA because Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach threw four interceptions in the 27-14 final.
The NFC Championship Game was a contrast in styles. Dallas was the NFL’s most prolific offense, with Staubach, second-year running back Dorsett, and Pro Bowlers in receiver Tony Hill and tight end Billy Joe Dupree. The only skill players not in the Pro Bowl were Drew Pearson, a cagey veteran receiver, and fullback Robert Newhouse, who would be the best the franchise had at the position until current Fox analyst Daryl Johnston came to town in the 1990s.
Los Angeles’ strength was its defense, particularly up front. They had three Pro Bowlers in the front four, with the legendary Jack Youngblood, Larry Brooks and Cody Jones. The only one who didn’t make it was Fred Dryer, and he still enjoyed a Pro Bowl career. Although for myself, as a junkie of the 1980s-early 1990s sitcom Cheers, I’ll always remember Dryer for his portrayal of sleazy broadcaster Dave Richards and the fact he came in second to Ted Danson in the battle for the lead role as Sam Malone.
Coming in second was a problem for the Rams, who’d never been to the Super Bowl, despite consistently winning the NFC West in the 1970s. Still rankling was a 1975 NFC Championship loss to these same Cowboys by a humiliating 37-7 count right here in the LA Coliseum. With first-year head coach Ray Malavasi at the helm, the fan base hoped the near misses of the Chuck Knox era would be a thing of the past.
The schedule for Championship Sunday had Houston-Pittsburgh kicking off at 1 PM EST, with Dallas-Los Angeles going at 5 PM EST. A Steelers-Cowboys game would be a “Three Rings” battle in the Super Bowl, but the prospect of Houston-Dallas had its own unique storylines. Pittsburgh-Los Angeles (a matchup we would ultimately see one year later) could offer a popular team along with the nation’s #2 market. Houston-Los Angeles would be kind of dry for fans, although the networks still would mind having that large media market in LA. In short, there weren’t too many bad options when it came to the Super Bowl matchups.
As far as Championship Sunday went, the only bad option would be if both games turned up as blowouts and that’s what happened. The artificial turf at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium was covered in sleet on gameday and Campbell could never get traction, rushing for only 62 yards, after a year where he’d piled up 1,450 yards and got some MVP votes along with Bradshaw. But before using that as an excuse, we must note that Pittsburgh also held Campbell to under 100 yards in both regular season meetings, where the road team won each game.
And we also have to note that on this day, Campbell could’ve rushed for 200 and it wasn’t going to matter, because his team turned the ball over nine times. The Steelers had five turnovers of their own, but also scored two first quarter touchdowns on the ground. Then Bradshaw hit both Swann and Stallworth for scores in the second quarter. It was 28-3 at halftime and ended 34-5. Pittsburgh punched its ticket to Miami’s Orange Bowl in two weeks.
The Cowboys-Rams game was a defensive battle in the first half, exactly as Los Angeles would have preferred. Even though they had current USC athletic director Pat Haden at quarterback, and Haden was a reliable passer, they couldn’t win a scoring race with the Cowboys. But even though the Rams’ defense had been the statistically superior unit in 1978, Dallas had more playmakers. Up front, Harvey Martin and Randy White had been co-MVPs of the Super Bowl a year earlier, Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson, whose showboating style drove head coach Tom Landry crazy, was at linebacker and both safeties, Charlie Waters and Cliff Harris were Pro Bowlers. Great players swing championship games and that’s what Dallas did in the third quarter.
Waters intercepted successive Haden passes and each one set up a Dallas touchdown. Trailing 14-0, Haden then broke his thumb. Los Angeles drove to the 10-yard line, before a fumble and ensuing touchdown drive the other way all but sealed the game at 21-0. But playing in Los Angeles, we had to hear from Hollywood Henderson didn’t we? With under two minutes left he intercepted a pass and took it 68 yards to the house, doing a finger roll with the ball over the goal post to seal the win. Los Angeles had now lost two championship games at home to Dallas by a combined score of 65-7. The Cowboys would get a chance to repeat.
Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl showdown 35-31, the competitive game that Championship Sunday lacked. But if the day of the conference championships didn’t give us drama, it gave us a display of greatness in consecutive games. And if you want to read about a Championship Sunday that was more dramatic, check out the recap of 1987.