December 24, 2015

1977: Broncos Defeat Steelers in AFC Divisional Playoff

The AFC Divisional playoff game on December 24, 1977 featured the Denver Broncos, champions of the AFC West at 12-2 and newcomers to the postseason, hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers, AFC Central champs for the fourth straight year with a 9-5 record.

The Broncos, coached by Red Miller, were appearing in the postseason for the first time in a franchise history dating back to 1960 in the American Football League. They had made it with a conservative offense directed by QB Craig Morton (pictured above), who was new to Denver but a 35-year-old veteran previously with Dallas and the Giants. The key to success was the rugged “Orange Crush” defense that included DE Lyle Alzado, linebackers Randy Gradishar and Tom Jackson, CB Louis Wright, and SS Bill Thompson.

Pittsburgh had enjoyed great success under Head Coach Chuck Noll, winning back-to-back Super Bowls following the 1974 and ’75 seasons and reaching the AFC title game in 1976. However, there had been off-field turmoil heading into the 1977 season and the team was uncharacteristically turnover-prone on offense and less dominating on defense, and they lost to Denver during the regular season. Still, the nucleus of QB Terry Bradshaw, FB Franco Harris, and wide receivers Lynn Swann on offense and DT “Mean Joe” Greene, linebackers Jack Lambert and Jack Ham, and CB Mel Blount on defense was intact.

It was a sunny day at Mile High Stadium with over 75,000 fans in attendance and they saw the teams exchange punts to start the game. The Steelers had to punt again following their second possession but the kick by Rick Engles was blocked by WR John Schultz and Denver had the ball at the Pittsburgh 17. HB Rob Lytle carried four straight times, the last for a seven-yard touchdown, and Jim Turner added the extra point for a 7-0 lead.

The clubs resumed trading punts as the game moved into the second quarter. The Steelers finally mounted a scoring drive that covered 56 yards in 11 plays. Terry Bradshaw converted a third-and-nine situation with a pass to TE Bennie Cunningham that covered 19 yards and Franco Harris (pictured below) ran effectively, including a 14-yard run on a fourth-and-one play at the Denver 27. Two carries by HB Rocky Bleier and a Bradshaw throw to Lynn Swann had the visitors facing first-and-goal at the two, and while it took three plays, the Steelers got a TD when Bradshaw leaped into the end zone from just inches away. Roy Gerela converted to tie the score.

The Broncos had to punt again and the Steelers advanced to their 45 before Harris fumbled after being hit by DE Lyle Alzado and LB Tom Jackson recovered and returned it 30 yards. On the next play, HB Otis Armstrong ran 10 yards for a touchdown and, with Turner’s point after, the home team was back on top by 14-7.

The Steelers started their next series with 4:04 remaining in the first half and drove 65 yards in nine plays. Bradshaw completed four passes, the longest to John Stallworth for 21 yards, and just after the two-minute warning Harris took a handoff, started to his right, and then reversed field for a 20-yard gain to the Denver two. Two plays later, Harris ran to the right for a one-yard TD and, with Gerela’s kick, the score was once more knotted at 14-14, and that was the tally at the half. The Steelers had outgained Denver by 183 yards to 44, but the ability of the Broncos to capitalize on the blocked punt and fumble to stay even on the scoreboard.

The teams again exchanged punts to start the third quarter. Denver advanced deep into Pittsburgh territory on its second series, with the big plays passes by Craig Morton to WR Haven Moses for 27 yards and TE Jim Jensen for 29. That gave the Broncos a first-and-goal at the two, but the Steelers kept them out of the end zone as Armstrong ran for a yard, Morton had a pass batted down, and Lytle was stopped three inches short of the goal. Jensen gained nothing on a fourth down run and the Broncos turned the ball over on downs.

The Steelers were pinned back at their one and the resulting short possession led to a punt that gave the ball back to Denver at the Pittsburgh 41. Four plays later, Morton passed to TE Riley Odoms, who gathered the ball in at the six and ran the remaining distance for a 30-yard touchdown. Turner converted and the Broncos again had a seven-point lead at 21-14.

Pittsburgh had to punt on the last play of the period and Denver’s first series of the fourth quarter resulted in a punt as well. WR Jim Smith returned the kick 17 yards to the Pittsburgh 39 and, following a short run by Bleier, Bradshaw fired passes to Cunningham for 11 yards and Stallworth for 48 yards to the Denver one. From there on the next play, Bradshaw threw to Larry Brown, a tackle lined up at end, for a TD. Gerela kicked the extra point and the score again was tied.

The Broncos responded with a 39-yard drive in seven plays. Morton threw to Armstrong for a nine-yard gain and followed with a pass to Moses for 18 yards to the Pittsburgh 36. Lytle ran for three yards and a Morton bootleg picked up six. While a third-and-one pass was tipped and fell incomplete, Turner kicked a 44-yard field goal that staked Denver to a 24-21 lead.

Smith returned the ensuing kickoff 34 yards to give the Steelers good starting field position at their 40, but on their second play a Bradshaw pass was intercepted by Jackson, who returned it 32 yards to the nine yard line. The Broncos couldn’t reach the end zone from there but came away with another Turner field goal, this time from 25 yards, to extend the lead to 27-21.

Pittsburgh took over again on offense with just over five minutes to play and Bradshaw came out throwing. He had four completions, one to Cunningham for 12 yards to convert a third down and another to Bleier for seven yards in a third-and-six situation. But his next pass was picked off at midfield by Jackson, making yet another big play on defense, and the linebacker ran it back 17 yards. Two plays later, with the defense anticipating that the Broncos would keep the ball on the ground, Morton fired long to WR Jack Dolbin (pictured at right) in the end zone for a 34-yard touchdown. While the Steelers had one more possession, the game was effectively over. Denver won by a final score of 34-21.

The Steelers had more total yards (304 to 258) and first downs (18 to 15), but also turned the ball over four times, to one by Denver. Pittsburgh also was hurt by 10 penalties, at a cost of 67 yards, to three flags for 20 yards thrown on the Broncos.

Craig Morton completed 11 of 23 passes for 164 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. Otis Armstrong topped the Broncos with 44 rushing yards on 11 carries that included a TD and Rob Lytle contributed 26 yards and a score on his 12 attempts. Riley Odoms had 5 catches for 43 yards and a touchdown and Haven Moses gained 45 yards on his two pass receptions. Tom Jackson (pictured below) was the defensive star with the two big interceptions plus a fumble recovery.

For the Steelers, Terry Bradshaw was successful on 19 of 37 throws for 177 yards and a TD, but gave up three interceptions. Franco Harris gained 92 yards on 28 carries that included a touchdown and also caught four passes for another 20 yards. John Stallworth also had four receptions, for a team-leading 80 yards.

Denver, having achieved its first playoff victory, went on to defeat the division-rival Oakland Raiders for the AFC Championship but was dominated in the Super Bowl by the Dallas Cowboys. The Steelers, with many commentators suggesting that they were a fading club following the disappointing 1977 season, bounced back to win the next two Super Bowls and defeated the Broncos at the Divisional level in ’78.