Steelers-Vikings first of season's many SB rematches

  • By Marc Sessler and Elliot Harrison
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CANTON, Ohio -- Sunday night's Hall of Fame Game between the Vikings and Steelers is more than just the first taste of football in over six months.

It's also the opening act in a laundry list of Super Bowl rematches sprinkled into the 2015 schedule. After Minnesota and Pittsburgh reprise their duel from Super Bowl IX, the NFL will feature another 19 showdowns between past Super Bowl foes. It's all part of the pathway to Super Bowl 50, beginning tonight in football's golden city of Canton.

Plenty of readers weren't around to see Super Bowl IX, but it stands out as one of the more unusual title affairs for a number of reasons.

We look back today on the Steelers dynasty of the 1970s as an unstoppable freight train rumbling through the AFC en route to four Lombardi Trophies. But Pittsburgh's first Super Bowl-winning outfit wasn't seen that way by anyone.

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Sure, the Steelers had made the playoffs the previous two seasons, but the Dolphins and Raiders were widely viewed as more powerful clubs in 1974. Kenny Stabler's high-flying Oakland squad served up the AFC's best mark at 12-2, while Miami -- two years removed from a perfect season -- remained a beast.

Finishing 10-3-1, the Steelers showed all season they could pound teams with the run and bloody opponents with an early version of their "Steel Curtain" defense, but questions lingered at quarterback. Before Terry Bradshaw made history with four Super Bowl victories, he lost his job at the start of the '74 season to Joe Gilliam, who became one of the first African Americans to start under center in the NFL.

"What Joe did during preseason, he deserves to start," coach Chuck Noll said before the campaign, per Bleacher Report.

Remembering back to his demotion, Bradshaw once told Playboy: "I lost (the job) my fifth year. ... Joe Gilliam had a phenomenal preseason; he won the starting job and I lost it. We had the players' strike, I stayed out a week -- he didn't. He played well and I got the ax."

Gilliam started six games that season before Bradshaw regained the job down the stretch and into the playoffs. Bradshaw finished the regular season with just seven touchdowns against eight interceptions -- not exactly a raging fireball heading into the postseason. Noll, though, had Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier in the backfield, a one-two punch that helped the '74 Steelers average an outrageous 236 rushing yards per game in their three playoff tilts that season.

The Vikings, playing in their third title bout in six years, rolled into Super Bowl IX as the consensus favorite with frisky Fran Tarkenton under center, but the game -- won by Pittsburgh 16-6 -- veered off script from the start in chilly Tulane Stadium.

"It was a very, very cold day," former Cowboys general manager Gil Brandt told Around The NFL. "The score at halftime was 2-0. It was Tarkenton moving around, running around, and the Vikings couldn't do anything. I don't know if they had 10 yards at halftime. Pittsburgh just completely overpowered them. It was kind of an embarrassment because Minnesota thought they had a pretty good team -- and they did -- they just couldn't move the ball. The Steelers were just starting their run."

"We weren't surprised by them," said Vikings safety Paul Krause. "They just played better than us."

No doubt about that. Behind Harris, the game's MVP, Pittsburgh dominated the line of scrimmage to slash Minnesota's "Purple People Eaters" for 249 yards off a whopping 57 carries. Harris piled up 158 yards along with a third-quarter touchdown that lifted the Steelers to a 9-0 advantage they'd never relinquish.

"We thought we matched up with them really well," said Minnesota's Hall of Fame defensive end Carl Eller. "On defense, of course, they were really strong, but they had a very powerful offense, too, with Franco and (wideout Lynn) Swann and some of the other guys they had. ... I think it was that we were not able to get into a position where we could hold them down. ... We could never really get an advantage ... so we couldn't really get into our strong defense with the pass rush and hold those guys down."

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Eller, though, acknowledged that nobody on the Vikings expected that Steelers team to flower into one of the NFL's storied giants.

"No one knew how good they were gonna be. And they really had a lot of talent," Eller said. "We had played Pittsburgh before, and they just didn't have Bradshaw, didn't have the support. You know ... but that was before they got into the playoffs and stuff like that. But they improved very rapidly."

Players on the Pittsburgh side remember that game as a departure point for a proud organization. The Steelers we spoke with made it clear they marched into Super Bowl IX with confidence.

"That first Super Bowl ... I don't think any of us thought the game was too big for us," said Hall of Fame defensive back Mel Blount. "We thought we could go and win. And we did ... a lot of confidence."

Blount told Elliot Harrison that Pittsburgh employed a "combination of man, zone, and two man" to stymie Tarkenton's passing options, forcing the mobile signal-caller into a disastrous 11-of-26 day for just 102 yards and three killer interceptions. Tarkenton never recovered after Pittsburgh dropped him in his own end zone for the first-half safety.

Despite their ineptitude on offense, Minnesota cut Pittsburgh's lead to 9-6 in the fourth quarter after recovering a blocked punt in the end zone for a touchdown. They just couldn't stop the Steelers, though, folding the tent as Bradshaw led the team on a 66-yard march capped by his game-clinching touchdown toss to tight end Larry Brown.

Former Vikings coach Bud Grant put it best on Saturday, saying: "It wasn't a very good game."

What it was, though, was the start of an unprecedented four-title run for the Steelers, a string of dominance that would help land a bushel of Steelers in the Hall of Fame and turn Pittsburgh from a long-time afterthought in the AFC into one of the most storied franchises in all of sports.

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