The NFL staff has identified plays or events that may have altered the course of history. Each Tuesday and Saturday throughout the offseason, we will be tackling a different scenario and speculate on how things might have gone differently.
It is perhaps the most elusive record in football: three straight Super Bowl victories. The San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys have come agonizingly close, both dropping NFC Championship games the season following consecutive titles. Yet the team with probably the greatest sense of frustration regarding its inability to achieve the feat is the Pittsburgh Steelers.
After winning Super Bowls IX and X, the Steelers entered the 1976 season as the team to beat. Pittsburgh struggled to a 1-4 start before reeling off nine straight victories, including five shutouts.
In addition to the usually stingy defense, the '76 team featured a record-breaking ground game, as Franco Harris (1,128) and Rocky Bleier (1,036) both rushed for over 1,000 yards. In the playoffs, Pittsburgh crushed Baltimore, 40-14, to set up an epic rematch with Oakland in the AFC title game.
The Steelers had knocked the John Madden-led Raiders from the playoffs three of the previous four seasons. But because of injuries suffered against Baltimore, Harris and Bleier were unable to play in the game, and Pittsburgh lost to Oakland 24-7.
The Raiders, who went on to beat Minnesota in the Super Bowl, had finally gotten over the hump, but quite a bit of doubt has always remained in the minds of Pittsburgh fans. What if Bleier and Harris had played against the Raiders? Would the Steelers have won three in a row? And if Madden wasn't a Super Bowl-winning coach, would he be the most famous announcer in NFL history?
-- David Mosse
Mailbag: What if Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier had played in Oakland? Send in your comments and we will post some of the best responses.
WHAT YOU'RE SAYING
AJ, Washington D.C.: The presence or absence of a team's two starting running backs (1,000 yard rushers to boot), in a conference championship game makes all the difference in the world. Being able to run the ball keeps your defense fresh, it keeps the ball away from your opponent's offense, and it makes your passing game more effective. If both Harris and Bleier are healthy and play, the final score of that game is very different. It's impossible to say that the Steelers definitely win, but the odds certainly tilt in their favor.
Chris Ello, San Diego: The Raiders would never agree...and maybe it was their time (after all, they did go 13-1 in '76)...But the Steelers with Harris/Bleier probably win that AFC title game in '76...They control the ball more and make it easier for the Steelers defense, which came into the post-season on the greatest run in NFL history with 5 shutouts and allowing just 1 TD in its last nine games...Pittsburgh can take solace that the '76 club is without question the best NFL team ever to not reach the Super Bowl
John Souza, San Diego: NO WAY! The Raiders were 13-1, avenged their only loss to the Patriots. Upshaw,Shell,Dalby,Vella,and Buehler destroyed the Steel Curtain up the middle and Stabler was hitting Casper and Bankston all day. It was the Raiders year, period.
Anthony (Staten Island): I really don't think it would have mattered at all. It was the Raiders time to finally win the big one. They beat the Steelers that year in Pittsburgh with Harris and Bleier playing. The Raiders were hoping they would play so there would be no excuses by the Steelers. Let us not forget the Immaculate Deception.
Here are more of the best responses.