In the 1970’s, the term ‘parity’ didn’t mean much in the National Football League. You were either a good team or you were a bad team and there were very few that would actually fall in the middle. In the American Football Conference, there were basically three teams; the Miami Dolphins, the Oakland Raiders and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Dolphins of course would have their undefeated season and a total of two Super Bowl wins while the Raiders would have one in the ’70’s and another in 1981. The Steelers of course would ultimately be the team of the decade in winning four Super Bowl titles.
With all due respect to the Dolphins, the one true AFC rivalry was the Raiders and Steelers. It was more than just two teams fighting for a playoff spot or a berth in the Super Bowl. This was city against city, personality against personality and above all else, pain against pain.
These teams hated each other with such a contempt that it would be hard to truly find any rivalry today that could match it. Certainly both teams have rivals today, but not like they were back then. There was hatred on the field and in the press and even and most absurdly, in the courtroom.
The rivalry’s official beginning was perhaps it’s most climactic even when in Pittsburgh the legend of the Steelers was truly born on a play known as the Immaculate Reception. Former Raiders’ Coach John Madden still to this day believes his team was ripped off as the ball ricocheted off someone and that someone will never really be known. It was either the Steelers’ Frenchy Fuqua or the Raiders’ Jack Tatum. In those days an offensive player couldn’t catch a ball first touched by a teammate until a defender touched it.
That was the beginning. The Raiders were already established and the Steelers were enjoying their first winning season in a long time. The teams would meet in an NFL five playoff games in five straight years. They would also meet in the regular season those years too.
Overall, the Raiders lead the all-time series 13-12 and the fact that the series is so close to .500 is almost perfect because these two literally would stand toe-to-toe in the ’70’s and trade blow after blow. Former Raiders’ safety George Atkinson once took Steelers’ Coach Chuck Noll to court after Noll called him a ‘criminal element.’ Noll was referencing Atkinson’s knockout of Steelers’ receiver Lynn Swann in 1976.
This rivalry was full of personalities like Atkinson, Kenny Stabler and Ted Hendricks of the Raiders and certainly Steelers like Jack Lambert, Terry Bradshaw and Mike Webster. Today, the rivalry is mostly still relived from the days of the ’70’s. Only one time have they met in the playoffs since the 1970’s and that was when the Raiders had moved to Los Angeles. They beat the Steelers handily in 1983 on their way to their third and most recent Super Bowl title.
It’s important to note that rivalries like this one are distant memories. With free agency and more teams in the NFL now, the chances of truly great teams consistently battling in the playoffs are less and less. Perhaps the Colts and Patriots of recent years could compare but in no way other than the amount they met. The ferocity and intensity or the Steelers-Raiders match-ups will never be rivaled in my opinion. Yes, the Steelers and Ravens have had some wars but I don’t know if they can truly rival what the 1970’s had.
Since 1963, the Steelers (2nd) and the Raiders (4th) rank in the top five of winning percentage through today. Each team has gone through its’ share of ups and downs through the years. The Steelers of course struggled throughout much of the 1980’s and the Raiders have certainly seen their struggles recently. With Pittsburgh adding two more Lombardi trophies in the 21st century, the pressure is on the Raiders who did go to a Super Bowl but were beaten badly by Tampa Bay in 2003.
One thing we can count on for Sunday is that Oakland’s ‘Black Hole’ will be crazy and raucous as it has always been. The silver and black and the black ‘n gold will look pretty much the same too as they are among few teams to leave their uniforms alone in recent years. One of the great things about returning to Oakland too is the baseball infield will still be visible. It’s the last stadium in the league now to be used for dual purposes, something we saw a ton of in the 1970’s.
Enjoy the game on Sunday and if you are aren’t old enough to remember the golden days of the rivalry, get yourself some knowledge and check it out. The late Raiders Head Coach and Owner Al Davis once said before boarding a plane for a game in Pittsburgh, “I feel like I’m heading off to war.” In many ways, he was.