Milestone Games, the most significant NFL game of each decade: The 1970’S

Milestone Games, the most significant NFL game of each decade: The 1970’S
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The 1970’s milestone game: The Immaculate Reception

Selecting the ‘Milestone Games’ gives us an opportunity to look back over the 100 year history of the NFL and select the most meaningful match-up of each decade.

We started with the Galloping Ghost in the 1920’s, and the first playoff game in the 1930’s. Then onto the popularization of the T-formation in the 1940’s. The ‘greatest game ever played’ in the 1950’s, and latterly one of the great upsets in Superbowl III from the 1960’s.

We will be moving all the way to the 2010’s and will explore the games that made the NFL what it is today. Now we are into the Seventies. An era that saw the NFL morph into a sporting juggernaut over the space of a decade.

With that in mind we will look at a game that set a team on its way to dominance and perhaps helped shape how we look back on the Seventies. The 1972 AFC Divisional contest between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders. More commonly known in NFL lore as the ‘Immaculate reception’ game.

This is all very subjective of course, and you may well disagree. If you do, let us know in the comments below, or contact us at Ninety-Nine Yards.

Some Key Games in the 1970’s

There were a number of games that you could argue were key to the growth of the NFL in the 1970’s. Some key moments that really define both the era and the burgeoning popularity of the league itself.

The Longest Game Ever Played

Christmas Day 1971. The Kansas City Chiefs hosted the Miami Dolphins in an epic game. This is still the longest NFL game ever played at 82 minutes and 40 seconds. The Dolphins came out on top, 27-24.

These days we are used to how efficient the kicking game is. This game was extended because the Chiefs missed a game winner as time expired from from 32 yards out. In overtime the Chiefs again missed from 42 yards and the Dolphins from 52 yards. Miami finally put it to bed when Garo Yepremian hit a 29 yard Field Goal.

Crowning the Perfect season

You might well have expected Super Bowl VII to be the defining game of the Seventies. After all no other team has ever matched the perfect season put on by the 17-0 Dolphins with this win.

Legendary lantern jawed coach Don Shula got a monkey off his back in a big way. He had lost the 1964 NFL title game, & Super Bowl III as coach of the Colts, before losing Super Bowl VI as coach of the Dolphins.

The NFL may have been around for 100 seasons, but this remains the only undefeated, untied team in history & this was the game that saw that happen.

You could argue that the 1973 Dolphins who went 12-2 and won the title again were a better team. But that’s a discussion for a different time.

The Sea of Hands

December 21st 1974 saw the 2 time defending NFL champions in Oakland to play the Raiders. An AFC Divisional Playoff game that the press dubbed Super Bowl 8 1/2.

The Dolphins were led by Don Shula and had gone 43-5 over the past 3 seasons including a perfect season in 1972. Meanwhile, John Madden had led an anti-establishment Raiders team to a 32-11-2 record over the same period (including playoffs).  

The game was an instant classic. The result in doubt right to the end. Ken ‘the snake’ Stabler threw the game-winning touchdown into a “Sea Of Hands” (mostly Dolphins defenders), but the Raiders receiver Clarence Davis emerged from the pile with the ball.

Not only was it a great game but it signalled a changing of the guard. This was the last NFL game together for Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield. They would leave for the World Football league & Memphis. Great publicity for the start up, but the end of an era in Miami.

The Hail Mary

December the 28th 1975 saw the ‘Hail Mary’ join the lexicon of football terminology.

Down 14-10 to the Minnesota Vikings with just under 2 minutes to go the Dallas Cowboys drove nine plays to midfield. From there Roger Staubach heaved a deep pass to Drew Pearson with 24 ticks on the clock. Pearson caught the TD and the Cowboys squeaked a win. Staubach said he threw the ball and offered up a “Hail Mary”. Now every time there is a deep pass with the game on the line it is known by the same name.

The Holy Roller

September 10th 1978 and the Raiders edged the San Diego Chargers 21-20 in a thriller. This game led directly to a rule change.

Down 20-14 with 10 seconds on the clock Ken Stabler fumbled the ball. Two Raiders players swatted the ball forward and Dave Kasper recovered the ball in the End Zone for a touchdown.

Batting the ball forward intentionally was illegal and Oakland players later admitted they had done just that. So the rules were updated. The ball would be spotted at the point of the fumble following this one.

The First Super Bowl rematch

The Pittsburgh Steelers are remembered as the team of the Seventies. After all they did win 4 Super Bowl titles in six years. But it wasn’t inevitable. The Cowboys were a force at this time too. Pittsburgh and Dallas had clashed in Super Bowl X, and now in January 1979 they met again in the first Super Bowl rematch.

Super Bowl XIII pitted the 14-2 Steelers against the 12-4 Cowboys in a match led by legendary coaches Chuck Noll and Tom Landry. The ‘Boys had chances but fluffed their lines in the biggest moments. Steelers QB Terry Bradshaw overcame a poor first half showing to be named MVP and the win went 35-31 to Pittsburgh.

This was arguably the first great Super Bowl as Dallas mounted a furious comeback finally failing on an onside kick with 22 seconds in the game. The idea of a great contest between great teams was what the Super Bowl was all about. Right at the end of the decade it lived up to its billing

The 1970’s Milestone Game itself

December 23rd 1972. Pittsburgh Steelers 13 Oakland Raiders 7.

Three Rivers Stadium Pittsburgh. Attendance 50,327

We don’t tend to see this sort of game in the modern NFL. A blue collar hard-nosed rough and tumble contest dominated by the D in a close low scoring match-up. For the early 1970’s however that wouldn’t be atypical.

It was 0-0 at the half and it wasn’t until Roy Gerala hit an an 18 yard Field Goal five minutes into the second half before any points were put up.

With 22 seconds left in the game the Steelers trailed 7-6 and faced 4th and 10 from their own 40 yard line.

The Steelers had led 6-0 going into the fourth quarter when Gerela added a 29-yard field goal with less than four minutes remaining.

But then the Raiders orchestrated an 80 yard scoring drive. The spark came when Madden replaced Daryl Lamonica at QB with Stabler. The drive was capped by a 30 yard TD run from the Snake to tie the game. The extra point put them ahead with 1:13 to go.

It was backs to the wall time for a team with no playoff success in their history. No clutch gene to point to. Who knows what a win probability calculator would have said at this point.

I imagine a lot of the Pittsburgh faithful were happy to see a team in the playoffs. An 11-3 team that was far and away the most successful they had ever had in the steel city.

Team owner and founder Art Rooney was even said to have been on his way to commiserate with his team.

The Immaculate Reception

And then it happened. A crazy play that transformed this game, energised a franchise and arguably changed the way the dominoes fell at the top of the NFL in the 1970’s.

The original aim was to get within Gerela’s Field Goal range and give him a shot at winning it 9-7 for the home team. By 4th and 10 the crowd had deflated when Noll sent out the O to run the play 66 Circle Option. A play that would forever be remembered by another name.

On the play Bradshaw dropped back to pass and threw a quick pass towards running back John (Frenchy) Fuqua over the middle at the Raiders’ 35.

Jack Tatum came storming out of the backfield for Oakland and went to bat the ball away at the same time as Fuqua reached for it. An incompletion looked certain. The Raiders were ready to celebrate. But, the ball squirted out towards Franco Harris who picked it off his shoe tops and dashed all the way down the sideline for the winning score.

Should it have stood?

With the Steelers and their fans celebrating, and the Raiders players and staff incensed the referees had a decision to make.

At this time in the 1970’s the NFL rules explicitly stated that consecutive touches by offensive players were not allowed. If Fuqua had touched the ball before Harris then the TD would not count. If Tatum was the last to touch it before Harris it was legitimate.

Head Referee for the game Fred Swearingen consulted with NFL supervisor of officials Art McNally. Eventually he came back on the field and signalled for a touchdown.

It was just the slice of fortune a franchise that had had few chances to smile needed. No wonder they dubbed it the ‘Immaculate Reception’.

Aftermath – did one play change the way things played out in the 1970’s?

In their 39 seasons leading up to this the Steelers had made one trip to the playoffs, losing a Divisional playoff 21-0 to the Eagles in 1947. They had also lost a (short lived) playoff bowl contest to Detroit 17-10 in 1962.

This game really kick-started something for Pittsburgh. From 1972-79 they would go 88-27-1, make 8 consecutive playoff appearances and win 4 Super Bowl contests.

Although the Steelers didn’t take their first title until 1974 and Super Bowl IX, this game was the turning point for their fortunes from a downtrodden NFL team to a dominant franchise. I don’t think we can underestimate how transformative it was for the team and city to get that first playoff win. To do it in such dramatic fashion merely added to the mythology of the moment.

To this day this play is remembered by fans and players of both the Steelers and Raiders. But its significance is far wider than that.

In recent celebrations of the NFL centenary fans voted on the greatest moments of that 100 years. Number one on the list was the Immaculate reception.

This may have happened almost 50 years ago in the 1970’s but it clearly still resonates.

Banner image: Statue of Franco Harris picking the ball off his toes for the immaculate reception in our 1970’s Milestone game. Image from

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