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A Brief History of the Steelers Cowboys 70s NFL Rivalry

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The 1970s Steelers Cowboys rivalry was a beautiful thing to behold. This post notes a few things that made it great.

The Dallas Cowboys Pittsburgh Steelers rivalry was different from other rivalries that arise from sharing the same division and/or geographic location. The Cowboys Steelers 1970s rivalry is what I like to call an NFL playoff rivalry. In fact, it is one of the few championship rivalries in NFL history.

The teams met only a handful of times in the 1970s, but twice it was for all the marbles, in Super Bowl 10 and Super Bowl 13. I am not quite old enough to remember Super Bowl 10 (Super Bowl 11 was the first SB I watched). My memories of Super Bowl 13 are some of my most cherished childhood NFL memories.

WHY IS THE COWBOYS STEELERS RIVALRY GREAT?

Several factors made the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers vs Dallas Cowboys rivalry one of the greatest NFL rivalries ever. Star power, close games, the differences of the cities and the images of the teams were a few of the best components.

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STARS OF THE STEELERS AND COWBOYS

The Steelers had Terry Bradshaw at quarterback. The Cowboys had Roger Staubach. Two superstar quarterbacks going at it would make this rivalry great all on its own. Look at the Tom Brady vs Peyton Manning rivalry for example.

Steelers Cowboys went far deeper than the two quarterbacks, however. Pittsburgh had the Steel Curtain defense. Dallas had the Doomsday Defense and the famous Flex Defense. Dallas had Tony Dorsett. Pittsburgh had Franco Harris and Vietnam hero Rocky Bleier. Pittsburgh had Swann and Stallworth. The Cowboys had Drew Pearson, Tony Hill, and Billy Joe DuPree. It was Chuck Noll vs Tom Landry — as good of a coaching matchup as you could get. Both teams had defensive stars that were among the most famous players of the day: Dallas lined up with Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Harvey Martin, Randy White, Charlie Waters, Cliff Harris, Jethro Pugh, and “Hollywood” Henderson. Pittsburgh countered with Joe Greene (aka “Mean” Joe Greene), Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Mel Blount, defensive end L.C. Greenwood (who wore some pretty cool gold shoes), Donnie Shell and Dwight White – virtually all of them Hall of Fame caliber players regardless of whether they’ve been inducted or not. And there are other guys from both teams that I could have listed as well. Feel free to list your favorites in the comments. Even both offensive lines were outstanding.

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COWBOYS VS STEELERS GAMES

The Cowboys and Steelers faced off in two Super Bowls during the 1970s – Super Bowl X and Super Bowl XIII. Both were two of the most exciting Super Bowls in NFL history. The teams also played each other three times in the regular season in the 1970s and played a preseason game in 1978 that in itself is something of a legend.

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SUPER BOWL 10 HIGHLIGHTS

Although Pittsburgh and Dallas met in the regular season in 1972, Super Bowl 10 really kicked off the rivalry. The game stood as the championship for the 1975 season and produced the type of excitement and exceptional plays that only the Steelers Cowboys rivalry could bring.

The game brought out tremendous performances and great moments from the teams’ brightest stars. Pittsburgh’s Terry Bradshaw made what is likely the greatest throw of his career, a 64-yard touchdown pass to Lynn Swann in the fourth quarter. Bradshaw was knocked out of the game on the play; he released the ball just before getting pummeled by Dallas lineman Larry Cole.

Drew Pearson scored an early touchdown that put the Cowboys ahead, and Dallas led at halftime despite Lynn Swann making a famous diving catch in the second quarter.

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The game also featured a moment that intensified the rivalry beyond two great teams playing for the championship. Steelers kicker Roy Gerela missed a field goal and Dallas safety Cliff Harris tapped him on the helmet, almost as if to say, “Hey, good job missing that.” Pittsburgh’s Jack Lambert took offense and knocked Harris down.

Dallas still led in the fourth quarter. Pittsburgh blocked a punt and the play resulted in a safety that pulled the Steelers to within one point, 10-9. Pittsburgh kicked a field goal on their ensuing drive to take a two-point lead. Bradshaw’s amazing throw later put them ahead by 11.

Roger Staubach directed a furious rally in the final three minutes of the game. Super Bowl 10 was played only a few weeks after Staubach’s famous Hail Mary touchdown pass to Drew Pearson at Minnesota in the Divisional Round of the 1975 NFL Playoffs. That game was fresh on fans minds as Staubach threw a 34-yard touchdown to make the score 21-17. He drove Dallas all the way to the Steelers 38 in the final minute but Pittsburgh held on for the win.

SUPER BOWL 13 HIGHLIGHTS

Pittsburgh and Dallas owned two Super Bowl rings each entering Super Bowl XIII. The Dallas Cowboys were defending champions, having won Super Bowl XII over the Denver Broncos the previous year, with co-Super Bowl MVPs Harvey Martin and Randy White ready to go. The Steelers made the Super Bowl for the first time since Super Bowl 10 after defeating their division rival Houston Oilers in the 1978 AFC Championship Game.

This was the first time ever that a Super Bowl rematch occurred, and everything went down in the same stadium as Super Bowl 10 – in Miami’s Orange Bowl. The two teams stood as two of the most popular in the NFL and the lead up to the game was very exciting. Dallas linebacker Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson stirred up the rivalry when he insulted Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw’s intelligence by saying that Bradshaw couldn’t spell “cat” even if you gave him the ‘c’ and the ‘a’ beforehand.

I remember that I couldn’t wait for this game. I can remember sitting in my parents’ living room, on the edge of my seat even during the introductions. Even though I was a third grader and didn’t watch the two teams face off in Super Bowl 10, I knew this game was huge. To this day it remains one of the most thrilling and entertaining NFL games that I’ve ever watched.

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Both teams made big plays in the first half. Dallas linebacker Mike Hegman returned a Terry Bradshaw fumble for a touchdown to give Dallas a 14-7 lead early in the second quarter. Bradshaw threw a touchdown pass to John Stallworth and another to a leaping Rocky Bleier to make it 21-14 Steelers just before halftime.

The third quarter produced one of the most dubious moments in Super Bowl history. Staubach threw a pass into the end zone to a wide open Jackie Smith (a Hall of Fame tight end). The ball was thrown low and although very catchable, Smith dropped it. Dallas kicked a field goal and it was 21-17.

The score remained that way in the fourth quarter when a pass interference call against Dallas game the Steelers great field position at the Dallas 23. Pittsburgh subsequently scored two touchdowns in one minute to lead 35-17. Staubach rallied the Cowboys to two touchdowns of their own within about a two-and-a-half minute span, but the Steelers held on to win and claim the title of “The Team of the 70s.”

STEELERS COWBOYS 1970s REGULAR SEASON

The Steelers and Cowboys played each other often in the regular season during the 1960s, when both teams were members of the original NFL. The teams didn’t play as often after the Steelers moved to the AFC after the AFL NFL merger.

Dallas and Pittsburgh met in the 1972 NFL season. The game was played at Texas Stadium in Dallas. Steelers linebacker Andy Russell stated during a Steelers Cowboys preseason broadcast in 1978 that the game conditions were extremely hot. He added that Pittsburgh defenders tried to keep Dallas players away from the sunshine and tried to keep the game played in the shady parts of the field at Texas Stadium. Russell joked that the Steelers couldn’t keep the Cowboys away from the sun and Pittsburgh “wilted” in the heat. Dallas won 17-13. Both teams won their respective divisions that year and made their conference championship game.

The Steelers won both remaining 1970s Cowboys Steelers regular season matchups. Pittsburgh’s Franco Harris had 179 yards rushing and two touchdowns in a 1977 NFL season game at Three Rivers Stadium that resulted in a 28-13 Steeler win. The two teams met again at Three Rivers Stadium during the 1979 NFL season. This time Harris ran for 102 yards and two touchdowns as Sidney Thornton added another 68 rushing yards in Pittsburgh’s 14-3 win.

EVEN A GREAT PRESEASON GAME

The Steelers and Cowboys also met in the 1978 NFL preseason at Texas Stadium in Dallas. The temperature measured 91 degrees at kickoff and was estimated to be over 100 degrees on the field. Think this game didn’t matter because it was in the preseason? Think again. Both Dallas and Pittsburgh played hard, played their starters, and clearly wanted to win. Roger Staubach drove the Cowboys for two touchdowns in the final three minutes to give Dallas the victory. That preseason game previewed that year’s Super Bowl, Super Bowl 13.

A TALE OF TWO CITIES

Another thing that made the Dallas Cowboys Pittsburgh Steelers rivalry of the 1970s so great is that both teams had fans all over the country and both owned enthusiastic hometown fanbases.

The cities were quite different as well. Dallas’ economy built itself around oil and real estate. Pittsburgh was built on steel. The Steelers had a tough, blue-collar image. The Cowboys were “America’s Team” and owned a flashier, slicker image.

Both teams were great and had many outstanding players, some who still deserve Hall of Fame consideration. The Steelers won both Super Bowl matchups to earn the title, “Team of the 70s” but Dallas certainly can claim “NFC Team of the 70s” honors (with all due respect to Bud Grant’s Minnesota Vikings).

Is there another rivalry that compares? I honestly don’t think so. The Steelers Cowboys rivalry is unique in so many ways.

Other teams have since matched up more than once in the Super Bowl. The Bengals and 49ers even played two close games in the same decade. The Giants and Patriots also played two memorable games. No Super Bowl rematches (including those that happened between Miami and Washington, New England and Philadelphia, Dallas and Buffalo) have reached the kind of excitement, folklore, and legendary status the 1970s Cowboys and Steelers gave us. I would venture to say that Super Bowl 30 was much more intriguing simply because it was the Steelers and Cowboys all over again.

Rarely, if ever, has a rivalry between two teams from opposing conferences produced so many memories, legendary moments, great performances, and beloved players as the 1970s rivalry between Pittsburgh and Dallas.       

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