The 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers season was the team's 44th in the National Football League. The Steelers started the season looking to become the first team in the Super Bowl era to win three-straight league championships (and first since the 1929–1931 and 1965–1967 Green Bay Packers). However, many thought that would be in doubt after the team started 1–4 and saw quarterback Terry Bradshaw injured in the week 5 loss to the Cleveland Browns after a vicious sack by Joe "Turkey" Jones that has since become immortalized in NFL Films as part of the Browns-Steelers rivalry.
Despite the setbacks, the Steelers would turn it around behind the strength of the Steel Curtain and its dual threat at running back in Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, who each rushed for over 1,000 yards, finishing 10–4 and posting five shutouts. Rookie quarterback Mike Kruczek wound up going 6–0 starting in place of Bradshaw, largely due to the strength of the ground game. This would also stand as an NFL record for best start for a rookie quarterback until 2004—when the Steelers' own Ben Roethlisberger more than doubled that record and went 13–0 as a starter his rookie season.
However, injuries to both Bleier and Harris in the AFC Divisional Playoff game against the Baltimore Colts sidelined them both for the following week's AFC Championship game against the Oakland Raiders. Without both of their 1,000-yard rushers, the Steelers lost to the Raiders by a score of 24-7. Even with Pittsburgh coming up short, many Steelers fans—including the Rooney family themselves—consider the 1976 Steelers the best team in franchise history, even better than all six world championship teams. Jack Lambert, who won 4 Super Bowls with the Steelers between 1974 and 1979, claimed that the 1976 Steelers team was the best team that he ever played for, and subsequently, the loss to the Raiders in the AFC Championship game was the most painful loss of his career. He (Lambert) is convinced that they would have beaten the Raiders and gone on to win that season's Super Bowl had Harris and Bleier both been healthy and available for said AFC Championship game.
In 2007, ESPN.com named the 1976 Steelers the greatest defense in NFL history, noting, "the 1976 unit was the best (slightly better than the '75 squad). Here's why: 28. That's how many points the Steel Curtain surrendered in the last nine games of the season. That's a total. As a result, Pittsburgh, which started the season 1–4, made it all the way to the AFC Championship Game.... The '76 Steelers didn't have it easy – their opponents had a .528 winning percentage. But they had these guys: Hall of Famers Mean Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Jack Ham and Mel Blount. And eight Steelers defensive players made the 1976 Pro Bowl team: cornerback J.T. Thomas, defensive end L.C. Greenwood, Greene, Ham, Lambert, defensive back Glen Edwards, safety Mike Wagner, and Blount."
at Memorial Stadium, Baltimore, MarylandGame time:
Game attendance: 59,296
Referee: Pat Haggerty
TV announcers: (NBC)
Scoring Drives:Pittsburgh – Lewis 76 pass from Bradshaw (kick failed)6–0
Pittsburgh – FG Gerela 45 9–0
Baltimore – Carr 17 pass from Jones (Linhart kick)9–7
Pittsburgh – Harrison 1 run (Gerela kick)16–7
Pittsburgh – Swann 29 pass from Bradshaw (Gerela kick)23–7
Pittsburgh – FG Gerela 25 26–7
Pittsburgh – Swann 11 pass from Bradshaw (Gerela kick)33–7
Baltimore – Leaks 1 run (Linhart kick)33–14
Pittsburgh – Harrison 10 run (Mansfield kick)40–14
Notes: Pittsburgh gained an NFL record 524 total yards, Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier were lost to injuries.
at Oakland–Alameda County Coliseum, Oakland, CaliforniaGame time: 4:00 pm EST
Game attendance: 53,821
Referee: Tommy Bell
TV announcers: (NBC) Curt Gowdy (play by play), Don Meredith (color commentator)
Scoring Drives:Oakland – FG Mann 39 0–3
Oakland – Davis 1 run (Mann kick)0–10
Pittsburgh – Harrison 3 run (Mansfield kick)7–10
Oakland – Bankston 4 pass from Stabler (Mann kick)7–17
Oakland – Banaszak 5 pass from Stabler (Mann kick)7–24