The American Football Conference (AFC) champion Pittsburgh Steelers (17-2) defeated the National Football Conference (NFC) champion Dallas Cowboys (14-5), 35–31. It was the first Super Bowl rematch ever. The Steelers had previously beaten the Cowboys, 21–17, in Super Bowl X.
Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw was named Super Bowl MVP. Despite throwing 1 interception and losing 2 fumbles, Bradshaw completed 17 out of 30 passes for 318 yards and 4 touchdowns. His 318 passing yards and 4 passing touchdowns broke Super Bowl records. Also, his 75-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter tied Johnny Unitas in Super Bowl V for the longest in a Super Bowl. Bradshaw became the first player since the 1970 AFL-NFL Merger to win both the Super Bowl MVP and the AP Most Valuable Player Award during the same season.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys could not overcome turnovers, drops, and a controversial penalty during the second half. The Cowboys were the first defending champion to lose in the Super Bowl. They were also the first to lose two Super Bowls to the same team (they lost 21-17 to the Steelers in Super Bowl X). The 31 point total of the Cowboys makes it the only team to score above 30 and lose.
The Steelers joined the Cowboys in their attempt to be the first team to ever win a third Super Bowl, after wins in Super Bowl IX and Super Bowl X. Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw had the best season of his career, completing 207 of 368 passes for 2,915 yards and 28 touchdowns, with 20 interceptions. He ranked as the second highest rated passer in the league (84.8), his 28 touchdown passes led the league, and he won the NFL Most Valuable Player Award. Wide receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth provided the team with a great deep threat. Swann recorded 61 receptions for 880 yards and 11 touchdowns, while Stallworth had 41 receptions for 798 yards and 9 touchdowns. Tight end Randy Grossman, who replaced injured starter Bennie Cunningham for most of the season, also was a big factor, recording 37 receptions for 448 yards and a touchdown.
In the Steelers' rushing game, running back Franco Harris was the team's leading rusher for the 7th consecutive season, recording 1,082 yards and 8 touchdowns, while also catching 22 passes for another 144 yards. Fullback Rocky Bleier had 633 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns, while also catching 17 passes for 168 yards. The Steelers' success on offense was due in large measure to their stellar offensive line, anchored by future hall of fame center Mike Webster
Although Pittsburgh's "Steel Curtain" defense had some new starters this season, such as linemen John Banaszak and Steve Furness, and defensive back Tony Dungy, they finished second in the league against the run (allowing 107.8 yards per game) and ranked third in fewest total yards allowed (4,529). Once again, defensive tackles Joe Greene and L. C. Greenwood anchored the line, while Pro Bowl linebackers Jack Ham and Jack Lambert combined for 7 interceptions. Dungy lead the team with 6 interceptions, while the rest of the secondary, defensive backs Mel Blount, Donnie Shell, and Ron Johnson, combined for 11.
The Steelers went on to finish with the league's best regular season record (14-2). The 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers team is recognized as number 3 on the list of America's Game and the top Super Bowl Championship teams of all-time, behind the (#2) 1985 Chicago Bears and the (#1) undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins.
The Cowboys became the first team to appear in five Super Bowls (after playing in Super Bowls V, VI, X and XII). The defending Super Bowl champions were again led by quarterback Roger Staubach. Staubach finished the season as the top rated passer in the NFL (84.9) by throwing 231 out of 413 completions for 3,190 yards and 25 touchdowns, with 16 interceptions. He also rushed for 182 yards and another touchdown. Wide receivers Drew Pearson and Tony Hill provided the deep passing threats, combining for 90 receptions, 1,537 yards, and 7 touchdowns. Tight end Billy Joe Dupree contributed 34 receptions for 509 yards and 9 touchdowns. Running back Tony Dorsett had another fine season, recording a total of 1703 combined rushing and receiving yards, and scoring a total of 9 touchdowns. Fullback Robert Newhouse and halfback Preston Pearson also contributed from the offensive backfield, combining for 1,326 rushing and receiving yards, while Newhouse also scored 10 touchdowns. The Cowboys also had a superb offensive line, led by Herbert Scott and 12-time Pro Bowler Rayfield Wright
The Cowboys' "Doomsday Defense" finished the season as the top ranked defense in the league against the run by only allowing 107.6 yards per game. Pro Bowl linemen Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Harvey Martin and Randy White anchored the line, while linebackers Bob Breunig, D. D. Lewis and Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson provided solid support. Their secondary, led by safeties Cliff Harris and Charlie Waters, along with cornerbacks Benny Barnes and Aaron Kyle, combined for 16 interceptions.
The Cowboys started the regular season slowly, winning only six of their first ten games. Both the offense and the defense played ineffectively, including giving up interceptions and fumbles. But Dallas finished strong, winning their last six regular season games to post a 12-4 record.
Dallas marched through the playoffs, defeating the Atlanta Falcons, 27-20, and the Los Angeles Rams, 28-0. Meanwhile, the Steelers easily demolished the Denver Broncos, 33-10, and the Houston Oilers, 34-5.
Much of the pregame hype surrounded Super Bowl XIII centered around Cowboys linebacker Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson. Henderson caused quite a stir before the NFC Championship Game by claiming that the Rams had "no class" and the Cowboys would shut them out. His prediction turned out to be very accurate; the Cowboys did shut them out, aided by Henderson's 68-yard interception return for a touchdown.
In the days leading up the Super Bowl, Henderson began talking about the Steelers in the same manner. He predicted another shutout and then made unfriendly comments about several Pittsburgh players. He put down the talent and the intelligence of Bradshaw, proclaiming "Bradshaw couldn't spell 'cat' if you spotted him the 'c' and the 'a'". But the Steelers refused to get into a war of words with Henderson. Greene responded by saying the Steelers didn't need to say they were the best, they would just go out on the field and "get the job done".
This was Gowdy's seventh and final Super Bowl telecast. Enberg had essentially succeeded him as NBC's lead NFL play-by-play announcer in the 1978 regular season, and network producers didn't decide until nearly the last minute which man would get the Super Bowl call.
NBC preceded the game with the first network broadcast of Black Sunday, a 1977 motion picture that depicts a terrorist attack on a fictitious Super Bowl game in the Orange Bowl between Pittsburgh and Dallas (and which utilized footage shot during Super Bowl X).
The pregame festivities featured the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders and several military bands. The Colgate Thirteen performed the national anthem. The coin toss ceremony featured Pro Football Hall of Famer and longtime Chicago Bears owner/head coach George Halas.
The halftime show was a "Carnival Salute to Caribbean" with various Caribbean bands.
On their opening drive, the Cowboys advanced to the Pittsburgh 38-yard line, with running back Tony Dorsett gaining 38 yards off 3 running plays. But they lost the ball on a fumbled handoff while attempting to fool the Steelers defense with a reverse-pass play. Receiver Drew Pearson later explained "We practiced that play for three weeks. It is designed for me to hit Billy Joe 15 to 17 yards downfield. We practiced the play so much it was unbelievable we could fumble it. I expected the handoff a bit lower, but I should have had it. Billy Joe was in the process of breaking into the clear when the fumble occurred." The play was similar to the near-turnover by Butch Johnson in the previous game.
After defensive lineman John Banaszak recovered the loose ball on the Pittsburgh 47-yard line, the Steelers attempted 2 running plays with running back Franco Harris carrying the ball, but only gained 1 yard. Then on third down, wide receiver John Stallworth caught a 12-yard pass to the Cowboys' 40-yard line. Then after throwing an incomplete pass, Terry Bradshaw completed 2 consecutive passes, the second one a 28-yard touchdown completion to Stallworth to take a 7-0 lead.
On their next drive, the Cowboys responded by advancing to the Steelers 39-yard line, but were pushed back to their own 39-yard line after quarterback Roger Staubach was sacked twice, and they were forced to punt. Then on the Steelers' ensuing drive, Bradshaw threw a 22-yard pass to Harris and followed it up with a 13-yard pass to receiver Lynn Swann to move the ball to the Dallas 30-yard line. But on the next play, Dallas linebacker D. D. Lewis ended the drive by intercepting a pass intended for Stallworth.
With a little more than a minute to go in the period, Bradshaw fumbled the ball while being sacked by Cowboys lineman Harvey Martin, and defensive end Ed "Too Tall" Jones recovered it. Staubach then capitalized on Bradshaw's mistake three plays later with a 39-yard scoring strike to receiver Tony Hill, tying the game at 7 as the first quarter expired. Pittsburgh sent eight men on an all-out blitz, but Staubach got the pass away just before he was hit by Steelers' safety Mike Wagner. Hill beat Donnie Shell in single-coverage and scored the only first quarter touchdown surrendered by Pittsburgh all season.
The Steelers took possession at the start of the second quarter and advanced to their own 48-yard line. Dallas linebackers Mike Hegman and Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson then combined to score a touchdown on an unusual play. After taking the snap from his 48, Bradshaw collided with Franco Harris and the ball popped loose. Bradshaw scooped it up and rolled to his right, looking to pass, but Henderson stripped the ball as Bradshaw was about to throw, and Hegman returned the fumble 37 yards for a touchdown, giving the Cowboys a 14-7 lead.
The Cowboys lead didn’t last long. On the third play of Pittsburgh's ensuing possession, Stallworth caught a pass from Bradshaw at the Steelers 35-yard line. He then broke a tackle from defensive back Aaron Kyle and outraced every other defender to the end zone, turning a simple 10-yard pass into a 75-yard touchdown completion to tie the score, 14-14. Bradshaw later explained that Stallworth was not even the primary receiver on the play: "I was going to Lynn Swann on the post," he said, "but the Cowboys covered Swann and left Stallworth open. I laid the ball out there and it should have gone for about 15 yards, but Stallworth broke the tackle and went all the way."
Pittsburgh's "Steel Curtain" defense then dominated the Dallas offense on their ensuing drive. First, Banaszak tackled fullback Robert Newhouse for 4-yard loss. Next, linebacker Jack Ham tackled Dorsett for a 3-yard loss on an attempted sweep. On third down, defensive tackle Joe Greene sacked Staubach, forcing a fumble that bounced through the hands of Steelers' defensive lineman Steve Furness. Cowboys lineman Tom Rafferty eventually recovered at the Dallas 13-yard line. Theo Bell then returned Danny White's eunsuing 38-yard punt 3 yards to the Dallas 38-yard line.
The Steelers began their ensuing drive with Bradshaw's 26-yard completion to Swann. Jones tackled Harris for an 8-yard loss on the next play, but a subsequent holding penalty on Henderson gave Pittsburgh a first down at the Dallas 25-yard line. However, after an incomplete pass and a 2-yard run by Harris, Hegman sacked Bradshaw for an 11-yard loss on third down, pushing the ball back to the 34-yard line. The Steelers then came up empty after kicker Roy Gerela's 51-yard field goal attempt hit the crossbar.
With less than two minutes remaining in the half, Dallas advanced to the Pittsburgh 32-yard line, after starting from their own 34-yard line. But Pittsburgh defensive back Mel Blount intercepted a pass from Staubach and returned it 13 yards to the 29, with a personal foul on Dallas tight end Billy Joe Dupree adding another 15 yards and giving the Steelers the ball at their own 44-yard line. With time running out, Bradshaw completed 2 passes to Swann for gains of 29 and 21 yards, moving the ball to the 16-yard line with 40 seconds left in the half. Then after throwing an incomplete pass, Harris ran the ball to the 7-yard line. Then with just 26 seconds left, Bradshaw completed a 7-yard touchdown pass to fullback Rocky Bleier, giving the Steelers a 21-14 lead at halftime.
The torrid scoring pace slowed during much of the third quarter, as both teams began to assert themselves on the defensive side of the ball. But late in the quarter, a 12-yard punt return by Cowboys receiver Butch Johnson gave Dallas good field position on their 42-yard line. The Cowboys subsequently drove down to the Steelers 10-yard line, mostly with Dorsett's rushing. Then on third down with less than three minutes remaining in the period, Staubach spotted 38-year old reserve tight end Jackie Smith wide open in the end zone and threw him the ball. The pass was a little behind Smith, but it was catchable. However, Smith dropped the pass and the Cowboys had to settle for a field goal from kicker Rafael Septien, cutting their deficit to 21-17. Though Smith played 16 years in the league and is now enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he is perhaps best known for his embarrassing blunder on the sport's biggest stage.
Two controversial penalties early in the fourth quarter paved the way for the Steelers to score 14 unanswered points. The Steelers advanced to their own 44-yard line after a crucial 3rd down pass from Bradshaw to tight end Randy Grossman, a 13-yard pass to Swann, and a 5-yard run by Harris. Bradshaw then attempted a pass to Swann, but the receiver collided with Cowboys defensive back Benny Barnes and fell to the ground as the ball rolled incomplete. However, official Fred Swearingen called Barnes for pass interference. Replays showed that it could have been incidental contact. The penalty gave Pittsburgh a first down at Dallas' 23-yard line.
Two plays later, the Steelers faced 3rd down and 4 from the Dallas 17. Henderson sacked Bradshaw for a 12-yard loss, but the play was nullified by a delay of game penalty on Pittsburgh, bringing up 3rd down and 9 instead of a fourth down. Replays clearly showed the whistle blew before the play's onset, plus most of the players pulled up and stopped playing after a whistle sounded, but Henderson claimed, "I didn't hear a whistle until after I had knocked Bradshaw down." Franco Harris confronted Henderson for taunting Bradshaw after the whistle, and on the next play, Bradshaw handed the ball off to Harris, who raced untouched up the middle for a 22-yard touchdown run. The score increased Pittsburgh's lead to 28-17.
The ensuing squib kickoff by Gerela bounced to Cowboy lineman Randy White at the 24-yard line. White, who was playing the game with a cast on his broken left hand, fumbled the ball after being hit by Tony Dungy and Pittsburgh linebacker Dennis Winston recovered the ball at the Dallas 18-yard line. On the next play, Bradshaw threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to Swann, increasing the Steelers' lead to 35-17 with less than 7 minutes left in the game.
Although the game seemed decided, the Cowboys refused to give up. On their next drive, Dallas drove 89 yards in 8 plays to score on Staubach's 7-yard touchdown pass to Dupree. Then after Dallas' Dennis Thurman recovered an onside kick at 2:19, Drew Pearson caught 2 passes for gains of 22 and 25 yards as the Cowboys drove 52 yards in 9 plays to score on Staubach's 4-yard touchdown pass to Butch Johnson. With the ensuing extra point, the score was cut to 35-31 with just 0:22 left in the game.
But the Cowboys' second onside kick attempt was unsuccessful. Bleier recovered the ball and the Steelers were able to run out the clock to win the game.
Swann was the leading receiver in the game with 7 receptions for 124 yards and a touchdown. Stallworth recorded 115 yards and a touchdown off just 3 receptions. Stallworth and Swann became the first pair of teammates to each have 100 yards receiving in a Super Bowl and first time two receivers did it in the same game. Dorsett was the top rusher of the game with 96 rushing yards, and also caught 5 passes for 44 yards. Harris was Pittsburgh's leading rusher with 68 yards, and he caught a pass for 22 yards. Staubach finished the game with exactly as many passing attempts (30) and completions (17) as Bradshaw, good for 228 passing yards, 3 touchdowns, and 1 interception. Butch Johnson caught 2 passes for 30 yards and a touchdown, returned 3 kickoffs for 63 yards, and gained 33 yards on 2 punt returns, giving him 126 total yards.
It's 3rd down and 3, Dallas at the Pittsburgh 10...Roger back to throw, has a man open in the end zone...caught! Touchdown...DROPPED! Dropped in the end zone, Jackie Smith all by himself. Aw, bless his heart, he's got to be the sickest man in America.
John Stallworth 82 WR Tony Hill 80
Jon Kolb 55 LT Pat Donovan 67
Sam Davis 57 LG Herbert Scott 68
Mike Webster 52 C John Fitzgerald 62
Gerry Mullins 72 RG Tom Rafferty 64
Ray Pinney 74 RT Rayfield Wright 70
Randy Grossman 84 TE Billy Joe Dupree 89
Lynn Swann 88 WR Drew Pearson 88
Terry Bradshaw 12 QB Roger Staubach 12
Rocky Bleier 20 FB Robert Newhouse 44
Franco Harris 32 RB Tony Dorsett 33
L.C. Greenwood 68 LE Ed "Too Tall" Jones 72
Joe Greene 75 DT Larry Cole 63
Steve Furness 64 DT Randy White 54
John Banaszak 76 RE Harvey Martin 79
Jack Ham 59 LLB Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson 56
Jack Lambert 58 MLB Bob Breunig 53
Loren Toews 51 RLB D. D. Lewis 50
Ron Johnson 29 LCB Benny Barnes 31
Mel Blount 47 RCB Aaron Kyle 25
Donnie Shell 31 SS Charlie Waters 41
Mike Wagner 23 FS Cliff Harris 43