The American Football Conference (AFC) champion Pittsburgh Steelers (12-2) defeated the National Football Conference (NFC) champion Dallas Cowboys (10-4), 21–17. This game featured a contrast of styles between the Steelers and the Cowboys, which were, at the time, the two most popular teams in the league.
Pittsburgh safety Glen Edwards halted a late Dallas rally with an end zone interception as time expired. Steelers receiver Lynn Swann, who caught four passes for a Super Bowl record 161 yards and one touchdown including a diving catch after tripping over Cowboys' cornerback Mark Washington in the second quarter, was named the Super Bowl's Most Valuable Player. Swann was the first wide receiver to win the Super Bowl MVP award.
The Steelers became the first official #1 seed to reach the Super Bowl. Playoff seedings were instituted in 1975. The Steelers finishing the regular season with a league best 12-2 record, dominating opponents with their "Steel Curtain" defense and powerful running game just like they were doing during the previous season. Running back Franco Harris ranked second in the league with 1,246 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, while also catching 28 passes for 214 yards and another touchdown. Fullback Rocky Bleier also had 528 rushing yards, and fullback John "Frenchy" Fuqua added 285 yards and 18 receptions. Still, the Steelers had a fine passing attack led by quarterback Terry Bradshaw. Bradshaw threw for 2,055 yards, 18 touchdowns, and only nine interceptions, while also rushing for 210 yards and three touchdowns. One reason why Bradshaw's numbers were much improved from the previous season was the emergence of wide receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. Both only saw limited playing time in the previous season, but had become significant contributors. Swann caught a team leading 49 passes for 781 yards and 11 touchdowns. Stallworth only had 20 receptions, but he had an average of 21.2 yards per catch, recording a total of 423 reception yards.
Again the Steelers' "Steel Curtain" defense dominated the league, ranking third in fewest yards allowed (4,019) and sending 8 of their 11 starters to the Pro Bowl: defensive linemen Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood; future Hall of Fame linebackers Jack Ham and Jack Lambert; Andy Russell, the team's third starting linebacker; future Hall of Fame defensive back Mel Blount; and safeties Glen Edwards and Mike Wagner.
Greene made the Pro Bowl despite missing six games with injuries. Ham and Lambert had the best seasons of their careers, while Blount led the league with 11 interceptions.
The Cowboys advanced to their third Super Bowl in team history with their rather high-tech offense and "flex" defense. Quarterback Roger Staubach had a solid season, passing for 2,666 yards and 17 touchdowns, while also rushing for 310 yards. Wide receiver Drew Pearson led the team with 46 receptions for 822 yards and 8 touchdowns. Wide receiver Golden Richards and tight end Jean Fugett were also reliable targets in the Cowboys' passing game, combining for 59 receptions and 939 receiving yards.
But like the Steelers, Dallas was also a run based team. Fullback Robert Newhouse was their leading rusher with 930 yards, and also caught 34 passes for 274 yards. Running back Doug Dennison contributed 388 yards. But perhaps the most talented player in the backfield was running back Preston Pearson (no relation to receiver Drew Pearson), who signed on the team as a free agent after being cut by the Steelers in the pre-season. Preston rushed for 509 yards, caught 27 passes for 351 yards, and added another 391 yards returning kickoffs. Preston had been especially effective in the playoffs, where he caught 12 passes for 200 yards and three touchdowns, and was extremely eager to increase his numbers in the Super Bowl against the team that let him go. Up front, the offensive line was led by All-pro tackle Rayfield Wright.
The Cowboys' "Flex" defense was anchored by linemen Harvey Martin and Ed "Too Tall" Jones. Linebacker Lee Roy Jordan led the team with six interceptions, while linebacker D.D. Lewis was an effective weapon pass rushing. The starting players in Dallas' defensive secondary, future Hall of Fame cornerback Mel Renfro, cornerback Mark Washington, and safeties Charlie Waters and Pro Bowler Cliff Harris, combined for 12 interceptions.
Even though the Cowboys finished in second place in the NFC East with a 10-4 record, they qualified for the playoffs as the NFC's wild-card team (during that time, only one wild card team from each conference entered the playoffs). The Dallas Cowboys are the first NFC wild card team to reach the Super Bowl.
Dallas went on to defeat the Minnesota Vikings, 17-14, with a 50-yard touchdown pass from Staubach to Drew Pearson as time expired in the game in what was called the "Hail Mary pass". They went on to crush the Los Angeles Rams, 37-7, in the NFC Championship Game. As a result, the Cowboys became just the second wild card team to advance to the Super Bowl.
Throughout the week leading up to the Super Bowl, Swann was unable to participate in several team practices or was limited to only a minor workout in them. However, a few days before the game, he received a verbal challenge from Dallas safety Cliff Harris, who stated "I'm not going to hurt anyone intentionally. But getting hit again while he's running a pass route must be in the back of Swann's mind. I know it would be in the back of my mind."
Swann responded ""I'm still not 100 percent. I value my health, but I've had no dizzy spells. I read what Harris said. He was trying to intimidate me. He said I'd be afraid out there. He needn't worry. He doesn't know Lynn Swann. He can't scare me or the team. I said to myself, 'The hell with it, I'm gonna play.' Sure, I thought about the possibility of being reinjured. But it's like being thrown by a horse. You have to get up and ride again immediately or you may be scared the rest of your life."
CBS televised the game in the United States with play-by-play announcer Pat Summerall (calling his first Super Bowl in that role) and color commentator Tom Brookshier. Towards the end of the game, Hank Stram took over for Brookshier, who had left the booth to head down to the locker room area to conduct the postgame interviews with the winning team.
The overall theme of the Super Bowl entertainment was to celebrate the United States Bicentennial. Each Dallas and Pittsburgh player wore a special patch with the Bicentennial Logo on their jerseys.
The performance event group Up with People performed during both the pregame festivities and the halftime show titled "200 Years and Just a Baby: A Tribute to America's Bicentennial". Up with People dancers portrayed various American historical figures. Singer Tom Sullivan sang the national anthem.
On the opening kickoff, the Cowboys ran a reverse where rookie linebacker Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson took a handoff from Preston Pearson and returned the ball a Super Bowl record 48 yards before kicker Roy Gerela forced him out of bounds at the Steelers 44-yard line. But on the first play of the game, Steelers defensive lineman L.C. Greenwood sacked Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, forcing him to fumble. Although Dallas recovered the fumble, they eventually were forced to punt. Pittsburgh managed to get one first down an advance to Dallas 40-yard line, but then they too were forced to punt. However, Steelers punter Bobby Walden fumbled the snap. Walden managed to recover his own fumble, but Dallas took over on Steelers 29-yard line. On the very next play, Staubach threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Drew Pearson, taking a 7-0 lead.
Instead of trying to immediately tie the game on a long passing play, the Steelers ran the ball on the first four plays of their ensuing possession, and then quarterback Terry Bradshaw completed a 32-yard pass to wide receiver Lynn Swann to reach the Cowboys 16-yard line. Two running plays further advanced the ball to the 7-yard line. Then on third down and one, the Steelers managed to fool the Cowboys. Pittsburgh brought in two tight ends, which usually signals a running play. After the snap, tight end Randy Grossman faked a block to the inside as if it were a running play, but then ran a pass route into the endzone, and Bradshaw threw the ball to him for a touchdown, tying the game, 7-7.
Dallas responded on their next drive, advancing the ball 51 yards and scoring on kicker Toni Fritsch's 36-yard field goal to take a 10-7 lead early in the second quarter. The Steelers subsequently advanced to the Cowboys 36-yard line on their next possession, but on fourth down and two, Bradshaw's pass was broken up by Dallas safety Cliff Harris.
Later in the period, Dallas drove to the Steelers 20-yard line. But in three plays, the Cowboys lost 25 yards. On first down, fullback Robert Newhouse was tackled for a 3-yard loss by linebacker Andy Russell. Then Greenwood sacked Staubach for a 12-yard loss. And on third down, Staubach was sacked again, this time for a 10 yard loss, by defensive tackle Dwight White. The sacks pushed Dallas out of field goal range and they were forced to punt. The Steelers offense got the ball back their own 6-yard line with 3:47 left in the half. On the drive, Bradshaw completed a 53-yard pass to Swann to advance the ball to the Cowboys 37-yard line; Swann's catch has become one of the most memorable acrobatic catches in Super Bowl history. But the drive stalled at the 19-yard line, and ended with no points after Gerela missed a 36-yard field goal attempt with 22 seconds remaining in the period.
Early in the third quarter, Pittsburgh got a great scoring opportunity when defensive back J.T. Thomas intercepted a pass from Staubach and returned it 35 yards to the Cowboys 25-yard line. But once again the Steelers failed to score as the Dallas defense kept Pittsburgh out of the end zone and Gerela missed his second field goal, a 33-yard attempt. After the miss, Harris mockingly patted Gerela on his helmet and thanked him for "helping Dallas out", but was immediately shoved to the ground by Steeler linebacker Jack Lambert. Lambert could have been ejected from the game for defending his teammate, but the officials decided to allow him to remain.
The third quarter was completely scoreless and the Cowboys maintained their 10-7 lead going into the final period. But early in the fourth quarter, Dallas punter Mitch Hoopes was forced to punt from inside his own goal line. As Hoopes stepped up to make the kick, Steelers running back Reggie Harrison broke through the line and blocked the punt. The ball went through the end zone for a safety, cutting the Dallas lead to 10-9. Then Steelers running back Mike Collier returned the free kick 25 yards to the Cowboys 45-yard line. Dallas halted the ensuing drive at the 20-yard line, but this time Gerela successfully kicked a 36-yard field goal to give Pittsburgh their first lead of the game, 12-10. Then on the first play of the Cowboys' next drive, Steelers defensive back Mike Wagner intercepted a pass from Staubach and returned it 19 yards to the Dallas 7-yard line. The Cowboys defense again managed to prevent a touchdown, but Gerela kicked an 18-yard field goal to increase the Steelers lead to 15-10.
The Steelers regained possession of the ball on their own 30-yard line with 4:25 left in the final period, giving them a chance to either increase their lead or run out the clock to win the game. But after two plays, the Steelers found themselves facing 3rd down and 6 on their own 36-yard line. Assuming that the Cowboys would be expecting a short pass or a run, Bradshaw decided to try a long pass and told Swann in the huddle to run a deep post pattern. As Bradshaw dropped back to pass, Harris and linebacker D.D. Lewis both blitzed in an attempt to sack him. But Bradshaw managed to dodge Lewis and throw the ball just before being leveled by Harris and lineman Larry Cole, who landed a helmet-to-helmet hit on Bradshaw. Swann then caught the ball at the 5-yard line and ran into the end zone for a 64-yard touchdown completion. Bradshaw never did see Swann's catch or the touchdown since Coles' hit to Bradshaw's helmet knocked him out of the game with a head injury. It was only after he was assisted to the locker room that he was told what happened.
After play resumed, Gerela missed the extra point attempt, but the Steelers now had a 21-10 lead with 3:02 left in the game, and the Cowboys needed two touchdowns to come back.
Staubach then led his team 80 yards in 5 plays on the ensuing drive, scoring on a 34-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Percy Howard and cutting their deficit to 21-17 (Howard's touchdown reception was the only catch of his NFL career). After Gerry Mullins recovered Dallas' onside kick attempt, the Steelers then tried to run out the clock on the next drive with four straight running plays, but the Cowboys defense stopped them on fourth down at their 39-yard line, giving Dallas one more chance to win. Some questioned why Noll would elect to go for it on fourth down but, as later explained by NFL films, his entire kicking game had been suspect all game long with Gerela missing an extra point and two field goals while Walden fumbled a snap on a punt and nearly had two others blocked. (Gerela's problems may have begun on the opening kickoff when he was forced to make a touchdown saving tackle on Hollywood Henderson.)
With 1:22 left in the game, Staubach started out the drive with an 11-yard scramble to midfield, and then followed it up with a 12-yard completion to Preston Pearson at the Steelers 38-yard line. On the next play, Staubach fumbled the snap but managed to recover the ball and throw it out of bounds. On second down, he threw a pass intended for Howard in the end zone, but the ball bounced off Howard's shoulder, and a Hail Mary replay was not to be. Then on third down, Staubach once again tried to complete a pass to Howard in the end zone, but the ball was tipped by Wagner into the arms of safety Glen Edwards for an interception as time expired, sealing Pittsburgh's victory.
Bradshaw finished the game with 9 out of 19 pass completions for 209 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions. He also added another 16 yards rushing the ball. Staubach completed 15 out of 24 passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns with three interceptions. He also rushed for 22 yards on five carries, but was sacked seven times. Steelers running back Franco Harris was the leading rusher of the game with 82 rushing yards, and also caught a pass for 26 yards. Newhouse was the Cowboys top rusher with 56 yards, and caught two passes for 12 yards. Greenwood recorded a Super Bowl record three sacks.
|Drew Pearson||WR||Frank Lewis|
|Ralph Neely||LT||Jon Kolb|
|Burton Lawless||LG||Jim Clack|
|John Fitzgerald||C||Ray Mansfield|
|Blaine Nye||RG||Gerry Mullins|
|Rayfield Wright||RT||Gordon Gravelle|
|Jean Fugett||TE||Larry Brown|
|Golden Richards||WR||Lynn Swann|
|Roger Staubach||QB||Terry Bradshaw|
|Preston Pearson||RB||Rocky Bleier|
|Robert Newhouse||FB||Franco Harris|
|Ed "Too Tall" Jones||LE||L. C. Greenwood|
|Larry Cole||LDT||Joe Greene|
|Jethro Pugh||RDT||Ernie Holmes|
|Harvey Martin||RE||Dwight White|
|Dave Edwards||LOLB||Jack Ham|
|Lee Roy Jordan||MLB||Jack Lambert|
|D.D. Lewis||ROLB||Andy Russell|
|Mel Renfro||LCB||Mel Blount|
|Mark Washington||RCB||J.T. Thomas|
|Charlie Waters||SS||Glen Edwards|
|Cliff Harris||FS||Mike Wagner|
Note: A seven-official system was not used until 1978