As far as a lot of fans are concerned, Super Bowl XIV will be played this Sunday in Pittsburgh instead of two weeks later in Pasadena, California. The Steelers and Houston Oilers are certainly the most highly regarded play- off survivors, and the winner of their American Conference championship game will no doubt be heavily favored to capture the National Football League's overall honors come Jan. 19.
Playing for the right to the underdog's role in the NFL finale are Tampa Bay and Los Angeles, a pair of unlikely participants in the National Conference title game. Tampa Bay, winner of only seven games in its first three seasons, shed the expansion-franchise cocoon this season to win 10 of 16 regular-season games and emerge as champions of the NFC Central division. Los Angeles, meanwhile, confronted a plethora of challenges in nailing down its seventh straight NFC Western crown with a 9-7 record, poorest of any playoff entrant.
With both these clubs given so little hope of going all the way, they may now have extra incentive for doing so. Contentment with reaching the Super Bowl won't be enough for Buccaneer Coach John McKay, who had a penchant for winning games in the Rose Bowl during his years at the University of Southern California.
For their part, the Rams feel they have something to prove -- primarily that their laid-back image of years gone by doesn't hold true for the present squad, which, if shorter on talent, has learned how to claw its way to important victories. Past teams never developed the needed survival instincts in pressure situations, and, as a result, never reached the Super Bowl.
The Buccaneers, of course, have never even reached the playoffs until this season, and some observers believe a soft schedule is probably the major factor accounting for their current position.
As awesome as the Steelers can be (they mauled Miami 34-14 in last Sunday's AFC semifinal), even the defending Super Bowl champions couldn't come through the regular season unscathed -- not with a schedule that pitted them against both Houston and Cleveland twice, and Philadelphia, Denver, Dallas, and San Diego once. They tied San Diego with the league's best record, 12-4, while Houston (11-5), with a pretty murderous schedule of its own, earned an AFC wild-card playoff berth.
During the past two seasons the Steeler- Oiler rivalry has blossomed into one of the most physical in football. Though blessed with excellent passers, both teams like to go right at people on offense, Franco Harris making most of the running forays for Pittsburgh, and Earl Campbell, who's coming off an injury, for Houston.
For all the heroics turned in by quarterback Terry Bradshaw and receiver Lynn Swann in previous post-seasons, Harris probably most deserves the title of Mr. Playoff. His 1,274 yards in 14 playoff games make him the most prolific money runner in league history.
Campbell, of course, is the heart and soul of the Oilers, sometimes jokingly called Earlers by Houston fans. He has won the league's rushing title in each of his two pro seasons, and is seemingly indispensable. As demonstrated last Saturday, however, Houston can win without him, though not easily.
Forced to play San Diego without Campbell, starting quarterback Dan Pastorini , and Ken Burrough, the team's leading receiver, the Oilers eked out a 17-14 upset victory. Houston's defense, and specifically Vernon Perry, rose to the occasion. Perry intercepted four passes and blocked a field goal attempt.
It should be added, however, that the Oilers got solid offensive performances from QB Gifford Nielsen, halfback Rob Carpenter, and wide receiver Mike Renfro, all reserves whose performances pointed up the team's depth.
During the past two seasons, the Steelers and Oilers have met five times, with Pittsburgh winning on three of these occasions, including a 34-5 win in last year's AFC championship game.
This Sunday's clash will be in Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium, where the Steelers have won their last 15 games and 23 of their last 24.
Tampa Bay, which owns the NFL's top defensive unit in terms of yards (246.8 per game) and total points (237), beat wild-card Philadelphia to earn the right to host the NFC championship. In order to gain passage to Florida, the Rams had to beat Dallas, last season's NFC Super Bowl representative.