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Pats’ Past: Defeating the Steel Curtain

Despite being a 17-point underdog, New England was able to win its first game against Pittsburgh in 1976.

In 1975, the New England Patriots under third-year head coach Chuck Fairbanks won only three of their 14 games. Naturally, entering the 1976 season, expectations were low for a talented but inconsistent team. Starting the year with a 1-1 record did not change this drastically.

What happened in week 3, however, did.

The Patriots had to travel to Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium to face the two-time defending world champion Steelers on their own turf. The Steelers, despite also starting the year 1-1, were 17-point favorites against a team that had lost eight of the last 10 games it played – and early on it seemed as if the home team would live up to the oddsmakers’ predictions.

On its first possession, Pittsburgh drove 80 yards and took a 7-0 lead. While the visitors were unable to answer offensively, the defense played a key role in cutting the deficit to one point: New England recovered two Steelers fumbles to set up two John Smith field goals. However, despite the momentum on their side, the Patriots were unable to take the lead as the team’s offense struggled with turnovers itself: overall, New England gave the ball away four times in inclement conditions.

Therefore, the Patriots entered the locker rooms at halftime down 13-9. The second half did not start any better, as it took the Steelers only four plays to score their second touchdown of the day and expand the lead to 11 points. This time, however, New England started to fight back.

Led by second-year quarterback Steve Grogan, the offense went on three consecutive scoring drives. Touchdown passes to Russ Francis and Darryl Stingley as well as a six-yard run by the quarterback himself gave the Patriots a 30-20 lead early in the fourth quarter. Along the way, the Patriots defense was able to take advantage of Pittsburgh’s ball protection issues and recovered four more fumbles.

With score, time and momentum on their side, New England committed another gaffe: the overall tenth turnover of the day, which indirectly led to a Steelers touchdown to cut the deficit to three points. The team’s next possession did not go a lot better as the Patriots were forced to punt. Pittsburgh, with less than two minutes on the clock, drove down the field for a potential win.

However, the Patriots’ defense was able to stop the drive at its own 30-yard line, setting up a 48-yard field goal attempt to tie the game. Steelers kicker Roy Gerela, who had made two kicks so far this afternoon, lined up, hit the ball... and it sailed wide right, giving New England a 30-27 win; its second victory of the season.

The game was a huge confidence booster for the team, which would blow out another of the AFC’s premier teams – the Oakland Raiders – the following week. The 1976 Patriots eventually finished the year with an 11-3 record and a wildcard playoff spot. While the season ended in controversial fashion, it was one of the most successful the franchise has ever had.

Beating the "Steel Curtain" in week 3 was one of the main reasons for that.