September 6 1981: Kansas City Chiefs 37 – Pittsburgh Steelers 33
Our Chiefs head to Pittsburgh for week 2 of the season.
Back in 1981, we made the same trip for the season opener. Under coach Marv Levy, the team was showing signs of improvement after a long slump in the 70s – from 2 wins, to 4, to 7, then 8 – would 1981 see a first winning campaign, and a first trip to the playoffs, after a gap of almost a decade. The Steelers were of course, one of the great teams of the time, having won 4 Superbowls in the 70s and still having stars like Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, and “Mean” Joe Greene in their line-up.
Kansas City had a tough task at Three Rivers stadium, and because of an injury to starting quarterback Steve Fuller, backup Bill Kenney got the start. Within a few minutes of the kick-off, the Steelers had the lead with a Bradshaw pass to receiver Lynn Swann. However, Kenney wasn’t phased by this, and managed to lead a drive which finished with a long catch and run by Henry Marshall to put KC on the scoreboard.
Nick Lowery’s PAT, and then a field goal shortly after, put the Chiefs ahead – but as the half went on, the home team asserted their dominance, and consecutive drives were capped by short Franco Harris rushes for touchdowns. Despite a late field goal by Lowery, the Kansas City team went to the locker room at the break trailing 19-13.
The second half would see the lead change hands repeatedly. Bill Kenney set the half underway with a 53-yard pass to receiver Carlos Carson, to retake the lead. But a Steelers touchdown almost immediately wiped out that advantage.
In a close game, turnovers would be crucial, and it was the Chiefs defence that started to exert pressure, and to force errors from Pittsburgh’s all-star cast. A fumble from Bradshaw allowed Lowery to cut the deficit with a field goal, and then another fumble, this time by Franco Harris, let the Chiefs in for another drive. This time it was rounded off with a 3 yard rush by Ted McKnight to put KC 30-26 ahead. Many of those reading will know Ted as a firm Arrowheads Abroad fan favourite, after he met up with several of us for a memorable barbecue lunch in Kansas City in 2017. He has also been interviewed for the podcast recently. He led the Chiefs in rushing on this day, and this was the first of 5 touchdowns he would score in what turned out to be his final year as a Chief.
With the support of the home crowd, the Steelers rallied again, and Bradshaw managed to find another of his receivers, this time Jim Smith for a 41 yard score to take the lead once more.
As time ticked down, Pittsburgh had the ball in Chiefs territory with under minutes on the clock and no KC timeouts left, but the Chiefs defence forced an opportunity yet again. Frank Manumaleuga blitzed the QB and linebacker Tom Howard retrieved the ball from a fumble, before taking it 65 yards for a touchdown which silenced the crowd.
There was still time for one last Steelers drive, but the final nail was hammered into the coffin when Gary Barbaro intercepted a Bradshaw pass to seal the opening day win. Kansas City would go on to post a winning 9-7 season, thanks in part to sweeping rivals Oakland, but would narrowly miss out on that long sought-for post-season spot.
Elsewhere in the NFL at the time:
At Foxboro on the same day, the crowd was treated to another thriller. The visiting Baltimore Colts raced into a 10-0 lead, but by half-time the Patriots led 14-13. A pair of rushing TDs by Randy McMillan put the Colts in controls, but New England came back once more, but fell just short, losing 29-28.
Elsewhere in the world:
It was clearly the week for dramatic New England losses. A couple of days earlier, at Fenway Park, the game between the Boston Red Sox and Seattle Mariners was level at 7-7 after a 19 innings marathon, when time was called for the day. The players came back the following day and the Mariners scored the winning run in the 20th inning to sneak an 8-7 win.