PITTSBURGH - DECEMBER 06: Bruce Gradkowski #5 of the Oakland Raiders tries to escape the tackle of Lawrence Timmons #94 of the Pittsburgh Steelers on December 6, 2009 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Oakland won the game 27-24. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Suddenly, it's looking like the 1970s again for what once was the NFL's nastiest and most compelling rivalry, one so inflamed it once spilled over from the football field to a federal courtroom.
Welcome back, Raiders vs. Steelers. The NFL and its millions of fans have missed you.
Two storied franchises that have disliked each other since they first met 40 years ago face each other Sunday in what might be the most meaningful game between them since 1984. That season, the last remnants of Pittsburgh's Super Bowl teams of the 1970s upset the Raiders during the final weekend of the regular season to make the playoffs, and the Steelers went on to reach the AFC championship game.
It's a rivalry that was kindled by the most miraculous game-winning play in NFL history, the Immaculate Reception in 1972. With Hall of Famers such as Al Davis, Chuck Noll and John Madden, Mean Joe Greene and Franco Harris, Gene Upshaw and Art Shell all playing key roles, the teams faced each other in the playoffs every season from 1972-76.
The games were so fearsomely physical, there were frequent allegations of crossing-the-line play and, even, a lawsuit after Noll accused the Raiders' George Atkinson of being part of the league's "criminal element."
For much of the '70s, it was the NFL's rivalry beyond all others. Now there are hints it could be percolating again.
The Raiders scored three touchdowns in the final 8½ minutes to beat the Steelers 27-23 in Pittsburgh last season, a significant upset that eventually put the reigning Super Bowl winners out of the playoffs. Of the Steelers' five consecutive late-season losses, this one might have hurt the most.
"We went home and kept wondering, `What if? What if?"' wide receiver Hines Ward said.
The Raiders (5-4), with a dozen-plus first-round draft picks, now look to be one of the league's on-the-rise teams after winning three in a row and four of five. The Steelers (6-3), trying for a third Super Bowl in six seasons, looked like an elite team until Tom Brady shredded their defense for 350 yards passing in New England's 39-26 rout last weekend.
Oakland, tied for the AFC West lead with Kansas City, knows it can legitimize its status as a playoff contender if it can overcome the cross-country trip and beat the Steelers on their home field for a second successive season. The Steelers, tied for the AFC North lead with Baltimore, want to show that last week was an anomaly.
"I hope everybody's (ticked) off," Steelers linebacker James Farrior said. "The way we played last week was unacceptable. It's something we can't have if we want to be a championship team. I haven't gotten my butt whipped like that in a long time."
That loss cost longtime kicker Jeff Reed his job. He was cut after missing a 26-yard field goal attempt, with former Redskins kicker Shaun Suisham replacing him.
Raiders coach Tom Cable would love to extend the Steelers' miseries for another week.
"It's very dear to me to get this place back to respectability and back to being a team that everybody talks about like the Steelers, the Patriots, like Baltimore, like the teams that have been good here for a while," Cable said. "There was a time when you mentioned those teams, and you would mention Oakland that way."
Ward is too young to remember the height of Raiders-Steelers rivalry, but he's heard enough to know what it meant.
"Our organization, theirs, (are) probably the marquee organizations throughout history, especially on the AFC side," said Ward, who expects to play despite getting a concussion against New England. "Some of the great plays in history have come in this game. It's always great to play the Oakland Raiders, it's a lot of rich tradition."
Bruce Gradkowski's 11-yard touchdown pass to Louis Murphy with 9 seconds remaining last season might not go down among those great plays, but it was enough to beat Pittsburgh. Gradkowski now backs up Jason Campbell, the former Redskins quarterback who has thrown for 743 yards, five touchdowns and one interception during Oakland's three-game winning streak.
Campbell might need to consistently pick on Pittsburgh's suspect cornerbacks to sustain any offense, especially if Darren McFadden -- whose 108.1 yards rushing average leads the NFL -- can't get going. Pittsburgh's defense has allowed only one 100-yard rusher in 43 games and is giving up a league-low 63.2 yards per game.
"It's a great buzz for us right now," McFadden said. "We've won three games in a row so it has been great for confidence. Guys approach the game with a 'we are supposed to win' attitude."
Oakland's dominant defensive front four of Lamarr Houston, Richard Seymour, Tommy Kelly and Trevor Scott hopes to disrupt quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as successfully as New England did when it surged through an injury-thinned offensive line to sack him five times. Roethlisberger, who leads the NFL in passing yardage since returning from his four-game suspension, threw for many of his 387 yards after the Patriots opened a 23-3 lead.
"Teams start to separate themselves in November and December," Seymour said. "We want to be one of those elite teams."
Elite isn't a word that's been heard around the Raiders for a long time. They might hear it again if, for the first time in franchise history, they can win in Pittsburgh in successive seasons.
"Last year is last year," linebacker Sam Williams said. "This is a new team, different players everywhere on the field. This is a new team that's focused and not even close to the team we had last year."