While we’re talking about ESPN, as per the previous article, let’s stick with the outlet, who earlier this week published a list of the top playoff moments in NFL history. While the NFL Network as part of its 100th anniversary celebration counted out the top 100 plays in NFL history, the one that appears on the top remains the same.
Even if you didn’t read the title, you would know what the play is. The Immaculate Reception. For many, it’s regarded as the play that signaled the turnaround in the fortunes of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who hitherto had been often enough among the basement-dwellers of the league.
With just seconds to play and needing to score, Terry Bradshaw—well, you know what happened. Missed blitz pickups, desperation passes, big hits, ricochets—and then the scoop. And then the score. And then the mania that ensued. It was the Steeler’s first postseason victory. They wouldn’t win another one in two years, but they would hardly lose one for the rest of the decade, winning four of six Super Bowls between 1974 and 1979.
It was December 23, 1972, on fourth and 10 and in a 13-7 ballgame. The Steelers were on their own 40-yard line and had just 22 seconds left to play. Dan Rooney had already hopped down to meet his team in the locker room to congratulate them on a well-fought season when the scene erupted. The article reads:
In Pittsburgh, it is the equivalent of a religious experience. In Oakland, it is seen as something more sinister — the “Immaculate Deception.” Did running back John “Frenchy” Fuqua touch the ball first, or was it all safety Jack Tatum? (The rules at the time stipulated that only the first offensive player to touch a pass could catch it.) Did the ball touch the Three Rivers Stadium turf before Harris gained possession? Or what about the claim of linebacker Phil Villapiano that he was clipped by tight end John McMakin? The game tape has been scoured more than the Zapruder film and there are still no clear answers. Pittsburgh’s first playoff victory meant nothing the next week, as the Steelers lost to the undefeated Dolphins. And the Raiders ended Miami’s winning streak at 18 games in Week 2 of the 1973 season. But from the perspective of Pittsburgh, which has a statue of Harris making the catch at its airport, the play helped launch a dynasty, as the Steelers would win four Super Bowls in six years, starting with the 1974 season. And hey, Harris calls Villapiano every Dec. 23, just to ask what he was doing on that day in 1972.
The description is clearly wrong. There is definitely proof that the ball never hit the ground if you actually watch all the available angles. Nevertheless, it simply adds to the lore of the play that it remains a part of the conversation.
Santonio Holmes’ game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLIII also came in at play number nine on the 10-item list. Many wondered where James Harrison’s 100-yard pick six or Lynn Swann’s leaping catch were, but really—not every play can be Pittsburgh’s.