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Raiders-Steelers rivalry not what used to be

| Sunday, Dec. 6, 2009

Raiders-Steelers games once were long-awaited, once were special and, at times, once were otherworldly.

The Steelers had to win two of them before claiming their first two Super Bowls. John Madden had to win one of them before lifting his one and only Super Bowl trophy as a head coach. During the 1970s, the rivalry was the NFL's best and most combative, creating bad feelings, momentous games, allegations of cheating and field-doctoring, even federal lawsuits.

Steelers coach Chuck Noll was sued for calling Raiders cornerback George Atkinson part of the NFL's "criminal element." The Raiders charged the Steelers intentionally iced the playing field before an AFC title game to slow their fast receivers. In turn, the Steelers alleged the Raiders intentionally deflated footballs so they wouldn't fly far off Terry Bradshaw's hands — and, while they were doing so, wrote obscenities on them.

And, oh, yes, arguably the greatest play in pro football history, Franco Harris' Immaculate Reception, percolated this rivalry in 1972 — creating endless arguments, utter joy and disconsolate sadness, a lifetime of memories and, too, a lifetime of regrets, during a few unforgettable seconds.

"I don't remember being around for it, but (I kept) hearing the stories and how big it was," said Raiders quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who grew up in Pittsburgh. "When I first went to Oakland, the people were like, 'Ahhh, the Steelers rivalry.' "

Those were the days, those were the times, those were the games.

Now, it's just another game. Just another game of many the Super Bowl champion Steelers (6-5) need to win in December to save their season. Just another game the Raiders (3-8) are expected to lose — they're two-touchdown underdogs, just as they are nearly every game now that the good old days are long gone.

After losing their last two in overtime and three in a row, the Steelers need to beat somebody to get turned around and back into position to make the AFC playoffs. If it's the Raiders, well, nostalgia can wait.

"We've got to go out there, we've got to take it to the NFL," defensive lineman Chris Hoke said. "We know we've got the firepower to do it. We've got to do it now."

Wide receiver Hines Ward calls it a must-win game, saying the Steelers' season will effectively be over if they lose. Maybe that's the one parallel between this game and the 10 contests the Raiders and Steelers played during that magnificent '70s rivalry, four of them in the postseason.

"The playoffs begin for us this week," Ward said. "Lose, and we're pretty much out of it. We know what's at stake. Our playoff season begins this weekend."

No doubt the Raiders will be cheered to hear they're involved in something resembling the playoffs again, given they haven't appeared in a postseason game in seven years. They've upset the Eagles and Bengals but have won only one other game, and they could be headed toward their fifth season since 2003 with four wins or fewer.

However, the last time the Steelers were coming off a Super Bowl-winning season, in 2006, a 20-13 upset loss to a Raiders team that won only one other game eventually kept them out of the playoffs.

"They're used to winning, so when you lose three games or something like that, it's the biggest deal in the world," Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha said. "They said everybody's got hell to pay the next (few) weeks. They're making a big deal about this."

Asomugha was referring to Steelers coach Mike Tomlin's promise to "unleash hell" in December, a line he stole from the movie "Gladiator." The Steelers are known for their fast finishes — they won six of their final seven last season — and they're badly in need of another one following successive overtime losses to the Chiefs and Ravens.

The Steelers will welcome back quarterback Ben Roethlisberger following a one-week injury layoff, though star safety Troy Polamalu (left knee) will miss a third consecutive game. Roethlisberger knows to be wary of the Raiders; he threw four interceptions, two for touchdowns, during that 2006 loss in Oakland.

Coincidentally or not, Roethlisberger was coming off a concussion in that game, just as he will be in this one.

"I don't think anybody is taking this game or this team lightly, especially me, with that defense and secondary," Roethlisberger said. "There's no way you can."

That defense may be No. 17 against the pass, but it's the league's second worst against the run and fourth worst overall. Without Roethlisberger, the Steelers ran a season-high 38 times for 153 yards in Baltimore, and the Raiders also might get a heavy dose of Rashard Mendenhall, who needs 216 yards in the final five games for a 1,000-yard season.

Gradkowski threw two touchdown passes to lead the Raiders' upset of Cincinnati, 20-17, on Nov. 22, but he is 0-2 for a starter in his hometown. He was 5 of 16 for 18 yards, two interceptions and a passer rating of 1.0 as the Steelers beat the Browns 31-0 last season, but he has since moved on from that game and that team.

"The Bengal win was huge," Gradkowski said. "It brought us a lot of confidence. We knew that we could play with good football teams."

On a December day the temperature is forecast to be in the 30s, perhaps the Raiders should hope there's of a touch of the '70s, around, too.

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