There’s a tendency to focus on the winners in sport. With good reason. Winners bask in the glory and adulation of fans and media. But in sport, there are always two sides. With winners, there are losers. Every team has lost a big game at some point. Sometimes it’s a matter of the opponent being better. But there are some losses that are so painful, they crush the soul of the players, coaches and supporters. This series of articles focuses on the deep pain of sport. Bring tissues if your team is featured.
Confession. I miss the Houston Oilers. I miss the Columbia Blue jerseys and the oil derrick that adorned their helmets. I miss the great players such as Earl Campbell and Warren Moon. I miss the colourful coaches like Bum Phillips and Jerry Glanville. I miss the run ‘n’ shoot offence. I even miss the Astrodome. The franchise should have won a Super Bowl. Instead there was only heartbreak. Here are the 5 most heartbreaking losses in Houston Oilers history.
Quick note. Only Houston Oiler games count. The Tennessee Titans will get their own list.
January 6, 1980. Pittsburgh 27, Houston 13.
In the late 1970s, the Oilers were engaged in a hot rivalry with the Pittsburgh Steelers for supremacy in the AFC Central. The Steelers were the model franchise in the NFL in the disco decade and came into the 1979 season as defending Super Bowl champions.
The Oilers struggled in the first half of the 1970s but started to gain steam as the decade wore on. The key moment came in the 1978 draft when the Oilers selected power running back Earl Campbell from Texas. The Tyler Rose became the face of the franchise as he led the NFL in rushing with 1,450 yards while setting the benchmark for rookies in the process. The Oilers made the playoffs for the first time in 9 seasons. The Oilers made it to the AFC Championship game but were overmatched against the mighty Steelers.
Oiler fans weren’t discouraged. The city of Houston fell in love with their football team to the point “Luv Ya Blue” became synonymous with the city and the franchise. Hell, they even wrote a song called Luv Ya Blue, after the Oilers lost 34-5 to the Steelers.
1979 saw bright optimism for the Oilers. Campbell was well-rested and eager to avenge the previous year’s disappointment. The defence was stout. The fans were excited. Some thought a Super Bowl title would be coming to Houston.
Hopes and dreams of a championship took a hit in Week 2 when the Oilers were thrashed 38-7 by the Steelers in Three Rivers. But the Oilers rebounded by winning 4 out of 6 to stay in contention in the AFC Central.
After a disappointing loss to Seattle in which quarterback Dan Pastorini suffered a shoulder injury, coach Phillips urged his team to press forward with Campbell at the forefront. The Oilers proceeded to win 5 straight including a stirring victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving. Campbell was monstrous in the Dallas game, rushing for 195 yards on 33 carries, shredding the vaunted Doomsday Defence.
The Oilers headed into a critical Monday Night matchup against the Steelers sitting a game back of their nemesis with only two games remaining. In front of a raucous crowd at the Astrodome, the Oilers emerged with a 20-17 win led by Campbell who rushed for 109 yards on 33 carries.
But the Oilers lost to Philadelphia on the final day of the season while Pittsburgh blanked Buffalo to give the Steelers the division title which forced the Oilers to go the wildcard route.
The Oilers defeated Denver in the wildcard game but it was a costly victory. Campbell, Pastorini and receiver Ken Burrough all suffered injuries and would miss the divisional playoff encounter with the San Diego Chargers.
The Chargers were one of the biggest stories in the NFL in 1979, finishing with a 12-4 record which included a 35-7 beatdown of the Steelers. The Chargers were the most exciting team in the NFL as the Air Coryell offence lit up scoreboards across the league. But the Oilers had the answer as Vernon Perry intercepted 4 passes while the offence did just enough to pull a 17-14 upset and send the Oilers to the AFC Championship game versus their rivals, the Steelers.
Pittsburgh managed to fight off the Oilers charge for the division title but many observers thought the Steelers were vulnerable heading into the postseason. The famed Steel Curtain defence was starting to show cracks. Key players were getting old. Some even thought complacency was setting in after three Super Bowl titles in the decade. But Pittsburgh had answers to silence their critics. They easily dispatched Miami in the divisional playoff round to set up a rematch with the Oilers.
An icy field greeted both teams as freezing rain sprinkled on and off. A massive television audience tuned in to NBC as the legendary duo of Dick Enberg and Merlin Olsen called their first AFC Championship game together. The Oilers were ready and confident they could finally dethrone the Steelers. The good news for Houston was that Pastorini and Campbell were back in the lineup.
The Oilers gained more confidence in the first possession of the game as Perry, the hero of the divisional playoff game, intercepted a Terry Bradshaw pass and returned it 75 yards for a Houston touchdown which stunned the partisan Pittsburgh crowd.
The Steelers got a drive going late in the first quarter but Houston’s defence held at the 3-yard line. Pittsburgh settled for a field goal to cut Houston’s lead to four at the end of the quarter.
The Oilers responded with a drive of their own. Two big pass completions to Tim Wilson and Ronnie Coleman set up the Oilers in great position for a touchdown. But Campbell was thwarted by the Steel Curtain as the drive stalled at the 9-yard line. Toni Fritsch banged a 27-yard field goal to give the Oilers a 10-3 lead early in the second quarter.
The Steelers bounced right back on the next possession, going 67 yards on 10 plays that was capped off with a 16 yard touchdown pass from Bradshaw to tight end Bennie Cunningham to tie the game.
The Oilers got the ball back but the running game was completely stuffed by the Pittsburgh defence. Campbell wasn’t 100% as he was playing hurt so the Steel Curtain focused all their attention on the Tyler Rose thus daring the ailing Pastorini to beat them. It looked like the Oilers had something going when Pastorini found Mike Renfro at the Steeler 45-yard-line. But Renfro was stripped of the ball by Mel Blount who then recovered the fumble that killed the Oiler drive.
The Steelers capitalized on the Oiler turnover by going 49 yards on 7 plays. A 20 yard touchdown pass from Bradshaw to John Stallworth gave the Steelers a 17-10 lead at halftime.
The Oilers were down but not out. They knew they had to get Campbell involved in the offence to take the pressure of Pastorini. They also needed to contain the Steeler offence that had gained momentum in the second quarter.
The moment Oiler fans will never forget happened late in the third quarter with the Oilers trailing 17-10. It was first and goal from the Steeler 7 yard line. Pastorini took a short drop then fired a pass to Renfro who was running a fade pattern against Steeler corner Ron Johnson. Renfro leapt up and caught the ball over Johnson and landed with both feet inbounds. Or so we thought. Even Pittsburgh radio announcer Myron Cope thought that Renfro had landed inbounds and it should have been a touchdown. The officials had a conference and ruled it an incomplete pass. Since this is the NFL circa 1979/1980, video review was not an option. The Oilers were furious as TV replays clearly showed that Renfro demonstrated possession and had two feet in. But the call stood and the image of Bum Phillips in his fur coat and cowboy hat yelling at the officials made for unforgettable television.
The Oilers failed to score on their next two plays and settled for a 23 yard field goal by Fritsch. The Oilers trailed 17-13 early in the fourth quarter but deep down, they thought that the game should have been tied.
The Steelers took their first possession of the fourth quarter with the knowledge that they were fortunate to be still ahead. They drove down to the Houston 22-yard-line but the Oiler defence stopped them at that point. Matt Bahr connected on a 39 yard field goal to increase Pittsburgh’s lead to 20-13.
The Oilers got the ball with a sense of desperation. They knew they needed to score a touchdown soon or see their Super Bowl dreams fade away. The dream burnt out when Pastorini found Guido Merkens who then fumbled at the Houston 45 yard line. Donnie Shell recovered for Pittsburgh and Houston were in big trouble.
The Steelers sealed the deal, going 45 yards on 9 plays that was finished by a Rocky Bleier 4 yard touchdown run that sent the Three Rivers crowd into a frenzy as the omnipresent Terrible Towels were waving ubiquitously.
Most of the talk afterwards surrounded the Renfro TD reception that wasn’t. It was a bad call by referee Jim Tunney and his crew and video review would have overturned the call. But it wasn’t the only reason why the Oilers lost. Earl Campbell was held to only 15 yards on 17 carries while the Oilers committed 3 turnovers. It was a devastating loss for the Oilers and in particular, quarterback Dan Pastorini who was traded in the offseason to the Oakland Raiders for Ken Stabler.
The Steelers went on to win their fourth Super Bowl two weeks later, cementing their status as team of the decade. The Oilers could only wonder what might have been.
December 31, 1989. Pittsburgh 26, Houston 23. (OT)
The 1980s were not kind to the Houston Oilers. They made the playoffs in 1980 but were quickly dispatched by the eventual Super Bowl champion Oakland Raiders. After that, the Oilers went into the abyss. Earl Campbell was battling numerous injuries. Quarterback play was inconsistent as Ken Stabler and Archie Manning failed to reclaim past glories. Coaches such as Ed Biles and Hugh Campbell failed to get the Oilers out of the doldrums. Six straight losing seasons made Houston blue without the love.
The Oilers needed a change and Jerry Glanville was the man tasked to turn the fortunes in Houston. Glanville was a larger than life character who brought a swagger that the Oilers never had. Bum Phillips was a character but was more of a down-home, folksy type that could pass as everyone’s favourite uncle. Glanville was the rebel. A bad boy who rode Harley Davidson motorcycles and cheered for the bad guys in the movies.
But Glanville’s methods seemed to be working as the Oilers qualified for the playoffs in 1987 which included a postseason victory over Seattle. The Oilers made the tournament again in 1988, defeated Cleveland in the Wildcard game but were eliminated by Buffalo in the Divisional round. The pressure was on in 1989. Super Bowl or bust.
The Oilers knew that before they could reach the big party, they needed to capture the AFC Central title. Easier said than done. The Oilers hadn’t won a division title since 1967 and the AFC Central was considered the most competitive division in the NFL in 1989. The other three teams in the division, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh had something in common. They all hated the Oilers with a passion.
Glanville didn’t care. He had Warren Moon behind centre who was becoming a top quarterback after dominating the CFL for five seasons. Moon ran the Red Gun offence that featured 4 receivers which was unheard of in 1989. Ernest Givins, Drew Hill, Curtis Duncan and Haywood Jeffries were all precise route runners that were fast and were reliable pass catchers.
The 1989 Oilers season was filled with inconsistency. Impressive wins over Miami, Pittsburgh and Chicago were offset with blowout losses to Minnesota and Kansas City. Yet with two games remaining, the Oilers sat atop of the AFC Central and were the number one seed in the conference. Win the last two games and the road to the Super Bowl would go through the Astrodome or as Glanville dubbed it The House of Pain. But it went very wrong.
The Oilers were destroyed 61-7 by the Cincinnati Bengals in a game that Bengals head coach Sam Wyche gleefully took pride in thrashing Glanville’s charges. Wyche and Glanville publicly feuded with each other during their tenures as the Bengals and Oilers coaches respectively.
Then, on the final weekend of the season, the Oilers lost 24-20 to Cleveland at the Astrodome to give the Browns the AFC Central Division while forcing the Oilers to the Wildcard game.
The Oilers opponent was their longtime nemesis, the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers and Oilers rivalry took a nasty turn in the 1980s. In the 1970s, the Steelers and Oilers engaged in tough but respectful battles. Players were friends with each other off the field and the rivalry was considered competitive yet friendly. That changed when Glanville arrived on the scene.
It started in 1987 after the Oilers defeated the Steelers in the Astrodome. Steelers coach Chuck Noll went to shake Glanville’s hand but instead of congratulating him, he scolded Glanville for the Oilers dirty play. When the Oilers defeated the Steelers at Three Rivers in December, the Steeler faithful showered Glanville and the Oilers with snowballs as Glanville raised his arms in triumph while leaving the stadium.
The Steelers needed help on the final weekend of the season to get in the playoffs. They defeated Tampa Bay to cap their regular season on a three-game winning streak. Then the Steelers got a Christmas present as Cincinnati lost to Minnesota, the Raiders lost to the Giants and Indianapolis lost to New Orleans to give the Steelers the last playoff spot.
The Astrodome was sold out and very noisy. It was a hostile crowd that greeted the hated Steelers. Glanville loved it that the Oiler fans were ready to make life miserable for Noll and company.
But it was the Steelers who landed the first punch. A blocked punt set up the Steelers in Houston territory. On a 4th and 1 from the nine-yard-line, fullback Tim Worley took a pitch and bashed his way over an Oiler defender and into the end zone to give the Steelers the only points in the quarter.
The Oilers responded with a 17 play, 85 yard drive. But they only managed a 26 yard field goal by Tony Zendejas to trim the Steelers lead to 7-3. The crowd was disappointed that the offence couldn’t finish the long drive with a touchdown knowing they left points on the field.
The Oilers got the ball back as Worley fumbled on the Steelers first play from scrimmage. Bubba McDowell recovered at the Pittsburgh 41. However on a 4th and 1 from the Steeler 17, Glanville went surprisingly conservative and opted for the field goal, much to the chagrin of the Oiler faithful. Zendejas banged a 35 yard field goal to move Houston closer.
The Steelers responded with a long drive of their own but they settled for a 25 yard field goal by Gary Anderson to give Pittsburgh a 10-6 halftime lead.
The Oilers needed a big play in the second half and they got one from their special teams as McDowell blocked a Harry Newsome punt early in the third quarter. But once again, the Oilers couldn’t find the end zone as Zendejas booted a 26 yard field goal to pull Houston to within one.
The Oilers were getting frustrated. Even though they were only down by a single point, they had dominated time of possession and felt that they should be ahead. They were playing into Pittsburgh’s hand.
The Steelers knew that and were wanting to deliver a big blow. They marched down to the Houston 12 where the Oilers defence stiffened. Anderson was successful on a 30 yard field goal to give Pittsburgh a 13-9 lead. The Oilers were still in the game.
The Steelers looked again to deliver the kill shot early in the fourth quarter. But Houston’s defence held firm and Pittsburgh settled for a 48 yard Anderson field goal to give the Steelers a touchdown lead.
The Oilers offence knew they needed a big drive and they got it on their next possession. Moon and company marched 80 yards on 10 plays that was finally finished with a touchdown as Moon found Givins with a 16 yard TD pass to tie the game and bring the House of Pain to life.
Houston’s defence sensed the momentum and forced a three and out. A short Newsome punt gave Houston the ball at the Pittsburgh 38. The Oilers needed only 5 plays to find the end zone as Moon connected with Givins on a 9 yard TD pass and Houston had its first lead of the game. The Astrodome was rocking as confetti was thrown and blue pom-poms were being shook everywhere. It looked like the New Year’s festivities were beginning early in Houston.
But the Steelers refused to die. A time-consuming 11 play, 82 yard drive was capped by a 2 yard touchdown run by Merril Hoge to tie the game with only 46 seconds remaining. The game needed overtime to decide who would go to Denver next week and who would have their season end.
The Steelers won the toss and received the kickoff. But Houston’s defence stepped up and forced Pittsburgh to punt. The Oilers got the ball at the Pittsburgh 45, needing only a field goal to win. But disaster struck.
On Houston’s first play Lorenzo White fumbled and it was recovered by All- Pro cornerback Rod Woodson who returned it to the Houston 46 yard line. The Astrodome crowd became extremely nervous as they knew their Oilers were in big trouble.
An 11 yard run by Hoge put the Steelers into field goal range. The Steelers called upon Anderson to attempt a 50 yard field goal for the win. Anderson’s longest kick of the season was 49 yards but Noll was confident the South African would make the kick. The Oilers called timeout in an attempt to ice Anderson and make him think about it. It didn’t as Anderson split the uprights and Houston were crestfallen.
Glanville and Noll didn’t shake hands afterwards continuing the bitterness between the two coaches. It was Glanville’s last game as Oilers coach as he was fired a few days later. The House of Pain was painful to the Oilers.
January 4, 1992. Denver 26, Houston 24.
The Oilers went into a different direction after Glanville’s dismissal. Instead of a cocksure, fast-talking outlaw, the Oilers hired Jack Pardee, a respected football mind without the media circus. Pardee had history in Houston as he coached the University of Houston Cougars for 3 seasons, using the run and shoot offence. That offence helped quarterback Andre Ware win the Heisman and got Pardee the Oilers job in 1990 after Jerry Glanville was fired.
In Pardee’s first season, the Oilers finished 9-7 and lost to Cincinnati in the Wildcard round. Pardee and the Oilers weren’t satisfied with just making the playoffs. They wanted to go to the Super Bowl.
1991 started promising for the Oilers as they started the season 7-1 which was the best record in the AFC. Blowout victories over the Raiders, Denver and Cincinnati showed the potential of this team.
But the Oilers only went 4-4 in the second half of the season. Despite that, Houston won their first division title and were set to host the New York Jets in the Wildcard round. The game was a defensive struggle as the Jets managed to contain the Run and Shoot. But the Oilers defence came through with a heroic performance as the Oilers won 17-10 to advance to the Divisional Round where the Denver Broncos awaited.
The Broncos had a comeback season in 1991, finishing atop of the AFC West with a 12-4 record, which was a vast improvement over a disappointing 5-11 mark in 1990. The Broncos earned a bye into the Divisional Round and were hoping to use the altitude and crowd noise of Mile High Stadium to their advantage.
One advantage the Oilers had been a 42-14 drubbing of the Broncos back in Week 6. However, that game was in Houston. The rematch with the winner going to the AFC Championship game, would be in Denver. The Oilers did feel confident that they could overcome the thin air and hostile crowd.
The game could not have started any better for Houston. On their first play from scrimmage, Warren Moon found Haywood Jeffries on a 50 yard bomb to move the Oilers deep into Denver territory. Three plays later, Moon connected with Jeffries on a 15 yard touchdown pass to silence the rowdy Denver crowd.
On the Oilers next possession, they drove 63 yards on 11 plays that was capped off by Moon finding a wide open Drew Hill in the end zone on a 9 yard touchdown pass. The Oilers were up 14-0 in the first quarter and the Denver crowd was stunned. The Oilers couldn’t afford to take a step back and let the Broncos back in the game.
But the Oilers opened the door for the Broncos. Three costly Oiler penalties aided Denver on an 8 play, 53 yard drive that was finished when John Elway found Vance Johnson on a 10 yard touchdown pass. Even though the Broncos missed the extra point, they were back in the game.
But the Oilers responded on their next possession that ran into the second quarter. Aided by a roughing the passer penalty that wiped out an interception, the Oilers drove 80 yards on 9 plays that Moon completed with a 6 yard touchdown pass to Curtis Duncan, to give the Oilers a 21-6 lead.
The Oilers had a chance to blow the game wide open on their next possession. But a controversial interception by Steve Atwater thwarted the drive. The replay showed that Atwater didn’t have possession as he hit the ground but after video review, the call stood.
Denver took advantage of the turnover and drove the ball 88 yards on 12 plays that was finished by a Greg Lewis 1 yard touchdown plunge, to cut the Oilers lead to 21-13 at halftime.
The second half saw the defences tighten up and it affected the run and shoot offence. Denver’s defence adjusted which forced Houston to adjust an offence that focused on precision and timing. The Oilers did manage a drive in the third that stalled at the Denver 15 yard line. But Oilers kicker Al Del Greco missed a 32 yard field goal which left the door ajar for Denver.
The Broncos managed an 8 play, 48 yard drive which ended on a wobbly but successful 49 yard field goal by David Treadwell. The Oilers had a chance to escape without giving up points but Chris Dishman dropped an interception that allowed the Broncos to pull to within 5 points.
The Oilers next drive crossed over to the fourth quarter in which they drove 73 yards on 7 plays. But they had to settle for a short 24 yard Del Greco field goal to push the Oiler lead to 24-16. Once again, the Oilers were letting the Broncos hang around.
The Broncos knew they weren’t dead and smartly marched down the field on an 80 yard, 12 play drive. Lewis scored his second touchdown from a yard away to pull the Broncos to within one. (Two point conversions were not in the NFL until 1994.)
The Oilers offence had a chance to seal the deal but penalties stalled the drive in Denver territory. A terrific punt by Greg Montgomery pinned the Broncos at their own 2 yard line with 2:07 remaining in the fourth quarter. It was up to the Oilers defence to win the game and earn a berth in the AFC Championship game. The problem was who was in their way. John Elway had a history of leading the Broncos on game winning drives. He famously drove 98 yards against the Cleveland Browns in the AFC Championship game five years prior. Earlier in the season, Elway led a game winning drive against division rival Kansas City that helped the Broncos win the AFC West. In his career, Elway had 18 game winning drives. Could Elway do it again?
Elway’s first play was a 22 yard completion to Michael Young which took the game to the two-minute warning. Coming out of the two-minute warning, Elway threw two incompletions then completed a short pass to Ricky Nattiel to bring up a 4th and 6 from the Denver 28. The Oilers needed one stop to advance. The Oilers flushed Elway out of the pocket but the Broncos quarterback managed to elude the rush and to get out-of-bounds for a 7 yard gain and a Denver first down.
Three straight incompletions brought up a 4th and 10 for the Broncos. Once again, the Oilers were on the precipice of advancing. But Elway had more magic up his sleeve. Elway scrambled out of the pocket and looked like he was going to run for the first down. Instead, just before he crossed the line of scrimmage, he lobbed a pass to Johnson who snuck behind the Oilers secondary. The Broncos receiver raced down the sideline until he was forced out-of-bounds at the Houston 21 yard line. It was a 44 yard pass play and Mile High Stadium was shaking.
The Broncos kept going as Steve Sewell moved the ball to the 11 on a 10 yard run. With 20 seconds left, Treadwell came on to attempt a 28 yard field goal. In normal circumstances, this was a chip shot but Treadwell missed an extra point earlier in the game. Oiler cornerback Chris Dishman attempted to get in the face of the Broncos kicker in order to mess with his head. The snap was low but a terrific recovery by Gary Kubiak placed the ball for Treadwell who nearly flubbed the kick, but it managed to split the uprights and the Oilers were crestfallen.
To lead for almost the entire game, only to lose it in the end was a crushing blow for the Oilers. Most observers talked about the game winning march by Elway dubbed “The Drive 2” by the Denver media. But the Oilers were thinking about the controversial Atwater interception and the missed field goal by Del Greco as turning points. Yes it showed Elway’s greatness but it also showed how agonizing close the Oilers were only to have it taken away.
January 3, 1993. Buffalo 41, Houston 38. (OT)
One of the most famous games in NFL history. But before we get to the game, let’s talk about the 1992 Houston Oilers.
Many prognosticators pegged the Oilers to reach the Super Bowl at the start of the season. Some had even said this was the best Oilers team in history. Better than the Earl Campbell teams of the late 1970s. Better than the Jerry Glanville lead bad boy Oiler teams of the late 1980s. Houston was expected to run away with the AFC Central in 1992.
But an opening day loss to Pittsburgh was an omen of things to come. The Oilers did show flashes of greatness during the season. Victories over playoff teams such as San Diego, Kansas City and Minnesota were enough to propel the Oilers to a 10-6 record. Yet, the Oilers finished one game behind Pittsburgh in the AFC Central which relegated Houston to the Wildcard round and a trip to Buffalo.
The Bills were seen as a team in decline. After making it to the Super Bowl in consecutive seasons, most observers thought the Bills were too old and that their window for a championship had been closed. In fact when the calendar turned to December, the Bills were in danger of missing the playoffs. But critical late season wins over Denver and New Orleans secured a postseason berth for the Bills.
Even though the game was in Buffalo, there were several plot twists that seemed to favour Houston. For starters, the Oilers waxed the Bills 27-3 in the final game of the season at the Astrodome. Bills quarterback Jim Kelly suffered a strained knee and was ruled out for the playoff game which forced the Bills to turn to backup Frank Reich as the man behind centre. Bills linebacker Cornelius Bennett would also miss the game due to injury. Finally, the game was not sold out despite the fact the Bills enjoyed passionate support from a rowdy fan base.
The Oilers got the ball first and wanted to make a statement on the opening drive. A statement was made indeed. Houston marched 80 yards on 14 plays that was culminated with Warren Moon finding Haywood Jeffries on a 3 yard touchdown pass as the crazy Buffalo crowd was silenced by the precision of the Run and Shoot offence. The Oilers couldn’t have asked for a better start.
The Bills responded with a 9 play 37 yard drive but could only manage a 36 yard field goal from Steve Christie to shave the Oiler lead to 7-3 as the first quarter expired. It was fast-moving with the offences in charge. Just how Houston wanted to play.
It was more of the same in the second quarter as the Oilers went 80 yards on 12 plays that Moon finished as he connected with Webster Slaughter on a 7 yard touchdown pass to give the Oilers a 14-3 lead. The Oilers were a fine tuned machine that looked unstoppable.
After forcing a quick three and out, the Oilers struck again. Moon engineered a 6 play, 67 yard drive that was finished when Moon found Curtis Duncan, who made a terrific catch as he was getting levelled by Bills safety Mark Kelso for a 26 yard touchdown reception and a 21-3 lead for the Oilers.
The Bills attempted a comeback as they drove down to the Houston 33 yard line. On 4th and 4, Bills coach Marv Levy decided to gamble. But the Oiler defence were up to the task as Reich’s pass was incomplete as the Oiler secondary did an excellent job in blanketing the Bills receivers.
With 1:15 left in the first half and a 21-3 lead on the road, most teams would have been content to play it safe and run out the clock till halftime. But not these Oilers. They ramped it up and went for the kill. 8 plays and 67 yards later, they found their prey as Moon and Jeffries combined on a 27 yard touchdown pass to give the Oilers a seemingly insurmountable 28-3 lead at halftime. The Rich Stadium crowd was stunned by the Oilers perfection. 4 drives, 4 touchdowns. Moon went 19 out of 22 for 218 yards and 4 touchdowns.
The second half started with the Bills having the ball. But it was the Oilers who did the scoring. Reich attempted a pass to tight end Keith McKellar. The ball slipped through McKellar’s hands and into the waiting hands of safety Bubba McDowell who then scampered 58 yards for the pick six, and a 35-3 Oiler lead. Game over. Most televisions were turned off. Some waited for the next game. Others ran errands. I went to the video store to return a couple of movies I rented the night before. No one thought the Buffalo Bills were coming back. The Oilers were thinking ahead to Pittsburgh for the Divisional game next week. Then all hell broke loose.
It started innocently enough as the Bills went 50 yards on 10 plays that was capped by Kenneth Davis 1 yard run. 35-10. Still a very comfortable lead for the Oilers and the clock was their friend.
The Bills then recovered an onside kick and were back in business. Four plays later, Reich hit Don Beebe on a 38 yard touchdown pass and the Oiler lead was cut to 35-17. Some nerves started to enter the Oilers system.
The Oilers got the ball but the offence was stopped for the first time. A poor Greg Montgomery punt set up the Bills at their own 41 yard line. Four plays later, Reich hooked up with Andre Reed on a 26 yard touchdown pass to make it 35-24. NBC analyst Todd Christensen pointed out that the Oilers defence were playing not to lose which meant the Oilers were losing their aggressiveness thus allowing the Bills to come back into the game.
The Oilers got the ball back but disaster was looming. Moon, who was sensational in the first half, made his first mistake of the game as he was intercepted by Henry Jones who returned the ball to the Houston 23 yard line. Buffalo had the ball, the momentum and the crowd who came to life. Four plays later, Reich connected with Reed for the second touchdown pass, this time from 18 yards to make it 35-31. All of a sudden, televisions were back on the game as Buffalo were re-energized while the Oilers were melting down. Rich Stadium was going berserk as the Bills were trying to make the impossible, possible.
As the fourth quarter began, the Oilers offence seemed to get back on track. Aided by roughing the passer penalty on Bruce Smith, the Oilers drove down to the Buffalo 15 yard line where the drive stalled. Al Del Greco came on to attempt a 32 yard field goal. But he never got the kick off. Montgomery who was the holder, fumbled the snap and the Bills recovered. A great scoring chance for Houston went for naught and the Bills smelled blood.
The Bills capitalized on the Oiler turnover by going 76 yards on 7 plays that ended Reich and Reed combined for their third touchdown pass of the game, this time from 17 yards out and the Bills led 38-35. Rich Stadium was in a frenzy as no one could believe what was happening. The Oilers were in a state of shock.
Moon got the ball back with 3:08 remaining, knowing that the Oilers needed to score or their season was over. Despite all the momentum going Buffalo’s way, Moon and company managed to drive the ball down to the Bills 9 yard line. Del Greco came on and hit a 26 yard field goal to tie the game and force overtime.
The Oilers won the toss and elected to receive. They knew this was their chance to avoid the greatest collapse in NFL history. But fate would have another cruel turn. On 3rd and 3 from their own 27, Moon’s pass was intended for Ernest Givins. But Nate Odoms was there for the interception and returned it to the 35 yard line. A face mask penalty moved the ball to the 20. Buffalo got into position for Christie to attempt a 32 yard field goal. The Bills kicker made no mistake and the greatest collapse in NFL history was complete.
The fall out after the game was swift and harsh. Oiler cornerback Chris Dishman called it the biggest choke job in history. Oiler defensive coordinator Jim Eddy was fired and replaced by Buddy Ryan. In Houston, the game is known as “The Choke.”
January 16, 1994. Kansas City 28, Houston 20.
The 1993 Houston Oilers season was filled with drama and tragedy. It started with owner Bud Adams making the proclamation if the Oilers don’t make the Super Bowl, he would break up the team. That put more pressure on a team that was already feeling heat from the fans and media after the massive meltdown in Buffalo the previous season.
The season didn’t start according to plan. The Oilers went 1-3 in their first four games and many observers began writing Houston off. Most thought that the collapse in Buffalo was still lingering over the Oilers and the hangover remained. But the Oilers turned things around.
An eleven game winning streak gave the Oilers a 12-4 record, the AFC Central title and a first round bye in the playoffs. But that winning streak was slightly deceiving. It wasn’t a smooth ride.
Before a game versus New England, offensive tackle David Williams went to be with his wife who was in labour. Williams missed the game and was subsequently fined by Adams who said the lineman had “misplaced priorities.” Adams received criticism from media, fans and even his own players which caused some dissension amongst the ranks.
After a victory over Cleveland, reserve defensive tackle Jeff Alm and his best friend were involved in a car accident. Alm’s friend died on the scene. When Alm saw his friend had perished, he committed suicide. Alm’s death shook the Oiler players and fans as he was only 25 years old.
On the last game of the season, tensions between offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan reached a boiling point. Late in the first half versus the New York Jets, Gilbride called for a passing play, even though the Oilers could have run out the clock by running the football. The Oilers were ahead 14-0 at the time. Oiler quarterback Cody Carlson was sacked and fumbled the ball which the Jets recovered. Ryan was furious with Gilbride and went over to confront him. Words were exchanged between the two then Ryan threw a punch which was caught by the ESPN cameras who were televising the game. Gilbride wanted to swing back but was held back by players. Ryan was critical of Gilbride earlier in the season as he thought that Gilbride’s run and shoot offence was responsible for injuries to some defensive players. Gilbride often elected to pass the ball instead of run when the game was out of hand thus refusing to run out the clock and force the defence back on the field. The Oilers did go on to win the game but the relationship between Gilbride and Ryan never recovered.
The Oilers were hoping to use all this turbulence and drama as motivation in their playoff matchup versus the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs won the AFC West with an 11-5 record. The Chiefs then scored a dramatic overtime victory over Pittsburgh in the Wildcard round to set up the matchup with the Oilers.
The Oilers had the advantage of being the hottest team in the NFL, winning 11 in a row. They also beat the Chiefs 30-0 at the Astrodome and the Oilers would have the home crowd behind them. But the Chiefs were set on revenge. They had legendary quarterback Joe Montana behind centre and if anyone could overcome a hostile crowd and an early season defeat, it was Joe Montana.
The Oilers got the first break of the game as Steve Jackson intercepted Montana on the opening drive. That led to a 49 yard field goal by Al Del Greco and an early 3-0 lead for the Oilers.
After a Chiefs punt, the Oilers put together an 11 play, 80 yard drive that was capped by a 2 yard touchdown run by Gary Brown to give the Oilers a 10-0 lead.
The rest of the first half was dominated by the Oiler defence. They harassed and hurried Montana with relentless pressure while containing Marcus Allen and the Chiefs ground game. Kansas City did have a chance to score late in the first half as Montana found Willie Davis open on a deep throw. But Davis dropped the ball, taking away a sure touchdown for the Chiefs. The Oilers went into the locker room with a ten point lead but everyone knew the game was far from over. Especially after what happened the previous season.
The Chiefs knew this and wanted to strike quickly in the second half. They did as Montana led them on a 7 play, 71 yard drive that was culminated by a 7 yard touchdown pass from Montana to Keith Cash. The Chiefs tight end celebrated by throwing the ball at a picture of Ryan that was hanging from the end zone stands. Suddenly, it was very nervous in Houston.
The game moved into the fourth quarter with the Oilers slender lead still in tact. They did add to the lead when Del Greco booted a 43 yard field goal for a 13-7 advantage.
The Chiefs had an answer. Aided by a 38 yard pass interference penalty on Chris Dishman, the Chiefs went 71 yards on 2 plays that was finished when Montana connected with J.J. Birden on an 11 yard touchdown pass and Houston were trailing for the first time.
The Oilers were looking to retake the lead but the football gods had more cruelty awaiting the men in Columbia Blue. Warren Moon dropped back to pass but was hit by Derrick Thomas which caused a fumble. Dan Saleaumua recovered and the Oilers were reeling.
Three plays later, Montana hooked up with Davis who redeemed himself from his earlier drop with a terrific 19 yard touchdown reception. The Oilers were in huge trouble as they saw this game and their season slip away.
The Oilers were desperate to score and Moon and company found a way to do just that. A nine play, 80 yard drive was capped when Moon found Ernest Givins with a 7 yard touchdown pass. No two point converts in the NFL at this time so the Oilers closed the gap to within one. It was up to the Buddy Ryan’s defence to make a stand. But it was the Chiefs who had the dagger.
A six play, 79 yard drive that Allen finished with a 21 yard run brought more heartbreak to Houston. The key play to set up the touchdown was a 41 yard reception by Cash who fought off linebacker Eddie Robinson on a jump ball then raced down the field.
It was a bitter end to the season and it brought numerous changes. Ryan left to take the head coaching job at Arizona. Moon was traded to Minnesota. Linebacker Wilber Marshall joined Ryan in Arizona. The Oilers were awful in 1994, going 2-14 which led to Gilbride getting fired and head coach Jack Pardee stepping down.
But the biggest change was to come. Adams was unhappy with his lease in the Astrodome and wanted a new stadium. The city refused and Adams searched elsewhere. Adams got a deal in Nashville and moved the team to Tennessee in 1997. Some have whispered that the loss to the Chiefs was the catalyst to move the team. It could very well be.