Wake-Up Call

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September 25, 2000
Wake-Up Call
by Ric Sweeney

Cincinnati Bengalsat Cincinnati (September 23, 1979)
Site: Riverfront Stadium
Records: Oilers (2-1); Bengals (0-3)
Attendence: 45,615

The 1979 Oilers needed desperately to right their ship. Though 2-1, they had been wildly inconsistent and mostly unimpressive in their first three games, creating doubt among the many who had deemed them Super Bowl contenders at the season’s outset. Houston figured to cure whatever ailed them in week four, visiting the winless and hapless Cincinnati Bengals. But Cincinnati, never the gracious host, had other ideas.

Led by rookie QB Jack Thompson (making his first NFL start), the Bengals would build a 24-point first-half lead in front of 45,615 faithful, thanks in large part to Dan Pastorini. Cincinnati intercepted two of Pastorini’s first 10 passes while the other eight fell incomplete, stranding Houston’s offense in the starting gate. The first pick led to a 1-yard plunge by Pete Johnson. The Bengal fullback would later add a second 1-yard score with 8:28 remaining in the second quarter, putting the Bengals ahead, 21-0. In between, Charles Alexander scored on a 2-yard dive.

Three plays after Rich Ellender fumbled away the kickoff following Johnson’s second score, Chris Bahr kicked a 52-yard FG to put the Bengals comfortably ahead 24-0 with 6:09 left in the first half. If the Oilers were going to turn the game around and, in effect, their season, they would have to mount the biggest comeback in franchise history.  

After Bahr’s field goal, Ellender made up for his fumble with a 26-yard kickoff return and just like that, the rally to end all rallies began en masse. Five plays later, Pastorini found Ken Burrough on a 35-yard strike, cutting the deficit to 17. Toni Fritsch hit a 43-yard field goal with :04 left on the first half clock, moving Houston ever so closer, 24-10. The Oilers could sense the momentum shifting. It wouldn’t take long for them to seize it completely. 

Nathan Poole fumbled the second half kickoff and Carter Hartwig alertly pounced on the loose football for Houston, setting the Oilers up at the Bengals’ 27-yard line. Three plays later, Earl Campbell swept around left end for an 8-yard touchdown and the Oilers were within seven, 24-17.

After the Oilers’ defense stopped Cincinnati again, Houston was in position to tie the score. Pastorini successfully completed a 32-yard pass to Mike Barber on third and 9 and found Rich Caster for the 22-yard tying score. Fritsch’s 47-yard FG six minutes later put Houston in front, 27-24. As the third quarter closed, the Oilers had successfully wiped out Cincinnati’s 24-point lead in less than a quarter and a half. They’d spend the rest of the afternoon trying to give it back to the Bengals.

Bum Phillips, who had turned Pastorini loose when trailing, turned ultra-conservative in the fourth quarter, stalling Houston’s offense and killing their momentum. The teams traded punts throughout the remainder of regulation until Cincinnati, with under four minutes to play, finally broke through.

After a clip wiped out Vincent Lusby’s 40-yard punt return, Cincinnati began their final drive of regulation at their own 40-yard line. The Oilers’ defense held strong but Cincinnati was able to advance the ball 23 yards, setting Bahr up with a 55-yard field goal attempt. With 3:26 remaining, he nailed the tying kick and sent the game into overtime, 27-27.

After winning the overtime toss, the Oilers’ first offensive series went nowhere, forcing another Clif Parsley punt. The Bengals responded by driving to Houston’s 14-yard line, setting up an easy 32-yard game-winner for Bahr. The Oilers, understandably, feared the worst for it was Bahr who had dented Houston’s 1977 playoff hopes with an overtime game-winner in the very same building. Nothing short of divine intervention could prevent the inevitable. "I just stayed on the bench and prayed," Caster said. "I didn’t want to watch it." Thus, Caster didn’t see Bahr miss the chip shot, giving Houston a second chance. 

After each team was forced to punt, the Oilers began their final drive at the Bengal 42. Campbell managed just 9 yards on their first three plays, setting up a critical fourth and one. With the clock winding down and facing the prospect of a 50-yard field goal, Phillips elected to go for it and Campbell, not surprisingly, got the call. The Tyler Rose burst around left end and rambled 15 yards to the Bengals’ 18. Two plays later on third down, Phillips ran Campbell again. But this time, Campbell coughed up the football after a ferocious hit from Mike White. With just :32 remaining in overtime, the Bengals had seemingly, at the very least, preserved the tie. 

But Cincinnati was flagged for being offsides, negating the play and giving Houston its third reprieve. Phillips took no more chances, sending Fritsch onto the field to attempt the 29-yard game-winner. But even that wasn’t easy as the Austrian’s kick clipped the left upright before falling through, ending Cincinnati’s upset bid. The Oilers’ 24-point comeback is the fourth largest in NFL history among regular season games.

The 1979 Oilers settled in after their historic victory, winning seven of their next nine games while regaining some of the Super Bowl luster they had lost in the season’s first three weeks. On the afternoon, Campbell rang up his third consecutive 100-yard day, netting 158 on a then-Oiler record 34 carries. The gutty Pastorini, playing with a shoulder so badly bruised he had missed week three, completed 13 of his final 23 passes for 198 yards.

GAME STATS Oilers Bengals First Downs 25 11 Rushing Yards 152 27 Passing Yards 279 268 Passes 19/37 15/34 Interceptions 0 1 Punts 8/33.3 11/33.2 Fumbles lost 3 1 Penalty Yards 42 44

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Week 4 Toni Fritsch Toni Fritsch sneaks one past the upright for the OT win. Final Score Houston Oilers 30 Cincinnati Bengals 27 Game Notes

The Oilers’ overtime victory was the first in franchise history. Including the postseason, Houston was an unremarkable 8-15 in overtime games, though 2-0 in 1979.

Houston would later beat Cincinnati in week 12, marking the first time since 1974 that the Oilers had swept the season series from Cincinnati. The Oilers sacked QB Jack Thompson seven times for 81 yards worth of losses. The most sacks ever recorded by a Houston defense was 9, done twice in franchise history. The last time came October 31, 1971 against the Bengals. The Dream Season Week Opponent Result 01 @ Oakland 37-22 02 @ Cleveland 16-7 03 NY Jets 26-20 04 @ Cincinnati 30-27 05 Denver 42-14 06 @ New England 28-14 07 @ Buffalo 28-16 08 @ Pittsburgh 24-17 09 Washington 41-17 10 NY Titans 49-13 11 @ New England 26-23 12 Miami 35-30 13 @ Dallas 30-24 14 Pittsburgh 31-6 15 @ San Francisco 10-7 16 @ Baltimore 24-21 17 Bye Week N/A 18 @ Cleveland 24-23 19 @ San Diego 17-14 20 LA Chargers 24-16  RETURN TO THE DREAM SEASON