November 13, 2000
A Tale of Two Halves
by Ric Sweeney
at New England (November 12, 1978)
Site: Schaefer Stadium
Records: Oilers (6-4); Patriots (8-2)
It isn’t the biggest comeback in franchise history — just the greatest.
Down 23 points to a streaking New England Patriot team that had won seven staright, the Oilers would snatch an improbable victory from the jaws of defeat and in the process, turn a team of "good ol’ boy" overachievers into something special.
The Patriots scored the first five times they touched the ball in week 11, beginning innocently enough with two field goals from David Posey, one from 33 yards out, the other 36. On Houston’s ensuing series after Posey’s second strike, Earl Campbell, convinced a whistle had signaled the end of his run, dropped the football to the turf which the Patriots recovered at the Oilers’ 35. “I heard the whistle," Campbell would say later. “I let go of the ball.”
Fumble or not, New England took advantage. Horace Ivory scored from three yards out increasing the Patriots’ lead in the second quarter, 13-0. The Oilers would then be victimized a second time by a phantom fumble when, on the following kickoff, return man Johnnie Driden lost the football after he too was sure the play had ended. “A guy was on top of me,” said Driden. “So I said, ‘Here,’ and rolled the ball to the official.”
This post-turnover drive also began at the Houston 35 and led to Posey’s third field goal, a 17-yarder. A third fumble by Tim Wilson, this one undisputed, gave the Patriots another chance to run up the score. And with just 3:24 left in the first half, a seven-yard scramble from QB Steve Grogan did just that, putting the Patriots safely ahead, 23-0. New England needed only to unleash the league’s top rushing attack to claim victory number nine of the season. But a strange thing happened along the way.
The AFC’s hottest team went cold.
It began when Stanley Morgan fumbled a Clif Parsley punt late in the second quarter. Rob Carpenter’s 8-yard plunge pushed Houston across the goal line for the first time with just 1:21 remaining in the half, 23-7. The Patriots responded by moving into field goal range but Posey missed a 38-yarder as time expired and the Patriots stayed within the Oilers’ sights, 23-7.
On their first series after the half, however, Dan Pastorini was picked off by Steve Nelson, setting Posey up with a chance to atone for his miss. Instead, he added to his agony by shanking the 25-yard attempt.
The Patriots would again stop Houston’s offense but an illegal chuck wiped out a Parsley punt and put Houston’s offense back on the field at the New England 49. The 17-play, 80-yard drive ended on Carpenter’s second touchdown of the day, a 1-yard dive that cut New England’s lead to nine, 23-14.
After standing on the sidelines watching the Oilers chew up the clock and cut into their lead, the Patriots offense finally made it back onto the field with :12 left in the third quarter. They didn’t stay on it very long. On their first play in over 10 minutes, Grogan tried to catch Houston off-guard with a deep pass to Morgan. But Willie Alexander picked off the wobbly pass and the Oilers were back in business.
So much for New England’s knockout punch.
Houston’s offense again marched into Patriot territory but were turned away on third down and forced to try a 48-yard field goal. Bum Phillips, perhaps weary of the unpredictable swirling winds, had something else in mind. So, rather than lining Toni Fritsch up for the kick, holder Pastorini shoveled the snap forward to a streaking Carpenter who bobbed and weaved 19 yards to the Patriot 13. Five plays later, Campbell fell into the end zone from a yard out and the Oilers would need only Fritsch’s PAT to pull within 2 with 9:03 remaining in the game. But Carl Mauck’s snap bounced on the Astroturf and Pastorini failed to get control of the ball in time. The miff kept Houston a field goal back, 23-20.
New England followed by driving into Oiler territory, but once there, were rebuked three times by Houston’s defense. Facing a fourth-and-2 at the Oiler 42, New England elected to go for it. That was their first mistake. Their second mistake was not taking advantage of the big, bruising offensive line that had paved the way to 101 first-half rushing yards. The third and final mistake was made by Grogan, who rolled to his right, found All-Pro tight end Russ Francis wide open and then… hesitated. The hitch allowed the Oilers’ defense to adjust and Mike Reinfeldt was able to move in front of Grogan’s pass and bat the ball down, killing the drive and giving Houston’s offense the chance to take the lead.
And the Oilers did just that.
Pastorini hit Mike Barber on a crucial third-and-10 to keep the drive alive, then found Ken Burrough for 26 more. But the drive stalled at the Patriots’ 12. The Oilers elected to go for it on fourth-and-inches instead of trying for a game-tying field goal. With under three minutes left to play, if Phillips’ gamble backfired, the Oilers would probably not see the ball again and their comeback would come up short.
Not surprisingly, Campbell got the call and dove 2 yards for the drive-saving first down. On the next play, Pastorini hit Rich Caster falling down in the end zone for the go ahead score with 2:39 remaining. But the Oilers botched the PAT again and left the door open for the Patriots, 26-23. But Grogan’s desperation bomb downfield was intercepted by J.C. Wilson, ending New England’s threat and securing one of the franchise’s biggest wins.
The game, following on the heels of Houston’s stunning upset of Pittsburgh three weeks earlier, seemed to signal a turning point in Houston’s season. Pastorini established himself as the team’s gutty leader after his superlative 12 of 19 for 149 yards performance in the second half. And Campbell, who rushed for 74 yards on 24 carries against the AFC’s top run defense, emerged as the team’s go-to-guy, never more evident than the following week when Campbell and the Oilers hosted the Miami Dolphins on Monday Night Football.
The defense also came of age. After New England torched the unit in the first half, the team turned it around after the break, holding New England to just two first downs and seven yards passing. The NFL’s top rushing attack would total only 43 second-half yards, despite leading 23-7 at the half.
The two teams would meet again in 1978, this time in the AFC Divisional Playoffs. And just as the Patriots had done, Houston built a seemingly insurmountable lead late in the second quarter, scoring three touchdowns to lead at the half, 21-0. But unlike the Patriots, the Oilers would hold the lead and cruise into the AFC Championship Game, 31-14.
The Patriot comeback also sent notice to the NFL: the Oilers were for real. More importantly, it brought the Oilers closer together as a team. This rag-tag group of outcasts and misfits had genuine talent and heart to spare and the New England game proved they could beat anybody, anywhere, if they played smart, tough football, just as Bum preached.
It was the beginning of an all-out Luv affair with the city of Houston as the fans also began to take notice of just how good this team really was. It would all come together magnificently the following week, the night the nation witnessed the birth of a phenomenon.
"We made believers of a lot of people today," said Curley Culp after the game.
Including, no doubt, themselves.
GAME STATS Oilers Patriots First Downs 24 16 Rushing Yards 128 144 Passing Yards 194 130 Passes 15/28 9/18 Interceptions 4 4 Punts 3/35 0 Penalty Yards 35 10
Week 11 Dan Pastorini threw the game-winner with less than 3:00 remaining. Final Score Houston Oilers 26 New England Pats 23 Game Notes
For his efforts in the comeback victory, Dan Pastorini was named the AFC’s Offensive Player of the Week.
With their stellar performance (holding the Patriots to 274 total yards, more than 100 below their season average), the Oilers’ defense jumped from fourth to first in the AFC rankings, the first time a Houston defensive unit was ranked so high. The Patriots had won 16 of their last 20 games in Schaefer Stadium before losing to the Oilers. They would not lose again at home until the divisional playoffs, again beaten by the Oilers. 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