Third Time’s A Charm

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December 4, 2000
Third Time’s A Charm
by Ric Sweeney

vs. Pittsburgh December 8, 1991
Site: The Astrodome
Records: Steelers (5-8); Oilers (9-4)
Attendance: 59,225

It wasn’t the most exciting game in team history and it wasn’t played on a national stage in front of millions of people. The Oilers mounted no monumental comebacks nor did any individual player achieve a personal milestone or set a league record. But Houston’s decisive week 14 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers still remains one of the biggest wins in franchise history.

The 31-6 final allowed Houston, for the first time ever, to walk off the field as outright AFC Central Division champions, breaking a string of 21 years as the division’s perennial bridesmaid and ending a two week struggle that saw the Oilers blow chances to win the crown. And could the Oilers have picked a better team to finally breakthrough against than the team probably most responsible for their second class citizenry?

Twice the Steelers beat Houston with a Super Bowl berth on the line, once in 1978 and again in 1979. Pittsburgh had also knocked Houston out of the playoffs (and ended the Jerry Glanville era) in 1989 with an overtime victory in the Astrodome. And just two weeks previously, the Steelers had denied Houston their first chance to clinch the division, upsetting the Oilers in Three Rivers Stadium, 26-14. 

This time, however, Houston would not be denied. Over a decade after Bum Phillips had promised to do it, the Oilers finally kicked the door in.

Not surprisingly, the door remained locked early when Allen Pinkett fumbled on the Steelers’ seven-yard line, ending Houston’s first drive of the game. Pinkett would make up for the mistake and score the game’s first touchdown late in the quarter on a 7-yard run, capping a 7-play, 54-yard drive. Pinkett’s score was all the defense would need.

Led by Ray Childress, who had perhaps his best game as a pro, the Oilers harassed QB Neil O’Donnell, forcing four turnovers and registering seven sacks. Childress recorded two of those sacks, with Sean Jones adding two of his own. William Fuller chipped in with 1.5. Childress also finished with seven unassisted tackles and forced one of Pittsburgh’s four fumbles. As did Bo Orlando, who thwarted Pittsburgh’s one and only legitimate drive of the half when he cracked WR Louis Lipps at the Oilers’ seven yard line and recovered the loose fumble. But defense wasn’t the problem nor had it been. 

The Oilers’ offense was in a major funk and still licking its wounds from the beating Buddy Ryan and the Philadelphia Eagles had delivered six days earlier in a brutal Monday Night Football game that saw the Oilers’ second chance to wrap up the division fall short. 

Much of the blame for the recent ineptness fell upon Moon, who had thrown five interceptions in the previous Steeler game and managed just six points against the Eagles. The woes continued as the Oilers were unable to capitalize on Orlando’s turnover. An intentional grounding call on Moon ended the drive and brought out the boos and perhaps a bit more.

The offense did manage to score again before the half, when another drive inside the Steelers’ 10 ended without a touchdown. Al Del Greco nailed a 24-yard field goal to increase Houston’s lead, 10-0. But with just over a minute to go in the half, O’Donnell was able to get Pittsburgh in field goal range and Gary Anderson hit a 54-yarder as time expired to bring the Steelers within a touchdown, 10-3.

Orlando again came up big early in the second half, intercepting O’Donnell at the Oilers’ 6-yard line. With the crowd growing restless and the season on the line, the Oilers mounted one of the biggest drives in franchise history.

Pinkett helped with a 32-yard burst, bettering on that one run the Oilers’ previous two game’s rushing totals. Moon did the rest, hitting on all four passes, the last a 16-yard fade to Haywood Jeffires in the back of the end zone. The malaise had been lifted, 17-3. 

But before the celebration could commence, the Oilers’ defense had to stop the Steelers one last time.

Again, O’Donnell drove the Steelers deep into Oiler territory, landing at the two-yard line. But Childress sacked O’Donnell for a nine-yard loss on third down and the Steelers had to settle for only three. Anderson kicked his second field goal, a 36-yarder, and Houston had forced the Steelers into needing two touchdowns against a fired-up defense, 17-6. With the champagne on ice, it was time for Moon to ice the Steelers.

Starting at their own 14, Moon hit Drew Hill for 20 yards and was then helped out by a 24-yard pass interference call on Carnell Lake. Pinkett ended the seven play, 86-yard drive with an 11-yard run, increasing Houston’s lead, 24-6. But even with the Oilers now in complete control of the game, the division crown was still not theirs.

To claim the title outright, Houston still needed the Cleveland Browns to lose their game with Denver, which they did, 17-7. The Pardee was officially on.

Jack Pardee received two Gatorade showers on the day and LB Lamar Lathon ended the game with a bang, killing another Steeler drive with a crushing sack that jarred the ball loose. Al Smith scooped it up and rumbled 70 yards for the game’s final score, 31-6.

Fans cheered, players hugged and owner Bud Adams wiped tears from his eyes. Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, the year the AFC Central was born, Cincinnati had claimed five division titles; Cleveland six; Pittsburgh nine; Houston zero. In that time, the Oilers finished second place seven times.

“I’ve played here seven years,” said Childress, “and this is my happiest moment.”

Mike Munchak, Bruce Mathews and Warren Moon no doubt shared Childress’ sentiment. Together, they endured some of the lowest moments in franchise history and played on some of its worst teams. Collectively, or individually, they had been witness to an 18-game losing streak, a 23-game road losing streak and eight last place finishes.

But for Moon, the victory may have been bittersweet. With frustration among the fans mounting, the Oilers’ quarterback had to weather one of the most difficult periods of his career, complete with accusations of cocaine use, having the AIDS virus and marital woes. It was capped by racial slurs being flung at wife Felicia and their young son at the conclusion of the Philadelphia game. In a career too often marked by disappointment and underachievement, it was a shame to see one of Moon’s better moments dirtied by hatred and blame.

He would rebound, leading Houston past the Jets in the AFC Wildcard game before putting together one of his finest games as an Oiler, only to watch John Elway end Houston’s Super Bowl hopes with an improbable last second drive in Denver to steal the AFC Divisional playoff game.

The Oilers would win the division once more in 1993 before moving to Tennessee and again, they’d beat the Steelers to do it, just days after losing teammate Jeff Alm to a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

But there’s never anything quite like the first time and for once, the Warren Moon-era Oilers held their heads high and left the field champions.

GAME STATS Steelers Oilers First Downs 14 23 Rushing Yards 85 117 Passing Yards 147 223 Passes 16/30 24/38 Turnovers 4 2 Punts 6/44 4/47 Penalty Yards 62 40

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Week 14 Ray Childress and the Oilers were at last champions. Final Score Houston Oilers 31 Pittsburgh Steelers 6 Game Notes

While it was Houston’s first Central division title, it was not their first division title. The Oilers won four AFL Eastern Division championships, the last one in 1967. The Oilers tied for the Central division championship (but lost on tie-breakers) in 1980 and 1990.

Warren Moon’s 254 passing yards gave him 4,204 for the year, at the time, joining Dan Marino as the only quarterback to post back-to-back 4,000-yard seasons. Ray Childress, who had arguably his best game as a pro, was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Week for his efforts against the Steelers. 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