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December 18, 2000
by Ric Sweeney

at Baltimore December 22, 1996
Site: Memorial Stadium
Records: Oilers (7-8); Ravens (4-11)
Attendance: 52,704

Because the Oilers had lost two straight entering their season finale with Baltimore, they would once again, for the third consecutive year, be home for the playoffs. But unlike years past, home this time around was a relative term.

When the Oilers met the Ravens in week 16, they did more than close the 1996 season. They ended an era.

Thirty-seven years and 548 games after Bud Adams successfully brought professional football to Houston, Texas; the team was packing its belongings and moving to the greener pastures of Tennessee. But not before giving it’s new home a glimpse into the future and its soon-to-be old home a glimpse of what might have been. 

Focused as they had been all year by Jeff Fisher, who kept the team clicking despite having no real home and even less fan support, the Oilers pounded the Ravens, controlling the ball and the game while coming up with one big play after another when they needed it the most.

QB Steve McNair, making just his sixth NFL start, showed flashes of the calm leader he would one day become, throwing for 238 yards on 19 of 24 passes. He would throw one touchdown, rush for another, and scramble four other times for first down yardage. More importantly, he would not turn the ball over. RB Eddie George would rack up 85 yards on 21 carries, bringing his rookie total to 1,368, the most by an Oiler back since Earl Campbell’s 1,376 in 1981. Meanwhile, the defense would bend but refuse to break, stopping Pro Bowler Vinny Testaverde with crucial interceptions and opportunistic sacks.

All would become staples of the current Tennessee juggernaut.

George’s 40-yard run on the Oilers’ first series set up his and the game’s first touchdown, a 1-yard plunge. The Ravens quickly answered when Testaverde hit Michael Jackson, who had gotten behind CB Darryl Lewis, for 86 yards. 

Facing a third-and-10 on their next drive, McNair picked up a bobbled snap and dumped a short pass over the middle to FB Ronnie Harmon, who broke into the open field and galloped 43 yards. Al Del Greco ended the drive with 37-yard field goal, giving Houston the lead, 10-7, at the end of the first quarter.

The two teams spent most of the second quarter exchanging punts until the Ravens threatened to take their first lead. Camped at the Oilers’ 25, Testaverde looked for Floyd Turner at the goal line but S Marcus Robertson came across the field to make a leaping interception before falling into the end zone. The pick not only preserved the lead but allowed Houston to build on it. 

With 1:52 to go in the half, the Oilers stretched their lead to 10 when McNair found Willie Davis at the back of the end zone for his only passing touchdown of the day. Davis made a beautiful fingertip grab on the 19-yard toss and Houston ended their last-ever first half ahead, 17-7.

More punting greeted the arrival of the third quarter until S Blaine Bishop intercepted a deep Testaverde pass at the Oilers’ 10. McNair then led Houston downfield, completing six passes for 56 yards. But it would be his legs, not his arm, that drew final blood.

Facing a third-and-10 from the Baltimore 24, McNair dropped back but was unable to find an open receiver. He was, however, able to find a wide-open space in the middle of the field and the young quarterback sprinted 24 yards for the score, pushing Houston’s lead to 24-7 with 1:19 remaining in the quarter. It would be Houston’s final touchdown.

The Ravens were unable to score again until late in the game. Testaverde found Jackson in the back of the end zone for an 8-yard strike and found him again when the Oilers were unable to run out the clock, this time for 4 yards with just 13 seconds remaining to bring the Ravens within 3, 24-21. 

Houston recovered Baltimore’s onside kick and left the field a final time victorious.

The Oilers in 1996 started fast and were 5-3 at midseason. But a devastating late loss in Seattle, coupled with a late season loss to eventual wildcard representative Jacksonville, sunk the team’s chances of securing a playoff berth in their Houston swan song. Not that anyone would have noticed. Houston’s final three home games drew a combined 55,434, a meager 18,478 a game, as fans turned their back on the lame-duck team and, more specifically, on owner Bud Adams.

Which is not to say the Oilers didn’t have one last hurrah. In a key week 8 match-up with Pittsburgh (visiting Houston for the final time), 50,337 turned out and turned back the clock, cheering rambunctiously as the Oilers downed the eventual AFC champions, 23-13.

And with that, the Houston Oilers were no longer, ending a ride that was never smooth but always, somehow, enjoyable. The Oilers took fans to the brink of football heaven but also, far too often, to its deepest depths of despair. If they weren’t the league’s most frustrating team, they were certainly its most disappointing. They never played in a Super Bowl and finished their tenure in Houston with a 9-13 postseason record, including three consecutive losses in their final three playoff games.

As the Titans, of course, the franchise would eventually realize its dream in 1999, reaching the Super Bowl after a team-best 13-3 regular season. Oiler fans were split, some electing to treat Tennessee as their own, others disavowing all knowledge of Team Bud. Regardless, the Titans’ Super Bowl appearance, just three years after leaving Houston, had to be a bitter pill for most to swallow. The city never received a say in the Oilers’ fate — no stadium referendum was ever placed on the ballot. Instead, the Oilers were lost in a bitter dispute between Adams and then-mayor Bob Lanier, when decisions became personal and actions irreversible.

The Houston Texans will begin with a clean slate, having lost all of the Oilers’ records and accomplishments to Tennessee. But even with those memories elsewhere, the Oilers will never be forgotten. Even against the backdrop of crushing disappointment, the Oilers set a remarkably high standard for Bob McNair and company.

GAME STATS Oilers Ravens First Downs 18 20 Rushing Yards 117 120 Passing Yards 234 257 Passes 18/38 14/28 Turnovers 0 2 Punts 4/39 3/49 Penalty Yards 55 64

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Week 16 Steve McNair moved the Oilers through the air and on the ground. Final Score Houston Oilers 24 Baltimore Ravens 21 Game Notes

The Oilers finished 6-2 on the road in 1996, their best mark ever away from home. Their previous best was 5-3, accomplished last in 1993.

By not allowing a rushing touchdown to Baltimore, the Oilers finished the year yielding just five rushing touchdowns, setting a franchise record. The previous low was six in 1992. The Oilers only intercepted 12 passes in 1996, down from an AFC-high 21 in 1995. But five of those 12 picks came in the two games against Pro Bowler Vinny Testaverde. 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