Brown Christmas

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January 1, 2001
Brown Christmas
by Ric Sweeney

at Cleveland
December 24, 1988
Site: Cleveland Stadium
Records: Oilers (10-6); Browns (10-6)
Attendance: 74,997

The Houston Oilers were unaccustomed to doing things the easy way. To wit, since merging with the NFL in 1970, 11 of Houston’s 15 playoff games had been played on the road. And Houston hadn’t triumphed in one since the dawn of the 1980’s.

So who could have guessed that the NFL’s road worriers would break their streak in Cleveland Stadium, where they hadn’t won a non-strike game since 1981? Certainly not the 74,997 Brown fans crammed into the Mistake by the Lake, who just six days earlier watched Houston blow a 23-7 third quarter lead to their beloved Browns in a game played for the rights to host the AFC Wildcard.

In that game, the Browns turned not to starter Bernie Kosar, who was out with a sprained knee, nor to his back-up, Mike Pagel, who was still recovering from a separated shoulder, but 38-year old Don Strock, who would also start but soon leave the playoff game, believe it or not, due to arthritic pain in his right wrist.

Despite the adversity, the overwhelming odds and the cold winds of Lake Erie, the Oilers snapped their losing streak in Cleveland, snapped their road playoff losing streak, and won for the final time away from home during the postseason, 24-23, in one of the strangest games in NFL playoff history.

The Browns picked up Wright where they left out the previous week when Felix Wright intercepted Warren Moon on the Oilers’ first series. They moved the ball 16 yards to Houston’s 16 before settling for a 33-yard field goal from Matt Bahr. The Oilers quickly answered, marching 91 yards on 17 plays, running nearly 10 minutes off the clock in the process.

Moon hit on 7 of 8 passes on the drive, the final one a touchdown to Allen Pinkett, who was subbing for the injured Mike Rozier. Pinkett’s scamper gave Houston an early 7-3 second quarter lead. The Oilers would add to it moments later.

Strock fumbled a snap on the Brown’s ensuing series and DT Richard Byrd pounced on the loose football at the Browns’ 16. On the play, Strock’s arthritis flared and he would not be able to return. Hospice nurses treated the veteran while Pagel, who hadn’t played in 11 weeks, bravely entered the game. And would do so down 11.

On the first play after the turnover, Pinkett dashed and darted 16 yards for his second touchdown, and within the first minute of the second quarter, Houston had scored twice, 14-3.

The Oilers looked for an early knockout punch when, on their next series, the Browns faced a first-and-25 from their own 10. But Brian Brennan caught a 26-yard strike from Pagel and Cleveland marched to the Oilers’ 4 before Pagel overthrew Webster Slaughter in the end zone, necessitating a second Bahr field goal, 14-6. As quickly as the momentum had shifted in Houston’s favor, it was now back within the Browns’ reach.

Moon was stuffed on a third down blitz and P Greg Montgomery’s 37-yard shank, coupled with Gerald McNeil’s 14-yard return, set Cleveland up again in Oiler territory. But once again, they could not find the end zone, settling instead for a 28-yard field goal pulling the Browns within five, 14-9, with 3:19 left in the half.

Again given the chance to put the Browns out of their misery, the Oilers took the half’s final drive to the Cleveland 12 before facing a tough third-and-10. Moon, who had been near flawless since the early interception, looked for Ernest Givins in the back of the end zone. But Givins didn’t cut across the middle as planned and Moon’s errant pass was picked off by Wright, keeping the Browns within striking distance.

The Browns continued to pound on the door early in the second half. In the third quarter, they reached the Oilers’ 40 before back-to-back 15-yard penalties on Ernest Byner killed the drive. Later, they moved to Houston’s 33 before stalling.

After Cleveland’s punt, the Oilers took over and controversy erupted. On second-and-12, Moon tried to hit Pinkett on a screen pass that fell incomplete at the Oilers’ 4. Browns’ LB Clay Mathews alertly picked up the football and ran to the end zone. Matthews (and his coaches and teammates) argued that Pinkett was behind the line of scrimmage, making the pass a lateral and, thus, a fumble. Replay officials concurred and ruled the ball a fumble, but line judge Ray Dodez had blown the play dead. 

Amazingly, officials upheld the fumble ruling but because Dodez had blown the whistle when the ball hit the ground, gave Houston the ball back. The deafening boos were silenced three plays later when Moon, perhaps still confused by the officials’ bizarre ruling, threw his third interception, this one by Mark Harper who returned the pick 17 yards. Alonzo Highsmith’s face-masking penalty tacked on 11 more yards and, in some cosmic kismet, set Cleveland up at the Oilers’ 11-yard line. 

The Browns finally hit pay dirt on third down when Pagel found Slaughter in the back of the end zone to give Cleveland it’s first lead since early in the first quarter, 16-14, with :36 left in the third quarter. Memories of Houston’s collapse days earlier began dancing in the minds of fretful Oiler fans, as the game’s momentum had finally shifted completely to Cleveland’s side of the field.

Surprisingly, as the rain fell and the field began to freeze over, against the back drop of an out-of-control crowd, the Oilers did what no one thought was possible.

They answered.

Moon directed Houston on a 76-yard drive, hitting TE Jamie Williams for 14 and WR Drew Hill for 18 yards before Lorenzo White scored from a yard out. With 12:25 remaining, the Oilers were back in front, 21-16.

The teams spent the remainder of the game exchanging punts until the Oilers moved 35 yards to the Browns’ 31. At the two minute warning, Houston faced a third-and-nine. Jerry Glanville called on Pinkett, who gained just a yard, setting up a dangerous field goal in less than ideal conditions. But K Tony Zendejas nailed the 49-yard field goal with 1:54 remaining to seemingly ice the game, 24-16. Of course, this being the Oilers, the only icing going on was of the meteorological variety. Pagel, bad shoulder and all, marched Cleveland 71 yards before finding Slaughter for his second touchdown, a 2-yard pass with :31 left in the game. Houston’s lead was one, 24-23.

Then things got really interesting.

The Browns attempted an onside kick which S Jeff Donaldson batted out of bounds, drawing a 10-yard penalty and giving Cleveland another chance. Bahr’s second attempt sailed out of bounds untouched, moving Cleveland back five yards. 

On his third and final attempt, Bahr got it right. But the rest of the Browns’ special teams did not. A Cleveland player touched Bahr’s kick before it traveled 10 yards, giving Houston the ball automatically and allowing them to run out the final seconds of the game.

Houston’s victory earned them a trip to Buffalo where they lost a winnable game, 17-10. At the time, many felt the victory in Cleveland, coupled with the near-miss in Buffalo, signaled the near completion of Houston’s football renaissance. After winning their first playoff game in eight years the previous season, Houston proved they could go into a hostile environment, fight the elements and win on the road. Sadly, the Oilers would go 1-5 in their next six playoff games, never realizing their enormous potential. 

It was the last great win of the Glanville era, too, as things fell apart the following season before ending in an overtime, wildcard loss to the Steelers. Ironically, the team that always seemed to do things the hard way, that seemed perpetually to be on the road come playoff time, lost that game at home.

So much for the easy way.

GAME STATS Oilers Browns First Downs 19 19 Rushing Yards 129 68 Passing Yards 205 192 Passes 16/26 19/28 Turnovers 3 2 Punts 3/38 3/35 Penalty Yards 118 75

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Week 18 Game photo caption. Final Score Houston Oilers 24 Cleveland Browns 23 Game Notes

In their meeting six days earlier, the Oilers rushed for 37 yards on 23 carries, averaging a paltry 1.6 yards per rush. In their victory, Houston gained 129 yards on 35 carries and scored two touchdowns.

Houston’s victory against Cleveland was their only such win against an AFC Central opponent in postseason play. They were 1-4 overall, losing once to Cincinnati and three times to the Steelers. Oiler coach Jerry Glanville, who thrived on controversy (most of it self-generated), received a death threat prior to the game and coached with a bulletproof vest on under his black outerwear and two armed guards by his side at all times. 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