1987 Houston Oilers: A New Playoff Era Starts

The 1980s hadn’t been kind to the Houston Oilers. After a three-year stretch from 1978-80 where they made the playoffs each year and reached two AFC Championship Games, the Oilers fell hard. They hired a colorful new coach in Jerry Glanville for the 1986 season and the result was a 5-11 season. But Glanville and the 1987 Houston Oilers got back into the postseason and started a new era of success for the city of Houston.

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Warren Moon was at quarterback and while he could be erratic—a 50% completion rate that was 24th in the league, and mistake-prone—18 interceptions—he also made big plays. Moon generated 7.6 yards-per-attempt, eighth-best in the NFL. He threw 21 touchdown passes and he orchestrated an attack that was geared to getting the football to the receivers.

The wideouts were a good 1-2 punch of Earnest Givins and Drew Hill. Givins caught 53 balls and his 17.6 yards-per-catch was 12th in the league. Hill had 49 catches and his 20.2 yards a pop was in the top five among receivers.

Nor were the Oilers one-dimensional. Running back Mike Rozier produced 957 yards, fourth-best in the league and the offensive line was anchored by two elite guards. Mike Munchak was 1st-team All-Pro and Bruce Mathews, at age 26, was a future Hall of Famer.

It was enough for Houston’s offense to rank 10th in the NFL in points scored. They carried a defense that had a couple notable players with inside linebacker Al Smith and Pro Bowl strong safety Keith Bostic, but otherwise finished 19th in the league in points allowed.

If the Oilers were striving to be a playoff team then the Los Angeles Rams were a good team to open up with—the Rams had reached the postseason each of the previous four years. Moon threw an early Pick-6 and Houston fell behind 13-zip, but the quarterback turned it around. He threw a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown passes, including a 59-yard strike to Givins. Though Moon only completed 21/43 passes, he got 310 yards from those completions and led a 20-16 win.

Moon and the offense had it in gear again in Buffalo a week later, but the Bills had a rising star of their own at quarterback. Even though Houston had leads of 17-6 in the second quarter and 30-20 in the fourth quarter, they eventually succumbed to Jim Kelly and lost 34-30.

Tensions between the NFL Players Association and the owners boiled over after two weeks and the players went out on strike. All Week 3 games were canceled and the owners brought in replacement players. Over the next three weeks, while the labor issues were worked out, the replacements would be on the field.

It proved to be opportune for Houston. Their games on October 4 and 11 were on the road at Denver and Cleveland respectively. Those just happened to be the best two teams in the AFC, both in 1986 and again this year. The Oilers took advantage of the break and won both road games.

Brent Pease was the stand-in quarterback and the University of Montana product went to Denver and delivered a 15/25 for 260 yard performance. The featured running back was Andrew Jackson, who had a mediocre college career at Iowa State, but one glorious day, was a star in the NFL. Jackson ran for 99 yards and the Oilers beat the Broncos 40-10.

The game in Cleveland was more of a defensive battle and Houston was aided by the fact that regular defensive end Charles Martin crossed the picket line and played. Martin recorded two sacks. The running back in this game was Herman Hunter and he rushed for 121 yards in a 15-10 win.

Pease’s tenure as an NFL starter ended the following week at home against New England. He went 21/49 for 250 yards, but threw two interceptions. With more veterans crossing the line, the Patriots had Doug Flutie at quarterback though and the Oilers lost 21-7. Pease had still impressed the coaching staff enough to stay with Houston as a backup for another year, and he had put the regulars in good position when they came back on October 25.

The Oilers hosted the lowly Atlanta Falcons and pounded the ball on the ground, with Rozier gaining 144 yards. They also forced five turnovers. It should have been an easy win, but poor special teams work, especially on kickoff coverage, kept giving the Falcons favorable field position. Houston had to hang on for a 37-33 win.

Special teams worked in Houston’s favor the following week in Cincinnati. Curtis Duncan got consistently good returns, but it looked like it would go for naught when the Oilers were getting shredded by Boomer Esiason and trailed 29-14 in the fourth quarter. Moon turned it around with a rally for 17 unanswered points and a 31-29 win.

Houston traveled to San Francisco, where the 49ers were on their way to the best regular season record in the league. Moon threw three interceptions, the running game didn’t work and the Oilers lost 27-20. They turned it around with a big 23-3 win in Pittsburgh. The game was tied 3-3 at the half when Moon took over. He threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Duncan and a 42-yarder to Hill in the third quarter. Moon finished 16/22 for 239 yards and no interceptions.

After the three-week stretch of road games Houston had a record of 6-3 and were poised to not only make the playoffs, but maybe win a division title and get a high seed. Then the defense completely came apart over the next two weeks.

The Oilers hosted the Browns in a big AFC Central game (a division that included the Steelers & Bengals) and gave up 200 rushing yards while turning it over six times. The final was 40-7. Houston then went to Indianapolis, an eventual playoff team themselves. They again gave up over 200 yards on the ground and turned it over five times. The final in this one was 51-27. The 91 points allowed in two weeks was bad enough—the fact the Oilers trailed at halftime in these games by a combined scored of 44-10 just made it worse.

The AFC playoff race was jam-packed. Houston’s 6-5 record had them a game back of Cleveland in the Central, and they were one of four teams, including division rival Pittsburgh, that were a game out of a wild-card spot.

A home game with San Diego, one of the teams Houston was chasing, was a must-win. Oiler linebacker Robert Lyles made a big play early with a 55-yard fumble return for a touchdown. Johnny Meads got two sacks and the rush defense finally tightened up, holding the Chargers to 43 yards on the ground. Houston got out to a 20-0 lead by the second quarter and coasted home to a 33-18 win.

The Browns had lost, so the AFC Central was a three-way tie and the Oilers were also now in a tie in the wild-card race. Houston had a tough road game up at New Orleans, a team that would finish with the second-best regular record in the NFL. The Oilers fell behind 14-0 and lost 24-10. The Browns & Steelers both won. The Seahawks and Chargers were each 8-5 and in control of the two wild-card spots. Houston, along with Buffalo and Miami, were giving chase at 7-6 with two weeks to go.

Pittsburgh came to the old Astrodome an Houston’s rush defense was again exposed, giving up 176 yards. But they got turnovers, five overall, including two interceptions from free safety Jeff Donaldson. Moon was able to get the ball downfield, especially to Hill, who caught four balls for over 100 yards. A 24-16 win kept the Oilers alive.

Houston was now ahead of Pittsburgh by virtue of their head-to-head sweep. San Diego also lost and slipped to 8-6. With a head-to-head win there, the Oilers were ahead of the Chargers. Houston’s conference record was better than Miami’s, and Buffalo had lost to fall to 7-7.

That’s the long way of saying the Oilers controlled their fate when the Bengals came to Houston for the final game of the season. There was still a chance at the division title, but with Cleveland beating Pittsburgh on Saturday, Houston knew that chance was gone when they took the field against Cincinnati for the finale.

The Bengals were going through a miserable year and came in with a record of 4-10. But this was a still a team with talent, as they would demonstrate one year later when they reached the Super Bowl. And they played with pride in Houston.

The difference was that the Oilers finally got control of the ground game. Rozier ran for 103 yards. Alonzo Highsmith, a rookie who had been the third overall draft pick in the spring, added 61. Moon made big plays, with his 14/25 day producing 280 yards. Hill caught six of those passes for 109 yards. With a 21-17 win, Houston was going to the playoffs for the first time in eight years.

The news would get even better—when Seattle was blown out by Kansas City it moved the Oilers up to the 4-seed and gave them homefield for the wild-card game with the Seahawks.

Houston took the opening kickoff and moved the ball into Seattle territory to start the game when Moon threw an interception. It was returned just past midfield and the Seahawks drove a short field for a 7-0 lead. Moon came back and led another drive, this time getting a field goal out of it.

Rozier and Highsmith were a balanced 1-2 punch in this game, combining for 140 rush yards. Rozier took it in from a yard out to give the Oilers a 10-7 lead. The teams traded field goals and it went to halftime at 13-10.

Seattle was playing without its best running back, Curt Warner, and the Houston defense completely shut down a good #2-back in John Williams. They ultimately won the rushing battle 178-29. After the Seahawks got a third-quarter field goal to tie it, Moon led a drive that ended with a 29-yard touchdown pass to Willie Dewey.

Ahead 20-13, Houston controlled the fourth quarter, but failures in the kicking game kept it close. Tony Zendejas missed one field goal from 52 yards. That was understandable enough, but a miss from 29 yards late in the game gave Seattle new life. And the Oiler defense allowed an 80-yard drive in the final 1:47 that tied it 20-20 and sent the game to overtime.

It would have been a nightmare loss for a franchise that would, in later years suffer their share of heartbreaks (notably 1989 to the Steelers, 1991 to the Broncos and the unthinkable collapse in 1992 to the Bills). But Houston gave Zendejas another chance in OT and the kicker hit from 42 yards to secure the 23-20 win. Moon finished 21/32 for 273 yards, with most of those yards going to Givins and Hill who combined to catch thirteen balls.

The Oilers got a crack at defending AFC champion Denver in the divisional playoffs. Houston was a ten-point underdog and the game went awry from the beginning. They fumbled on their own one-yard line gave the Broncos a quick touchdown. It was 24-3 by halftime and ended 34-10.

It was still a breakthrough year for Houston and the good news was that this started a string of seven straight playoff seasons. The bad news? They never got further than the divisional round. This was both the start of an era and tied for its high point.