The city of Houston saw good football in the seven-year stretch from 1987-93. The Oilers made the playoffs each season. There were also some tough playoff losses, like the endings to 1989 and 1991. But the 1992 Houston Oilers edition took the cake, getting into the postseason with real prospects of reaching a Super Bowl…and then suffering one of the most devastating playoff losses of all time.
Houston was in its third year under head coach Jack Pardee, who had kept the playoff train rolling after Jerry Glanville was at the helm the first three years of the run. The thread of consistency was the presence of Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon.
In 1992, Moon would miss five games with injuries and be limited in three others. But he still finished third in the NFL in completion percentage, eighth in yards-per-attempt and his 18-12 TD/INT ratio was above average for this era. It was another Pro Bowl year for Moon.
Moon was at the helm of an offense called the “run and shoot”, the forerunner of today’s spread. The field was spread with speedy receivers in Haywood Jeffires, Curtis Duncan and Ernest Givins. All three made the Pro Bowl, averaging in the neighborhood of 10-12 yards-per-catch.
And the Oilers weren’t all about the passing game. The offensive line had two future Hall of Fame inductees in center Bruce Matthews and guard Mike Munchak (who later coached this organization after it relocated to Tennessee and became the Titans). They paved the way for Lorenzo White to clear 1,200 yards and finish fifth in the NFL in rushing.
It was enough to finish sixth in the league in points scored and the defense wasn’t far behind, ranking ninth. The key was a veteran defensive front, where the best players were all 30-years-old. Sean Jones and William Fuller each had eight sacks off the opposite edges. Defensive tackle Ray Childress had 13 sacks and was 1st-team All-NFL. Middle linebacker Al Smith was another 1st-team All-NFL player and corner Jerry Gray picked off six passes in 1992.
The season opened in Pittsburgh where the Steelers were beginning a new era under first-year coach Bill Cowher. The Steelers were also a divisional rival, sharing the old AFC Central with the Oilers, Bengals and Browns.
Pittsburgh was coming off a bad year in ‘91 and had few expectations for this year. When Houston linebacker Johnny Meads returned a fumble for a touchdown and helped build a 14-0 lead, it looked par for the course. But the Oilers bogged down. Moon was intercepted five times. A 24-16 lead in the fourth quarter disappeared and Houston lost 29-24.
They went on to Indianapolis, another team coming off a forgettable 1991 campaign. Moon made amends for Week 1. He threw a 69-yard touchdown pass to White to get the scoring going and finished the day 29/39 for 360 yards and no interceptions. The Oilers won 20-10 in a game they were in command of throughout.
That set up a good early showdown at home with the Kansas City Chiefs, another team of this era that consistently made the playoffs and consistently lost. Houston was beaten in the trenches, losing rush yardage 187-77 and they trailed 13-6 in the fourth quarter. But Moon threw a couple fourth-quarter TD passes, the game ended up in overtime and the Oilers ultimately won 23-20.
The defense stood up in a home date with winless San Diego, intercepting three passes and holding the Chargers to 52 rush yards in an easy 27-0 win. On the surface, it appeared the Oilers had played an easy September schedule, with Pittsburgh, Indy and San Diego all coming off bad years. But it turned out the Steelers and Chargers—along with the Chiefs—would make the playoffs in 1992. And the Colts got close, going 9-7. In retrospect, a 3-1 start against this slate wasn’t too bad.
After a bye week, Moon came out in Cincinnati and threw three TD passes to Jeffires, two more to Givins, while White ran for 149 yards in an easy 38-24 win. Two weeks later the Bengals paid the return visit to Houston. Moon went 27/40 for 342 yards, with Givins and Duncan combining for 17 catches and 184 yards. The final of that game was 26-10.
In between these routs of Cincinnati, Houston went to Denver, site of their playoff misery the year before. Moon played well and went 23/39 for 321 yards, with Duncan catching five of the passes for 133 yards. But the Oilers kept getting penalties—thirteen in all—and they couldn’t stop the run, allowing 170 yards on the ground to a team that would struggle all year to run the football. Appropriately, it was a 20-yard rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter that beat Houston 27-21.
The Oilers were still 5-2 and primed for a visit from Pittsburgh that would open November and shape the divisional race for the rest of the season. Just like in the season opener, Houston got a defensive touchdown, this one when Childress brought a fumble to the house. Just like in the season opener, the Oilers had a comfortable lead in the fourth quarter, this time 20-7. And just like in the season opener, Houston lost the game. This time it was 21-20.
Making matters worse was that Moon had suffered a concussion and had to be replaced by Cody Carlson. Moon was start the next two games, but recurring symptoms meant that Carlson would continue to get a significant amount of playing time in each game.
Perhaps then it’s not surprising that Moon played poorly against the Cleveland Browns, making improvement in their second year under Bill Belichick. The Oilers fell behind 17-0 and lost 24-14. The offense continued to struggle in Minnesota, losing three fumbles. But Houston played well defensively and got a 17-13 win against another eventual playoff team.
But now Moon had suffered a broken arm. It was his non-throwing left arm, so it wasn’t complete disaster. But there was no doubt that Carlson was the man who would have to push the Oilers over the finish line and into the playoffs. He had experience doing this, stepping in for an injured Moon to lead Houston to past Pittsburgh in a win-or-go-home season finale in 1990. But now the backup would have to lead the way for six weeks.
It didn’t start well in Miami. Carlson played respectably, but the Dolphins were bound for the playoffs and got the Oilers in overtime, 19-16. Houston was 6-5 and their Thanksgiving Day visit to Detroit had must-win overtones.
The run defense stepped up and contained the great Lion running back Barry Sanders. Carlson was brilliant, going 24/33 for 338 yards. The 24-21 win kept the Oiler season alive. They went on to host the collapsing Chicago Bears on Monday Night and used a 175-99 edge in rush yardage to get an easy 24-7 win.
But a third consecutive nationally televised game with an NFC Central foe—this one at home on Sunday Night against the Green Bay Packers and first-year starter Brett Favre—didn’t go as well. Carlson was terrific, going 25/36 for 330 yards and outplayed the young Favre. But Houston did not run the ball, Carlson threw a couple interceptions, and the Oilers lost 16-14.
The loss ended their hopes of winning the AFC Central. Houston was 8-6 and two games back of Pittsburgh with two to play, with the Steelers holding the head-to-head tiebreaker. At this time the NFL format had three divisions per conference and the playoffs were filled out with three wild-cards.
You could realistically book the Buffalo-Miami runner-up in the AFC East for one of those. Kansas City and San Diego were both 9-5 and tied in the AFC West, meaning the runner-up likely took the second wild-card. That left Houston at 8-6 , with fading Denver, improving Cleveland and surprising Indianapolis at 7-7 all racing for the third and final wild-card spot.
Houston would play Cleveland in the Dawg Pound on December 20. The Saturday prior to that saw the Oilers get some surprising help. The Chiefs lost to the mediocre New York Giants. To make a long story short, the tiebreaker situation—wins over KC and Indianapolis—meant that Houston would be in the playoffs if they could beat the Browns.
That didn’t come easily, as they trailed 14-3 in the fourth quarter. Carlson would deliver a great moment in a backup career that has a surprising number of them. He threw a couple fourth quarter TD passes, got the 17-14 win and put the Oilers into the postseason.
From Houston’s perspective, the steam for their Sunday Night home finale against Buffalo was reduced. The Bills were playing to win the AFC East. But the Oilers still brought it. They knocked Jim Kelly out of the game and got seven sacks—three from Lee Williams and two more by Childress—in an easy 27-3 win.
The win meant that Houston got the 5-seed, while Kansas City settled for the 6-spot. But that also meant the Oilers had to rematch with the Bills a week later on the road. If nothing else, Moon was back while Kelly was still out of commission for the start of the postseason.
And Houston came out on the early Sunday afternoon of wild-card weekend and picked up where they left off. Moon, who finished the day 36/50 for 371 yards and four touchdowns, led the way to a 28-3 lead at halftime. When Bubba McDowell picked off Buffalo backup Frank Reich and went 58 yards to the house, it was 35-3 in the third quarter and the game seemed all but over by any reasonable—or even unreasonable measure.
A Houston fan couldn’t be blamed if they started thinking big picture. The AFC bracket was extremely balanced in 1992, with everyone finishing 11-5 or 10-6. Closing out this game would send Houston on to Pittsburgh. The Steelers were a young team and there was every reason for the Oilers to believe the third time would be the charm.
A win there and the Dolphins or Chargers would await in the AFC Championship Game. The Oilers had to believe they could beat San Diego and Miami (the team that ultimately advanced) had barely survived Houston without Moon in November.
In short, the path to the Super Bowl was wide open. Then Frank Reich happened.
Maybe Houston should have been forewarned. As a college quarterback at Maryland, Reich had authored the greatest comeback in college football history in a 1984 win over Miami. Now he was about to do the same at the professional level.
The Oiler defense collapsed rapidly, as the Buffalo ripped off five straight touchdown drives—the last four ending on relatively long TD passes from Reich on a typically cold day in this part of the country. The collapse came so fast, that it was Moon who had to author one more drive of his own, racing the Oilers down for a field goal that tied the game 38-38 and sent it to overtime.
But you only have to ask the 2016 Atlanta Falcons how stories like this end in overtime. There was no way Buffalo was losing this game now. The Bills got a field goal and the Oiler season ended in misery—again.
Houston had one more run left in them and their 1993 team was very good. But the path to the Super Bowl may never have been wider than those brief moments early in the second half at Buffalo at the end of the 1992 season.