1991 Houston Oilers: More Wins & More Heartbreak

The Houston Oilers were on a nice run from 1987-90 of producing good football teams, but losing in the playoffs. The 1991 Houston Oilers took it to the next level—no, they didn’t break through and get to a Super Bowl. In this case the next level means even better regular seasons, finally winning division titles…and even tougher postseason defeats.

Houston had gone the wild-card route to the playoffs in the old AFC Central (including Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Cleveland) in each of the previous four years. Jerry Glanville coached the first three of those teams and Jack Pardee was in his second year at the helm in 1991. Whomever was the head coach mattered less than the fact Warren Moon was at quarterback.

The future Hall of Famer was still playing solid football at age 35. His 62% completion rate and 7.2 yards-per-attempt were each top ten among quarterbacks. The interceptions were high, but 21 picks was manageable by the standards of 1991 if you also made big plays—and Moon did, throwing 23 touchdown passes.

He had a good corps of receivers, with Haywood Jeffires and Drew Hill each clearing the 1,000-yard mark and Ernest Givins nearing that threshold with 990 receiving yards. The offensive line was led by two more future Hall of Famers, center Bruce Matthews and guard Mike Munchak. They led the way for a running game that was decent, if underused, with Alan Pinkett and Lorenzo White each getting better than four yards a pop.

Houston’s offense ranked fourth in the league in scoring and got the media attention, but the defense wasn’t far behind. A tough front four keyed the sixth-best unit in the NFL. William Fuller and Sean Jones combined for 25 sacks coming off opposite edges. Ray Childress had seven sacks at defensive tackle. Fuller and Childress were both Pro Bowlers and were joined by middle linebacker Al Smith. The secondary had great players in Cris Dishman, one of the game’s top corners and safeties Bubba McDowell and Bo Orlando, each of whom intercepted four passes.

The fan base was hungry for a Super Bowl breakthrough and it was easy to understand why. The necessary pieces were in place. Houston just had to put it together with enough consistency to first win a division title and get decent playoff seeding, and then finally do some damage in January.

A high-profile home game with the Los Angeles Raiders, who had reached the AFC Championship Game in 1990 and would go back to the playoffs in 1991, started the season. For a national audience in the late Sunday afternoon TV window, Houston came out firing. They forced four turnovers and shut down the Raider ground game, while Pinkett rumbled for 144 yards and Givins caught six balls for 90 yards. The result was a 47-17 demolition.

Sunday Night Football in Cincinnati was next and the rivalry with the Bengals was particularly heated at this time, after some bad blood the previous year and the Oilers ultimately losing in the playoffs at Cincy. They took a small measure of revenge here. Pinkett ran for 100-plus again, Moon was 22/37 for 315 yards and Houston pulled away in the fourth quarter for a 30-7 win.

The challenging early schedule continued with a third straight playoff team from 1990, this time the Kansas City Chiefs. And the Oiler defense continued to deliver. They shut down a solid KC running game, held them to 93 passing yards and Moon needed only to play mistake-free football to deliver a 17-7 win.

After these three wins, perhaps a letdown in Foxboro was inevitable. The Patriots of this era were a bottom-feeder, but Houston’s running game was non-existent and they allowed a late touchdown pass that sent them to a 24-20 loss. The Oilers went into their bye week at 3-1.

John Elway’s Denver Broncos came to the Astrodome to start October and the Houston defense met him with five sacks—three from Fuller. They also scored defensive touchdowns when McDowell recovered a fumble in the end zone and Dishman brought another one to the house. The final was 42-14, although the Oilers had not seen the last of these Broncos.

A late afternoon game in the Meadowlands against the playoff-bound Jets saw the running game stumble, but Moon pick up the slack. The great quarterback threw the ball 50 times, completed 35 and generated 423 yards. Jeffires was the prime target, with 13 catches for 186 yards. Houston pulled out a 23-20 win against another team that would see further on down the line. The road trip continued with a visit to Miami and their own great quarterback, Dan Marino. Both Moon and Marino were under steady pressure and it was a sloppy game, with nine combined turnovers. The Oilers survived, 17-13.

Cincinnati was going through a down year and their return trip to Houston meant boom times for the Oilers. Moon got the ball rolling with touchdown passes to Jeffires, Hill and Givins and they never stopped rolling, en route to a 35-3 blowout. Houston was soaring at 7-1 and running neck-and-neck with Buffalo for the top seed in the AFC.

Two tough games with playoff-bound teams from the NFC East were on deck and the toughest was a trip to Washington. The Redskins would ultimately win their third Super Bowl in the last ten years and this was their best unit yet. They were undefeated coming into this November 3 game. Houston forced four turnovers and in a 13-13 game were in position to win it with a 33-yard field goal attempt. Ian Howfield missed. The Oilers lost in overtime. Howfield was cut two days later.

Dallas was a rising force under third-year coach Jimmy Johnson coming into the Astrodome and for the second straight week, Houston went overtime. The Oilers gave up an early special teams touchdown, but made up for it by shutting down Emmitt Smith on the ground. Moon threw for 452 yards, spreading the ball out so exquisitely that no one receiver exceeded 100 yards. This OT period was kinder to the Oilers and they won it 26-23.

A Sunday Night home date with Cleveland was next. The Browns were just starting a rebuilding project under novice first-year head coach Bill Belichick. Houston did not play well, committing four turnovers and the running game continued to be a non-factor. Moon continued to be the biggest factor though—he went 31/44 for 399 yards, this time hooking up with Hill eleven times. It was the difference in the 28-24 win.

With everything in their grasp, Houston suddenly got careless with the football. Moon threw five interceptions in a 26-14 road loss to a bad Pittsburgh team. The Oilers lost five fumbles the next Monday Night at home in a 13-6 loss to a good Philadelphia team. The back-to-back losses realistically removed the Oilers from the race with the Bills for the #1 playoff seed. But they were still tied with AFC West-leading Denver for the #2 seed and first-round bye, and held the tiebreaker thanks to the decisive October beatdown of the Broncos.

Everyone got back on track when the Steelers made their return visit to the Astrodome. Pinkett ran for 98 yards, Hill caught eight passes for 97 yards and the 31-6 rout clinched the franchise’s first division title since 1967.

Houston rematched with Cleveland on a snow-covered field in the Dawg Pound. Fuller came up with two sacks and the Oilers clung to a 17-14 lead with the Browns on the doorstep in the closing seconds. Cleveland opted to try a tying field goal rather than win or lose it on one play from the two-yard line. On the bad terrain, the kick was shanked.

Denver was keeping pace though and with both teams at 11-4, the Oilers still needed to win their season finale on the road against the New York Giants. The Giants were the defending Super Bowl champion, but in the first year after Bill Parcells’ retirement they were struggling badly under overmatched head coach Ray Handley and at 7-8 were out of the playoff picture.

Which makes the result of this early Saturday afternoon game even more difficult to understand. Houston was simply pounded on the ground, giving up nearly 200 yards. They had the ball for only 22 minutes and they lost 24-20. The Oilers had left the door open for the Broncos, who won the following day. Instead of a week off and preparing to stay at home for the divisional playoffs, Houston had to be immediately ready to bounce back.

The Jets had snuck into the playoffs at 8-8 and the Oilers were a decisive nine-point favorite in the wild-card game that would go down on late Sunday afternoon to conclude the first round of the playoffs. When Moon came out firing, leading a touchdown march on the first drive of the game, capped off with a five-yard toss to Givins, it looked like an easy day.

But Houston couldn’t protect Moon consistently, giving up four sacks. They didn’t run the ball and Moon put it up 40 times. He played well, completing 28 for 271 yards and threw a 20-yard touchdown strike to Givins in the second quarter. But the lead was only 14-10 and the offense would not see the end zone again.

Fortunately, the Oiler defense came ready. They intercepted three Ken O’Brien passes, two by McDowell and one inside their own 10-yard line. Holding on to a 17-10 lead in the fourth quarter and with the Jets on the three-yard line, the Oilers stuffed running back Freeman McNeil to preserve the lead. When the offense almost gave it back, by fumbling it away on their own 26, the D delivered one last time. Three times the Jets had the ball in the red zone in the second half. All three times Houston turned them back.

Now it was time to go to Denver. Moon again come out firing on all cylinders. In the first half, he found Jeffires, Hill and Curtis Duncan for touchdown passes. With a 21-6 lead, it looked like Houston would avoid the negative consequences of blowing the 2-seed.

But the postseason history of the Houston Oilers and John Elway couldn’t be more different and that was underscored on this day. The Oilers couldn’t salt the game away on the ground and the lead was chipped down to 24-23. Even with Elway backed up on his own two-yard line with 2:07 to play, the result seemed inevitable. Denver drove for a field goal and Houston’s season was over, 26-24.

It was still a historic year for the 1991 Houston Oilers, marked by that long-sought division title and a playoff win. But the collapse at the end—starting with the no-show performance in the regular season finale to the playoff defeat—left a bad taste.

It was the start of a pattern. Houston had another good year in 1992, but then blew a 35-3 lead at Buffalo in the playoffs. In 1993, the Oilers got the 2-seed and were playing as well as anyone in the NFL down the stretch. They lost at home to Kansas City in the divisional round. These Oilers were good and as exciting to watch as any team in football. But there was something missing in the biggest moments.