Saturday History Special! The Steelers vs. Oilers Playoff Games

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A.F.C. Wild Card Game

December 31, 1989

Upset at The Astrodome

Steelers 26 – Oilers 23 O.T.

You couldn’t have started a season in any worse of fashion than the 1989 Steelers.  After a 51-0 drubbing at home against the Cleveland Browns, the Steelers lost 41-10 at Riverfront Stadium to the defending A.F.C. Champion Cincinnati Bengals.  Things could not have looked more bleak for the 0-2 Steelers in 1989, but there was just no quit in that team.  What that bunch lacked in talent (and believe me I’ve seen some of the games on tape and from what my Mom and other Steeler fans told me they didn’t have a whole hell of a lot going for them), they made up for in toughness.  The 1989 Steelers were the antithesis of a flashy Offensive juggernaut and finished the seasons ranked last in the N.F.L. in the statistical categories of: Total Yards, Passing Attempts, Passing Yards, Passing Touchdowns.  But week after week they gave it their all, and somehow found ways to win games.  By the time Week 17 had ended, the Steelers had finished 9-7 despite having a -61 1989 Total Point differential for the season, and they had miraculously managed to snag the 5th and final playoff spot thanks to some lucky tie-breaker scenarios.

The Steelers took their show on the road for a New Years Eve Wild Card matchup at the Astrodome against the Houston Oilers coached by ultra-epic-megatron-douche Jerry Glanville.  Pittsbugh was 0-2 against Houston that season (Pittsburgh was 1-5 against the A.F.C. Central in 1989), and the Oilers were looking to exact some playoff revenge against a franchise that had thwarted their best shots at the Super Bowl in 1978 and 1979.  What made this game even more special is that Jerry Glanville and Chuck Noll were not what you would call “besties” (especially after Noll had some heated words for Jerry at the end of a 1987 game at The Astrodome), and this game was a microchasm of the bitter and intense rivalries that existed between all of the A.F.C. Central teams from the mid to late 1980’s.  So on New Years Eve, Pittsburgh entered the “House of Pain” to play Glanville’s boisterous bunch of cheap-shot artists and looked to pull off a monumental playoff upset.

The Steelers were helped early on by a big Special Teams play.  Early in the 1st Quarter, Houston’s Greg Montgomery had a punt blocked, and the Steelers recovered the ball deep in Oiler territory.  Steeler QB Bubby Brister took advantage and Rookie RB Tim Worley (who was the Steelers leading rusher that year) pounded the ball in from 9 yards out to give the Steelers a surprising 7-0 lead!  The Oilers didn’t stay on the canvass for long, and two quick Tony Zendejas Field Goals later, and Houston was down 7-6 in the 2nd Quarter.  The Steelers however delivered a counter-punch of their own late in the 2nd Quarter when Gary Anderson made a 25 yard Field Goal.  The Half Time score stood at 10-6 in favor of the Steelers and the underdogs had held tough through 30 minutes of play.

The 3rd Quarter saw the Offenses move the ball some, but both teams could only trade Field Goals and the score stood at 13-9 Steelers.  This lackluster 3rd Quarter was in a way a kind of cool because it prepared audiences for the most exciting final quarters of play ever witnessed in what appeared to be a boring playoff game to many outside of both teams’ fanbases.  The Steelers and Brister kept riding on the strength of the running game led by FB Merril Hoge and Worley, and after an Oilers punt, tacked another 3 points onto their lead.  Props must go to Gary Anderson who was money all day long and his Field Goal from 48 yards that put the Steelers up 16-9 gave them some much needed breathing room.  Nevertheless, the Steelers’ lead would evaporate rather quickly when Houston’s quick strike Offense led by Pro Bowler and Future Hall of Famer Warren Moon got into top gear.

Moon gave the Oilers to two Touchdown drives in a matter of minutes, and both of which ended with TD passes to Ernest Givins.  Suddenly with just over 5 minutes to play, Houston was in the lead 23-16.  It finally looked like the “Little Team That Could,” might run out of steam and their roller coaster of a season would come to an end.  Yet the heart of that ’89 team just took over and a steady diet of Worley and Hoge coupled with some solid Brister decision making tied the game up.  The Steelers final drive showed their unyielding will to win despite their short comings that everybody thought would slow them down.  The drive finally culminated on a 2 yard TD plunge by Hoge with less than a minute to play and the game appeared to be headed into Overtime.  But in one of the most ridiculous plays in playoff history, Houston almost choked it away in regulation.  Luckily for the Oilers, they staved off a push by the Steelers on Defense and Greg Lloyd almost took a ball back for a TD in the waning seconds, but he was denied short of the Goal Line.  So on to Over Time the game went.

After a 3 and out on their opening drive in O.T., and a shanked punt by Harry Newsome gave Houston the ball back with cake field position, the Steelers were in need of a big play.  Well, they got it, and it came from their Future Hall of Fame DB Rod Woodson.  On their first play from scrimmage in O.T. Moon handed the ball to RB Lorenzo White who was tackled and stripped by Woodson, and Rod promptly recovered the fumble!  You could probably still rank that effort by Woodson as one of the best plays in Steeler playoff history.

When the Steelers took over, they eventually moved the ball as far as the Houston 33 before sending out the Field Goal Unit for the win.  Gary Anderson trotted out to attempt a 50 yard Field Goal and do the impossible for this over-achieving cast of characters: Win a playoff game on the road!  Anderson with ice-water in his veins drilled the kick and the Steelers won the game 26-23!

Jerry Glanville was soon fired after his supposedly unstoppable team lost to an “inferior” opponent in their precious dome, and Houston began a string of seasons where they completely and utterly crapped the bed in playoff games.  The Steelers lost 24-23 the next week in a heart-breaker at Mile High Stadium to the Broncos and were oh so close to pulling off another storybook upset.  This would be the last of Noll’s teams to make the playoffs, and by the end of the 1991 season he ended up calling it quits.  The 1989 team holds a special place in every over 30 Steeler fan’s heart that I know and that I’ve talked to.  It was truly the one last stand for Noll, and an almost miraculous season pulled off by a team that was dead in the water at 0-2 and was constantly written off by its detractors.  Many pundits still consider the 1989 Steelers as being arguably the worst playoff team in the history of the League.  Yet this special group of guys poured everything into a season when most teams and player would have simply mailed it in, and got within 2 steps of the Super Bowl.  That in my opinion at least counts for something.  I just wish some of the guys on this 2011 team would take a page from these guys’ playbook and step up their game.

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