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Old 01-02-2011, 09:41 AM   #1
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Default All locked up? Remembering the Steelers' 1990 tumble in Houston

All locked up? Remembering the Steelers' 1990 tumble in Houston
Sunday, January 02, 2011
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Al Fuchs/Post-Gazette

On that awful night in 1990, Rod Woodson and the Steelers were brought to their knees by the Oilers' potent passing game.

One game cannot erase the memory of past disappointments, especially when there were so many. One shining moment in a regular-season finale is not enough to make a franchise forget a number of crushing moments against a team that thwarted its chance at greatness.

But, for all those years they couldn't kick down the door, for all those times the road to the Super Bowl always ended in Pittsburgh, for all those "Luv Ya Blue" placards and "Bum's Ropes" that never seemed to conjure the same magic against their division rival, the Houston Oilers finally managed to exact some measure of satisfaction from the Steelers.

In the regular-season finale in 1990, with the first-place Steelers (9-6) needing only a victory in the Astrodome to clinch the AFC Central title, the second-place Oilers (8-7) crafted a resounding, 34-14 victory that gave them the division championship and kept the Steelers from the playoffs. And they did it with a backup quarterback named Cody Carlson, who replaced injured Warren Moon and threw three touchdown passes.

"That was a huge win for our organization because of all the losses in the 'Luv Ya Blue' days," said former Oilers guard Mike Munchak. "When I got to Houston, that's all I heard about, the big losses in the championship games when Houston had to go through Pittsburgh to get to the Super Bowl. The Oilers were good back then, but, unfortunately, the Steelers were always a little better.

"That was the first chance we had to turn the tables on the Steelers."
History lesson

Twenty years later, that game in Houston looms as something more than a historical footnote for the Steelers.

Two decades later, the Steelers want to make sure history doesn't find its way to Cleveland Browns Stadium.

The loss to the Oilers is the only time since Chuck Noll became head coach in 1969 that the Steelers failed to protect a division lead so late in the season. Since then, they have put a Bruno Sammartino-like headlock on the division title every time they have vaulted into the lead late in the season -- 10 times in all, including twice under Mike Tomlin (2007, '08).

The Steelers (11-4) have a chance to do it again at 1 p.m. today when they play the Browns (5-10). They have a chance to close out a division title that has been in their grasp since a 13-10 victory in Baltimore four weeks ago, and they can do it against a team that has lost five of its past seven games.

Unlike 1990, a loss would not knock the Steelers from the playoffs. But it would cost them a first-round playoff bye and the No. 2 seed if the Ravens (11-4) also beat the Cincinnati Bengals. Instead of waiting two weeks to host a divisional playoff game at Heinz Field, the Steelers would go on the road next week as a wild-card team.

And that would be a colossal disappointment, almost on the scale of what happened 20 years ago in the Astrodome.

"It's amazing however many years it's been since the old AFC Central with Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh," said former Oilers guard/center Bruce Matthews, who played in more games (296) than any positional player in NFL history at the time of his retirement. "We hated those teams. I don't think the Browns players need much motivation to play the Steelers. The fact that what's on the line, they'll enjoy it that much more."

The Oilers had plenty on the line, too, when they faced the Steelers in the final game of the 1990 regular season. They already had lost to the Steelers in Week 2 at Three Rivers Stadium, 20-9, and nearly a year earlier had been stunned by the Steelers in overtime in a wild-card playoff game at the Astrodome -- a game in which Rod Woodson stripped the ball from running back Lorenzo White to set up Gary Anderson's winning field goal.

"One of the greatest wins I've been a part of," former Steelers tackle Tunch Ilkin said.

But that was a year earlier.

Entering the 1990 game, the Oilers were 8-7 and tied with the Bengals for second place in the AFC Central, a game behind the Steelers, who had won three in a row to improve to 9-6. In those three victories, the Steelers had allowed just nine points.

The Oilers would be playing without Moon, who was injured a week earlier against the Bengals. Moon led the NFL in passing yards (4,689) and touchdowns (33) that season despite missing the final game.

His replacement was Carlson, who was known as "Commander Cody" and was something of a folk hero in Houston because of his penchant for rescuing the Oilers. The game was at night and was nationally televised, adding to the drama.

"A lot of people didn't expect what happened," Munchak said.

Indeed, it started off on the wrong foot for the Steelers when running back Tim Worley fumbled at his own 38-yard line on the first play from scrimmage. The Oilers scored on three of their first four possessions to take a 21-0 lead.

When Anderson missed a 52-yard field goal near the end of the first half, the Oilers converted that into a 47-yard field goal by Teddy Garcia with 10 seconds remaining for a 24-0 halftime lead.

"That was one of those games we couldn't do anything right that day," Ilkin said.

"I just remember it as one of those magical games where we were rolling," Matthews said. "It became apparent early on it was going to be our night."

Carlson finished 22 of 29 for 247 yards and three touchdowns. The Oilers also rushed for 195 yards on 33 attempts -- 90 by White. The 34 points were the most allowed by the Steelers that season.

The victory gave the Oilers the division title, even though they tied the Steelers and Bengals with a 9-7 record. Because the Steelers lost twice to Cincinnati during the regular season, the Bengals gained the wild-card playoff spot.

"We ran the ball very well, which is another rarity against the Steelers," said Munchak, an offensive line coach with the Tennessee Titans. "We were playing the run-and-shoot and we spread the field on them. I can remember how good that felt."
No lead is safe

The moment remains one of the beacons in Oilers history, a game that meant more than just a playoff-clinching victory.

But it remains one of the few black marks in Steelers lore since 1969, a reminder that even a team that plays like Tiger Woods with a late lead can occasionally squander an advantage.

It happened only once, but the Steelers hope it doesn't happen again in Cleveland.

"We hated the Steelers," Matthews said. "It was a distinct pleasure to not just win first place, but the added significance that we got in by winning that game, by beating the Steelers."

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11002...#ixzz19tQQ2oiV
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