Houston Outlasts Cleveland : Wild Card Turns to Fight Card as Oilers Win, 24-23

Times Staff Writer

Like yuppies torn between alternate career choices, the Houston Oilers toyed with what was left of their hosts and pondered the options.

Did they want to show everyone how good they are, take the victory and advance deeper into the playoffs?

Or did they want to show everyone how bad they were?

And didn't last week's embarrassment here require some of the old payback with attendant woofing, too?

Oooh, they just couldn't make up their minds so, as usual, they decided to have it all. This time they succeeded, even if it took awhile, and another blown lead and a second-half rally, outlasting the Cleveland Browns, 24-23, Saturday in the American Conference wild-card game.

Of course, by the end of the game, the Browns were without their No. 1 and 2 quarterbacks, and their 1-2 cornerbacks, too, but ask the Oilers if they cared.

"Full credit to the players," drawled Houston Coach Jerry Glanville. "We were really down last week. Just about everybody colored us dead. When that happens, we usually get up off the floor.

"Well, I think maybe they can quit writing that we can't win on the road, we can't win in bad weather, we can't win in Cleveland, we can't do this, we can't do that."

Only heaven, or Oiler owner K.S. (Bud) Adams Jr., knows what might have happened to Glanville if he'd lost this game, after blowing a 23-7 lead here last week, and losing at home to the Pittsburgh Steelers 2 weeks before that, sentencing his team--6-19 on the road in his stewardship--to play all their playoff games away.

Let's just say that Jackie Sherrill rumors were being heard again, but Glanville's players bailed him out, in typical style.

Try four unsportsmanlike-conduct penalties.

Try three face masks, two for 15 yards each.

There was one Cleveland drive for a field goal that went this way: 21 yards gained on runs; 20 on penalties.

"Were there a lot of fights?" Glanville asked, innocently.

About one a play, for a stretch in the second quarter.

"This is the AFC Central," Glanville said. "This is how teams play each other. Full credit to the AFC Central. This division's pretty tough."

Yessiree, and the pepper in the stew is the Oilers' desire to inherit the Raiders' bad-boy image. But when they let Don Strock throw for 326 yards in last week's rally, they were obliged to return Saturday, with the possibility of facing Bernie Kosar, too.

But Kosar's sprained knee kept swelling and the Browns scratched him.

Then Strock went down with a wrist injury on the first play of the second period.

And one play after that, Allen Pinkett skirted right end for 16 yards and a 14-3 Houston lead.

The Oilers had just turned the tide around. The Browns were down to Mike Pagel, who hadn't taken a snap in 11 weeks, so this was the time to just play smart, right?

Wrong.

This was the time for war.

That broke out on the next Brown possession, when the rough 'n' ready Oiler defensive unit came out smoking. Highlights included a stretch in which there was at least one major penalty in four straight plays, and one melee in which Brown tackle Cody Riesen had to be restrained by two teammates.

"You stand around the pile and you get a helmet in your back and you'd get mad, too," Pagel said.

And the Browns got a sustained drive and a field goal out of it. Voila , the tide turned again. The Browns wound up trailing only 14-9 at the half, and quarterback Warren Moon had a late interception in the end zone.

And wouldn't you know it? Late in the third quarter, Moon had his third interception when nickel back Mark Harper got it and returned it to the Houston 22--after which Alonzo Highsmith grabbed him by that old face mask again, and the ball was at the Oiler 11.

Moments later, on third and 13, Oiler cornerback Patrick Allen took Webster Slaughter off the line, saw Slaughter cut over the middle and turned him over to the next man in the zone. . . .

Nobody.

Unguarded in the end zone, Slaughter took Pagel's pass and it was 16-14, Browns.

This couldn't happen again, could it?

And if it did, would Sherrill be at the airport in Houston to greet the team's plane?

Sit down, Jackie. This time Moon put together a lightning-bolt, 76-yard response:

A 14-yard completion to tight end Jamie Williams, who is rarely used as a receiver.

An 18-yarder to Drew Hill.

Pinkett for 3 yards.

Pinkett on a draw for 27.

And, four plays later, rookie Lorenzo White picking his way through a mass of prone Browns who'd been laid out by his formidable offensive line, for the last yard and a 21-16 lead.

Then the Oilers shut the Browns down a couple of times, got the ball back and launched a late clock-eating drive that took up 4:35 and reached the Browns 31.

With 2:00 left, Glanville let Tony Zendejas try a 49-yard field goal off the "painted dirt," Glanville's description of the field.

Zendejas hit it for a 24-16 lead.

The Browns got a closing touchdown against the Oiler prevent defense, Pagel hitting Slaughter with a 2-yard scoring pass with 35 seconds left.

Then came the onside-kick series:

Matt Bahr's first one was batted out of bounds by an Oiler. Referee Jerry Seeman's crew said that was illegal and ordered another kick.

Bahr's second kick bounced straight out of bounds. This was ruled illegal too--and the Browns got to kick again?

You bet your zebras.

So Bahr bounced a third kick--and the Browns recovered this one.

Oops, can't forget the man in the replay booth. Upstairs, George Sladky stared into his monitor, ruled that the Browns had touched the ball before it went 10 yards--and it was the Oilers' ball.

Ballgame.

The Oilers ran off the field, yelling a few parting sentiments to the crowd:

"Merry Christmas!"

"Dog Pound my butt!"

"Come down the locker room and say that!"

Glanville, who has been outspoken about everything he doesn't like locally, was later asked about the fans.

"Cleveland and Pittsburgh have the best fans in football," he said, straight-faced. "They really know how to boo and we're a team that loves to be booed."

The Browns took it like pros.

"I like 'em," cornerback Hanford Dixon said. "I've always liked 'em.

"If you noticed, it was a physical game out there. It wasn't anyone backing down to anyone. That's just the way it is between us and them. We're in the same division. (Grinning) I think we're just tired of playing each other. We were getting on each others' nerves."

So, now they're rooting for their old rival to go all the way?

"We're out of it," said nose tackle Bob Golic, with a weary expression. "What happens happens. I could care less."

Playoff Notes

The game's best controversy involved Warren Moon's third-quarter throw that Allen Pinkett dropped at his 5-yard line. It was first ruled an incomplete forward pass, then reversed by the replay official, who called it a lateral, meaning it was a fumble--but one of the officials said the Browns couldn't recover because the whistle had sounded. In fact, Brown linebacker Clay Matthews picked up the ball and carried it into the end zone when it was ruled to be Houston's ball at the 5. It didn't fundamentally affect the outcome, because the Browns then forced a turnover--the Mark Harper interception--and scored the go-ahead touchdown. . . . Said Brown Coach Marty Schottenheimer of the ruling that was called an unrecoverable fumble: "That's exactly the way that rule is written. It's unfortunate for us, but that's the way it's written." Schottenheimer said he remains a strong advocate of instant replay. . . . Oiler halfback Mike Rozier, earning $350,000 annually, vowed last week to leave if he's not given a raise ("I made the Pro Bowl twice and now they're shafting me."), was in for only one play because of bruised ribs. Pinkett, who played in his place, gained 82 yards in 14 carries.

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