As a sequel to Fahey's excellent recount of 2002, there is another playoff game that should also be remembered between these two franchises. Thirteen years before the Oscar in Music City, on the last day of the 1980s decade, it was the Steelers who came out on top of an overtime thriller with a field goal against the Houston Oilers, predecessors to the Tennessee Titans.
Many have said that 1989 was Chuck Noll's finest year in coaching. With very little talent, the Steelers opened the 1989 campaign by getting obliterated by the Cleveland Browns, 51-0, at three Rivers Stadium no less. The next game they lost to the Bengals, 42-10. Two games into the season, Pittsburgh had been outscored 93-10.
Enter Emperor Chaz. After the Bengals' game Noll spoke to the team and explained the inner workings of a swimming pool. He talked about how the chemicals all worked together to perform different tasks in harmony. He then compared that swimming pool to the human mind and all the chemical reactions involved. The players were indeed intrigued, but clueless as to how this had anything to do with a season that was down 93-10. Noll was not concerned about the psyche of his team; he was concerned about the media contaminating that psyche. He was concerned that the players would let external harpoons invade the minds of the players. He told them such. The moral of the story, he concluded, was "Don't you dare let anyone piss in your pool."
Vintage Noll. This rag-tag bunch of underdogs won nine of their next 14 games, including a revenge win at Cleveland. The Steelers sneaked into the playoffs and were dispatched to Houston to play the explosive Oilers led by Warren Moon. The Oilers, for those who might remember, had mastered the spread offense and had a potent passing attack. The Steelers were a seven-point underdog.
Pittsburgh's Jerry Olsavsky blocked an Oilers' punt early in the game and soon after rookie Tim Worley's nine-yard jaunt gave the Steelers a quick 7-0 lead. Noll, along with defensive coordinator Dave Brazil and defensive backs coach John Fox (whose Carolina Panther's are now 11-3), devised a game plan that allowed Moon to dink and dunk, but not get into the end zone. The two teams exchanged six field goals and into the fourth quarter, and the Steelers still led 16-9.
Steelers quarterback, Bubby Brister, was a tough but ineffective leader. Completing only 15 of 33 passes for 127 yards, the Steelers relied, as they had done so often back yonder, on a running game that grinded out 177 yards and lots of clock. In the fourth quarter, the Oilers finally broke through the duct tape and bobby pins. Moon got hot and hit Ernest Givens for two touchdown passes, all but sealing the Steelers' doom.
Enter Merril Hoge, who like Olsavsky, Brister and so many others, probably brought a lunchpail to the Astrodome. The Oilers could not stop Hoge on the Steelers' last gasp and with just 46 ticks remaining, Hoge burrowed into the end zone to silence the stunned Houston faithful. Somehow we got that game into overtime. Houston, with regained composure, was marching into Steeler territory when halfback Lorenzo White lost the handle. The omnipresent Rod Woodson dropped on the loose ball and suddenly it was the Steelers who were at midfield.
More Hoge. Even Tim Worley, a first-round bust out of Georgia, chipped in with 54 yards. But it was Hoge's last carry, putting him at exactly 100 yards on the day (just 17 carries), that placed the ball on the 33-yard line and set up a Gary Anderson field goal try. He was perfect. If the goal posts were just three feet wide, Anderson would have still converted. It would be Charles Henry Noll's final playoff victory, and a sweet one indeed. Pittsburgh 26, Houston 23.