The Houston Oilers of the late 1970’s were a team of legend in the state of Texas. Known as the “Luv Ya Blue” Oilers they were led by legendary Head Coach O.A. Bum Phillips. Thrown in one of the greatest running backs in NFL history, Earl Campbell and one of the finest linebackers to ever play in the NFL Robert “Dr.Doom” Brazile and you had a team that seemed destined to win a Super Bowl.
The Houston Oilers had qualified for the NFL playoffs for the first time in 1978; they went on to beat Miami and New England on the road, which led them to the AFC Championship game against the hated Pittsburgh Steelers. The Oilers were dominated 34-5 in Pittsburgh on a cold miserable day, but the future looked bright.
1979 The Oilers finished 11-5, they had beaten the Steelers on the second to last week of the season in the Astrodome 20-17. They let the opportunity of gaining home field advantage slip away in a final week loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.
They opened up the wild card round of the playoffs hosting the Denver Broncos who were known for their very physical “Orange Crush” defense. In what many say was one of the most physical football games ever played in NFL history the Oilers overcame the Broncos 13-7. At the same time there season looked over also as they had sustained injuries to their starting Quarterback Dan Pastorini, Running Back Earl Campbell and top wide receiver Ken Burrough. None of these players would be able to play the divisional playoff game the next week in San Diego.
The Oilers were going to have to play without three players that had accounted for 80% of their offense during the season, to draw a modern day comparison that would be like the Dallas Cowboys playing in the playoffs last year without Tony Romo, Demarco Murray and Dez Bryant. On top of all of that they were going to have to play the high-flying San Diego Chargers, the Chargers were 12-4, on offense they had Dan Fouts who had thrown for over 4,000 yards on the season. Throw in a defense that was ranked 5th in the NFL, this 5th ranked defense had allowed 7 or fewer points in four of their final five games. In my opinion the 1979 Chargers were much better than the teams the Chargers had in 80, 81 and 82.
The game began as many anticipated; with the Chargers driving right down the field to take a 7-0 lead. On the Chargers next possession they looked like they were driving for yet another score until Vernon Perry intercepted a Dan Fouts pass at the Oilers 20 yard line. There next possession they drove all the way inside the Oilers 10 yard line, the Oilers held and forced a short field goal attempt which was blocked by the Oilers Vernon Perry, Perry returned the ball all the way to the Chargers 30 yard line, which led to an Oilers field goal reducing the Chargers led to 7-3.
The rest of the half was a stalemate until the final minutes of the half, when once again Perry intercepted another Fouts pass and returned it to the Chargers 40 yard line. From there the Oilers capitalized when backup quarterback Gifford Nielson led the Oilers to a late touchdown, lifting the Oilers to a 10-7 halftime lead.
By the third quarter it became evident that the Oilers weren’t going away and were in this game until the end. The Chargers scored first in the third quarter to take a 14-10 lead, Gifford Nielson countered that score with one of his own when he hit Mike Renfro on a 47 yard touchdown pass putting the Oilers up 17-14 after three quarters and quieting the crowd at Jack Murphy Stadium.
The entire fourth quarter it seemed that an upset was now inevitable, with a little over three minutes left in the game the Chargers mounted one last drive. Just when it seemed that Fouts was leading his team to victory up jumped Robert Brazile who tipped a Fouts pass up in the air and of course once again it was intercepted by Vernon Perry. The Chargers got the ball back with enough time for a hail mary pass, which of course was intercepted by Vernon Perry once again! Fouts threw 5 interceptions during the game and Vernon Perry had 4 of them, Perry played maybe the greatest game any defensive back had ever played in the history of the NFL playoffs.
To me the circumstances of this game made it a bigger upset than even Super Bowl 3, after the game as Coach Bum Phillips addressed the team with “We were short on man power, but we were long on guts”.
The next week the Oilers were beaten once again by the Steelers in the championship game, but that will never diminish the affect that Oilers of the late 1970’s had on the entire city of Houston. The Oilers may be gone for good, but they never will be forgotten.