HOUSTON, DEC. 30 -- These looked like the Pittsburgh Steelers of old. Of course not the Steelers that had "Mean" Joe Greene stepping on quarterbacks, but the Steelers of earlier this season, the ones who didn't score an offensive touchdown in September.
A Pittsburgh victory over the Houston Oilers meant the Steelers would win the AFC Central Division; a loss would mean no playoff appearance. It was that simple. So why were the Steelers battered by the run-and-shoot Oilers in the Astrodome, 34-14, before 56,906 blue pompom waving fans?
But what is one team's loss is another's fortune, as the Cincinnati Bengals can attest. Houston, Pittsburgh and the Bengals finished the regular season at 9-7 but Cincinnati wins the AFC Central because of its 5-1 division record.
Houston, the only AFC team to qualify for the playoffs the last four years, will travel to Cincinnati next weekend for one of the two AFC wild-card games. The other will feature Kansas City (11-5) at Miami (12-4). An NFL spokesman said the dates of the games will be announced on Monday.
Pittsburgh will be watching the playoffs on television like most people. As will the Seattle Seahawks, who were eliminated tonight despite winning five of their last six games.
Houston's victory sent visions of Super Bowls dancing through the mind of owner K.S. (Bud) Adams Jr. who proclaimed: "There is no question we're a serious Super Bowl contender. We can beat anybody."
"I've never seen a first half like this," he continued. "We could have beaten anyone tonight. We could have beaten the 49ers tonight." He added he thinks it will be the Oilers and Los Angeles Raiders in the AFC championship.
"We're going to California," he said.
While Adams, indeed, may be California dreaming, this win was special to one player in particular, backup quarterback Cody Carlson. The Oilers' best offensive weapon and club record-setter, quarterback Warren Moon, was relegated to cheering on the sideline in street clothes because of a dislocated right thumb.
But it didn't stop him from high-fiving Carlson with his left hand. Carlson did a superb job of filling in for Moon, going 22 of 29 for 247 yards and three touchdowns. His passes were deadly accurate, as he and the Oilers' offense dismantled a Steelers defense that before this game had not allowed a touchdown in the last 14 quarters or a scoring pass in the last 15.
Carlson, who has started only six times in a four-year NFL career, said "the butterflies were there" until he completed his first three passes. "After those first three completions . . . I was into my rhythm," he said.
Carlson had touchdown passes of 14, three, and 53 yards, the last going to Haywood Jeffires that made the score 31-7 with 6:11 left in the third quarter.
The running game helped ease the pressure, banging for 195 yards. The run-and-shoot attack kept Pittsburgh off-balance: The quick screens and passes to wide receivers Ernest Givins (80 yards total offense, one touchdown) and Jeffires (five catches, 89 yards, one touchdown) were used in combination with counters and reverses, often to running back Lorenzo White (18 carries, 90 yards).
Said Steelers Coach Chuck Noll: "They controlled the line of scrimmage and if you control the line of scrimmage you control the whole field. Carlson didn't surprise me but he surprised a lot of people, including some people from my team."
Pittsburgh didn't help its cause when running back Tim Worley fumbled after rookie linebacker Lamar Lathon (who made his first NFL start) smacked him so hard the ball popped out. John Grimsley recovered at the Steelers 37.
Ten plays later the Oilers decided to gamble on fourth down at the Steelers 1. It was a simple play: Give the ball to White and watch him run, this time over right offensive tackle for a 7-0 lead.
The only bright spot for the Steelers on their next possession was a 25-yard catch by rookie tight end Eric Green, who leads all NFL tight ends in touchdown catches. His catch put Pittsburgh at its 44, but they would punt four plays later.
When the first quarter ended the Oilers had a two-to-one advantage in time of possession.
It would get worse for Pittsburgh. A great play-action fake by Carlson would set up the end-around to Givins, who sprinted 31 yards to the Pittsburgh 35. The touchdown was saved by the tackle of cornerback Dwayne Woodruff.
Carlson then had one of the best plays of the game. After getting pressure from his left, Carlson began to run right for daylight. He had plenty of running room, which is probably why cornerback David Johnson bit and left Givins open in the rear of the end zone.