The New England Patriots were coming off of a dismal 1-15 record in 1990 and were 1-2 as they faced the powerful Houston Oilers on September 22, 1991. New Head Coach Dick MacPherson, a former college coach at Syracuse, infused a new enthusiasm into the revamped club. They also had talented rookie RB Leonard Russell and a rising star in TE Marv Cook. However, the Patriots had scored only six points in their last two games and Hugh Millen (pictured at right) was getting his first start of the season at quarterback in place of the ineffective Tom Hodson.
The Oilers, coached by Jack Pardee, were coming off four straight playoff seasons and were 3-0 coming into the game at Foxboro. 36-year-old QB Warren Moon was highly productive operating in the run-and-shoot offense. The defense was tough and talented across the board.
There were 30,702 fans in attendance at Foxboro Stadium. The Patriots drove to their 40 on the game’s first possession but had to punt. However, New England got a break when WR Pat Coleman muffed the catch and G Danny Villa recovered at the Houston 24. Four plays later, Jason Staurovsky kicked a 33-yard field goal and the Patriots had the early lead.
The teams traded punts, but the Oilers had good starting field position at the New England 42 following Shawn McCarthy’s short kick. They made the most of it as Warren Moon completed three straight passes and Ian Howfield finished the seven-play series off with a 28-yard field goal to tie the score.
Following a punt by the Patriots, the Oilers had the ball heading into the second quarter but a Moon pass was intercepted by CB Mickey Washington at the New England 45. Leonard Russell ran for 12 yards and, after converting a third down, Hugh Millen passed to WR Greg McMurtry for 20 yards. Another pass, this time an option throw by RB Jon Vaughn to Marv Cook, was good for a 13-yard touchdown and, with Staurovsky’s extra point, a 10-3 lead.
Houston had to punt again and the Patriots gained 32 yards on a Millen-to-Cook pass. However, the Oilers got the ball back three plays later when safety Mike Dumas intercepted a Millen toss and returned it 19 yards to the New England 39. Houston drove to the 11, was set back ten yards by a holding penalty, and ended up with another field goal by Howfield, this time from 38 yards.
The Patriots came right back with a 10-play, 60-yard drive that included a fourth down conversion. Millen completed three passes, two of them to Cook, and Russell finished it off with a two-yard touchdown carry. The PAT was good and New England took a 17-6 lead into halftime.
Moon had struggled in the first half, completing just 9 of his 21 passes, as he dealt with a variety of pass defense coverages on the part of the Patriots. He started the third quarter off with three straight incompletions. The teams traded punts until, with just under four minutes remaining in the period, SS Bubba McDowell picked off a Millen pass to give the Oilers excellent field position at the New England 38. They drove to the eight yard line, but a Moon toss into the end zone was intercepted by CB Jerome Henderson to extinguish the threat.
The Oilers got the ball back on another interception a few plays later in the fourth quarter, with CB Chris Dishman giving them possession at their own 31. This time they didn’t fail to score, going 69 yards in seven plays. RB Lorenzo White picked up 20 yards on three straight runs and then Moon connected with WR Ernest Givins for 19 yards to the New England 30. Four plays later – and after a penalty backed them up – Moon hit WR Curtis Duncan for a 35-yard touchdown. Howfield added the extra point and the New England lead was cut to 17-13.
The Patriots punted and Houston again put points on the board. The Oilers went 69 yards in eight plays highlighted by Moon’s completion to WR Drew Hill for 33 yards to the New England 18. With just under two minutes left on the clock, Moon tossed a five-yard TD pass to Duncan and, with Howfield’s PAT, Houston held the lead for the first time at 20-17 and appeared to have the game in hand.
Starting at their own 17 after the ensuing kickoff, the Patriots advanced down the field with Millen completing his first four passes, three of them to Cook (pictured below), to move into Houston territory. A penalty and two incompletions had them facing a third-and-15 situation at midfield, but Millen connected with WR Michael Timpson for 16 yards and followed up with a 34-yard touchdown pass to McMurtry. There were just six seconds remaining as the Patriots completed their 83-yard drive, and they came away with a 24-20 upset win.
The Oilers had a small lead in total yards (353 to 343) while New England led in first downs (23 to 18). Houston’s defense recorded five sacks as opposed to none by the Patriots. Each team turned the ball over three times apiece. The Oilers were hurt by being penalized 11 times, at a cost of 111 yards, to four flags thrown on New England.
Hugh Millen completed 22 of 33 passes for 244 yards and a touchdown, but was intercepted three times. Marv Cook had 10 catches for 99 yards and a TD. Leonard Russell ran for 85 yards on 19 carries that included one for a score.
For the Oilers, Warren Moon was successful on just 20 of 44 throws for 268 yards and two TDs along with two interceptions. Haywood Jeffires had 7 pass receptions for 98 yards. Lorenzo White paced the ground game with 53 yards on 8 attempts.
“It was critical for the morale of our offense to know that we can come back and win a game like this in the final minute,” said Greg McMurtry, whose game-winning TD was the first of his career.
New England was able to win only sporadically the rest of the way, but ended up with a 6-10 record for fourth place in the AFC East. Houston recovered to win four straight games and six of their next seven on the way to topping the AFC Central at 11-5. However, they again fell short at the Divisional round of the playoffs.
Hugh Millen continued to start at quarterback and completed 60.1 percent of his passes for 3073 yards and nine touchdowns, but also 18 interceptions. Marv Cook received consensus first-team All-NFL as well as Pro Bowl honors as he caught 82 passes for 808 yards and three TDs. Greg McMurtry (pictured at left) was less consistent, finishing with 41 catches for 614 yards (15.0) average and one other scoring catch following the game-winner against the Oilers. Leonard Russell rushed for 959 yards and was named NFL Offensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press.