For the second straight time, the Browns rallied to edge the Houston Oilers in the regular-season finale and earn a trip to the playoffs on the performance of a well-known player who appeared in just four games that year.
Kevin Mack, who didn’t even begin practicing in 1989 until Nov. 27, in part because of a knee injury, scored the game-winning touchdown on a four-yard run with 39 seconds left as the Browns won, 24-20, in a Saturday night game on Dec. 23 before a full house of 58,852 at the Astrodome.
It was the latter of two straight victories as the Browns finished 9-6-1 and captured the AFC Central championship for the fourth time since 1985. It was also their fifth consecutive postseason appearance during that five-year period.
Houston ended 9-7 and finished in a second-place tie in the division with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Both of those clubs earned playoff berths as wild cards.
Almost a year to the day earlier, on Dec. 18, 1988 at Cleveland Stadium, the Browns came back from a 23-7 third-quarter deficit to defeat the Oilers, 28-23, and get into the playoffs as a wild card with a 10-6 mark. Houston was 10-6 as well, tying Cleveland for second place behind the Cincinnati Bengals and also securing a wild-card playoff spot.
Don Strock’s passing was the difference in the victory. The longtime Miami Dolphins backup, signed out of retirement on a golf course after the Browns ran into all kinds of injury problems at quarterback that year, threw for 326 yards and two TDs, including the game-winning 22-yarder to wide receiver Webster Slaughter in the fourth quarter.
The Browns, who had beaten the Oilers, 28-17, at Cleveland midway through the 1989 season, watched a 17-point second-quarter lead disappear and found themselves behind, 20-17, when quarterback Warren Moon and wide receiver Drew Hill collaborated on their second TD pass of the day, a 27-yarder with 4:46 remaining.
Then the Browns -- and in particular, Mack -- went to work. They drove for the winning TD with a nine-play, 58-yard drive, fueled by Mack’s 27 rushing yards.
On his scoring run -- his only one of the year -- Mack would not be denied, carrying three Oilers into the end zone with him. He finished the game with 12 carries for 62 yards, nearly half of his season total of 130.
Just seconds after Mack, one of the most popular players on the team, crossed the goal line, his teammates rushed to mob him, jubilant, of course, that he had carried them – literally and figuratively – into the playoffs again, but also thrilled for him, personally, that he had been able to fight back from so much adversity to do it.
It was an emotional time for everybody in the Browns organization.
There was also a lot of happiness on the Browns early in the game as they roared to a 17-0 lead.
Matt Bahr kicked a 32-yard field goal five minutes into the game to start it off, then rookie running back Eric Metcalf caught a 68-yard touchdown pass from Bernie Kosar to make it 10-0 at the end of the first quarter.
Amother Kosar TD pass, a 40-yarder to Slaughter, grew the lead to 17-0 in the second quarter.
Kosar ended the game with 18 completions in 36 attempts for 228 yards and the two TDs with no interceptions.
His favorite target was wide receiver Reggie Langhorne, who had five receptions for 38 yards. Fellow wideout Brian Brennan added four catches for 34 yards, while Slaughter had three grabs for 66 yards and Metcalf, on the strength of that 68-yarder, had two for 74 yards.
The Oilers finally got on the board with just 14 seconds left in the second quarter on a 30-yard field goal by Tony Zendejas to close the gap to 14 points at halftime.
The momentum the Oilers gained with that kick grew in the second half. Hill caught a nine-yard TD pass from Moon in the third quarter, then in the fourth quarter, Zendejas hit another field goal, from 37 yards, and Hill caught the 27-yarder from Moon to go on top, 20-17.
The last score came just a play after Browns linebacker Clay Matthews intercepted a pass and then fumbled the ball back to Houston when he attempted to lateral to a teammate.
Not to worry, though. All that did was heighten the excitement for a bit of déjà vu when, just 4:07 later, the Kevin Mack-led Browns bulled into the end zone -- and into the playoffs -- for a second straight year at the Oilers’ expense.
This Day in Browns History is presented by Cleveland Clinic.