Willie Davis can still see Joe Montana’s eyes light up in the huddle.
He remembers Keith Cash firing the football into the Buddy Ryan poster. And Davis will never forget his own touchdown catch.
It has been 20 years since the Chiefs won a playoff game, and Davis is one of the few people — and only player — who was part of the team’s 28-20 victory over the Houston Oilers on Jan. 16, 1994, and is still with the organization.
“I don’t remember the rest of the games,” said Davis, a Chiefs wide receiver during 1991-95 and now a regional scout, “but I remember everything about that game.”
Davis, the Chiefs’ leading receiver that season with 51 catches for 909 yards and seven touchdowns, caught five passes for 91 yards and a touchdown in the playoff game at the Astrodome.
The Chiefs had lost to Houston 30-0 in week two of the regular season when Montana was out because of a hand injury. And the Oilers — who had lost four of their five — won their next 11 and were the hottest team in football going into the rematch with the Chiefs.
But after beating Pittsburgh 27-24 in overtime the previous week, the Chiefs were a confident bunch going into the Astrodome.
“We had a feeling going into that game that we were going to win it,” Davis said.
The Chiefs also changed their offensive and defensive game plans for the Oilers game. In both phases, the Chiefs attacked. They brought pressure on quarterback Warren Moon, blitzing cornerbacks and safeties to supplement the pass rush of linebacker Derrick Thomas and end Neil Smith.
“We didn’t want Warren Moon sit back there and pick us apart,” Davis said of the defensive tactics against the Oilers’ run-and-shoot offense. “That’s what he did the first game. But this time they couldn’t block the number of people we blitzed on defense. That changed the whole game.”
Consequently, the Chiefs sacked Moon nine times — twice each by Thomas, nose tackle Joe Phillips, cornerback Albert Lewis and safety Bennie Thompson, and once by Smith.
And on offense, they abandoned coach Marty Schottenheimer’s smash-mouth running game and went downfield and challenged Houston’s slower cornerbacks with the speed of Davis and J.J. Birden.
Still, the Chiefs trailed 10-0 at halftime.
“We were beating them deep to try and scare (Houston defensive coordinator) Buddy Ryan from blitzing Joe,” Davis said. “But I dropped a wide-open touchdown. We started moving Joe out of the pocket, and that’s when he started killing them.”
Davis hauled in a 36-yard pass from Montana on third and seven in the third quarter, which set up Montana’s 7-yard touchdown pass to Cash, who punctuated the score by winging the football into the Ryan poster hanging from the wall behind the end zone.
“That’s when everything turned, really,” Davis said.
Houston converted a Montana interception into a field goal, making it 13-7, but Davis drew a 38-yard pass interference penalty against veteran cornerback Cris Dishman that set up an 11-yard go-ahead touchdown pass from Montana to J.J. Birden.
A sack and strip of Moon by Thomas gave the Chiefs a short field, and Montana hit Davis for an 18-yard touchdown pass for a 21-13 lead midway through the fourth quarter.
“Joe got the receivers together and said, ‘They’re going to play a lot of man-press coverage, so if I see their backs are turned while you’re running upfield, look for the ball to be thrown … to our back shoulder …” Davis said of his touchdown. “We didn’t call them back-shoulder throws then … but he would throw it short, and you would turn around and stop and you would get it.
“I was running up the field and Dishman is playing man-press coverage. He doesn’t see the ball. He’s running to catch me. Joe throws it behind me, I turn around and just catch it … a back-shoulder throw.”
Because the NFL would not adopt the two-point conversion until the next season, the Chiefs’ 21-13 lead was a two-score advantage. Moon brought the Oilers back to within 21-20 with 3:35 to play, and then the Chiefs turned it over to Marcus Allen.
“That’s when we started playing Martyball,” Davis said. “We gave the ball to Marcus and let him go.”
The Chiefs converted two huge third downs on the drive. On third and one from the Chiefs’ 30, Montana hit Cash for 41 yards. And on third and two from the Houston 21, Allen burst up the middle for a game-clinching touchdown.
The game turned out to be a watershed moment for both franchises.
The Chiefs lost the AFC championship game at Buffalo the next week and have lost an NFL-record seven straight postseason games heading into Saturday’s matchup at Indianapolis.
The Oilers would not have a winning season again until the franchise moved to Tennessee in 1997.
Houston received an expansion franchise with the Texans in 2002, but the wounds of 1993 have not healed. Memories were revived when NFL Network recently aired a documentary about the 1993 Oilers.
“My son plays on a baseball team, and the parents were all Oilers fans,” said Davis, who lives in Houston. “They saw that special, and when I came to the next practice, they said, “I didn’t know that was you. … I knew there was a reason I didn’t like you.’”