HOUSTON -- Traffic was snarled for two miles in front of the Astrodome last night, and judging by the way the Pittsburgh Steelers played the most important game of their season, more than a few folks were convinced their bus didn't reach the stadium until halftime.
By then, Pittsburgh trailed the Houston Oilers 24-0, and its offense had appeared in public about as frequently as Marlon Brando. Yet immediately after the halftime siesta, quarterback Bubby Brister hit Derek Hill for a 43-yard completion to the 4 and a play later fullback Merril Hoge bulled over for a touchdown and it was 24-7.
For an instant Pittsburgh had hope, but it turned out to be like 60-degree temperatures on Valentine's Day. Only a false spring.
Just five plays later, Houston quarterback Cody Carlson delivered a perfect 53-yard answering touchdown pass to Haywood Jeffires over Pittsburgh's most talented corner, Rod Woodson, and the AFC playoff picture was in focus.
Eventually, Houston (9-7) would win, 34-14, to give the Cincinnati Bengals (9-7) the AFC Central title and set up a wild-card playoff match at Riverfront Stadium next weekend between those two warring AFC Central rivals while Kansas City journeys to Miami.
The Steelers, meanwhile, also finish 9-7 but were left so ragged and battered by Houston that going home for six months didn't seem distasteful an idea.
"We couldn't stop the run or the pass," Steelers coach Chuck Noll said. "They controlled the line of scrimmage. They controlled the whole field."
The Steelers' defense had been Scrooge-like for a month, having not allowed an offensive touchdown in 15 quarters going into last night's match with the Oilers. Judging by what transpired in the first half, Jacob Marley and the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future must have all visited Pittsburgh's defense because with the game less than 30 minutes old Houston had scored three straight times.
The Oilers so thoroughly dominated the first half that with 11 minutes left Pittsburgh had run only seven plays, none of which did anything to improve its sagging playoff hopes.
Houston, meanwhile, was hoping to get off to a quick start to bolster Carlson, a reserve quarterback replacing injured All-Pro Warren Moon. If that was coach Jack Pardee's aim he achieved it from the outset, when Carlson marched his team from his 27 to the Pittsburgh 33. He might have taken it farther, but on third-and-11, Curtis Duncan was unable to keep his feet in bounds on a 14-yard reception.
The Steelers erred immediately when, on their first offensive play, running back Tim Worley was blasted from the blindside by linebacker Lamar Lathon and the ball popped loose. John Grimsley recovered at the Steelers' 37. Nine plays later, Lorenzo White dove over from 1 yard out and the rout was on.
"I was a little concerned I'd be too pumped up, but after my first few passes I got in the groove," said Carlson, whose 22-for-29 passing for 247 yards and three touchdowns seemed as grooved as Jack Nicklaus' backswing.
"Carlson didn't surprise me," Noll said, "but he surprised a lot of people. Including some people on my team."