FOXBORO, Mass. -- The Houston Oilers had a calendar problem yesterday. They apparently thought their week off began a day early.
The Oilers' bye week begins this morning, but they said bye to their undefeated record yesterday under an avalanche of Hugh Millen pass completions (22 for 244 yards) and their own penalties (11 for 111 yards), leading to a 24-20 loss to the New England Patriots before 30,702 fans at Foxboro Stadium.
The Patriots mystified the Oilers quarterback, All-Pro Warren Moon, with a variety of coverages. This took away much of Houston's explosive run-and-shoot, and even after Moon got it back with only minutes to play, the Patriots (2-2) still managed to blemish Houston's previously undefeated record (3-1) on the final play.
"This is not the 1990 Patriots," New England defensive end Brent Williams said not long after Millen had thrown for a 34-yard touchdown to Greg McMurtry with six seconds left.
"The sooner we lose that identity, the better off for us. If we keep going out and winning them one at a time, the house will be packed pretty soon."
New England had led from the moment Jason Staurovsky delivered a 33-yard field goal after the Patriots recovered a Pat Coleman fumble on a punt return with the game only minutes old, through a 13-yard halfback option pass for a touchdown from rookie Jon Vaughn to tight end Marv Cook, right up until Moon finally managed to solve New England's multiple coverages in the fourth quarter.
Until then, Moon had been held to a 13-for-34 day that included four post patterns that were overthrown. But, in the final 15 minutes, Moon completed seven of 10 for 108 yards and two touchdowns.
"We kept him off-balance for about 3 1/2 quarters," said Patriots defensive coordinator Joe Collier. "We didn't do too well in the fourth quarter. We did some moving around in the secondary. I think perhaps we did confuse him. He had a little bit of an off day."
He was off until late in the day.
The first of his two touchdown passes came after a disastrous Millen throw to Irving Fryar into near double coverage was intercepted by Cris Dishman with 13 minutes to play and the Patriots leading, 17-6. Seven plays later, Moon sent Curtis Duncan on an up route, and he beat New England's secondary for a 35-yard touchdown that brought the Oilers within 17-13.
When the Patriots were forced to punt it back with 5:11 to play, Moon again undressed the Patriots defense with a 33-yard completion to Drew Hill over Maurice Hurst and Darrell Fullington that moved the ball to the Patriots' 18. Four plays later, Moon delivered a perfect, 5-yard touchdown pass to Duncan, again on a quick out to the corner.
That second touchdown came with 1:52 to play and gave the Oilers their first lead, 20-17, causing more than a few fans to leave.
Time clearly was not on the Patriots' side, and, by this juncture, Millen -- who had replaced starter Tommy Hodson in the lineup five days earlier -- had thrown three interceptions, so there was little to be encouraged about. But what Millen did was get them a win by throwing the ball like, well, Warren Moon.
Millen was 6-for-8 on a 83-yard victory march that opened with short completions to Cook (10 receptions for 99 yards) and Leonard Russell, expanded when Cook made a 23-yard catch that put the ball on the Oilers' 45 with 45 seconds to play, then escalated further when Millen found Michael Timpson along the sideline for a 16-yard completion on third-and-15 with 25 seconds left.
That put the ball on the Houston 34 with 16 seconds to play and the clear need for at least one more completion to set up a game-tying Staurovsky field goal.
"When we started moving the ball, I was looking for the field goal to send it into overtime," said Patriots safety Fred Marion. "Very seldom does it end with a touchdown."
Very seldom, but occasionally, and this was one of those occasions. Millen dropped back again behind perfect protection, ruled out a throw to Fryar immediately because he was facing tight double coverage, and looked inside to sparingly used McMurtry, who had hooked inside the defense and beaten the single coverage of Darryl Lewis. Millen fired, and McMurtry caught the ball at the 21, after which the fun began.
That was especially true after McMurtry looked up field and saw only Mike Dumas between him and the end zone. One fake and Dumas was tackling crisp fall air before slamming into Lewis. By the time Dumas tumbled into Lewis, McMurtry was headed for the goal line.