But aside from Montana and Allen, almost everything about the Chiefs has been overlooked this year. Nobody really took K.C. seriously until it beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 27-24 in overtime in the first round of the playoffs and improved its overall record to 12-5. Sure, Allen had a wonderful year, scoring 15 touchdowns and being named to the Pro Bowl at age 33. But all those young receivers—Jim Barnett, J.J. Birden, Willie Davis and Fred Jones—would do better to call themselves the No-Name Gang instead of their chosen sobriquet, the Young Guns. Even Montana, good as he was, was considered increasingly fragile. He missed four full regular-season games, including the meeting between these two teams on Sept. 12, which he sat out with a sore wrist. Kansas City lost that one 30-0.
Houston was the hot team going into the playoffs. After a 1-4 start, partly the residue of that fold against Buffalo in the playoffs last year, the Oilers regrouped and won 11 in a row. And throughout the season they were the most newsworthy bunch in the NFL. Something either cartoonish or tragic seemed to happen every week. It wasn't just Ryan and offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride going at it on the sideline on Jan. 2 in a difference of opinion over their systems—Buddy's 46 defense versus Gilbride's run-and-shoot offense, which Ryan derisively refers to as the chuck-and-duck. There was an early-season benching of Moon in favor of Cody Carlson that lasted part of one game. There was Daddygate, when tackle David Williams missed a game to be with his wife and new baby. And there was the suicide of defensive end Jeff Alm, who shot himself after killing his best friend in a car accident. The Oilers' tolerance for turmoil was immense. "You'd be surprised how little of it we took seriously," said defensive end Sean Jones. "Even with that 1-4 start, morale was never a problem."
The winning streak—which featured a rejuvenated Moon and Brown, an NFL minimum-wage replacement at running back for the injured Lorenzo White—seemed to augur that the end of Houston's postseason frustration was at hand. These Oilers could win, and they had to win. They knew that because owner Bud Adams had told them so in an especially silly preseason meeting. "That edict shook players up," said Jones. "He assumed we had the intelligence of a squash."
Adams's address aside, there was a genuine urgency to the Oilers' season. Moon was 37 and would not see many more playoffs. Coach Jack Pardee was nearly fired during the 1-4 stretch by the trigger-happy Adams. Ryan and Gilbride, no matter how well their respective systems worked, would not likely be back together. For that matter, the run-and-shoot offense was losing support, and abandoning it would mean sweeping personnel changes. The idea that this was the last chance for one of the NFL's most perennially talented teams—seven straight playoff appearances—persisted through each of the 11 victories.
And surely there would have been more, except for Montana. The Oilers were properly respectful of him going into the game. After all, many of them had been victimized in those comebacks; even Ryan had had to stand transfixed in his Philadelphia Eagle and Chicago Bear days while Montana marched the San Francisco 49ers relentlessly downfield in the waning minutes.
And while the Oilers were cautious, the Chiefs were confident. Kansas City defensive lineman Dan Saleaumua dismissed that 30-0 game, Houston's lone victory during its early-season travails. "We're doing the same exact thing," he said. "The only difference now is that Joe's playing."
But what can such a mess of scarred cartilage and tangled tendons add to an offense? The word throughout the league is that Montana can no longer go deep. He has great vision, can pick defenses apart, but he can't hurt you long. "That is what he is on film," said Chief offensive coordinator Paul Hackett mysteriously. "But it's not true."
On Sunday, Montana did indeed underthrow receivers several times, was intercepted twice and reminded nobody of John Elway. Yet he went deep often enough to put a scare into Houston. In fact, K.C. center Tim Grunhard believed the game's turning point came in the first half when the Chiefs' offense was a model of futility on an incomplete pass from Montana that traveled 50 yards in the air. Willie Davis, five yards ahead of his coverage, did his impression of Times Square at New Year's—dropping a ball while everybody waited—blowing a sure touchdown. "It was heartbreaking," said Grunhard, "but it opened the defense up."
In any Montana comeback the most striking element is his supernatural calm. "He's not caught up in unimportant things," said Hackett. "It's always protection, routes and defense. When he walks into a huddle, no one's anxious because Joe's not anxious. It's his trademark."
How discombobulated was Montana after Davis's drop? "I was embarrassed," said Davis. "I mean, it was a TD pass. But Joe came up to me and said, 'I missed two throws, you dropped one pass, keep going.' " In the fourth quarter, with the Chiefs leading 14-13, Montana sent Davis into the end zone, where he was covered perfectly by Dishman. Davis reached behind him for the ball—Dishman never saw it—to score an 18-yard touchdown.