After the final week of the 2023 season, the Cleveland Browns learned they would fly to Houston to battle the Texans in the Wild Card round.
This will be just the third time since 1999 that Cleveland has appeared in the playoffs.
However, this won’t be the first time that Cleveland and Houston have met in the postseason.
Here’s a look back at the 1988 playoffs when both franchises played a memorable game that went in Houston’s favor.
1988 Regular Season
Before the NFL realigned to an eight-division format in 2002, the Browns were a member of the old AFC Central.
The slightly misaligned division included the Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers, Houston Oilers, and Cleveland.
All four franchises had been intra-division rivals since the last time the NFL realigned back in 1970.
QB Bernie Kosar was in his 4th yr. Strong D, 2 Big Time RBs.
But injuries dogged Kosar all year…numerous backups started games.
Deja vu? pic.twitter.com/LBMJMLOu1x
— Kevin Fisher 🌊🏈⚾🏀🎸 (@kfishercanton) January 31, 2022
Since then, Houston and Cleveland had engaged in several hard-fought games and the 1988 season was no different.
Not only did the Browns and Oilers split the regular season series, but Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Houston all made the postseason.
Similarities with the 2023 Browns
The 1988 team was coming off two straight losses to the Denver Broncos in the 1986 and 1987 AFC Championship games.
Both losses came courtesy of “The Drive” and “The Fumble” respectively, but the 1988 Browns were viewed as a team of destiny.
° 1987 AFC CHAMPIONSHIP °
~ "The Fumble" ~
Trailing by 7 after playing brilliantly (187 total yds, 2 TD), Browns' Earnest Byner fumbles on the Denver 2 with 1:05 left, leading to a 38-33 #Broncos victory at Mile High.
• Denver's 2nd consecutive AFC title over Cleveland pic.twitter.com/GgcZKTW6KK
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) January 18, 2019
Unfortunately, a leaky offensive line and injuries at quarterback turned Cleveland into a very mortal outfit through the first two months of the season.
Just like the 2023 Browns, the 1988 version saw several signal-callers start games.
Fan favorite Bernie Kosar was seriously injured in Week 1 by Kansas City, and long-time backup Gary Danielson took over.
In Week 2, Danielson was battered by the New York Jets and broke his ankle.
Not only did he miss the rest of the year, Danielson never played again.
Mike Pagel was the next man up and became Cleveland’s third starting quarterback in Week 3.
Less than a month later, Pagel was hurt and Don Strock was the fourth QB to line up under center.
Similar to Joe Flacco in 2023, Strock had been out of football in 1988 (after a long career in Miami) until then-general manager Ernie Accorsi called him in a panic.
“We were so desperate, Ernie found Don Strock working at a golf course,” said former Browns P.R. Director Kevin Byrne in Cleveland.com writer Terry Pluto’s book, Vintage Browns. “He was a club pro. He came in with a potbelly.”
Kosar returned later in the season until he was injured again by the Miami Dolphins defense in Week 15 and Strock finished the year.
The 1988 and 2023 Browns have another thing in common: persistence.
At one point during the 2023 season, Cleveland was 7-5 and hanging on to their playoff lives.
The team then went 4-1 in their remaining five games to clinch the number five seed in the postseason.
By Week 11 in 1988, the Browns were 6-5 and looked nothing like a championship contender.
A 4-1 record during their next five games brought Cleveland back from the brink.
The final contest of the regular season was a home date against the Oilers.
Strock tried to give the game away by throwing three picks.
Week 16, 1988 – Oilers at Browns, after 14 seasons with the Miami Dolphins, off the couch, Don Strock signs with the Browns to replace the injured Bernie Kosar and leads the team to a comeback victory 28-23 #Browns pic.twitter.com/y3g036bJJH
— CleWest (@erjmanlasvegas) November 24, 2019
Thankfully, his 326 passing yards and touchdown strikes to Earnest Byner and Webster Slaughter turned a halftime deficit into a 28-23 victory.
Then, by virtue of a tiebreaker, the 10-6 Browns were awarded the No. 4 seed, while the 10-win Oilers were the fifth seed.
Houston also had to return to Ohio the following weekend for the Wild Card round.
(Cincinnati finished 1988 with a 12-4 record and were the top seed in the AFC).
Christmas Eve Heartbreak
On December 24, 1988, Cleveland and Houston faced each other for the first time in the NFL playoffs.
Kosar was still injured, so Strock was in charge of trying to get the Browns to the Divisional round.
Instead, he lasted all of three passes before the Houston defense damaged Strock’s wrist.
That brought Pagel under center, and he kept the Browns competitive.
After quarterback Warren Moon and running back Allen Pinkett helped the Oilers stake a 14-9 halftime lead, Pagel found Slaughter for 14 yards in the third quarter for a 16-14 Cleveland advantage.
Houston scored 10 more points before Pagel and Slaughter answered with a two-yard touchdown strike and 31 seconds on the clock.
Naturally, the Browns tried an onside kick.
Christmas Eve 1988 the Houston Oilers played the Cleveland Browns in a Wild Card game @ Cleveland Stadium. 1985-88- Four straight seasons the Browns made the playoffs- Christmas holidays-family-Browns playoffs- Cold beverages- great memories. Ready for new memories pic.twitter.com/QTBCSH7I4t
— Tom Brunswick (@tom_brunswick) December 24, 2020
The attempt was no good, but Cleveland had new life when Houston was charged with a penalty.
On the next onside attempt, the Browns miraculously recovered the ball, bringing the home crowd to its feet.
The celebration ended when the officials called Cleveland for an infraction.
A third onside attempt resulted in another penalty when the Browns were flagged for touching the ball before it went 10 yards.
Just like that, Cleveland’s season was over as the Oilers escaped with a 24-23 win.
Long-suffering Browns fans remember what happened next.
Team owner Art Modell and head coach Marty Schottenheimer argued about coaching staff changes for 1989.
December 27, 1988: Goodbye Marty🏈#Browns Marty Schottenheimer resigns after 5 yrs as Head Coach. Unable to align w/ owner Art Modell or relinquish playcalling duties, both agree time to move on. Marty also DC (1980-1984) shaped team makeup for a decade #MartyBall #TheresAGleam pic.twitter.com/lCRUgJi0MB
— Mr. Cleveland Sports (@MrCleveland_216) December 27, 2021
Modell was also miffed by the number of setbacks the team encountered in 1988 despite the playoff berth.
“I don’t know if people were spoiled or what,” said Accorsi, “but that 10-6 record was looked at as a disappointment when it was a remarkable achievement. Marty did the greatest coaching job [in 1988] I’ve ever been around.”
Both men failed to yield ground to the other, and Modell chose that moment to fire Schottenheimer.
“I see the Oilers and Bengals franchises surging ahead and I see us almost treading water. If I were to handicap next year, we would be the third favorite in our division. That’s not good enough,” said Modell.
Schottenheimer would become the head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs and stay with the organization for a decade.
Meanwhile, Modell hired New York Jets defensive coordinator Bud Carson to replace Schottenheimer.
Carson lasted a year and a half before he was fired.