Craig Morton was the picture of composure today after his two touchdown passes led the Denver Broncos into the NFL playoffs in Red Miller's first season as a head coach.
The Broncos' 11th victory in 12 games did not come as easily as the 24-14 sepre against the Houston Oilers would suggest. Morton could not get anything going in the first quarter, when the Oilers outgained the Broncos 123 yards to minus five.
He was sacked for one of six times on the last play of the first half and landed on his throwing shoulder with linebacker Steve Baumgartner atop him. Craig Penrose replaced Morton for the first half of the third period, when Houston narrowed Denver's lead 17-14.
Despite a strained shoulder. Morton came back and set up the insurance touchdown in the fourth quarter, mostly on a 33-yard pass to tight end Riley Odoms, who had six receptions for 86 yards, including a 13-yard touchdown catch.
The 33-yarder put Morton in business on the Houston five-yard line and after fullback Jon Keyworth was held for no gain, coach Miller sent in his third-string quarterback, Norris Weese, to replace Morton, for just one play as it turned out.
Weese did not figure to fool the Oilers much, because he had been inserted against Pittsburg in a similar situation a month ago and just missed scoring on a bootleg play.
"The Oilers sent in an extra line- backer when I went in," Weese said. He knew what was coming off. I could tell he was just following me. But when I saw him trip I knew I would walk in, because I had two blockers in front of me.
"I had no option to pass on the play, but I had super blocking, even if the linebacker had not tripped."
So, with that scoring scamper by Weese that sewed up the Victory, "conservative" coach Miller once more belied that reputation he would like his opponents to believe.
Weese also made a tackle on the first punt of the game by the Broncos and nearly pinned Billy (White Shoes) Johnson of the Oilers for a safety in the Denver end zone.
Following the game. Morton had begged off any questions for a few minutes and buried his head in his hands in his dressing cubicle.
"I thanked the Lord," Morton explained. "It was a great victory, even if I don't show it. You would have seen a lot of emotion form me if you had been in here earlier.
I feel great. It's hard to personalize my thoughts . . . it's been a long time for me (10 1/2 years in Dallas and 2 1/2 with the New York Giants), and it's been a long time for the Broncos (18 years, including the American Football League, without even a division title).
Miller made no pretense of poise. He was shrieking "Hey, hey!" with the players before they even got to the dressing room.
The rookie head coach who previously insisted he did not know how to pronounce the word "playoffs." abandoned that reluctance and laughed as he said, "I want to talk about playoffs . . . I want to talk about playoffs . . . I want to talk about playoffs."
The Broncos clinched at least a wild-card spot with the victory and while they were in mid-air returning to Denver they received word that they had, indeed, clinched the championship of the National Conference West as a result of a Los Angeles victory over Oakland.
The Raiders are 9-3 with the loss: Oakland and Denver split their games with each other. The Broncos would have to lose their final two regular-season game for the Raiders to gain a tie. The terms then would have the same record in games within their own division and conference, so Denvor would gian the title via point differential of the games between the two teams, the Broncos having won 307 and 24-14.
The Oilers tore the Denver defense apart in the first quarter.
Near the end of the period Houston began a 67-yard flight to the Bronco goal line on a 51-yard pass from quarterback Dan Pastorini to wide receiver Ken Burrough that got the Oilers sto the Denver 10-yard line. Previously, Johnson had dropped a long pass from Burrough, who had taken a handoff from running back Ronnie Coleman. The score came on a two-yard run by Ronnie Coleman early in the second quarter.
Thereafter, the Broncos took over, gaining 132 yards to 25 for the Oilers. They went 79 yards to tie the score at 7.7 on the 13-yard pass from Morton to Odoms.
The Oilers blew a big opportunity when cornerback Zeke Moore intercepted Morton and Iran 22 yards, but he fumbled the ball back to the Broncos and Morton passed 14 yards to Keyworth, then 13 yards to wide receiver Rick Upchurch for the touchdown.
In the third quarter, the Broncos bogged down after a 40-yard advance but Jim Turner kicked a 42-yard field goal for a 17-7 advantage.
Johnson touched off a trust at Denver with a 34-yard kickoff return. Pastorini ran 15 yards, then passed 29 yards to Burrough for a touchdown cutting the lead to 17-14.
That is when Morton returned to the game and faced up to the Houston pass rush in the fourth quarter, getting that 33-yard pass off to Odoms to the Houston five-yard line, then turning over the ball to Weese for the five-yard touchdown run.
Coach Bum Phillips, whose Oilers dropped to a 6-6 record, paid a tribute to Morton, the target of the Oilers' savage pass rush: "He threw the ball exceptionally well. The Broncos are not a finesse team; they are a power team.
The Oilers just seem to be in the wrong division, the AFC Central. In three years under Phillips the Oilers have won 18 games to six against non-division competition.