The Houston Oilers' quarterback, Dan Pastorini, remembered the boos, at home during the last game of the regular season, the humiliations of seven previous seasons, the knocks in print that smarted more than his cracked rib and strained knee. They were like the unpleasant ghosts of Christmases past.
His Oilers long had been the Rodney Dangerfield of pro football, the team that didn't get no respect, and that is what always made him feel like Scrooge at this time of year.
"I think it establishes a reputation for us a team, and that's the moist important thing," Pastorini said after completing 20 of 29 passes for 306 yards and a touchdown in leading the Oilers to a 17-9 victory over the favored Miami Dolphins in the American Football Conference wild-card game at the Orange Bowl Sunday.
The Oiler dressing room was gushing with self-congratulations and cheers after the team's firt playoff appearance since 1969. Pastorini, still wearing the brace that supported his badly wrenched right knee and the modified military bullet-proof vest that protected his broken ribs, savored a scene he had never experienced before for more than a hour after the game.
"This is the biggest thrill of my career. Heck, of my life, except for when my little girl was born," said the man who has quarterbacked the Oilers since his rookie year, 1971.
"There've been a lot of guys criticized on this team and I guess I've kind of been at the center of it. After we got beat by San Diego (45-24, to finish the regular season with a 10-6 record) everybody kind of wrote us off. They said we couldn't beat Miami. But we're a team that plays best when our backs are to the wall . . . this victory was real sweet because so many people said we couldn't do it."
The Dolphins had won seven of eight games at home this season and had limited Washington, Oakland and New England to an aggregate of nine points in their determined, final three-game drive to the playoffs. By beating the Dolphins on Christmas Eve. the Oilers earned the right to spend New Year's Eve in Foxboro, Mass., where they will play the Patriots in the second AFC semifinal game.
The AFC semifinals begin Saturday in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers host the Denver Broncos.
The Steelers had the best regular-season record (14-2) of any team in the National Football League, and allowed the fewest points (195). The 10-6 Broncos had the second-best defense against scoring, allowing 196 points. Their Orange Crush defense allowed 278.1 yards per game and placed four starters-defensive end Lyle Alzado, linebacker Randy Gradishar, corner-back Louis Wright and safety Bill Thompson-on the AFC team for the Pro Bowl.
Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw led the NFL in touchdown passes with 28, spurring the Steelers to team records for total yards (4,996) and first downs (316). It is doubtful that Denver, with justifiably maligned Craig Morton at quarterback, can generate enough offense to beat Pittsburgh at its monument to the homefield advantage, Three Rivers Stadium.
New England (11-5) set a rushing record of 3,165 yards in the FNL's first 16-game regular season, and led the league in offense with 372.8 yards per game. The Patriots are the first NFL team to have four 500-yard-plus rushers in a single season: Sam Cuningham (768), Horace Ivory (693), Andy Johnson (675) and quarterback Steve Grogan (539).
But despite those impressive satistics and an admirable balance on offense (they averaged 197.8 yards running, 175 passing) the Pats may have trouble with Houston, which wiped out a 23-0 halftime deficit to beat New England 26-23, in the most memorable comeback of the regular season.
No one knows how the Patriots will react to the turmoil created by Chuck Fairbank's ill-timed revelation that he is headed for the University of Colorado to coach there next season.
Fairbanks was suspended by the team's president, William Sullivan, after making his intention to walk out on the final four years of his contract known the afternoon of the Patriots' regular-season finale against Miami here Dec. 18. The Patriots lost that game, 23-3, Fairbanks has since been reinstated for the duration of the playoffs, but it is impossible to gauge how much the disruption affected his team.
Pastorini would not speculate about the Patriots' internal problems - when you have suffered through 1-13 seasons, as he did in 1972 and '73, you learn to hold your tongue about front office backbiting-but he was confident the Oilers would be ready to play.
"We've come this far and we'll keep going, I guarantee you," he said.
"New England is a good football team. We're going to have to play much better in the first half than we did the last time against them, and I'm sure we will. It's going to be cold up there, maybe snowing, but we can handle it.
"The Super Bowl is not out of reach for us. We've got two more games to get there, against two tough teams, and a lot can happen.
"But we've beaten both teams this year." Pastorini went on-evidently assuming that Pittsburgh will beat Denver, since the Oilers did not play the Broncos this season but split two games with the Steelers-"so we can beat them again, as far as I'm concerned."
Such is the confidence of an Oiler team that had not won a postseason game since the 1961 American Football League championship. But the club has grown in self-esteem since Bum Phillips, who raised eyebrows with his flattop haircut and cowboy garb, but gets as much out of this talent as any city slicker, arrived at the Houston helm in 1975.
It is a vivid contrast to the Oilers who were the laughing stock of the NFL in the years immediately after the old AFL was absorbed in a merger.
"We thought we were losers and would always be losers," said defensive end Elvin Bethea, a lonely AllPro on a team of vagabonds that won just 15 of 70 games from 1969 through 1973. Teams would come into town knowing they would beat us, then go home and laugh about it. We had no friends in the whole city. Even my dog would bite me when I got home."
Now the Oilers have the NFL's leading rusher, rookie Earl Campbell, who gained 1,534 yards in 16 games; an offensive line that has allowed Pastorini to be sacked only 19 times and a defense that cornerback Greg Stemerick says "does the job and isn't nearly as bad as everybody seems to think."
"Our offensive line did a super job, the best I've ever seen them do on pass blocking," said Pastorini, who seemed to have limitless time to throw Sunday. "They haven't got the recognititon they deserve all year. You've got to be doing something right if you have the leading runner and the fewest sacks in the league, but not one of our guys made All-Pro.
Perhaps in the future they'll get some respect. CAPTION: Picture, Dan Pastorini