The Houston Oilers once were so bad the coach couldn't even pray right. Before a game in 1972, Bill Peterson asked the Oilers to kneel. "Let's say the Lord's Prayer," the coach said, and his voice led them, saying, "Now I lay me down to sleep..." The Oilers won two of 19 games before Peterson was fired.

Dan Pastorini, a golden-haired quarterback, threw bombs from coast to coast in those melancholy days. Most times, the bombs fell to earth, harming no man. In his first three seasons, working for three different coaches, Pastorini was on the winning side six times in 42 tries.

For all anyone knows Peterson may be working on the Gettysburg Address today ("Friends, Romans, countrymen..."). Happily for the Oilers, Pastorini is still with them, no longer sending up bombs in desperation. He is, at long-suffering last, a star in the National Football League.

He leads the Oilers against the Steelers today. The winner goes on to the Super Bowl. Say what you will about Earl Campbell. Any team can use a runner of his power and joy. Praise Campbell, but remember this: without Pastorini, these Oilers are not a championship football team.

Of the 43 Oilers, 32 have joined the team since Bum Phillips became coach four seasons ago. In his reconstruction work, Phillips has built around Pastorini, for even as the quarterback's harmless bombs marked him a foolish wastrel of resources, the coach knew better. Pastorini was a quarterback without a prayer.

Phillips built a defensive line first. Then came the offensive line. The capstone of his creation was Campbell, the running back supreme. Now the Oilers are a solid team, winners in 12 of 18 games this season, and Pastorini may be seen any day now modeling flak jackets on television.

The flak jacket became news three weeks ago. An inventor barged into Pastorini's hosital room where the quarterback was laid up with injured ribs. The inventor's accomplic carried a baseball bat and whacked it against the flak jacket. It was as if he tickled the man with goose down.

So Pastorini now has quarterbacked the Oilers to two playoff victories while wearing the flak jacket (more precisely, the jacket is a quilted air cushion, not the metal flak jacket John Wayne wore while winning World War II). In the two playoff games, Pastorini has completed 32 of 44 passes for 506 yards and four touchdowns. A quarterback who scores, say, 110 in the NFL's complex quarterback rating system is a miracle in cleats; Pastorini in the playoffs rates at 131.

He is high on the confidence meter, too. The Oilers worked out briefly today, Pastorini in his blue cowboy hat tossing passes to ambling receivers. The Oilers were a loose and laughing crew. Someone suggested to Pastorini that the weather, with temperatures in the teens and snow possible, might be a factor in this American Football Conference championship game.

"The weather won't mean anything," Pastorini said. He tilted his hat back and straightened his jeans over his white boots. "I don't think anybody can beat Houston."

How it pleases Pastorini to say those words we can only imagine. In eight seasons, he has played for five coaches. The Oilers went 1-13 in both his second and third seasons. An All-America quarterback at Santa Clara, he was a No. 1 draft choice by Houston. At 6-foot-3, his arm a gun, Pastorini seemed the model NFL quarterback.

"Not bad for a 'dumb quarterback,' is it?" he said today. They called him dumb during those early years, as if Einstein at quarterback might have invented a way to score by himself, one brain against 11 brawns. Pastorini smiled at the idea of how intelligent he had become now that his playmates had risen to his level of excellence.

We forget pain when joy arrives. The numbers won't go away, the sad 1-13 and 1-13, but Pastorini said, "Everything has gone by so fast." Desperate bombs moved the Houston fans, angry at failure, to boo Pastorini mercilessly. Gone by so fast, Pastorini said. Coaches were fired before they could say a prayer. Gone by so fast.

"Now, and then, there's no comparison," Pastorini said. "The feeling now is just what I'd thought it would be. This is an all new world. All the turmoil of the first eight years is worth it."

Quarterbacks have been broken in spirit by their team's failure and the criticism that inevitably rains down on them. Pastorini survived, and he knows why.

"I kept my self-respect because it was given to me by my father and mother, and I'll always have it," he said."My father is a rather proud man, and I have a lot of pride myself."

Dante Pastorini Sr., 66, is the son of a carpenter who came from Italy to San Francisco in the year of the earthquake, 1906. From nothing, the carpenter's son built a restaurant business and ran it 23 years until he retired in 1972. He played some baseball and encouraged his son to play all sports.

"Those years they were 1-13, my son was on his back so much from blitzes and sacks that he did a TV commercial for mattresses," the elder Pastorini said. "You know, it is a great game to watch and a beautiful sport, but when you have someone of your own being hit, that takes the joy out of it."

After every game, Pastorini calls his parents in San Jose, to tell them how he feels. At the beginning of this season, Dante Pastorini wrote his son a letter.

The letter contained an analogy of football as life, a father telling his son he is the quarterback and "you'll have a great backfield... Faith, Hope and Charity... (and) a truly powerful line (of) Honesty, Loyalty, Devotion to Duty, Self-Respect, Study, Cleanliness and Good Behavior. The goal posts are the pearly gates of heaven."

"Dad's letter," Pastorini said today in his moment of professional triumph, "is something I'll treasure forever."