A notion gaining credence each time these NFL teams meet goes: Houston might not be able to beat Miami, but Miami will find a way to lose to Houston.
The Oilers had the stodgiest game plan in memory tonight but -- in the person of Toni Fritsch -- put their best foot forward often enough for a 9-6 victory that may well prove pivotal for both teams.
Fritsch kicked three field goals, one more than the Dolphins' Uwe von Schamann, as the Oilers stayed in contention in the AFC Central Division and the Dolphins fell a game behind New England in the AFC East.
Three teams now are tied, with 7-3 records, for the two AFC wild-card playoff spots. Houston is one of them; Miami is not, for three basic reasons: injuries, an erratic Bob Griese and too many fumbles.
All three conspired against the Dolphins tonight, just as Houston Coach Bum Phillips surely must have thought they would. Nobody plays that conservatively unless he figures his defense will keep the other fellows out of the end zone.
Houston won for the third straight time over Miami -- and for the third straight time it won that all-important battle of turnovers. In those three tests, Miami has lost the ball 11 times -- or nine more than the Oilers.
The Oilers passed only 10 times, completing six for 25 yards. But Earl Campbell carried 32 times for 120 yards and Fritsch was accurate from 46, 49 and 39 yards. Miami lost two fumbles and Griese was intercepted twice, the last time at the Houston 15 with under two minutes left in the game.
It was not being overly simplistic to assume that the game would match Griese's arm against Campbell's legs.
"How do you stop Campbell?" Dolphin strong safety Tim Foley posed. "Well, I've got an idea. I've been talking to (linebacker) Ralph Ortega a lot lately and Ralph's the resident hunter on the team.
"We decided that a .30-.30 to the head, about an inch below the right temple, might slow him down enough for me to catch him."
Seriously, Foley added: "I've never been a impressed with a running back in my career. He shows you the speed and brilliance of an exceptional halfback but oftentimes displays the tenacity of Larry Csonka in that certainly no one is going to intimidate him. Sometimes, you even think he goes out of his way to run over you."
Campbell became the first opponent to rush for more than 100 yards against the Dolphins this season -- and one reason his total stopped at 120 was Foley.
Foley and the other Dolphin defenders played reasonably well -- and Phillips gambled that his defense and Fritsch would play better. He won.
A nasty wind was partly to blame for Houston's dull play. All the points including von Schamann's 32- and 52-yard efforts, came with the 14-mile per hour wind at the kicking team's back.
Fritsch's first three-pointer, from 46 yards, increased his no-miss total from beyond the 40 this season to seven. He missed later from 49 yards, but ended the game by lifting his season success mark to 15 in 17 tries, best in the NFL.
The Dolphins were more inventive bucking the wind, though in the second quarter they found a familiar way to frustrate themselves and their fans. On the Oiler 16, Gary Davis fumbled and Houston's Robert Brazile recovered.
That Davis-to-Brazile play worked once again for Houston, in the fourth quarter.
Last week against Green Bay was Griese's first Griesean performance in weeks. He has been bothered by a leg injury lately -- and last night lost control of his fast ball once again.
Midway during the fourth quarter, Griese tried a half-the-field throw to Nat Moore. But Vernon Perry positioned himself well in the end zone and took the slightly underthrown ball ffrom Moore for an interception.
Miami had one more chance at victory or overtime, from its 17-yard line, with about five minutes left in the game. Aided by a debatable pass interference call against Houston and a 16-yard completion to Tony Nathan, the Dolphins had second and seven on the Oiler 20.
But Griese's pass was picked off by linebacker Gregg Bingham and returned 54 yards to the Dolphins 31.
Houston ended the game in its fashion -- and quarterback Dan Pastorini evaluated his performance, correctly, by joking: "I handed off well. I'm used to that."