A Frenchman once said, "Living well is the best revenge."
Don't try to sell that baloney to a Texan. They know that the best revenge --- especially the football kind -- is a good old-fashioned fanny-kicking.
The Hoston Oilers dealt a measure of glorious retribution to the Pittsburgh Steelers tonight, 20-17, before a sold-out Astrodome that stomped and chanted, "We Luv Ya, Blue," all night.
"That's the first thing anybody's given me all night," said Houston Coach Bum Phillips as a buddy handed him a postgame beer, "cause Pittsburgh sure didn't give us a damn thing. We had to take it all."
In a sense, this game probably meant next to nothing -- at least in the hocus-pocus about post season tiebreakers.
Even though both Houston and Pittsburgh now have 11-4 records -- tied for first in the AFC Central, it is still Pittsburg that has its division destiny in its own hands.
If both teams win their final games, the Steelers would capture the division crown on more net division points, 43-20.However, should Pittsburgh lose to Buffalo Sunday, the Oilers would capture the title, regardless of whether they beat Philadelphia, by virtue of a better conference record, 9-3 to 8-4. Both already have qualified as wild card teams.
"They'll win. They'll be champs. We don't care," said Oiler linebacker Gregg Bingham. "This game was for pride. Everybody out there uncorked all the bottles. This was the hardest-hitting game in football today."
In their last two meetings, Pittsburgh has destroyed the huge and proud Oilers by scores of 34-5 (in the '78 playoffs) and 38-7 in the second week of '79.
With the football nation watching what has come to be known as the NFL's Mayhem Bowl, the Oilers gave their answer -- managing to wrench a regular-season win from Pittsburgh for the fourth time in six seasons.
The Oilers -- or Earlers -- were led by Earl Campbell, who became the first player in '79 to rush for 100 yards (109 in 33 carries) against the world champion Steel Curtain. It was also Campell's sixth consecutive 100-yard game -- one short of the NFL record of seven straight set by O. J. Simpson in 1972-73.
In one sense, this war -- for "game" would be too mild a word -- had no turning points, no strategy, no resume.
The Oilers got their noses ahead, 7-0, just before half and were never caught, although the Steelers repeatedly made power pushes to get back in the game.
"This game had no keys," said Oiler tight end Mike Barber. "Both these teams are simple, fundamental and predictable in everything they do. We've run the same plays against each other for years now.
"They line up and say, 'We're coming through that hole. See if you can stop us.' And we do the same thing.
"We just bash heads until somebody gives. If you don't play out of your mind against Pittsburgh, they'll humiliate you."
The Oilers had their moments of glory. Kenny Burrough burning Mell Blount for a 25-yard scoring bomb from Dan Pastorini. And Rob Carpenter scoring a seven-yard touchdown sweep with 2:20 to play for a vital 20-10 Oiler lead.
But Houston never felt confiednt, never truly seemed in control -- not when Toni Fritsch was kicking field goals of 24 and 34 yards or when two of Terry Bradshaw's passes were being intercepted.
Even with one second left to play, and the game won, Houston could not help but show its respect. The Oilers had the ball on Pittsburgh's one yard line and all of the city of Houston was begging for a rub-it-in touchdown. Pastorini, bucking to the collective will, called time.
But then coach Phillips stepped forward.
"All the players think of is 'Let's beat 'em worse.'" said Phillips. "But we didn't need to score.
"The Steelers are too good to insult."
Especially if you have to play them again before long -- perhaps in Pittsburgh in the playoffs.
"You've got to get in the trenches with Pittsburgh," said Phillips. "There's no other way to beat 'em but their way, and tonight we did."
This game, far beyond the limited significance of its final score for two teams that were assured of playoff spots before it ever started, constituted a short work of violent art.
Last season's Dome Demolition was 13 players knocked out of the game with seven of them retiring to the lockerroom. Tonight was the same with Pittsburgh all-pro Jack Ham leaving for the night after just 10 plays. The whole evening was a tableau of cheap shots, late hits, conscussive hits, finger pointing, and a whole drama of who'll-maim-whom taking place within the larger game.
So, with 6:24 left to play, this grudge match came down to cases. Pittsburgh had just swept 80 yards in just four minutes to score on a nine-yard Lynn Swann reverse to cut Houston's lead to 13-10.
So Houston gave the ball to Campbell -- over and over. He bounced off tackle, headed outside and rambled for 31 yards. He blasted Jack Lambert head-to-head over-the-top on a third-and-one dive for a first down. He rambled for a gain that put him past 100 yards for the night -- a victory for the irresistible force over the immovable object.
At the last, Campbell led the blocking for Carpenter on his game-winning sweep, with 2:20 left to play, laying waste to cornerback J. T. Thomas.
Carpenter spiked the ball -- bouncing it high and tauntingly into the midst of 11 disgruntled Steelers. Pittsburgh's Dwight White smashed the ball to the earth.
How important was that 70-yard drive, that Campell masterpiece in grunt and lunge? Bradshaw quickly gave the answer, whirling the Steelers to a touchdown in just 62 seconds, his 34-yard touchdown strike to John Stallworth once more cutting Houston's margin to three points, 20-17.
But it was too late. Pittsburgh narrowly missed recovering an onside kick -- replay indicated that perhaps they actually did. However, this was to be Houston's night.