Inside the Houston Oiler locker room this afternoon as the Oilers joyously pounded and pummeled one another after their stunning 17-14 upset of the San Deigo Chargers, one sentence kept cropping up: "They said it couldn't be done."
But it was done. By an Oiler team that was without the NFL's leading rusher, Earl Campbell; that was without its starting quarterback the last nine years. Dan Pastorini.
It was done with Gifford Neilsen, a second-year quarterback from Brigham Young who needed Novocain for a hip injury during halftime; with backup tailback Rob Carpenter, who got off the team bus at the hotel on crutches last night. And it was done with Vernon Perry, a safety who played two years in Canada Before joining the Oilers this summer after being recommended to Coach O. A. (Bum) Phillips by Houston linebacker Robert Brazile, a teammate of Perry's at Jackson State.
Perry made Brazile look like a genius. He intercepted four of San Diego quarterback Dan Fouts' passes, the last two ending the final two Charger drives of the game. Just to make sure everyone noticed him, he blocked a second-quarter field-goal attempt that would have given the Chargers a 10-0 lead.
"Everyone on the defense knew we were going to have to play great with Dan and Earl out," Perry said, still in uniform almost an hour after the game ended. "I was in the right place at the right time. Eleven guys made those plays, not just me. Forty-five guys won this game. Okay, that's a cliche, right? But today, it was true."
Actually, 43 guys won this game. Pastorini and Campbell just watched. Pastorini had told Neilsen Friday night that he could not play. Campbell tried to warm up, found he couldn't cut and told Phillips that Carpenter would be more effective.
The Oilers, a wild-card entry, will play at either Pittsburgh or Miami next Sunday for the AFC championship.
Early in the game, on a perfect 75-degree afternoon, it did not look as if the crippled Oilers had it. The Chargers, with their gold-clad, sign-waving fans roaring, looked ready to make the game a rout.
On their first possession, the Chargers marched 81 yards in 11 plays throwing on their first five plays from scrimmage.That set a pattern for the entire game as Fouts completed 25 passes in 47 attempts for 333 yards (his seventh 300-yard game of the season) but was intercepted five times.
The opening drive culminated with 4:49 left in the first quarter when Clarence Williams dove over from the one for a 7-0 lead. The key play was a 34-yard play-action pass from Fouts to second tight end Greg McCrary. That was the Chargers' longest gain of the day as things turned out.
"They came out like they were going to blow us out," said Carpenter, who rushed for 67 yards on 18 carries and caught four passes for 23 yards. "We just had to suck it up and get going."
It was Perry who got the Chargers going late in the second quarter. The Chargers had driven to the Oiler six, but bogged down. Mike Wood came on for a 26-yard field goal attempt. It never got past the line of scrimmage.
"I just came in on the right side," Perry said. "No one touched me. I don't know what happened to them." What happened: the Chargers got confused on blocking assignments and no one went for Perry.
Perry blocked the ball cleanly, picked it up on one hop, then dashed 57 yards to the Charger 28 before holder Mike Fuller dragged him down.
That set up a 26-yard Toni Fritsch field goal which cut the margin to 7-3 with 4:02 left in the half.
Perry was just getting started. On the next Charger possession he cut in front of Charlie Joiner and grabbed Fouts' underthrown pass at the 46. He lateraled to Mike Reinfeldt, who got to the Charger 38 with it.
From there the Oilers moved to a first down at the four, the key play being a 14-yard Neilsen scramble to the four. On that play, hit by two Chargers, Neilsen suffered a hip pointer.
Three plays later, however, Neilsen was on the sidelines as Phillips sent in the field goal unit on fourth down with 29 seconds left -- and the Oilers out of timeouts. But as Fritsch's boot cleared the uprights, the Chargers were detected with an extra man on the field -- linebacker Don Goode -- and penalized half the distance to the goal -- one foot.
"When they put the damn thing down it was so close I just knew we could run it in," Phillips said. "I said, 'Let's go for it.' Then I had an argument with King (Offensive Coach King Hill) in the booth whether to run right or left. I said right, he said left."
Hill won the argument and Boobie Clark swept left behind Carpenter and fullback Tim Wilson for a 10-7 Oiler lead with 19 seconds left in the half.
The surprising deficit did not seem to bother the Chargers at the start of the second half. Just as they had done the first half, they marched the length of the field to a touchdown on their first possession.
Lydell Mitchell got the score on an eight-yard sweep with 13:08 left in the third quarter, capping a six-play, 65-yard march. Again, the Chargers appeared ready to take control.
They never scored again.
Shortly after J. C. Wilson intercepted Fouts at the Charger 46, Neilsen faked to Carpenter on third and 10 and found Mike Renfro running a quick down-and-in, a play the Oilers had run before, but never completed. Renfro slipped away from safety Mike Fuller, cut back behind a block from tight end Mike Barber and dashed into the end zone for a 17-14 Oiler lead with 2:05 left in the third quarter.
Renfro dived in safely, though. Then, it was up to the defense -- with a little help from Carpenter and Neilsen. First, the offense, thanks largely to Carpenter's running, killed six minutes of the fourth quarter, moving from its 22 to the Houston 40. When Cliff Parsley did finally have to punt, he landed the ball at the 10 yard line.
With 6:34 left, Fouts began moving his club. The Chargers got as far as the Houston 35. Then, on first down, Fouts tried a short pop pass to tight end Bob Klein. The ball hit Klein's hands, popped in the air, was tipped by Brazile and grabbed by a diving Perry.
With 1:08 left, San Diego got its last chance. Fouts got them as far as their own 40 but with 10 seconds left, trying desperately to find John Jefferson on the sidelines, he threw into double-coverage. Naturally, Perry was there.
It was over. What couldn't be done, had been done.