For the Houston Oilers, this was the longest week. Starting late Sunday afternoon when Earl Campbell, then Dan Pastorini and finally, Ken Burrough went down with groin pulls during the 13-7 wild-card playoff victory over the Denver Broncos, time, not the San Diego Chargers, became the Oilers' toughest opponent.

Most football experts predicted that Campbell and Pastorini would play. They also surmised that without them, the Oilers would have no chance against the high-flying -- and healthy -- Chargers. They were wrong on both counts.

"The world just underestimated Gifford Neilsen," said, Pastorini, wincing slightly as he pulled on his cowboy boots after the 17-14 victory win over the Chargers Saturday. "This kid is a good quarterback. He proved it today."

While Neilsen was proving he isn't a bad NFL quarterback in his second year out of Brigham Young, Robo Carpenter was proving to the nation what Houston already knew, he is a fine running back.

"Look," said Mike Renfro, the little wide receiver who caught the game-winning touchdown pass from Neilsen. "Rob is not the running back Earl is. Gifford is not the quarterback Dan is. But how many guys are? We knew most of the week it was probably going to be Giff and Rob. And we knew they could do the job."

By Wednesday, Neilsen and Carpenter were almost certain the jobs would be theirs to do Saturday.

"Everyone wants to play," Carpenter said. "But I know we're at our best when Earl Campbell plays. I wanted Earl to play, I was hoping he would play. But I knew I would be ready if he couldn't go."

Neilsen and Pastorini are complete opposites away from the football field. Pastorini is known as a man who likes to party. He swears frequently and has been known to take a drink now and then. Neilsen is a Mormon. He doesn't smoke, drink or curse.

"Dan and Giff have absolutely nothing in common," one Oiler official said, "except for football and their intelligence level, which is high."

Yet, the two are extremely close. And when he realized that he probably wasn't going to be able to play, Pastorini, 30, began preparing Neilsen, 24.

"I kept trying to tell him NOT to try to do the things I do during a game because he's not me," Pastorini said. "We're different quarterbacks and I've got more experience. I tried to help him with his thinking, but not with his playing." Carpenter, a three-year man -- Campbell has two years in the league, both as the NFL's leading rusher -- needed no schooling. But by Thursday, he was almost as doubtful a starter as Campbell.

Trotting back to the huddle during practice, Carpenter playfully tried to jump over a stray tackling dummy. He didn't make it, spraining an ankle in the process.

"I just thought, 'Oh no, why me?'" Carpenter said. "I couldn't believe it. I felt shattered. It was a horrible, frustrating feeling. I knew I had to find a way to play no matter how bad I hurt."

Carpenter stayed at the team's headquarters until 3 a.m. that night taking whirlpool treatments for the ankle. He was not alone. Pastorini and Campbell also stayed.

Friday, Pastorini who has gotten out of a hospital bed on game day to play, knew it was no go. He told Neilsen that he would be the quarterback.

"I just tried to pick Dan's brain from that point on," Neilsen said. "I had started one game when he was hurt (a 20-6 win over Kansas City) so I had confidence that I could move the club. Maybe we were conservative, but we were just trying to do what we were capable of, nothing more."

When the Oilers flew to San Diego Friday night, Pastorini, hoping for a miracle, went off to take treatment. He did so until 4 a.m., to no avail. Campbell had decided to wait until pregame practice before making a decision. Caarpenter, arriving at the hotel on crutches, immediately went to bed.

Saturday, the Oilers knew almost the minute they took the field that Campbell and Pastorini would be spectators. Pastorini didn't even attempt to warm up. "The pain was awful," he said. "It still is."

Campbell tried to run briefly. "I could run straight ahead, but no way I could cut," he said. "I went to Coach (Bum Phillips) and told him I wouldn't help the team by playing. He just nodded."

In the meantime, Carpenter did not even take part in pregame drills. He was in the clubhouse getting his ankle wrapped heavily -- "It felt like I was wearing a cast," he said -- and squeezing his size 12 feet into a pair of 11 high-tops equipment manager Greg Doramus had brought with him. "It was suck it up time" Carpenter said. "I hurt, but I had to go."

With Campbell and Pastorini standing side by side watching, the Oilers fell behind early. But they battled back in the second quarter. Then, on a 14-yard scramble, Neilsen, hit by two Chargers, took a hard shot on the hip. It hurt.

Pastorini trotted on to the field. "Are you okay?" he asked his understudy.

"Sure I am, get off the field," Neilsen answered.

Pastorini left. "I hurt but I've seen Dan play hurting a lot worse than that," Neilsen said. "No way I was coming out. He wouldn't have let me in if the situation had been reversed."

Neilsen took a Novocaine shot at halftime, then came back to throw the winning TD pass to Renfro. He completed 10 of 18 passes for 111 yards. Carpenter, making several key runs, had 67 yards on 18 carries and four catches for 23 yards. It was enough.

Campbell and Pastorini said they will play next week in the AFC championship game in Pittsburgh. I'd probably hurt less if I had played." Campbell said. "My stomach was churning so bad that it's killing me now."