Bum Phillips is a bum coach after all. He blew Houston's best chance of beating the Pittsburgh Steelers today as surely as TV commercials follow punts in the NFL. There was only one way the Oilers could win here -- and Phillips wasn't bold enough to try it.

But abuse was being piled on the Oilers coach's head for the wrong reasons after the Steelers' 31-17 victory. He should have gone for the first down on fourth and inches late in the third quarter with the game tied, most everyone said. Or he should have run Earl Campbell more than 13 times.

Nonsense. Anyone second-guessing Phillips for those two moves doesn't know a football from a foot fault. Nobody beats the Steelers running and no rational coach takes such a gamble with so much time left in the game.

The bummer by Bum came much earlier, before the opening kickoff, before the final tactics even were set and anyone began screwing on his game face. He could have given his team just the edge it needed, but either failed to consider such an inspirational move or would not follow his instincts.

To win today, the Oilers should have captured Jo Jo Starbuck earlier this week. They should have tied her skates together and -- above all -- gagged her until dusk settled over Three Rivers Stadium today.

Most NFL thinkers agree that the only way to beat the Steelers is to scramble quarterback Terry Bradshaw's mind. And until a few days ago that seemed to have been done for the Oilers. Even Bradshaw admitted that his apparently certain breakup with his wife Jo Jo had affected him deeply -- and that this might well hamper his regular-season performance.

But late this week came a bulletin that the Bradshaw fam-a-lee might be reunited. Terry and Jo Jo had been talking and a reconciliation seemed not only possible but possibly imminent.

If they had not talked, or if Bum had somehow kept them from talking just a bit longer, Bradshaw's passes today might have sailed so high even the Steelers' sure-handed acrobats could not have touched them.

And any team clever enough to steal the San Diego Chargers' sideline-to-quarterback signals during a playoff game, as Houston did last season, surely can concoct a way to hold a harmless figure skater hostage for a few days.

Having failed to execute so obvious a ploy, the Oilers then slugged through much of today as though they were playing catch with a pig instead of a pigskin. Never in a game has one team made so many impossible catches and the other dropped so many easy chances.

For one frightening quarter, it appeared possible that the Steelers not only had taken the drama from the first game but also from the entire season. In 15 minutes, all the anticipation for this game and this season went flat.

Poof. The Steelers ripped off 17 points against the alleged second-best team in the Nfl as though it were some collection of playground goofs. Which meant everyone else would be playing for second place, so we could safely snooze through the regular season and wake up just befor the Super Bowl without missing anything important.

Then our offense tried to play Rip Van Winkle," said Steeler Joe Greene. And since the defense already was sleeping in the third quarter, the Oilers hustled into a 17-17 tie. Much was made about the Oilers scoring an upset had they made that first down Phillips would not let them attempt near the Steeler 45.

"We would have gone after it," Lynn Swann said. "So should they."

"No they shouldn't have," Greene insisted less than five yards away.

Even if Campbell had made the first down, it says here the Steelers still would have found a way to win. Either from the offense or the defense. Jack Lambert would have knocked some Oiler senseless at exactly the right moment or those spectacular Steeler S's -- Swann, Stallworth and Smith -- would have soared to mezzanine height and made another unimaginable catch seem routine.

"If we have the concentration," Swann said of the offense, "we're capable of these type games from week to week. The catches we made are what separate us from ordinary receivers."

As Swann was gloating in his elegant way, the best of the Steeler receivers today, Stallworth, was gliding from reporters and strapping enormous ice packs to each of his knees.

The man who leaps tall buildings to grab Bradshaw's bullets scarcely was able to walk an hour after the game. He was flat on his back, his head propped on a pillow, his eyes closed and a smile painted to his face.

"Most other receivers won't take chances like we will," Swann said. "They catch as many balls, but does that make them good receivers or just able to make the routine catches?"

Although they won impressively, the Steelers were mortal enough to make some teams -- the Oilers included -- believe upsets are possible this season. The Pittsburgh pass rush hardly is awesome and the running game seems stagnant at times.

And their minds might wander rather frequently against the dregs of the league, which to the Steelers are all but a few teams.

In important games, though, when they truly care, such as today, the Steelers can be a joy to behold.

"For every game," Greene said, "he (Coach Chuck Noll) has a point that he continuously drives home."

Today's point?

"It's the opener. Chuck's a romantic. He loves opening games. Today it was win one for the coach. He didn't say Gipper or anything, just get this one for the coach."