HOUSTON, OCT. 18 -- When Doug Flutie arrived in Chicago last year, someone asked Bears linebacker Otis Wilson how much the little quarterback would be worth in the NFL. Wilson thought for a second, went for his trousers and said, "How much change I got in my pocket?"

And it was just about a week ago that several New England Patriots veterans expressed skepticism over the club's decision to trade for Flutie, making him perhaps the highest-paid fourth-stringer in the history of team sports.

But for this afternoon at least, Flutie had the best time in his three seasons as a pro, maybe even the best time since he completed one of the most famous passes in college football history.

Today, before a group of 26,294 who came to the Astrodome to kiss replacement football goodbye, Flutie completed 15 of 25 passes for 199 yards and a touchdown to lead his replacement Patriots to a 21-7 victory over the replacement Houston Oilers.

As a reward, Flutie was immediately demoted to fourth string, behind Steve Grogan, Tony Eason and Tom Ramsey, who all return to work Monday when the previously striking NFL players report to practice.

There are some who will say that all the 5-foot-9 3/4 Flutie did here today was show he can dominate a game where the competition is a little short.

He rushed for 43 yards in only six carries, led the Patriots to touchdowns on the two drives that meant the most, and felt terribly happy afterward.

"I know this wasn't top-of-the-line NFL, and I won't get carried away with this," Flutie said. "But I felt great and I had a lot of fun. I was never more relaxed in a game situation in my life than today. Now, I'm just looking forward to becoming part of the regular New England Patriots."

He got that acceptance, in part, when two of the team's nonstriking veterans -- linebacker Andre Tippett and cornerback Raymond Clayborn -- offered encouragement before and after the game.

"When the club made the announcement {the Bears had traded Flutie to New England for a seventh or eighth-round draft choice}, I was skeptical like everybody else," Clayborn said. "I figured since we already had three quarterbacks why do we need another one? But after seeing what he did today, I'm glad we got him."

Tippett, who blocked a punt that Clayborn returned for a 71-yard touchdown in the second quarter, said he had his reservations about Flutie, but took a different approach before the game. "I told him, 'Work that magic; let's see it.' He needed to hear that, veterans saying, 'You've got my support.' "

Flutie heard mixed reactions coming out of Chicago, where he will be remembered best for being unable to fill Jim McMahon's shoes in a season-ending playoff loss to the Washington Redskins last January.

Mike Tomczak, the starting quarterback for the regular Bears this season (until McMahon comes back, perhaps as early as this week), had some less-than-kind words when Flutie left Chicago on Tuesday.

"I will always remember {Flutie} as a scab," Tomczak said. "He tried to get into the inner circle of camaraderie. You want to accept him, but there's that certain thing that doesn't allow you to. I don't know what it is."

At least Bears Coach Mike Ditka, Flutie's biggest supporter from his first day in the NFL, defended him, saying: "If the people who said that had half as much class as Doug, they wouldn't have said those things. I love Doug Flutie. I love what he stands for and how he plays. Hopefully, in a new situation, people will accept him for the way he should be accepted."

That may be a little difficult, and not because of anything Flutie does or doesn't do on the field. In Chicago, he went on record as saying he supported the NFL Players Association "100 percent" and criticized those who crossed striking players' picket lines.

Unlike Dallas running back Tony Dorsett, there was no owner forcing Flutie back into uniform before the regular players returned to action. He was dying day by day in Chicago, and wanted out. New England was dying day by day with replacement quarterback Bob Bleier -- perhaps the worst quarterback in the replacement league -- and it turned out the two were right for each other. As long as Flutie played today.

"What I'm doing is something I still think is not right," Flutie said. "But it's a move I feel I had to make. Three years down the road, if I'm still with the New England Patriots, it'll be the best decision I've ever made."

But one game down the road, it means nothing, or at least not much. He did exhibit some nice form in completing three of his first five passes, including a 27-yarder to ex-valet parking lot attendant Larry Linne that set up New England's first score; likewise on the 30-yard pass to Linne that set up the touchdown that put the Patriots ahead for good, 14-7.

The Patriots knew Houston would blitz a lot, and Flutie made some astute check-offs at the line of scrimmage. And Houston linebacker Eugene Seale said "it was a nightmare" chasing Flutie around when he rolled and scrambled, which was almost every time the ball was snapped.

New England Coach Raymond Berry, a man who has played and coached for teams that won NFL championships, said this was "one of the most thrilling experiences I've ever had in pro football." He said Flutie "did an absolutely remarkable job . . . What he did in four days of practice, I don't think anybody else could have done besides him. He didn't make one mistake." New England 14 7 0 0 21 Houston 7 0 0 0 7 First Quarter

NE -- Linne 27 pass from Flutie (Franklin kick), 2:55

H -- Williams 36 pass from Pease (Zendejas kick), 7:40

NE -- LeBlanc 3 run (Franklin kick), 12:19 Second Quarter

NE -- Clayborn 71 blocked field goal return (Franklin kick), 13:05

A -- 26,294

Patriots Oilers First downs 17 17 Rushes-yards 30-114 26-113 Passing yards 196 221 Return yards 14 7 Passing 15-25-0 21-49-2 Sacked-yards lost 1-3 4-29 Punts-average 7-39 6-43 Fumbles-lost 2-0 1-1 Penalties-yards 4-35 5-30 Time of possession 29:07

RUSHING -- New England: Davis 7-47, Flutie 6-43, LeBlanc 13-31, Hansen 2-minus 1, Whitten 2-minus 6. Housto

PASSING -- New England: Flutie 15-25-0, 199 yards. Houston: Pease 21-49-2, 250.

RECEIVING -- New England: Linne 4-81, Scott 4-32, Gadbois 3-51, LeBlanc 2-3, Hansen 1-22, Pickering 1-10. H

MISSED FIELD GOALS -- New England: Franklin, 52. Houston: Zendejas, 34.