If there is a heaven, and Cody Carlson should one day appear at its gates, he will probably be forced to wait. Because entering before him will most assuredly be another quarterback.

Wait, wait, wait. Share, don't complain and be patient. That's what the Houston Oilers quarterback has been forced to tell himself throughout his college days at Baylor and his four-year career as a pro backup.

His main NFL mission: Shut up and sit down until needed. And playing behind record-setter Warren Moon, don't mind doodling with a crossword puzzle or two during the game.

But now, more than ever, the Oilers need him. With Moon likely out for the postseason because of a dislocated thumb, the Oilers have heaped most of their playoff hopes onto Carlson, who will get his second start of the season in the AFC wild-card game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Riverfront Stadium on Sunday.

The Bengals have won nine straight at home against AFC Central teams, including three in a row against Houston.

While Carlson won't win or lose the game all by his lonesome, he is now the trigger man on the league's most powerful (388 yards a game) yet unpredictable offense. An Oilers victory would send them to Buffalo for the next round. A loss would send them home wondering what could have been if Moon's thumb worked.

The pressure on Carlson? He faced a lot of it last week against Pittsburgh. The Oilers needed to win to make the playoffs and the team responded superbly behind Carlson, who completed a career-high 22 of 29 passes for 247 yards and three touchdowns in his first start since 1988. Houston blew out the Steelers, 34-14, and Moon was high-fiving Carlson on the sideline.

Now he hopes to have a repeat performance.

"I think only my family and myself knew I would have the day I had," Carlson said about the Pittsburgh game. "I felt good going into that game. Even though I hadn't played much, the confidence that I had in myself . . . I knew I could help the team be more competitive and play to win."

Carlson's attitude about being a backup has changed. He accepts it now, even though he still feels he could start on a number of NFL teams. Carlson said the same last year, asking then-coach Jerry Glanville to be traded "several times."

"Last year I didn't handle being the career backup as well as I should," Carlson said. "I felt I wanted to compete for the starting job somewhere. When that didn't work out I had to change my attitude about it, otherwise I wasn't doing myself or my team any good. I made an adjustment for the better."

Still, he finds himself wondering if he can ever eclipse the Moon. This season few could, as Moon finished second in the NFL with a quarterback rating of 96.8 and tied Dan Marino's 1984 record of nine 300-yard games. Moon's numbers -- completing 362 for 584 for 4,689 yards and 33 touchdowns -- were all league highs.

Moon's incredible presence casts a huge shadow over Carlson, who has the confidence of someone who has played in five Super Bowls. He even thinks about -- can this be possible -- beating out Moon?

"I go out every training camp with that on my mind," Carlson said. "But the reality over the last four years . . . that's not a real picture.

"That's the part that is really frustrating to me. No matter how well I play it seems like it doesn't change the fact who the starting quarterback is. In preseason I could throw for a billion yards and Warren would still get the start. I know that playing behind him probably means I won't get to start unless something like this happens. But who's to say what this opportunity will bring?"

But Carlson is used to sharing the spotlight. At Baylor, he was part of what was known as the Great Texas Quarterback Experiment.

Baylor Coach Grant Teaff had designed an offense in which Carlson and Tom Muecke (pronounced Mickey) were part of a two-quarterback system. For three years (Muecke graduated Carlson's senior year), Carlson ran the option offense for two series and Muecke ran more of a pro-style offense for two series.

It was quite successful, and somehow, the two egos co-existed well. Carlson was one of the top two high school quarterbacks in Texas in 1982. So was Muecke. Both chose Baylor over Texas A&M.

"The thing that has always impressed me about Cody is the very first time I met him," said Teaff. "At the time, Tom and Cody were the No. 1 and No. 2 quarterbacks in the state. Tom had already committed to us and Texas A&M was trying to get Cody. A&M told Cody, 'You better not go to Baylor, Muecke is there.' That was the wrong thing to say to Cody. He wanted to compete.

"The situation made Cody tougher mentally and he learned what it was like to be unselfish. But one thing it doesn't quell is the competitive spirit. I'm sure Cody still has plenty of that."

Carlson and Muecke ended up combining for 6,815 yards and 53 touchdowns. Carlson still holds Baylor records for overall passing yardage (5,411), yards in a season (2,284 in 1986), and touchdown passes in a career (32).

"Baylor is when I first learned patience," said Carlson, who was drafted in the third round by the Oilers. "When I first went into college, Tom and I both felt we deserved the starting job. When it didn't happen, we had to adjust to it. I think that helped me more than anything for the pros."

And he will need that help now more than ever.