Whatever the ultimate outcome of their season, one doesn't have to search very far to find the reason for the Oilers' reemergence as a team to be reckoned with. The victories over Miami and Cincinnati practically clinched one of the AFC's two wild-card playoff spots for Houston. With three weeks to play, Houston has lost only four games, while Miami, Oakland and Denver have lost five each. If Houston beats Pittsburgh again this Sunday in the Astrodome, it will chop the Steelers' lead in the AFC Central to just one game—and then, who knows?
Campbell's performance has eased the burden that the Oilers formerly placed on their overworked defense because of the ineptness of their alleged attack. Before Campbell arrived, Houston's offense consisted mainly of a couple of dive plays up the middle for no gain, followed by a Pastorini pass to Ken Burrough.
Now the Oilers have balance, which has enabled them to come from behind in eight of their nine victories. In the most memorable comeback, they spotted New England a 23-0 lead in the second quarter and then regrouped to win a 26-23 stunner. "When we fell behind like that in the past," says Defensive End Elvin Bethea, "we used to fold and then keep going on down the hill. Then we'd go into the next game and go straight down the hill further. But now we have confidence in our offense, and the offense has confidence in itself. [ Campbell] has been an inspiration. When we can get the ball to him, we feel he can do it."
In addition to being a game-breaking runner (he has had four runs of more than 45 yards this season), Campbell also has been the Oilers' bread-and-butter plunger in critical short-yardage situations. Twenty-four times he has been given the ball on third down with three yards or less to go for the first down. He has made it 18 times. On one third-and-seven play, Campbell responded with a 73-yard touchdown run. And on fourth-down plays he has carried the ball four times for a mind-blowing average gain of 12.2 yards.
"I thought Earl would be the kind of runner he is," Phillips says, "but he's really surprised us with his blocking, faking and pass protecting. He's a good run-blocker when the other guy's got the football. He's got absolutely no regard for his body—or anybody else's body."
It is difficult to determine which Oiler has benefited most from Campbell's presence, although Pastorini certainly will do for starters. Now 29 years old and in his eighth—and happiest—season in the NFL, Pastorini has compiled the best statistics of his career; this year he has completed 55.3% of his 295 passes for a career-high 2,080 yards and 12 touchdowns. Almost overnight he has gone from being another "dumb" quarterback to a "field general." Against Miami, Pastorini led touchdown marches of 70, 87, 63, 80 and 93 yards. He has been sacked only 12 times. One reason is Houston's improved line; another is that Pastorini finally has learned to throw the ball to the cheerleaders when a sack appears imminent. Best of all, Pastorini has won over Houston's highly vocal fans, who used to boo the mention of his name in the pregame introductions.
Until this season Pastorini seemed to be his own worst enemy around Houston, where his name—and details of his now busted-up marriage to centerfold pinup June Wilkinson, as well as reports of his driving escapades on land and on sea—showed up in gossip columns more often than on the sports pages. But Pastorini arrived at training camp in superb condition, and he has toned down his lifestyle. "Dan is almost 30 years old now," says an acquaintance, "and maybe he's begun to realize that he's mortal after all, that there's going to be an end to football someday. Maybe he's trying to put that off as long as possible by doing the right things now."
For his part, Campbell always has done the right things. Says Bethea, "What's happened here is that Earl fits in like the last piece of the puzzle. We've needed him for years."
The people in Houston will wave their pompons to that.