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"It's unfortunate that the game often comes down to kicking," said Pardee philosophically.
Indeed, it is unfortunate, but a game has to be close for kicking to spell the difference. And this game was nothing if not close. Going in, a good showdown was expected, because both Washington and Houston had whipped opponents soundly. The Redskins had outscored their foes 248-95, while the Oilers had outscored theirs 231-105. Though in different conferences and sharing only one opponent, Cincinnati, in the first half of the season, the two teams had remarkably similar stats. Both had averaged 4.2 yards per rush, and both had completed 61% of their passes. Both had scored 29 touchdowns, while Washington had given up 11 touchdowns to Houston's 12. Their average time of possession was only eight seconds apart—32:17 for the Oilers, 32:09 for the Redskins.
The weird thing was how different their offenses were, how strange it was that two travelers could get to the same place—one by mule, one by whippet. The Redskins play it safe, using three tight ends at times, pounding the ball, eating up the clock until quarterback Mark Rypien throws some play-action passes or goes deep to his wondrous trio of wide receivers, Gary Clark, Art Monk and Ricky Sanders.
Tucked nicely into that package is the fleet piglet, Ervins, a third-round draft pick from Southern Cal, who acknowledges that he sometimes goes under tackles. Two weeks ago he gained 82 yards on 20 carries in the second half against the New York Giants. Two weeks before that he had 133 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries in the second half against the Browns.
Houston, of course, would stick with its run-and-shoot—with its four wideouts, its lack of a tight end and its reliance on the timing, the reads and the footing of the receivers as well as on the skill of the deft, cannon-armed Moon. The question was: How would the run-and-shoot fare in an extremely hostile environment? Could it stand up to the Redskins defense and work on grass amid the noise and possible foul weather at RFK?
Washington's defense also wasn't without its worries. "The biggest burden for defensive backs is reading a lot of routes," said Edwards last Saturday. "They have guys all over and 30 to 40 yards downfield. It's like third down every down." Washington's assistant head coach/defense, Richie Petitbon, was less in awe of the Houston offense but just as concerned. "Myself, I'd rather have more options, have some tight ends," he said the day before the game. "But they obviously don't agree with my opinion. And you can't fault what they've done."
The Skins would substitute a lot on defense, he added, sometimes inserting six defensive backs to counter the pass. "They could kill us tomorrow, kill anybody," Petitbon said. "But they're not winning because of the run-and-shoot. The Oilers have got talent, man. They could run any type ball they want."
During the week Houston was mostly concerned about achieving its potential. "You can be around a long time and not have the pieces we do," said Pardee. "There's no need to wait till next year. Look at the ages of some of our players—Warren [Moon, 35] and Drew [Hill, 35]—how much longer for them?"
"Somebody said this will be Super Bowl XXV½," said Oiler defensive end William Fuller during the week. "I don't know about that, but this is our biggest test—on the road, versus a great team, in front of that crowd, as underdogs."
One thing that both teams felt good about was defense; Washington's was ranked third in the league and Houston's sixth. Each unit is led by a revitalized linebacker, the Skins' by eight-year veteran Wilber Marshall, the Oilers' by second-year man Lamar Lathon. Marshall, who struggled in 1989 and '90 after coming to the Skins from the Chicago Bears in '88, plays like a huge strong safety, and the 6'3", 250-pound Lathon, who performed poorly last year, now runs around like a mean man in a very foul mood. One day last week he was furious after practice because someone had hidden his car keys—again. Then, on Sunday, he had six tackles, assisted on another, broke up a pass, forced a fumble and made an interception. Afterward, said Lathon, "I feel like I can do anything out there now. It's a feeling—I don't want to sound like a braggart—but I feel invincible."