HOUSTON — A couple or three things have happened with the Chargers this week that somebody ought to tell the Houston Oilers about.
First, there was a fight on the practice field involving a former replacement player.
The other guy was also a replacement.
You have to think, those guys just don't beat each other up over nothing.
Next, the Charger veterans conducted a rare players-only meeting. Friday morning, they threw the coaches out of the locker room and for 20 minutes, the veterans stood while the youngsters listened.
How often does that happen? The only other time the players considered a subject important enough to call a meeting this season, they were deciding whether to remain on a picket line.
Third, Charger Coach Al Saunders conducted the week's final news conference soaking wet. In a tennis shirt. In the middle of an empty football field layered in 20-m.p.h. winds. With his arms covered in goose bumps the size of some uninhabited island.
He was offered a jacket. He refused. He was offered a chance to answer these silly questions inside. He refused.
"It's not the cold that bothers me," he said. "Just the wet."
Judging from this past work week, apparently the Chargers have decided the same thing. It is not the numb reality of the last two defeats that has bothered them. It's the dripping embarrassment.
By most accounts, at no time this season have they been as prepared as they are for today's game (10 a.m. PST) against the Oilers in the Astrodome.
"Face it--an inch here, a mistake there, we've been stopping short of doing what it takes to win," guard James FitzPatrick said.
"We're going to be ready for everything. Even us linemen, watch us on our pass blocking. After the pass is completed, we're going downfield to find someone else to block, in case someone else needs us. It sounds small, but it adds up."
Mathematics have been foremost on many Charger minds this week. The ciphering goes something like this:
The Chargers (8-3) must win two out of their last four games to get into the playoffs, so if they don't win in Houston, they must win back-to-back home games against tough Indianapolis and Pittsburgh; they sure as heck don't want to go into Denver on the season's final day needing to win there.
Surprise. They come to Houston in a no-choice situation.
It's the same with 6-5 Houston, which is in second place in the AFC Central but is the only team to lose its last two games more decisively than the Chargers. The Oilers lost to the Colts, 51-27, and to the Cleveland Browns, 40-7; the Chargers lost to Denver, 31-17, and to Seattle, 34-3.
"We'll be ready. This is our last chance," said Houston tight end Jamie Williams.
On Friday, his team also called a rare players-only meeting. Only they should have invited a doctor.
Quarterback Warren Moon's sore shoulder did not allow him to throw as planned on Friday. Moon said he may not decide until game time whether he can play.
Because of injuries, the Oilers' four wide-receiver offense also will be missing an important fifth wide receiver, Curtis Duncan. And the defense will be missing starting cornerback Steve Brown.
But this game could begin or end with Moon. If he doesn't start, replacement quarterback Brent Pease--a rookie free agent from Montana who has played bits of just one regular-season game--will play. The Chargers believe they know all they need to know about Pease.
"We know Warren Moon is going to start," said Charger linebacker Billy Ray Smith, shaking his head. "In a game of this magnitude? That's a given."
If only the Chargers were so sure of themselves. That's the other reason they have worked so hard this week.
"We cannot say we are good with our backs against the wall," nose tackle Chuck Ehin said. "I don't care how many times we came back to win games in the fourth quarter, this is different. We go in knowing we're under pressure, and we've never gone in like that before. We have to prove to ourselves that we can handle it."
That was the gist of the Charger team meeting.
"Guys were saying this was our first opportunity to really prove something to ourselves," said defensive tackle Joe Phillips.
Phillips was one of the replacement players involved in the fight. It was on Thursday afternoon, the final day of practice in pads. He and tackle Dan Rosado were battling on a running play. When the whistle blew, they kept battling. Phillips pushed Rosado, then took a couple of swings. Rosado swung back. Curtis Rouse, all 340 pounds of him, stepped between them. End of discussion.
Phillips and the defense will be on the spot today; they allowed 1,018 yards in the last two games.
"We are embarrassed, because we know we aren't that bad," said Phillips, who then smiled. "What a great week of practice we had. We're ready. We're good and ready."
There will be only one change in the Charger active roster. Defensive end Karl Wilson comes off the injured reserve list and replaces defensive end Dee Hardison.