HOUSTON — So much for Warren Moon's dislocated thumb--at least for now.
With Cody Carlson doing a perfect imitation of their injured Pro Bowl quarterback, the Houston Oilers ran and shot their way into the NFL playoffs Sunday night by beating Pittsburgh, 34-14, and brought Cincinnati in with them.
In this season of falling quarterbacks, that made Houston the fourth team entering the playoffs with a backup. But like Frank Reich of Buffalo and Jeff Hostetler of the New York Giants, Carlson was nearly as good as the injured starter.
"It was a blur at first," said Carlson, who completed 22 of 29 for 247 yards and three touchdowns. "I'd never been in a game of this magnitude before, but after the first three completions, I settled down. The plays that were called were just right."
Of Carlson, Coach Jack Pardee said: "I thought he'd do that. He was untested, but he has the ability."
Carlson and the Oilers riddled a defense that hadn't allowed a touchdown in its last three games and entered the game ranked first in the league. Lorenzo White rushed for 90 yards behind a revised offensive line as part of a 195-yard rushing attack that helped knock the Steelers and Seattle out of the playoffs.
"That the running game went so well took a lot of pressure off me," Carlson said. "Nobody expected that."
But Carlson got his share of the credit, with Moon leading the cheers from the sideline.
"It came down to the last game of the year and I certainly would have liked to be in there," Moon said. "But Cody came in and did a perfect job. He was really riding high."
After missing a field goal early, the Oilers scored on five straight possessions. They took a 24-0 halftime lead as Carlson completed 16 of 21 passes for 156 yards, running up 264 yards in the half against a team that had allowed just 246 a game. Their only punt came with just more than two minutes gone in the fourth quarter.
"They beat us running and they beat us passing," Pittsburgh Coach Chuck Noll said. "Obviously, we didn't play as well as we're capable as playing."
The results left Houston, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh tied at 9-7 in the Central, with Seattle of the AFC West also 9-7.
The Bengals claimed the Central Division title because they had the best intra-division record at 5-1.
Houston won the final wild card over the Steelers and Seahawks because its conference record of 8-4 is the best of the three.
The Oilers will play next week in Cincinnati, where they lost, 40-20, last week, when Moon dislocated his right thumb.
That injury was supposed to give the Oilers little chance to make the playoffs for a fourth straight season, a streak currently bettered only by San Francisco.
But Carlson, making just the sixth start of his four-year career, provided a lesson in the run-and-shoot offense that was close to the best of Moon, who had 4,689 yards in 15 games. That included a 527-yard game against Kansas City that was the second-best in NFL history.
He had a 14-yard touchdown pass to Ernest Givins, a three-yarder to Drew Hill, then hit Haywood Jeffires for 53 yards in the third quarter after Pittsburgh had scored on its first possession. White ran one yard for the first score.
"It would be hard to beat that, particularly in a game this big," Pardee said. "I don't think they stopped us for most of the game, except for that missed field goal."
The defense, meanwhile, controlled Bubby Brister and the Pittsburgh offense. Brister finished 15 of 26 for 240 yards, most of that when the game was out of hand.
The Oilers, who had 18 plays to one for Pittsburgh in the first 10 minutes, missed a chance on their first possession when Teddy Garcia missed a 50-yard field goal.
But rookie linebacker Lamar Lathon knocked the ball loose from Tim Worley on Pittsburgh's first play and John Grimsley recovered at the 36. Eight plays later, on fourth down, White went in from the one for the first touchdown in 15 quarters against the Steelers' defense.
The Oilers made it 14-0 in the second period with an 80-yard, eight-play drive capped by Carlson's 14-yard pass to Givins, the first touchdown pass in four games against Pittsburgh, which had allowed just six all year. Givins' 31-yard run on a reverse put the Oilers into scoring position.
Again came the Oilers, this time 68 yards in 10 plays, with Carlson hitting Hill in the back of the end zone from the three, and the rout was on.