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AFC East

A word of advice: Go to Vegas and take the price on BUFFALO to go all the way. The odds are right. Just look at how close the Bills came last year. If Charley Romes intercepts the pass that bounces off his chest in the last few minutes of the playoff against San Diego, then the Chargers don't score on the next play and win the game. And Buffalo gets to play Oakland at home—where the Bills crushed the Raiders earlier in the season. And Buffalo's in the Super Bowl.

It was a euphoric kind of year for Buffalo. Chuck Knox and his defensive coordinator, Tom Catlin, built the defense into No. 1 in the NFL with virtually the same people who had been lousy in '79. The Bills even beat Miami for the first time in a generation. And then Quarterback Joe Ferguson picked exactly the wrong time of year to sprain his ankle—the playoffs. And San Diego ended the dream.

The Bills are still a hungry team, on the rise. They'll have to stay almost injury-free, though, because they're in big trouble if one of the big boys goes down, i.e., Ferguson, Nose Guard Freddy Smerlas, Wide Receiver Jerry Butler or Halfback Joe Cribbs, who handled the ball more times (389) than any back in the NFL, counting passes caught and punt and kick returns as well as his rushes.

Knox is basically a ball control coach, and he's been desperately trying to juice up the fullback position, to take some heat off the 190-pound Cribbs. But No. 1 draft choice Booker Moore from Penn State came down with a nerve disorder called Guillain-Barre Syndrome. A team whose defense is as sound as Buffalo's will never be too far off the beat, and the Bills will be even better in October or so when Free Safety Jeff Nixon's knee comes around.

Let's see now, where did we leave off with NEW ENGLAND? Last time we looked, Fullback Sam Cunningham was in the middle of the NFL's longest holdout, something over a year. And the Pats had just hired their fifth defensive backfield coach in six years. And Tight End Russ Francis was gone. Owner Billy Sullivan's son-in-law, Joe Alioto, was representing the Oakland Raiders in their suit against the league. And the Foxboro selectmen were saying that the Sept. 21 Monday night game against Dallas better start at 8 o'clock instead of 9 (less chance of people killing each other that way). The Sullivans got that decision switched. But when they printed the tickets, the part that's supposed to read, "It is not permissible to bring alcoholic beverages into the stadium," came out, "It is now permissible...." They had to be sent back and done over.

You say you want to know how they'll be on the field? Well, the two quarterbacks, Steve Grogan and Matt Cavanaugh, have had a total of six knee operations in the last three years. And the pass defense, which gave up the fourth-fewest yards in the AFC, gave up the most touchdowns, 28. Call it the break-but-not-bend defense. And no one on the defensive line is under 30. That old axiom about the Patriots—"With that talent, they should be in the Super Bowl every year"—doesn't hold up anymore. Oh, they've got talent. There's enough of it left from the Fairbanks era to be respectable. But somehow the Patriots seem like a team that has topped out and is starting to slide.

The MIAMI Dolphins' no-names are back. A magazine called Football Digest sent out an All-Pro ballot near the end of last season listing 10 names at each position. Not one Dolphin was included. A betting service called Stat-Key put out an early line on the season openers. The Dolphins were nine-point underdogs to St. Louis. Why is everyone so down on Miami? O.K., the Dolphins finished 8-8 last season, but it was a transition year. "To write off Don Shula in August is silly," one Dolphin says. "Wait until our seventh knee operation."

Bob Kearney, the Miami PR man, sits in his little office and writes down odd stats. "We've lost to the Jets six times in the last three years," he says. "Turn those into wins and we're tied for the best three-year won-lost in the NFL." Uh huh. "Here's another," he says. "We held opponents to 17 points or less 11 times last year. Only Philadelphia did better." Yeah, right. "O.K., how's this?" he says. "We've beaten the NFC 11 straight times." And here's one for you. No AFC East team has won a playoff game since Shula's last Super Bowl eight seasons ago. It's like representing the Bahamas in the Olympics.

We've tried to digest all this, and the only meaningful conclusion is that Miami's defense was very consistent the last two years. It'll be good again this year. On the first day of the draft, the Dolphins traded a couple of picks to Los Angeles for Bob Brudzinski, and he's a big league linebacker. Bob Baumhower is a terrific nose guard. Don McNeal is just as good at the left corner.

But the offense will operate out of the question-mark formation. Granted, last year's rookie quarterback, David Woodley, can get the ball deep, and now the fly-boys, Duriel Harris and Nat Moore, are all pumped up over the idea of seeing some bombs. But it's asking a lot of a second-year quarterback to carry an offense whose line is only so-so, except for Left Guard Bob Kuechenberg, and whose starting backfield consists of rejects—Woody Bennett (Jets) and Eddie Hill (Rams).

You'd get it everywhere you went last year: "What do you hear about the NEW YORK Jets' situation?" Translation: Is there going to be a head coaching job opening up? Why are they all breathing so heavily for Walt Michaels' job? "Because they've got some real PEOPLE up there," they say. People. Players. Talent. Oh yes.

Maybe the best offensive line in football. But last year the Jets got away from their true offense and tried to go flashy and get the ball to rookie Wide Receiver Lam Jones, and that didn't work.

Quarterback Richard Todd is strong of arm, strong of leg, but the Shea Stadium fans have practically turned him into a psycho with their booing. Now he's a 4-12 quarterback trying to climb back. He needs coaching. He didn't get any last year. Maybe he will now with new Offensive Coordinator Joe Walton running the offense, which has a nice runner in No. 1 draft pick Freeman McNeil.

There's terrific young talent along the front four—Mark Gastineau, Marty Lyons, Joe Klecko. So how come the Jets finished third from worst in the NFL in pass defense? Well, there's that matter of a secondary. Plus the concept. "We were too conservative," Lyons said. O.K., now there's a fire-eater as the defensive coach—Joe Gardi. He says the Jets will make things happen. Billy Baird, the new secondary coach, is teaching the defensive backs the old bump-and-run techniques the Jets used back in '68, when Baird was the free safety on the Super Bowl team.

Will all this work? Will Michaels' job be safe?

It's a tricky situation in old Gotham.

Baltimore's Bert Jones was the NFL's best-kept secret in 1980. After two years on the shelf, the Ruston Rifle came back winging. He threw for more yards (3,134) and completed more passes (248) than ever before (also more interceptions, 21), but the people of Baltimore greeted all this with a wide yawn; at the last game, as the season closed out at 7-9, only 16,941 of them showed up in Memorial Stadium, the worst turnout in Colts' history.

The Colts had a terrific draft, getting Randy McMillan, the best and fastest big back; Donnell Thompson, an active pass rusher; and down in the sleeper rounds, Bubba Green, 278 pounds of battering nose guard when the Colts go into a 3-4. And now season ticket sales are up—to 28,000. Don't laugh. In this town, that's good.

O.K., the offense should explode, with Jones, wide receivers Roger Carr and Ray Butler and running backs Curtis Dickey, McMillan and Zach Dixon, a swift second-year man. The line is so-so. Likewise the defense. The kicking? Don't ask. A 40-man tryout failed to come up with anything. Coach Mike McCormack, noting that four games were lost by a total of 10 points last year, said, "They're going to put on my tombstone: He died before his time because of missed extra points."


Jones runs up big passing stats for the Colts.


Cribbs could use some down time in Buffalo.