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I keep running back the tapes of the Cleveland Browns' last two games of the 1986 season—the playoff against the Jets, which they should have lost, and the AFC Championship against the Broncos, which they should have won. Yes, Denver quarterback John Elway's last drive in regulation time was an all-timer, but that's not the only thing that's registering.

Browns versus Jets: Cleveland opens with a three-wideout formation and then goes to four, even five, split receivers. Bernie Kosar sets a postseason record for passing yardage (489), but see how the Browns win in overtime—on the ground, banging away, 45 yards on five shots. Browns versus Broncos: It's overtime again, and Cleveland gets the ball first. That's what people forget about the game; the Browns had first crack, from their own 30. Three downs later they stall on third-and-two with running back Herman Fontenot getting stuffed on a play that had no chance. The next drive belongs to Elway, and the ball game is over.

Sure the Browns had a fine season, and Kosar had a better year than anyone dreamed he would. However, when it came down to the very end, that grain of toughness simply wasn't there. True, the Browns had hard luck with their running backs. First Kevin Mack got hurt and then Ernest Byner did (they played in the same backfield for only seven quarters last year). But the whole season had a frantic quality about it. Cleveland was 4-3 against teams with winning records, 9-2 against clubs with .500 records or worse. Six of those nine victories came by less than a touchdown. Had Mack and Byner been healthy, they might have stabilized the situation. They're big, thumping backs who block for each other as well as any pair in the league. The line is of the hog variety, and it got another monster when the Browns drafted 6'6", 290-pound center Gregg Rakoczy of Miami in the second round. Their third selection, 227-pound fullback Tim Manoa, who blocked for D.J. Dozier at Penn State, provides more muscle and will help the goal-line offense. Last year Cleveland had noseguard Dave Puzzuoli doing the William Perry bit, but it didn't work too well. Cleveland gave the Rams rights to its fourth-, fifth- and 12th-round selections to get an extra third-round pick, which it used for placekicker Jeff Jaeger (remember Mark Moseley's shank job against the Jets?).

Call those need drafts, all pretty much unavoidable. The Browns' first-round selection is harder to understand. They traded their four-time Pro Bowl left outside linebacker. Chip Banks (along with their first- and second-round picks), to San Diego in exchange for the Chargers' first- and second-round picks, the first of which went for linebacker Mike Junkin. Granted, he's a good one, but Junkin played the inside all four years at Duke, and now he has to switch. To make things tougher, Junkin missed 2½ weeks of camp while his contract was being negotiated. Coach Marty Schottenheimer is a former linebacker coach, and he certainly knows the position, but giving up Banks for Junkin is a puzzle. If the kid is terrific, the pieces could fall into place.

Cleveland has a first-rate pair of cornerbacks in Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield, a Pro Bowler in noseguard Bob Golic and a new starter at right end, 6'7" Sam Clancy, who's a pass-rush specialist. Last year the hunt was on for wideouts, and the Browns filled their hand. Now they've gone for muscle.

The Cincinnati Bengals were 44 seconds away from the playoffs last year. They had to beat the Jets and hope that the Dolphins knocked off the Patriots in the Orange Bowl in the season's Monday night finale. The Bengals did their part in frightening fashion, piling up 621 yards of offense in a 52-21 rout of New York. Then they sat by their TV sets and watched New England wideout Stanley Morgan race into the end zone with the touchdown pass that sent them home for Christmas.

Cincinnati's last four games of 1986 were a mirror of its problems over the past few years. The Bengals scored 83 points in their two victories and gave up 68 in their two defeats. Their offense finished No. 1 in the NFL, their defense No. 20, better than in the previous season but still not good enough. Overall the Bengals gave up only five more yards than the Browns did, but they suffered lapses.

The Bengals have been working on plugging the defensive holes. Five of their first six draft picks in '86 were defensive players. Three of the rookies started and all five made the squad. Not enough, coach Sam Wyche said. So this year Cincinnati's first four selections were also defensive players. First-round choice Jason Buck is a relatively slender (6'5", 260 pounds) pass-rush end who was unsigned as the exhibition season began. Third-rounder Skip McLendon (6'6", 270) is bigger but greener. Both are desperately needed. The incumbent ends, Eddie Edwards and Ross Browner, are both 33. Noseguard Tim Krumrie needs help. He led the team in tackles for the second straight year but somehow was not chosen for the Pro Bowl. Krumrie's reckless, sideline-to-sideline style is built for early burnout unless he gets some support. Second-round pick Eric Thomas is battling for a starting cornerback spot. The first of two third-round choices, Leonard Bell, is in the free safety picture, along with sixth-rounder Sonny Gordon.

The offense, led by quarterback Boomer Esiason, is big league, but there's one unsettling note. The Bengals rewarded halfback James Brooks for his outstanding performance in '86 (1,087 yards on 205 carries for a 5.3-yard average) with a two-year contract worth $500,000 per season. That made him the highest-paid Bengal. When tackle Anthony Munoz, the finest offensive lineman in the club's history, asked for the same deal, the club said uh-uh. So he stayed out of camp. Munoz's base salary was $275,000 in 1986, the last year of a six-year contract.

The Pittsburgh Steelers will not sink to the level of Indianapolis or Tampa Bay. The coaching is too solid, and the club still has too many proud old pros like center Mike Webster, wideout John Stallworth and strong safety Donnie Shell. But the Steelers will not return to greatness, either. They are a shadow of a once great team, and they shudder when injuries strike. Pittsburgh also sadly lacks the magic to salvage a game that seems out of reach.

The Steelers' best player is Webster, the 13-year veteran. Last season he suffered the first serious injury of his career and missed four games. The running attack gained fewer than 100 yards in three of them. After Webster returned, Pittsburgh rushed for more than 100 yards in 11 of its final 12 games. Webster makes the line calls, and he can keep the Steelers' trap-block attack going, no matter who his linemates are. However, he's 35 now.

Steeler runners were banged up early in the season, but Pittsburgh got lucky with Earnest Jackson, a free-agent pickup from the Eagles who was coming off two consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Last year Jackson ran for 910 yards. The Steelers had no such luck in other areas. The offensive line wasn't intact until Game 8. Both wide receivers, Stallworth and Louis Lipps, played most of the season hurt. One cornerback, Dwayne Woodruff, spent the entire year on injured reserve, and another, Chris Sheffield, missed six games. Mark Malone is the quarterback. He's coachable and hardworking, but he finished 25th in the NFL rankings. There's no thought of replacing him.

For several years the defense kept the Steelers in the playoffs. They were third defensively in the league in '83, fifth in '84, sixth in '85. Last year they slipped to 18th, and the Steelers wound up with their worst record in 16 years. They thought they had the answer when they drafted Rod Woodson, a dazzling athlete from Purdue, to play cornerback. When last seen, he was planning to skip the season to train for the Olympics in the 110-meter hurdles.

There are a few bright spots. Joe Greene has been hired to put some fire into the defensive line. Shell, at 35, was one of the big hitters in the early camp. Last year's No. 1 draft pick, 275-pound guard John Rienstra, had an excellent preseason. If Pittsburgh stays healthy and the question marks come through, then what? A .500 year? A little better? A little worse? Yes, it has come to that.

Has anyone seen Warren Moon of the Houston Oilers? Oh, there he is, right over there, talking to the quarterback coach. Which quarterback coach? Good question. It's, let's see, it's, uh, June Jones. They're working on the new attack, which head coach Jerry Glanville says will be like Cincinnati's and feature four wideouts. You say Moon looks a bit confused? Well, this is his fourth year in the league, and he's working under his fourth quarterback coach. Consequently his rankings have steadily dropped—from 76.9 to 68.5 to last year's 62.3, which was next to last in the NFL. In 1984, when Moon came down from Canada, everyone was fighting to give him a million dollars. Last season the Oilers gave him a vote of confidence by drafting Purdue quarterback Jim Everett in the first round. (They couldn't sign him, and he ended up with the Rams.)

The Oilers talk about fresh legs, fresh faces and fresh raw talent just waiting to be cooked. But they always do that in Houston. They bury you with names. Still, Houston isn't without talent. Left tackle Bruce Matthews, a holdout at the start of camp, is outstanding; left guard Mike Munchak is a Pro Bowler when he's not limping; and wideout Ernest Givins was dazzling as a rookie last year. This year's second No. 1 pick (the Oilers always have lots of selections), wideout Haywood Jeffires, may be almost as good as Givins. The first No. 1? He's Alonzo Highsmith, the 240-pound fullback with the 4.5 speed and the tough contract demands. Well, the Oilers can always trade him, as they did Everett. Then they'll have even more draft choices for '88.

Houston is the NFL's losingest team over the last five years, but here's one ray of hope. Glanville, who was defensive coordinator before he became head coach, has been with the defense for four years, and last season it finally showed signs of life. It moved from 27th to 13th overall, and from 18th to eighth against the pass. The Oilers hung tough against some good teams. Cleveland squeaked out a pair of three-point wins, and in the second one Kosar completed only 16 of 41 passes and was intercepted three times. Houston is probably better than last year, but the schedule is tougher. New year, same record for the third straight season.




Steeler Walter Abercrombie bolted for a career-high 877 yards in '86.



Dixon (29), an All-Pro, broke up seven passes against the Jets in the playoffs.