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AFC central

Joe Montana's heroics for the 49ers killed what could have been a good super bowl story on the Cincinnati Bengals. just look what they had to overcome. Lost Stanley Wilson, their best short-yardage runner, to drugs the night before the game. Lost Tim Krumrie, their best defensive player, on the second series. Entered the game with a sore-armed quarterback. Still, Cincinnati came within 34 seconds of victory.

The Bengals made few believers, though. Everyone seems to be jumping on the Houston bandwagon—and watching the condition of Boomer Esiason's shoulder. Esiason wasn't right as the 1988 season wore down, but if there's one thing a team doesn't want to announce, it's that its quarterback has an ailing arm. So the Bengals' weak passing attack—it averaged 225 yards a game from September through November but 118 thereafter, including the postseason—was chalked up to Esiason's sore ankle and sprained finger, anything but his you know what.

Will his arm hold up? We'll find out in November or December, when the weather turns cold. In any case, Cincy can call on the league's best ground game. Ickey Woods and James Brooks each averaged more than five yards a shot last year. The Bengals always seem to have an abundance of massive, hulking offensive linemen. Tackle Anthony Munoz, guard Max Montoya, center Bruce Riemers, guard Bruce Kozerski, tackle Brian Blados and second-year guard Paul Jetton all weigh 275 pounds or more. Now comes rookie guard Freddie Childress, the biggest of the bunch at about 340. Right tackle Joe Walter was on his way to a Pro Bowl season when he tore up a knee in December, so the Bengals plugged in Blados, who weighs less than 300 pounds for the first time in his career despite the fact that he helped his girlfriend run a fudge shop in the off-season. That's dedication.

Childress and running back Eric Ball were the second-round draft choices. For years the Bengals' hot round has been No. 2. First-rounders came and went, but for the last six seasons Cincinnati's second-round selections have become solid first-stringers, and two of them, Esiason and cornerback Eric Thomas, have made the Pro Bowl. This year the Bengals dealt their first pick and had two second-round choices.

Thomas and 228-pound strong safety David Fulcher anchor one of the league's best secondaries. Defensive ends Jim Skow and Jason Buck are relentless pass rushers, and Krumrie, who swears the leg he broke in the Super Bowl won't keep him out of the lineup, is the best nosetackle around.

Nope, Cincinnati has too much talent and depth to be dismissed. Division champion—yes. Super Bowl repeater? That might come down to Esiason and his iffy left wing.

Some HOUSTON OILERS grumbled in the off-season about coach Jerry Glanville's stealing so much publicity with his colorful antics. The offensive guys wish all that House of Pain stuff had never gotten started. "Who does it come back to hurt?" says quarterback Warren Moon. "Us, the offense. It just gets the other team's defense fired up." In the old days the Oilers could steal games by sneaking up on people. Not anymore. This year the enemy will enter games with red eyeballs. It's time for strong men to stand up and be counted.

If the Oilers aren't strong men, they're certainly rich ones. Moon signed a five-year, $10 million, fully guaranteed contract that will pay him $4 million in 1993, when he will turn 37. Wideout Ernest Givins got a healthy raise by renegotiating his contract. Pro Bowl defensive end Ray Childress, whose contract expired last season, received a five-year, $4.75 million offer from the Bears, and Houston matched it without a peep.

The 1988 Oilers were capable of great highs (the 41-6 laugher over the Bengals) and dismal lows (the 45-3 loss to the Jets). The Steelers drove 80 yards for a touchdown in the last minute and a half to beat them in a crunch game in December. Houston knows how to win, but not how to win consistently.

The talent is sound in all departments, particularly on the offensive line and at running back. The draft brought backup help and possibly one starter, strong safety Bubba McDowell. The Oilers' show-stopping number has been the four-wideout run-and-shoot offense, which they've mixed with their normal attack. But they have hired a new quarterback coach, Kevin Gilbride—the fifth one Moon will have played for in six seasons.

If Cincy falters, the Oilers will be there to mop up. If Houston has to do it on its own, well....

New CLEVELAND BROWNS coach Bud Carson is the Johnny Sain of football. Sain was a great pitching coach. The players loved him and the fans loved him. Managers, however, found him tough to handle, and he drifted from team to team. Carson developed the great Steeler Super Bowl defenses of the '70s. He was just as effective with the Super Bowl Rams of 1980, but he was axed when coach Ray Malavasi got rid of most of his assistants in '82.

After that, Carson didn't hit it off with Frank Kush in Baltimore or John Mackovic in Kansas City. Joe Walton knew enough not to mess with him on the Jets, whom he joined as defensive coordinator in '85, and he did wonders for them. But by the end of the 1988 season he was 57 and bitter, having watched less qualified people land head-coaching jobs.

When the Cleveland offer came, he jumped, without any complaints about the many conditions attached. He had minimal input in the draft, and he didn't have a free hand in hiring his assistants. Browns owner Art Modell promised Jet owner Leon Hess that none of Carson's Jet assistants would be hired. Carson has kept his mouth shut as he gets ready to make the best of his first chance as a head coach in the pros. Modell is a tough guy to buck. Carson's predecessor, Marty Schottenheimer, tried it last year and came out second best, despite the remarkable job he did getting Cleveland into the playoffs after losing his top three quarterbacks to injuries.

The defense will be excellent, and it will attack—out of a 4-3, with All-Pro cornerback Hanford Dixon shifted to free safety. The offense is geared for speed with the addition of rookie wideout Lawyer Tillman and 5'9" minibacks Eric Metcalf, the first-round pick, and Mike Oliphant, who came from the Redskins. Bernie Kosar is healthy, and Marc Trestman, his quarterback coach in college, has been promoted to offensive coordinator. If the Browns have a winning year, Carson will have a stronger hand next season. If they disappoint, he'll be a bitter 58-year-old.

For the first time in memory, a Rooney criticized coach Chuck Noll of the PITTSBURGH STEELERS—indirectly, at least. The day after a 27-7 loss to Cleveland in November, Dan Rooney, the team's president and owner, said he was unhappy with "coaching decisions" and "stupid plays." He promised an extensive off-season evaluation of the organization.

In late December, Noll was told to fire four assistants. He said he would quit first. After his fourth meeting with Rooney, Noll nodded a sad assent, and the quartet was gone. A fifth assistant, defensive coordinator Tony Dungy, quit on his own. Shortly thereafter, in a remarkable bit of bad timing, Rooney announced that Noll "will remain with the organization for the rest of his career." Noll didn't get ripped around the league—as Ron Meyer of Indianapolis and Dan Reeves of Denver did when they fired several of their assistants in December—but eyebrows were raised.

Rod Rust is the new defensive coach, and, refreshingly, he's one of the few who does not come off the bus screaming, "Attack! Attack! Attack!" His approach is more cerebral. Pittsburgh will have only one special-teams coach, George Stewart. Last year it had two, counting Noll, and this Gong Show approach resulted in the Steelers having an NFL-record six punts blocked. Tom Donahoe, who had been a scout, will regularly evaluate the players. The Steelers have never put themselves under the microscope like that before.

What will all this mean on the field? Hard to tell. Pittsburgh finished '88 by winning three of its last four games. Bubby Brister is the first Steeler quarterback to draw smiles since Terry Bradshaw. The draft could supply plenty of help—running back Tim Worley, wideout Derek Hill, strong safety Carnell Lake and tackle Tom Ricketts could all start this year. A sleeper, ninth-round pick A.J. Jenkins, will be a pass-rush specialist. Pittsburgh is young and exciting, which is what a team on the rebound is supposed to be.