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AFC east

Look at the buffalo bills' 1988 season this way: if defensive end Bruce smith hadn't hurt his thigh in the first quarter of the AFC championship game, if cornerback Derrick Burroughs hadn't been thrown out of that game, and if linebacker Shane Conlan hadn't been hampered by a sprained right foot, Buffalo would have been in the Super Bowl. Yeah, I know, if wishes were fishes.... The point is that the Bills are on the way up, and this year they'll go all the way to the Super Bowl.

Two of the league's most unassuming people, coach Marv Levy and general manager Bill Polian, have made all the right moves. For next to nothing last year, they got defensive end Art Still from Kansas City and strong safety Leonard Smith from Phoenix; both players became vital parts of the machine. How do Levy and Polian top that? After all, this year's first two draft choices were traded in the '87 deal for linebacker Cornelius Bennett, who made the Pro Bowl last season.

The answer came early in the exhibition season. Two running backs, Kenneth Davis and 256-pound Larry Kinnebrew, castoffs from Green Bay and Cincy, respectively, ran like maniacs. They should supply the last touches to a running game that began to emerge in '88. The already formidable offensive line has been bulked up by 300-pound Howard Ballard, a second-year guard.

The Bills make noises about having installed a long-passing game, but Levy and Polian know that the surest route to the Super Bowl is relentless running and a crushing defense. The defense is already in place. The ground game will be.

Jim Kelly's 15-touchdown, 17-interception season in '88 produced a few nasty letters to The Buffalo News, but Levy immediately rushed to Kelly's defense. "Give me the choice of any quarterback in this league," he said, "and I'll take Jim Kelly."

Buffalo's receivers are competent; the one weakness has been the lack of a deep threat. Enter Don Beebe, a third-round draft choice from NAIA Chadron State in Nebraska. A small, boyish-looking guy with blazing speed, Beebe could be the final piece.

Only two active NFL coaches have always had winning seasons. Make that winning full seasons. One of them is Jerry Burns of the Vikings. Raymond Berry of the NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS is the other. But in his four seasons with the Pats, they have never been considered serious contenders. Even when New England won the AFC title in '85, it made the playoffs as a wild card and then got buried by the Bears in the Super Bowl.

Once again New England will be decent, perhaps even playoff-caliber, but that's all. As long as Dick Steinberg is the director of player development, the Pats will have more than their share of talent. In the first round of this year's draft, he landed Hart Lee Dykes, a big (6'4", 218 pounds), gifted wideout. Last year's standout rookie was tailback John Stephens. The year before, Steinberg got a pair of star rookie tackles, Danny Villa and Bruce Armstrong. Before that came defensive end Garin Veris, linebacker Johnny Rembert, and cornerback Ronnie Lippett. Still, the Pats keep running in place.

Last season New England finished next to last in the league in both total offense and passing. Four quarterbacks are on the roster, and all are flawed. Tony Eason is injury-plagued. Ditto for Steve Grogan, who's also 36 years old. Doug Flutie is undersized. Marc Wilson is a Raider castoff who has had his chance. Moreover, two offensive assistants, offensive coordinator Rod Humenuik and passing-game coordinator Les Steckel, were fired after last season. Flanker Irving Fryar stayed away from camp in a contract dispute.

The schedule is not murderous, but with serious injuries in the final preseason game to Lippett, Veris and linebacker Andre Tippett, it's hard to see this club going far.

A week before the draft, Michigan State wideout Andre Rison, a fast, heady ball hawk, was projected to be one of the first dozen players selected. Then his sun started setting. He refused to work out for teams. Scouts gossiped. Word got around: bad attitude, tough to deal with. Rison was taken by the INDIANAPOLIS COLTS as the 22nd pick. Nine days later Rison became the first first-round draft pick to sign, getting an eye-popping $2,557,500 over five years. That was Top 10 money. General managers around the league groaned. A new salary level had been created, from the bottom up. Curses were muttered about the Indy operation.

The Colts' attitude? Gee, that's tough. Come and get us. We want our No. I guy in early to learn the system. We want a big league passing game to go with Eric Dickerson's legs. We're making a run for it.

We'll see. We've heard lots of rah-rah talk before from the Irsays and coach Ron Meyer. Meyer didn't win a lot of friends around the league when he fired six assistants at the end of last season. Says Joe Collier, himself a casualty at Denver, where he had been defensive coordinator: "He fired six coaches in order to take the pressure off himself."

So a lot of people have it in for the Colts. Here's what Indy has going for it: a good offensive line, improving quarterback Chris Chandler and a good defense led by Pro Bowl linebacker Duane Bickett. Here's what Indy has going against it: a wicked schedule that includes the Bills (twice), 49ers, Browns, Saints, Bengals, Broncos and Rams. A championship-level team could handle that, but the Colts can't.

The bad news is that Bud Carson, who did magic tricks as defensive coordinator of the NEW YORK JETS, has gone to Cleveland to be head coach. The good news is that the Jets still own the trade rights to Mark Gastineau—if anybody's interested.

The '88 season ended on a happy note as the Jet defense rose in a sacking frenzy to knock the Giants out of the playoffs, thus giving the Jets an 8-7-1 record in a season that many people, including yours truly, had predicted would be a disaster.

The hunt continues for defense. The Jets passed up many offensive stars in the draft to pick Jeff Lageman, an inside linebacker whom they planned to move outside. That project ended when Lageman held out for 33 days. But the Jets got lucky with a pair of defensive ends: Ron Stallworth, a fourth-rounder who has been installed as the starter on the right side (Marty Lyons will move to the left), and sixth-rounder Marvin Washington, who will be a spot pass rusher.

The offense isn't as sound. For years suspicion abounded that something was wrong with Ken O'Brien's throwing arm, and now he has been diagnosed as having chronic tendinitis of the shoulder. His arm might hold up, it might not. Both wideouts, Al Toon and Wesley Walker, were holdouts. The line is in disarray. I'm penciling in a 6-10 record for the Jets, but last year I picked them to go 5-11, and look how they surprised us.

Finally, the fans have become disenchanted with the all-pass, no-run. no-defense MIAMI DOLPHINS Two years ago Miami sold 53,000 season tickets to brand-new Joe Robbie Stadium. Last season the number was 44,000.

The fans who did show up in '88 practiced their booing. They booed Dan Marino, who has been the franchise for six years, when he looked downfield, saw no open receivers and threw the ball away. They booed Marino again when wide receiver Mark Duper turned in one of his patented downfield stunts—pulling up short on a pattern and waving at the ball as it went by. They booed the defense, which gave up more rushing yards than any other Miami team in history, and they booed the ground attack, which set another club record—fewest yards gained. Finally, they booed the worst record of Don Shula's career.

What's to be done? The Dolphins keep drafting for defense, but nothing happens. Promising players, like linebacker John Offerdahl, end John Bosa and pass-rush specialist Eric Kumerow, get hurt or wear down. Others, like inside linebacker Jackie Shipp, don't pan out. Miami drafts runners, like Troy Stradford in '87 and Ron Davenport and Lorenzo Hampton in '85, but they take a beating and end up being just ordinary backs. This year the Dolphins used two first-round picks to get a big, flashy runner. Sammie Smith, and an oversized free safety. Louis Oliver. Oliver became an instant starter, and Smith became an extended holdout. That's one for two.

When the exhibition season opened, the Bears ran at will against the Dolphin defenders, who gasped for breath in the 28-20 Chicago victory. After that the Oilers, Redskins and Eagles piled up 26, 35 and 20 points, respectively, in beating Miami. On the plus side, a big (6'3", 210 pounds), fast wideout named Andre Brown has played better than anyone could expect of a free agent. Maybe he will wake up Duper. But it will take more than that before the Dolphins are up and at 'em again.