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AFC CENTRAL division

For the past five seasons, this is the way it has been for the Cincinnati Bengals: win in the even years, lose or break even in the odd ones. Don't ask me why—maybe they get mad one year, unmad the next—but that's the way it has worked out. So here comes a winning season, after the slump to 8-8 in '89 on the heels of a Super Bowl year.

What happened to the Bengals last season? To put it bluntly, they lost their muscle. They couldn't stop the run. Defensively, they're undersized, but in '88 they got away with that because Tim Krumrie had perhaps the finest year a noseguard has ever had. Then came his terrible broken leg in Super Bowl XXIII, and his hard road back in '89. Suddenly, the Bengals found themselves getting shoved around, with no policeman to keep order.

Offensively the Bengals lost muscle when fullback Ickey Woods went down for the year with a knee injury in the second game. The Bengals' final statistics always look nice, because they're good for three or four big-yardage blowouts per season. When quarterback Boomer Esiason, his high-powered receivers—Eddie Brown, Tim McGee, Rodney Holman—and nifty little running back James Brooks get going, it's curtains. But last year in short-yardage situations the Bengals were punchless.

One more thing. The special teams, which weren't all that hot even in the Super Bowl year, were atrocious in '89.

Well, Krumrie looks healthier now, and even if the Bengals don't have a bunch of big defensive linemen, they have some oversized linebackers. First-round draft choice James Francis (252 pounds) looks like a crusher. Third-round pick Bernard Clark (248) bulks up the inside. Offensive punch could come from the No. 2 pick, 222-pound running back Harold Green (until Woods returns, perhaps as late as midseason), and the Bengals expect their fourth-rounder, Mike Brennan, eventually to replace right guard Max Montoya, who took the Plan B route to the Raiders.

Flashy drafts are nothing new for the Bengals, who always seem to have a good rookie drop in. But a leak opened up in another part of the boat when cornerback Eric Thomas, a Pro Bowl player in '89, was lost for the season with a torn knee ligament, and then Rickey Dixon, who was to switch from free safety to replace him, suffered a less serious knee injury. Dixon is expected to be ready for the season opener.

A key acquisition at defensive back, a return to form by Krumrie and Woods, serious rookie help, and Cincinnati will be right up there again.

Here's my advice to the HOUSTON OILERS: Forget about all that House of Pain stuff. All it does is get opponents mad, the way America's Team used to fire up the Cowboys' foes. Where was the House of Pain when you needed it last year? Cleveland took the division title from you by scoring a touchdown with 39 seconds left. Pittsburgh knocked you out of the playoffs when cornerback Rod Woodson put a thunderous hit on running back Lorenzo White, causing a fumble and setting up the Steelers' winning field goal in overtime. Both games were in the Astrodome, the House of Pain.

Jerry Glanville has taken his smash-mouth brand of football to Atlanta. The new guy is Jack Pardee, who has been perfecting the run-and-shoot offense in Houston for five of the last six years, two of them with the USFL Houstons, three with the university. The Oilers should have no trouble adjusting. Glanville's four-wideout Red Gun offense was almost the same thing, and Houston has the weapons to make it work—lots of receivers and runners, fine offensive line, good quarterback in Warren Moon.

Last year all that House of Pain stuff got the Oiler defense so crazy that it burned itself out, and by the end of big games it was tired and a trifle loose. I don't believe Pardee, who was brought up in the George Allen school of discipline, will let that happen.

Three rookies should contribute on the defense, which switches to a 4-3: outside linebacker Lamar Lathon (first-round pick), tackle Jeff Alm (second round) and pass-rushing end Willis Peguese (third round). The fourth keeper is a sixth-rounder, wideout Tony Jones, the smallest (5'7", 142 pounds) and fastest (4.29 in the 40) man on the team.

I heard something that bothered me about the PITTSBURGH STEELERS. I heard that Joe Walton, the new offensive coordinator, was thinking about switching fullback Merril Hoge to H-back, which is like taking a thoroughbred and putting it behind a milk wagon. Hoge, a 10th-round selection in 1987, is the heart and soul of the Pittsburgh offense. Just look at what he did in the playoffs last year. O.K., so the guy will never represent America in the Olympic 100 meters, but he runs over people and makes the tough yardage and tough catches. I just hope that in Walton's complicated scheme Hoge won't be the forgotten man.

Let's face it, though, for most of last season the Steeler attack was dismal, averaging 12 points for the first 10 games. When the Steelers made their late-season run to the playoffs, they did it by forcing 18 turnovers in the last six games, winning five of them.

Well, the new offensive theory is to spread the ball around, to work from multiple formations and actually to confuse people. Imagine. The coaches are high on rookie running back Barry Foster, a fifth-round choice. Pittsburgh's No. 1 selection, massive tight end Eric Green, was a long holdout. The defense is active and opportunistic, and that's what will win games for the Steelers—that and Hoge, provided he doesn't get lost in this strategic shuffle.

After three months of postseason R and R in Boca Raton, Fla., the quarterback of the CLEVELAND BROWNS, Bernie Kosar, said that late last year he couldn't lift his throwing arm above his head. Finger, shoulder and especially elbow injuries had done him in. But he played anyway, and had a very rough time.

Is he all right now? He says yes. It didn't look that way in the exhibition games. Kosar is a major concern, as is the offensive line, which has suffered two retirements, assorted injuries and general malaise since the end of last season. The runners are fine—Eric Metcalf, who the coaches say will be a bigger part of the offense this year, and Kevin Mack, who's down to 217 pounds and in the best shape of his life. But so what, if the offensive line and the passing game are in disarray.

Bud Carson will put a good defense on the field, even if the Dawg era is over. Right cornerback Hanford Dixon went to the 49ers via Plan B (he then retired when he couldn't stick with San Francisco as a reserve), and left cornerback Frank Minnifield, with his $1 million contract demand, has become trade bait. The good rookie here is pass-rushing end Rob Burnett, a fifth-round choice.

The Browns have a murderous schedule, though, and this division has no patsies. That translates into a long season.




Cleveland must keep wideout Reggie Langhorne busy.