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Last Saturday, 24 hours before the Cincinnati Bengals played the Houston Oilers in an AFC wildcard playoff, Bengal coach Sam Wyche spent a relaxing afternoon taking a visitor on a ride through Cincinnati's poorest neighborhood, Over-the-Rhine, where he frequently does volunteer work for the city's unfortunate citizens. At a shelter for the homeless, one indigent soul urged Wyche to beat the Los Angeles Raiders. "Not this week," Wyche said. "We'll get them next week."

However, back at the Bengals' practice complex a few minutes later, Wyche said, "You never really know how things are going to go, especially against Houston. But I've never felt as good entering a game in my life as I feel about this one."

Wyche had good reason to be confident. The last three times the Oilers had met Cincinnati at Riverfront Stadium—twice in the brutal cold of late December—the Bengals had won all the games, by an average margin of 32.3 points. And on Sunday, in rainy, near-freezing weather, the Bengals played their best game of the season and crushed Houston 41-14. As a result, Cincinnati will indeed face the Raiders in L.A. this Sunday.

After playing 34 minutes against the Oilers, the Bengals had 34 points, 265 yards of total offense and 16 first downs. Houston had zero, 37 and one, respectively. To be sure, Houston quarterback Cody Carlson, who would finish with 16 completions in 33 attempts for 165 yards, was not going to be confused with Warren Moon again. Carlson was making his second start in place of Moon, who was sidelined with a dislocated thumb. Just a week earlier, in a must-win game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Carlson put up terrific stats (22 for 29, 247 yards) to help Houston clinch its wild-card spot.

For their part, the Bengals, who this season have been inconsistent on offense and among the worst teams in the league on defense, looked suspiciously like their 1989 Super Bowl selves. The offense ran like a clock (187 rushing yards, 162 passing yards, no turnovers), and the defense held Oiler back Lorenzo White to two yards on four carries and pushed Carlson's blockers back in his face. Basically, everything went right. Even at halftime.

With Cincinnati leading 20-0 at intermission, quarterback Boomer Esiason went to the chalkboard in the locker room and explained to Wyche how the Oilers were overcommitting to the Bengals' right in trying to stop end sweeps near the Houston goal line. Esiason diagramed a play in which he would fake a sweep, keep the ball and run a bootleg to the left. Wyche said O.K., and with 11:16 left in the third quarter, when Cincy had first-and-goal on the Houston 10, he called the play. Sure enough, the Oilers overcommitted and Esiason scored.

The Bengals are going to need another perfect day against the 12-4 Raiders, who have beaten Cincinnati handily at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum in each of the past two regular seasons. The Bengals' 1,000-yard rusher, James Brooks, suffered a thumb injury against Houston and had surgery Sunday night. Brooks will try to play in Los Angeles. But who'll block? Left tackle Anthony Munoz left the game with a badly bruised left shoulder, and left guard Bruce Reimers was on crutches after severely spraining his left ankle.

And we haven't even mentioned Bo Jackson yet. He took off on runs of 92 and 88 yards in those two most recent Raider wins over Cincinnati. "We'll need some miracle cures in L.A.," said Esiason. The Bengals may need some more chalkboard plays from their quarterback as well.



By the time Houston's Ernest Givins made this fourth-quarter catch, the game was long over.