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There's a tingly feeling about the Houston Oilers, like when a fighter bounces on the balls of his feet before the opening bell, or when a G.I. buckles his helmet before going into battle—a "This is it!" feeling. No longer are the Oilers a team building for the future. If they don't win the AFC this year, they might not do it for a long time to come. Only Houston and San Francisco have reached the playoffs each of the last four seasons, but while the 49ers came in as conquerors, the Oilers arrived via the wild-card route, and they never got beyond the divisional round.

Last year was the Oilers' best shot at going to the Super Bowl. The run-and-shoot was firmly in place, and Houston's version of the pass-happy offense is not a ha-ha operation like the one in Detroit. It's capable of destroying anyone—and losing to anyone. In the regular season Houston beat the mighty Bills and humiliated the Chiefs, who have the best secondary in the NFL. Against K.C., Warren Moon came within 27 yards of breaking Norm Van Brocklin's single-game record of 554 yards passing. He could have easily broken the mark, but Moon, one of the game's premier gentlemen, said he didn't want to get the record by running up the score, so he stopped throwing.

Yes, 1990 could have been Houston's year, but Moon was sidelined with a dislocated thumb in Game 15, and the shoot part of the offense was shot. He's coming off his best season, but he'll be 35 in November, and Drew Hill, the Oilers' top possession receiver, will be 35 next month. In fact, the whole team is showing a bit of mileage. The sense of urgency has never been greater.

At its best, the run-and-shoot is a pretty thing, very conducive to those skycam shots on TV. Watching it is like watching a chessboard coming to life. At its worst, Houston's run-and-shoot can be disrupted by creative pass-rush schemes, by lesser teams that take a "what the hell" approach and send everybody after Moon. The Jets and Falcons beat the Oilers that way last season.

It won't be an easy year for Moon and his wondrous set of receivers: Hill, Haywood Jeffires, Curtis Duncan, Ernest Givins and little Tony Jones. The schedule is rough, beginning with the Raiders, Bengals and Chiefs and ending with the Giants on the road. But that's what happens to teams making big steps upward.

In 1990 the Pittsburgh Steelers led the the league in defense without having a single recognizable name among their linemen and linebackers. They did it through a set of defensive backs who cover the field like crazy, knocking the hell out of any moving object in a different colored jersey and getting very upset over the idea of giving up a TD pass. Without a formidable rush last season (34 sacks, tied for 17th in the league), the Steelers allowed only nine touchdowns through the air, tying an NFL record.

The secondary is a terrific bunch, with Thomas Everett at free safety, Carnell Lake on the strong side and David Johnson at left corner. But the best of the lot is right cornerback Rod Woodson, who plays with what has been described as an "athletic arrogance." He practically begs receivers to try to go deep on him. Woodson's long holdout had people worried for a while because this club isn't going to beat many teams with its offense.

Quarterback Bubby Brister and crew seem to be getting the hang of the system installed last year by offensive coordinator Joe Walton. But when a team that had always featured the run averages only 4.1 yards per carry, as Pittsburgh did in '90, well, it had better have a big league defense. Running back Tim Worley was supposed to be the man, but he has not produced since being picked in the first round of the '89 draft, and now torn cartilage in his right knee will keep him out of the opener. The real hero has been fullback Merril Hoge, who squeezes every ounce of effort from his 229-pound body.

Look out. It's an odd-numbered year. The Cincinnati Bengals haven't had a winning record in an odd year since 1981. The three most recent even years, though, have produced two division titles and a 10-6 record that didn't get the Bengals in the playoffs. The last time they were an even-year loser was 1980.

What accounts for the Bengals' inconsistency? It's puzzling, but perhaps it's the defense. Cincinnati has spent six of its last eight first-round draft choices on defensive players, but last year the team still ranked 25th in total defense. Still, the Bengals made it to the second round of the playoffs. The offense was that good, despite Boomer Esiason throwing a career-high 22 interceptions.

Maybe the answer lies in the schedule. When you finish low, you get a weaker schedule the following year—and vice versa. This season's schedule is a bear for the Bengals. Among their nondivision opponents are the Redskins, Bills, Eagles, Raiders, Giants and Dolphins.

One obvious deficiency in '90 was the pass rush. Cincinnati finished with a league-low 25 sacks. Browns cast-off Andrew Stewart looked terrific in camp, then he tore a knee ligament and will be lost for the year. Top draft pick Alfred Williams, a 6'6", 240-pound rush specialist out of Colorado, held out so long that Sam Wyche wrote him off, but coaches are always doing that. It looks to be another odd-year downer for Cincy.

Bill Belichick's whole career has been spent on the battlefield, scanning the enemy through long-range field glasses, devising intricate plans of defense. He has been a successful colonel, with two Super Bowl ribbons on his chest to prove it. Now, as head coach of the Cleveland Browns, he must step into the murky world of front-office politics. Specifically, he must deal with a commander in chief, owner Art Modell, who wants to decide how the troops are deployed. If Belichick can make the switch, fine, but two honest soldiers before him, Bud Carson and Marty Schottenheimer, didn't survive this war of intrigue.

Carson came to Cleveland the same way Belichick did, fresh from the role as a defensive coordinator of a New York team. Modell never gave Carson a chance. He allowed Carson little input in player acquisitions, he told him who his assistants would be, he made it clear that quarterback Bernie Kosar had to be accommodated at all costs, and he watched as the personnel department did nothing to fortify an offensive line that was collapsing. If Belichick has the political smarts to deal with the inner strife that has marked this team, he might make it.

On the field things will be rough. The Browns' secondary has 31-year-old Frank Minnifield and 36-year-old Raymond Clayborn, both of whom look about finished at the corners. Strong safety Felix Wright was lost to Plan B free agency. Thane Gash, a talented free safety, is lost for the year with a neck injury. O.K., Belichick is a zone coach and he knows how to protect defensive backs, but tackle Michael Dean Perry, Cleveland's top pass rusher, was still a holdout entering the first week of the season.

On a positive note, former Giants halfback Joe Morris, who has not played since breaking his foot in the last preseason game of 1989, was rescued from the bone-yard by Belichick and has showed plenty of zip and inspiration in the preseason. He could be one of the year's best comeback stories.




Moon, the marksman of the Oilers' run-and-shoot, was on target with 62% of his passes.