AFC CENTRAL

August 28, 1988

Here's why everyone is picking the CLEVELAND BROWNS to go to the Super Bowl: People are tired of Denver. They're tired of the same feature stories, tired of chasing John Elway around the press tent and setting up photo sessions with the Three Amigos. They want a fresh face, and what better face than the one the Broncos ground into the mud in two straight AFC Championships?

Yeah, I'm jumping on the bandwagon too. I'm picking the Browns to go to Super Bowl XXIII. You don't have to remind me of the negatives. I know both of them: an anemic pass rush and the loss of offensive coordinator Lindy Infante. Under Infante the Browns were the highest-scoring team in the AFC last year, but now Cleveland's offense will be handled by head coach Marty Schottenheimer, an old linebacker whose idea of a wide-open attack is Earnest Byner leading Kevin Mack on a power sweep. The last time Marty ran the offense was in 1985: Mack and Byner had over 1,000 yards rushing apiece and the Browns finished 8-8.

I'll let you in on a secret, though. I like that kind of offense, and the Browns are suited for it. Their big, Redskins-style hog linemen can wear you down, and if Mack and Byner stay healthy, the running attack will be an effective platform for Bernie Kosar and his off-balance zips, which come from the oddest places but always seem to find the right receiver. Cleveland has a fine pass-blocking line too, one that gave up only nine sacks in the last eight regular-season games. One more word about running teams: The better ones always seem to win the Super Bowl.

O.K., I know the Browns' pass rush has been a problem. But I have a hunch it will all come together this year. Big Daddy Hairston had a terrific season in '87. Bubba Baker should have a big one this time as a situation outside rusher, and rookie Michael Dean Perry is a fine addition. The regular nose man, Bob Golic, is the classic run-stopper. Most of all, I like the Browns for the intangible fact that they're on a mission this year: Beat Denver.

A wild-card berth and a one-game edge on Houston is what I see for the PITTSBURGH STEELERS You laugh. Bubby Brister at quarterback, you remind me. Weegie Thompson trying to fill John Stallworth's shoes. The smallest offensive line around, in an era when those babies in the trenches must blot out the sun to be able to compete.

So what? The defense will carry them, just as it has ever since Terry Bradshaw retired. Pittsburgh drafted three defensive backs in the first four rounds last year, and while the top pick, Rod Woodson, was holding out, the other two guys, Delton Hall and Thomas Everett, were running around hitting anything that moved, bringing back memories of the Steeler units of old.

It's contagious. Pittsburgh has a terrific inside linebacker in Gregg Carr and a fine outside pair in Bryan Hinkle and Mike Merriweather, provided Merewether's ongoing holdout doesn't cause him to lose interest. Up front? Well, nobody's perfect. But the Steelers did use their first draft pick to get a highly regarded pass rusher, Aaron Jones of Eastern Kentucky, and there's a stringbean free-agent pass rusher named Al Williams who reminds Chuck Noll of a young L.C. Greenwood.

Granted, the offense doesn't excite anybody. But watch out for Warren Williams, the sixth-round pick, a nifty halfback from the University of Miami stud farm. Then there's second-year halfback Dwight Stone (4.25 in the 40, honest), who averaged 7.9 yards a carry last year. Put these guys behind that trap-blocking line, add an enthusiastic defense to give them field position and, well, the club's only one quarterback away from the big time.

I have in front of me the usual chart sent out by the HOUSTON OILERS' publicity department. A numbers chart. Draft choices. Look how many we have had in the last seven years and how few we had in the Bum Phillips era. My gosh, they're still trying to justify the firing of Bum, the only winning coach out of the last 10 the Oilers have had. Since they went to the trouble of compiling the numbers, I'll summarize them for you: Four No. l's and 26 choices in the first five rounds from 1974 to '81 versus 10 No. 1's and 46 in the first five rounds in the last seven years.

The accompanying letter reminds us that the Oilers reached the playoffs last year as the youngest team in football. We get the message. Youthful draft choices abound, especially on the offensive line, where left guard Mike Munchak is a three-time Pro Bowler and right guard Bruce Matthews is getting there. The running backs are an embarrassment of No. 1 draft riches—Mike Rozier, Alonzo Highsmith and, now, Lorenzo White.

After reaching this plateau, Houston can go a step further and trade an occasional No. 1 for a reliable vet, e.g., the trade that brought them defensive end Sean Jones, a proven pass rusher, from the Raiders this year. Don't forget that one of the club's best trades ever was a No. 7 and a No. 4 for wideout Drew Hill, whose 3,270 reception yards since 1985 are second only to Jerry Rice's.

But everybody will be waiting for the 1988 Oilers; they sneaked up on people last year. Coach Jerry Glanville instilled a hard-hitting—some people called it late-hitting—attitude. Everyone remembers the famous postgame cameo of Noll grabbing Glanville in that I'm-not-gonna-let-go-until-you've-heard-what-I'm-gonna-say handshake and reading him his Miranda rights. Now Houston is going to be tested, and the results should be interesting.

Did you ever stop to think that no division in football has as many good offensive lines as the AFC Central? There isn't a bad one in the bunch, and the CINCINNATI BENGALS have one of the best. The trouble is, it has been lost in that flimflam, razzle-dazzle offense. But what if Cincy settles down to a more basic approach and decides to bang it out, set tailback James Brooks a yard farther back so he can get a better read, and use the heavy-duty stuff to set up the Boomer Esiason-Cris Collinsworth-Eddie Brown show?

O.K., I've been peeking. The report from Cincinnati says that's exactly what the Bengals will do. Not that coach Sam Wyche will abandon his "attack offense," the no-huddle approach he says scored twice as many touchdowns last year as the conventional one did. On defense, which has been a sticky subject for a number of years, the Bengals will go with something called the spinner, in which a lineman, usually right end Jason Buck, spins from place to place along the defensive front and often acts as a blitzing linebacker. Fine so far, but he had better keep out of the way of middle guard Tim Krumrie, one of the few defensive stars on the club and a very hard customer.

Wyche, fighting for his job, believes a 10-6 record is possible. He tried to remedy a lack of unity by assigning training-camp roommates, an offensive guy with a defensive one. Somehow Esiason ended up with running back Stanford Jennings, causing Jennings to comment, "They must be thinking of putting Boomer on defense."

Here's a weird stat from last year: Cincinnati outgained opponents by 45 yards a game and was still outscored 370-285. What does this mean? Probably that the special teams were lousy. The Bengals are working on that, along with everything else.

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PHOTOJERRY WACHTERA MACK ATTACK PACES THE BROWNS PHOTOPETER READ MILLERFOES WILL BE AFTER QUARTERBACK WARREN MOON AND THE UPSTART OILERS

HOW THEY'LL FINISH

'88 FORECAST

'87 RECORD

1 CLEVELAND

11-5

10-5

2 PITTSBURGH

9-7

8-7

3 HOUSTON

8-8

9-6

4 CINCINNATI

7-9

4-11

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)