As is usually the case, the race in the American Football Conference is aimed at resolving one basic question: Can anyone here beat the Pittsburgh Steelers?

Not surprisingly in the powerful AFC, there are several teams with at lease an outside chance.

New England and Miami look formidable in the East, San Diego, is looking to provide an exciting challenge to Denver in the West, and in the Steelers' own Central Division, Houston is a definite threat. CENTRAL DIVISION

Coach Chuck Noll of the Pittsburgh Steelers says, "I don't think we have any obvious weaknesses but we can play better in every phase of the game. I feel our players are capable of exceeding past accomplishments."

The past accomplishments are considerable.

The offense, directed by Terry Bradshaw, combined with the league's top-ranked defense for the third Super Bowl triumph in five years and a seventh straight playoff appearance.

Bradshaw's wide receivers are perhaps the best, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. Franco Harris rushed for 1,082 yards. Six defenders -- L.C. Greenwood, Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Mel Blount, and Donnie Shell -- made the Pro Bowl. Greene did not miss a play because of injury.

The Houston Oilers' 10-6 record for a wild card berth turned out to be a true measure of strength when they eliminated Miami and New England before losing to Pittsburgh in the playoffs.

Earl Campbell, the leading rusher in the league as a rookie, and quarterback Dan Pastorini operated behind a line that permitted the fewest sacks in the NFL, 17. Pastorini had his finest season while wearing a flak jacket to protect injured ribs.

The Cleveland Browns finished 8-8 and were heartened when quarterback Brian Sipe enjoyed his best of five seasons. Greg Pruitt rushed for 960 yards although he missed four full games with a leg infection. Mike Pruitt is expected to start with Greg this season. Calvin Hill made important contributions in midseason.

The defense has been bolstered by the acquisition of end Lyle Alzado from Denver. Willis Adams, No. 1 draft choice from the University of Houston, is the fastest wide receiver since the early days of Paul Warfield.

Homer Rice is beginning his first full season as coach of the Cincinnati Bengals and has a healthy veteran quarterback, Ken Anderson, who missed four games with a throwing-hand injury.

The Bengals drafted quarterback Jack Thompson from Washington State on the first round and used another No. 1 pick for running back Charles Alexander of Louisiana State. EASTERN DIVISION

The New England Patriots won the Eastern Division with an 11-5 record before Coach Chuck Fairbanks touched off turmoil by announcing hours before a playoff game that he would be leaving the club for the University of Colorado.

Offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt was moved up and inherited a team that led the league in total offense and set a record with 2,165 yards rushing. Quarterback Steve Grogan underwent knee surgery in the offseason but is expected to be nearly 100 percent for the opener against Pittsburgh. He has started 49 straight regular-season games.

The Patriots were the first ever to have four runners each gain more than 500 yards rushing in a season -- Sam Cunningham, Horace Ivory, Andy Johnson, and quarterback Grogan.

The Miami Dolphins matched New England's 11-5 record, scored the most points in the AFC and the defense led in shutouts, with three.

Coach Don Shula says, "Our hope going into the last year of the 1970s is to win our third Super Bowl. With a healthy Bob Griese and the return of Larry Csonka to perhaps take the short-yardage load off Del Williams I feel we can continue to have a very productive offense."

Griese, 34, missed the first five games last year because of a preseason knee injury, but led the league's passers with a 67 percent completion average. Williams rushed for 1,258 yards.

The New York Jets had the youngest team in the league but achieved their best record, 8-8, since 1974 despite the loss of quarterback Richard Todd with an injury in the fourth game.

Matt Robinson matured in Todd's absence and rookie wide reciever Wesley Walker led the league with a 24.4 average in yards per reception.

Coach Ted Marchibroda of the Baltimore Colts says, despite a 5-11 record in 1978, "We have the talent to be a Super Bowl contender. We could be playing in Pasadena next January. With a healthy Bert Jones, we are one of the best teams in the NFL."

Jones was sidelined for 13 games with a throwing shoulder injury, the offense finished last in the AFC in yardage gained and the overworked defense allowed the most points in he league.

With a healthy Jones and gamebreaking threats such as running back Joe Washington and wide receiver Roger Carr, the Colts are expected to turn things around. Greg Landry was obtained from Detroit to back up Jones and Baltimore's No. 1 draft selection was linebacker Barry Krauss from Alabama.

The Buffalo Bills have a long way to go after a 5-11 record last season. They lost No. 1 draft choice Tom Cousineau of Ohio State. The linebacker signed with the Montreal Alouettes. WESTERN DIVISION

The Denver Broncos won their second straight Western Division title under coach Red Miller, with a 10-6 record. The quarterback situation is still unsettled, with Craig Morton and Norris Weese splitting the fans.

The defense permitted the fewest touchdowns and fewest touchdown passes in the league, but defensive end Lyle Alzado is now with Cleveland. Rick Upchurch led the league with a 13.7-yard punt return average. It is pretty much a stand-pat club.

The Seattle Seahawks have an exciting offense with left-handed Jim Zorn passing to Steve Largent and Sam McCullum, but the defense allowed the most points in the division.

The San Diego Chargers are expected to enhance their offense-minded team with the additions of Kellen Winslow, a tight end drafted from Missouri, and running back Mike Thomas, formerly of the Redskins.

Former Cardinal Coach Don Coryell replaced Tommy Prothro after four games, and the Chargers topped the league in passing yardage per game, 210.9, and won seven of their last eight games to finish 9-7.

Rookie wide reciever John Jefferson made the Pro Bowl. Running back Lydell Mitchell, obtained from Baltimore, rushed for 830 yards and had 57 pass receptions.

Patching up has been the order of the day for the Oakland Raiders this preseason. The main crack to be filled is the hostility gap between Raider managing partner Al Davis and quarterback Ken Stabler.

After Davis said Stabler did not perform last year as a $342,000 signal-caller should, Stabler ripped Davis in a national magazine and dared his boss to trade him.

Other fissures to be filled are found along the offensive and defensive lines and at wide receiver.

Trying to put all the pieces together will be Tom Flores, a Raider assistant coach who replaced John Madden, who yielded to an ulcer.

No spectacular growth is anticipated by the Kansas City Chiefs after a 4-12 record, but coach Marv Levy established ball control with a three-back, wing-T offense that finished second in the league in rushing. The onetime special teams coach of the Redskins had his impact in that department, with the Chiefs leading the conference in kickoff and punt returns.