The game played within much of the AFC before the AFC championship game here Sunday has been How to Sink the Steelers. Few expect Houston to do it, though the fun of the mental exercise is simply trying to find a flaw in this special team.

Surely, the monster must be vulnerable somewhere. But having Mike Renfro sneak up and tie a bell around Jack Lambert's neck will not help the Spoilers this week. As one bright offensive coordinator put it: "We know what should be done; it's just that we don't have the people to do it."

Spying will not work, either, unless Bum Phillips has added a thought thief to his staff. Unlike the Chargers, whose sideline-to-quarterback code the Oilers allegedly cracked last week, the Steelers trust quarterback Terry Bradshaw to call the plays.

Still, it generally is agreed that if the Oilers do win Bradshaw will be part of the reason. Even Bradshaw admits it.

"It's been that way this year," he said. "When I was off, we lost. We lost four games and I played terrible in all four. Against Philadelphia, I didn't play well at all. And when we lost (by 28 points) to San Diego I had five interceptions.

"The Cincinnati game was lost before we even got on the field and I didn't move the club when we lost (by three) to Houston. I think in the four games we lost I threw 13 interceptions."

It actually was 11 interceptions. But when inspired, or in other words during playoff games of late, Bradshaw has been staggeringly accurate.

Even casual fans recognize the skills of the Steelers to whom Bradshaw throw. Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, and the Steeler who carries the ball the most, Franco Harris. But league insiders realize the extraordinary gifts of the Steelers who keep Bradshaw healthy.

"Their offensive line is the best in football," said Bob Kuechenberg of the Dolphins, a peerless blocker who constantly considers such matters.

The Steelers' Joe Greene calls the offensive line "The Fort" -- as in "you attack from the fort."

And the Steelers attack with such verve and authority that clubhouse chatter has suggested a future road game ought to be in Iran.

But some sublte realities gradually have caused a change in what Hank Stram would call the "personality" of the Steelers. They still hit wickedly enough, though the major stingers are not the ones who immediately leap to mind.

For instance, the Steelers have seven fine blockers to man the five offensive-line positions -- and a tight end (Benny Cunningham) large enough to level not only a well Oiiler but also an oiler's well.

Mostly, though, that line uses sissy trap blocks instead of the macho, straight-on, man-on-man tactics one would expect. An oridnary mortal was about to approach the center, Mike Webster, and discuss the irony, when he volunteered: "We used straight-ahead stuff, (last week) against the Dolphins."

Oh.

The defense still is called the Steel Curtain, though the second and third layers are the ones which now make it frequently impregnable.

Where the front four once made life much easier for the linebackers and deep backs, the reverse now is true. Or so many of the coaches who attack the Steelers believe.

"The first thing," one coach said, "is you ought to be able to throw on them, because they play man for man and blitz a lot. And the tight end should be able to beat (strong safety Donnie) Shell.

"Shell is the weakest link. An you try and get him covering a wide receiver sometimes by having them both to the same side of the field and one in the slot. But he knocks your head off.

"Fact, is, every one of their backs hits like crazy. They make you pay the price. You also might be able to beat (Mel) Blount once in a while, but he'll let the guy who caught it have a helluva shot.

"A lot of receivers are intimidated by them. It's a fact of life."

The trend in the NFL of late has been toward less physical wide receivers, swift and shifty Danny buggs types who can survive because rule changes have discouraged head hunting. The Steeler secondary still maims now and then.

In addition to almost overwhelming talent at the obvious and subtle places, the Steelers also have an excellent, if largely underrated coaching staff.

"They do some clever things," an NFC coach whose team has played the Steelers said. "They're not set in a pattern. Most teams bring just the strong safety on a safety blitz. The Steelers use 'em both.

"And they'll blitz the linebackers anytime -- first down, second down any place on the field. Some teams you know almost exactly what's gonna happen. Atlanta, for instance, it's third and five or less inside the 20 they're coming with the free safety.

"Pittsburgh changes up."

The concensus of coaches was that the team with the best chance to beat the Steelers was Houston. In Earl Campbell, it has a back big enough, fast enough and durable enough to keep the defense honest. In Ken Burroughs, it has a receiver capable of beating backs even better than the Steelers'.

Also, the Oiler offensive line is quite good.

"But how are the Oilers gonna stop Pittsburgh?" another coach said. "You can throw on the Oiler secondary; you can throw on the Oiler linebackers. Remember, for the Oilers it's a combination of being able to stop 'em as well as going after 'em."

He paused and said: "Houston's the only one with a chance. But hell, they're not gonna beat 'em either. Let's stop kidding ourselves."