The Cleveland Browns insist they have forgotten the abrupt crash of their Kardiac Kids Karavan last season.

But, surely, they haven't forgotten about last season.

Brian Sipe threw for 4,132 yards and the Browns finished 11-5 to win the AFC's Central Division for the first time in nine years. Even though Oakland's Mike Davis intercepted Sipe's pass in the end zone in the final minute of the AFC playoff game that Oakland won, 14-12, in the Cleveland cold, the Browns had earned a legitimacy previously carried in this division only by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Now, if only that defense could stop a pass . . .

Last year, the Browns' defense ranked 28th -- dead last -- in the NFL against the pass and 23rd overall. That the Browns went so far shows the potency of the offense.

"They say you need a great defense to win in this league. Well, we proved them wrong," says Cleveland Coach Sam Rutigliano, whose team used four of its top five draft choices to select defensive players this year. Cornerback Hanford Dixon of Southern Mississippi was the top choice.

Rutigliano, in his third year as the Browns' coach, says there are two elements central to determining the winner of this division. The first is Sipe.

"Brian Sipe is on the brink of his best year yet; I guarantee it," says Rutigliano of the player last season voted the NFL's most valuable by the Associated Press and by the Pro Football Writers of America.

The second element may be a bit more ominous: "Pittsburgh will be back," says Rutigliano.

And what of Pittsburgh, which won four Super Bowls (1974, 1975, 1978 and 1979)? The Steelers finished 9-7 last year and in the unusual and uncomfortable third-place position in this division. For the first time since 1971, they did not make the playoffs.

Just as the Browns caught up with the Steelers, so did injury and age. Running back Rocky Bleier, safety Mike Wagner and defensive lineman Dwight White retired after last year.

Still, they are the Steelers. "What is old?" says fullback Franco Harris, 31. "Chronologically we are old, but physically we are fine."

Pittsburgh Coach Chuck Noll says about the most recent roster losses: "Other people must assume the responsibility."

Noll says of his team's record last year: "The breakdown is this: our opponents simply outplayed us."

The Steeler defense gave up nearly 20 points a game last year (worst in this division). This year, Jack Ham will be lost for fives game because of a broken arm. Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood will both be 35 on opening day; Greene may only play on passing downs this season.

Says Terry Bradshaw, the 12th-year quarterback, "There has definitely been a shifting of power. We are not the favorites any more in this division. Cleveland is. I keep waiting for Cincinnati to jump up and Houston still has a very tough defense."

Now, more than ever, they will be the Houston Earlers. Since Coach Bum Phillips has left, the team has turned from urban cowboy to urban renewal, although it still has quarterback Ken Stabler, lured out of retirement after Gifford Nielsen tore a muscle in his right shoulder.

Ed Biles is the new coach of the team that finished 11-5 last year, but lost the division title because Cleveland had a better conference record. Says Biles, "If people are patient, they will see that we will be good."

In 1980, Earl Campbell ran for 1,934 yards and seemed to run over at least that many defensive backs. He will return for more of each. The Oilers' defense ranked second to the Eagles last year, giving up fewer than 16 points per game. This year, it should be just as capable, Mike Reinfeldt's contract hassles permitting.

The Bengals had an odd season in 1980, slumping out at 3-9 and never recovering. They finished 6-10, an improvement over the two previous 4-12 seasons but, after all, last place. The season was a good/bad propostition for Forrest Gregg: there were two wins over the Steelers, but there was an offense that scored only 244 points, worst in the AFC. Perhaps receivers David Verser (Kansas) and Cris Collinsworth (Florida), the top draft picks, can help quarterbacks Jack Thompson and Ken Anderson score.

The Bengals need help.