Cincinnati was picked by many experts to finish last, again, in the AFC Central in 1981. This weekend, as the NFL teams play their 14th of 16 regular-season games, the Bengals deserve the role of favorite for Super Bowl XVI.
Everything has fallen together perfectly for Paul Brown's organization during Forrest Gregg's second year as coach. Kenny Anderson, in his 12th season, is throwing -- and occasionally running -- as he did seven years ago, before he suffered a series of injuries. Pete Johnson is a Patton tank. Isaac Curtis has come back and rookie Cris Collinsworth has come on to lead the receivers. The line play has been outstanding, particularly the pass rush generated by Wilson Whitley, Eddie Edwards and Ross Browner and the pass protection provided by Anthony Munoz.
What has been astonishing, however, is Cincinnati's style of playing. For a decade it was one of the most conservative teams in the league. Now, the Bengals are extremely aggressive, physically and philosophically. They go after opponents, aren't afraid to gamble, offensively or defensively.
"We know that the game has changed," Gregg said last winter, before the draft. "It's going more to the passing game. We are going to have to secure some people who can get downfield and catch the ball."
Cincinnati's first two choices were wide receivers, David Verser of Kansas and Florida's Collinsworth. They have paid off. So has the switch, in 1980, to the 3-4 defense.
On Oct. 11 the Bengals blew by Baltimore, 41-19. The next week they buried Pittsburgh, 34-7. Then, after going to sleep in New Orleans (7-17), they punished Houston, 34-21; San Diego, 40-17; Los Angeles, 24-10; Denver, 38-21, and Cleveland, 41-21. Most of these contests were not as "close" as the score indicates, with many of the opposition's touchdowns coming late in the game, meaninglessly.
Sunday, in Cincinnati, the Bengals are favored by 6 1/2 points over San Francisco. Gregg and 49er Coach Bill Walsh deserve to be coach of the year in their respective conferences. Both clubs are 10-3, but I can't see San Francisco staying within seven of Cincinnati. The visitors have clinched the NFC West, while the Bengals are still under pressure from Pittsburgh in their division. Everything points to Cincinnati, for an imaginary $750.
Denver faces a critical situation at home against Kansas City. The Broncos have lost two straight, their excellent defense having been overwhelmed on the road by Cincinnati and San Diego. The Chiefs do not have such an offense. They prefer running to passing. I look for Denver to snap back and regain at least a piece of the AFC West lead, and will give three points for $500.
San Diego, meanwhile, might have difficulty keeping pace with Denver. Buffalo has the aerial game capable of giving the Charger secondary some real problems, and while nobody shuts down Dan Fouts the Bills' pass defense is excellent. I wonder about Fouts' physical condition. He did not throw deep last week against Denver and he often appeared to be in pain. I'll take the 4 1/2 points and the Bills for $250.
Philadelphia and Pittsburgh also attract $250 apiece. The Eagles can run on Washington, and if Dick Vermeil will quit being more conservative than George Allen ever was, the Eagles will cover at Washington, giving 4 1/2. Pittsburgh is favored by 3 1/2 Monday night in Oakland. When Lynn Swann and Dave Stallworth are healthy the Steeler offense is special.
In other games Las Vegas lists Houston two over Cleveland (tonight), Atlanta two at Tampa Bay, Dallas 12 at Baltimore, Detroit 2 1/2 at Green Bay, the New York Giants 3 1/2 over Los Angeles, Minnesota 3 1/2 at Chicago, Miami six over New England, St. Louis 6 1/2 over New Orleans and the New York Jets eight at Seattle.
Last week: Detroit, favored by 2 1/2, defeated Kansas City, 27-10, plus $750; Dallas, favored by 12 1/2, defeated Chicago, 10-9, minus $275; Pittsburgh, favored by 6 1/2, defeated Los Angeles, 24-0, plus $250; Cincinnati, favored by two, defeated Cleveland, 41-21, plus $500; San Diego, favored by 3 1/2, defeated Denver, 34-17, plus $500; Miami, a two-point underdog, defeated Philadelphia, 13-10, plus $1,000.
Won-lost record: 30-29.