Several weeks ago, in the midst of the Cincinnati Bengals' five-game winning streak, Ken Anderson received a call from NBC-TV's Today Show.

Would he do the show? Certainly.

Fine, said the show's representative, we'll send a limousine to pick you up.

That's okay, Ken Anderson said, I'll drive my own car.

All his life, it seems, Ken Anderson has driven his own car. The quarterback who is the toast of a town gone crazy over its suddenly successful (10-4 and leading the AFC Central) football team, didn't play college football on a scholarship. He grew up in a tiny Illinois town, the son of a high school janitor. His father's job gave him access to athletic equipment at the school.

He had to drop out of college his senior year because of a National Guard commitment. After his first year of pro football, he spent the offseason on active duty in the military.

Perhaps because no one handed him anything when he was struggling, Ken Anderson shies away from those who would spoil him now.

"You never hear Ken say, 'I did,' " said Anthony Munoz, one of the offensive linemen paid to protect Anderson. "He always says a good day was because of what everybody else did. He never complained when he didn't have time to throw. Now that he has it, he talks about it all the time."

Statistical success is nothing new to Anderson. He entered this, his 11th NFL season, with the lowest interception percentage in the history of the league. He had been the NFL's leading passer twice.

But the Bengals were losers in 1978, '79 and '80, and their combined record those seasons was 14-34. In 1980, Anderson started 12 games but finished only two because of injuries. He began this season, at age 32, with an uncertain future. He had earned his law degree in the spring and, even though he has settled here, some thought he wanted to be traded. Others thought it was time to begin the law career.

"I never got down last year despite the injuries," said Anderson, who picks his words as carefully as his passes. "If you play long enough you are going to have injuries. I thought I would come back this season."

In the season opener against Seattle, Anderson's first pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. By the third quarter, it was 21-0 Seattle, there had been another interception and Anderson could hear the boos. Coach Forrest Gregg yanked him.

"I deserved to be yanked and I deserved to be booed," Anderson said. "I was bad that day. But it didn't bother my confidence. You accept the fact that you weren't good. You accept the fact that every quarterback who has ever played the game has been booed.

"But you don't give up on yourself because of one bad half."

Turk Schoenert, the Bengals' third-string quarterback (second-stringer Jack Thompson was hurt) led a comeback that resulted in a 27-21 Bengal victory over the Seahawks. Gregg announced that Schoenert would be the quarterback the following week.

Usually, such an announcement might have upset Anderson. Not that week. Shortly after the game, his 6-year-old son Matt was found to have a blood disorder that left him extremely vulnerable to bruising.

"It was scary for a while," Anderson said. "Naturally, it made football seem less important. Seeing my son like that certainly put getting booed in perspective."

The day after the Seattle game was the low point. Since then, Matt's condition has returned to normal and Anderson's professional life has improved. He has Paul Brown, Bengal owner, vice president and founder of the franchise, to thank for the latter.

Brown is 73, but he talks daily with his coach about the Bengals. It was Brown who drafted Anderson out of tiny Augustana College on the third round in 1971 and it was he who installed Anderson as his No. 1 quarterback a year later. Just when it seemed Anderson would be benched, it was Brown who "recommended" to Gregg that he stick with Anderson.

Gregg followed the recommendation.

Anderson led a comeback victory over the Jets the next week, then was booed again during a 20-17 loss to Cleveland. The Bengals won eight of their next 10, including consecutive victories over Houston, San Diego, Los Angeles, Denver and Cleveland. During that stretch, Cincinnati averaged 35 points a game and won by an average margin of 17.

"A lot of good things have happened this year," Anderson said. "I think the most important thing is we're all used to Forrest Gregg's system, we all know what to expect now. It takes a year to get used to what a new coach is doing.

"It's been fun again."

For Anderson, the addition of rookie receivers David Verser, the No. 1 draft pick, and Cris Collinsworth, the No. 2, has helped immeasurably. When Collinsworth dropped a pass Sunday during the streak-ending 21-3 loss to San Francisco, the Bengals were stunned because he is so sure-handed.

The young but huge offensive line is a year older and has given Anderson time -- except Sunday, when the 49ers chased him mercilessly until, trying to scramble early in the third quarter, Anderson hyperextended the big toe on his right foot.

The same fans who might have cheered such an occurrence in September sat in silence as Anderson, the foot iced, was taken from the field on a golf cart. Now, with the Bengals in position to clinch the division title by beating the Steelers (8-6) in Pittsburgh Sunday, Anderson's is the most talked about toe in this state since Lou Groza retired 17 years ago.

"It's kind of silly to even talk about how much Kenny means to us," said wide receiver Steve Kreider. "This is an intelligent team and we all have faith in Jack (Thompson). But Kenny Anderson is the most valuable player in the league. We need him in there."

Of course, the Steelers could use Terry Bradshaw, definitely out with a broken hand. Anderson is questionable.

"I want to play in this game, it means a lot," Anderson said. "We haven't been in the playoffs since 1975. I want to be part of getting us back in there."