When the Cincinnati Bengals brought out their new tiger-striped orange helmets and orange jerseys and pants last April, veteran cornerback Ken Riley was of a mind to maul, snap and snarl over those outrageous outfits.

"I honestly thought they were the ugliest things in the world; kind of embarrassing, really," said Riley, at 33 the oldest Bengal on a roster that includes eight rookies and 28 players with four or fewer years in the league.

"But I guess you have to say it's kind of grown on me. Right now, we're winning, so everything is beautiful. Even those uniforms."

For Riley and many of his veteran teammates, things had been mostly ugly over the last six years, a span that saw the Bengals go from the playoffs in 1975 to 4-12 seasons in 1978 and '79 and 6-10 last year. There have been three coaches in the six seasons since Paul Brown left the sidelines for the front office, and the first two, Bill Johnson and Homer Rice, were mostly ineffectual.

"They were two really nice guys," said Riley. "They were both players' coaches. But we had a lot of young guys on this team who needed a strong arm. They were such nice fellas that people took it as a sign of weakness and tried to get away with things. That doesn't happen any more."

Ask any veteran Bengal about the team's turnaround from laughable loser to participant in Sunday's American Football Conference championship game against San Diego and most fingers point toward Forrest Gregg, the man who replaced Rice two years ago.

"When Paul Brown was the coach, he ran the team and that was it," said punter Pat McInally. "With the coaches before Forrest, I think it was difficult for the players to accept the transference of power from Brown to Johnson to Rice. But now, I don't think there's any doubt but that Forrest has complete control of this team."

Clearly, the players have cared enough to provide their very best for Gregg this season, particularly some of the veterans.

Quarterback Ken Anderson has had his best season in the National Football League. Fullback Pete Johnson gained 1,000 yards for the first time in his career. Riley led the team in interceptions, with six. McInally's 45-yard punting average is the best of his career, and 10-year linebacker Jim LeClair is the team's leading tackler.

Many of those veterans also say they are not surprised by what has happened this season. They sensed the change a year ago, when five of the 10 losses were by a margin of five points or less.

"We were so close to having a good season last year," LeClair said, "and we all knew it was just a matter of putting a few pieces together. Then we got a couple of those pieces in the draft, Cris Collinsworth for one, and things started going our way."

Adds Riley: "In our first game against Seattle, we were down 21-0 and came back to win. Then we were behind by 14 to the Jets in the second game and won that, too. I knew then that this team had character, that we'd finally learned how to win."

Last week against Buffalo, the Bengals finally learned how to win a playoff game, a feat they had not accomplished three previous times in the early 1970s. All during the week before the Buffalo game, Riley and several other veterans talked to their younger teammates about the significance of the game.

"I was just telling some of the kids that this chance might not come again," Riley said. "The last time I was in (the playoffs) was 1975, and I kind of took it for granted, until we started losing and I wondered to myself if I'd ever get back. I just wanted to let them know that it's nice being in the playoffs, but it's definitely not enough.

"It's been the greatest year of my life. The guys on the team are close. We play together and party together, and the fans have been unbelievable, nothing like the last time we made the playoffs. Some of these people are crazy, and it's rubbed off on us, a little, too."

Even the tiger stripes?

"Wouldn't change 'em for anything," he said, purring.