What cold?

The worst it got was minus-9 degrees at the opening kickoff and a minus-59 wind chill factor in the second half, not records for the National Freezeball League, but close. And the alleged brightest men on the field, the Cincinnati Bengal offensive linemen, coaxed themselves and some others to go sleeveless for their victory on the rocks.

"Nothing macho, not at all," said left guard Dave Lapham. "The Chargers like to grab a lot, and we didn't want to give 'em any cloth. Two or three of us decided to do it yesterday at practice. We picked a (wind chill) number, minus-25 or 30, where we wouldn't do it. It got worse, of course, but we went ahead, anyway.

"We'd played a game here in '78, against Pittsburgh, where it was about as bad, and those of us who were here for that one passed some tips along on what to wear."

Saran Wrap over socks; lots of Vaseline over the face and arms; panty hose.

"Got mine from Frederick's of Hollywood," chirped Pat McInally.

Considering circumstances that Bengal Coach Forrest Gregg called "devastating," the quality of play in this AFC title game was quite high. The Cincinnati offense was errorless until midway through the third quarter, when it had the game well in hand.

In their cold hearts, the Chargers knew they really lost this game weeks ago instead of today. Had they won games in Chicago and Seattle and against Buffalo at home, as they should have, the Chargers would have been hosts today, flowing in balmy weather rather than stymied, with half their game plan useless, almost literally frozen.

Whatever the whys, the Bengals never lost control today. Ken Anderson was the more resourceful quarterback, both Bengal bare-armed lines clearly were superior. Entertaining as the Chargers are, it's nice to see somebody that plays a little defense in the Super Bowl.

The Bengals' open-arms policy nearly was aborted early.

"There was a TV timeout in the first quarter," Lapham recalled, "and coming off that heated bench and standing around on the field was awful. You can't imagine how. My arms looked like lobster hooks, and I said: 'Whoa. Maybe I ought to change into long johns and long sleeves at halftime.'

"But I looked at my man across the line, Big Hands Johnson, and he wasn't all bundled up, either. I didn't want to give in to him, be a turtle out there. And once you got the hang of when to go to the (warm-air) blowers and the (heated) bench and when to move away, it wasn't all that bad."

Lapham's guard partner and next door neighbor in the clubhouse, Max Montoya, shook his head in amazement.

"Lookee here," he said to Lapham, pointing to his dry undershirt and helmet liner. "Never in my life have I not sweated in a game."

There was all manner of mental sweat for the Chargers. Their defense did not play all that badly, or at least not down to its usual standards. But quarterback Dan Fouts' mind surely was sloshy a few times and Chuck Muncie did not disappoint those who figured he would fumble a few times.

"Why were we pretty close to flawless on offense?" asked reserve wide receiver Steve Kreider. "It's like whistling past a graveyard." He then whistled, although the mood around him hardly was funereal. "You just keep going and don't think about what can go wrong. If you think turnover, that's just what'll happen."

And if you think cold, you'll play like a stiff.

"Most of us really are more acclimated to conditions like this," Lapham said. "Kenny played in the cold when he was young; I'm from near Boston, and as a kid I'd look at something like Green Bay and the Giants and get so charged up I'd jump over a snowdrift with a football at halftime.

"The Chargers can't go from something like 80 in Miami last week to minus-whatever today without having big problems. When Kenny got knocked out (for two plays early in the fourth quarter), the cold must have affected the smelling-salts capsule. They laid that thing practically in his nose, and nothing happened."

What happened once in the Bengal huddle, after the Chargers stopped the clock in the final two minutes, was laughter. Shivering witnesses 20 yards away could see puffs of happy steam rising from the Bengal players.

Several minutes earlier, the joyous Bengal crowd had begun tearing newspapers used as foot insulation and throwing the shreds toward the field. Free spirit Cris Collinsworth had reached down, grabbed one and glanced at it.

To his astonishment, he was looking at himself, at the full-face, hands-poised-for-the-catch picture that had graced Saturday's editions. He passed it around the huddle, saying:

"If this isn't a good-looking rascal."

In the stands, fumbled coffee was frozen to concrete almost instantly; dozens of customers were being treated for frostbite; one man apparently had fallen about eight feet, from the lower stands, into a snow pile and was being carried off in a stretcher; a crazy, bare from waist to head, earlier had ridden a stuffed Bengal tiger about a dugout roof.

What do we make of such a scene? What is the sociological message of so many (only 13,277 no-shows in a stadium that seats 59,497) paying so dearly to endure so much to watch such a spectacle?

"It is," said Kreider, the merry man from Lehigh, "a reflection of the failure of our educational system."

Nearby, a thawed-out defensive behemoth was yelling to Wilson Whitley: "A clean sweep of all the clubs tonight, Whit."

"We'll go," Whitley promised.