Toss out Houston, which never should have let Bum Phillips go, and it's a three-team race for the AFC Central title. Considering all the contenders have major problems, it should be a dandy.

Cincinnati (7-3) was the class of the division until losing for the first four games defensive end Ross Browner and fullback Pete Johnson (drug suspensions). Browner is the spiritual leader of the defense, Johnson the offense's best rusher. Their absence could prevent the Bengals from getting off to a fast start.

Perhaps Charles Alexander, a much more versatile back, will make Cincinnati fans forget Johnson. Quarterback Ken Anderson remains one of the best, and he has fine receivers in Cris Collinsworth, Isaac Curtis and Dan Ross. The defense is solid, if not spectacular. But what damage has been caused by the future USFL contracts signed by Ross and Collinsworth?

Pittsburgh (6-4) could leap ahead if the Bengals stumble. Coach Chuck Noll is rebuilding his once-powerful team, changing long-held philosophies on offense and defense to adapt to changing trends. But what the Steelers need is a link to the past: a healthy Terry Bradshaw directing a newly diversified offense. Franco Harris is only 293 yards away from moving ahead of O.J. Simpson to second place on the all-time rushing list, behind Jim Brown. If Noll can fill holes at linebacking and in the secondary, Pittsburgh could be surprisingly good.

Another quarterback squabble exists in Cleveland, where the Browns (4-6) have veteran Brian Sipe and young Paul McDonald. They also have a new one-back offense, which means plenty of throwing by someone. Halfback Mike Pruitt should excel in the new attack. But No. 1 choice Ron Brown, who would have provided much-needed speed at receiver, opted to try for the Olympics. Coach Sam Rutigliano has to contend with a weak pass rush, so-so special teams and an unsteady secondary.

That leaves the Oilers. Coach Ed Biles shook up his coaching staff in the offseason, hoping to bring some life back to his team, 1-8 last season. It would help if Earl Campbell perked up. At his best, he is still the league's premier power back, but Houston is having problems lately deciding how to best use him and still develop a passing game. Either Archie Manning, who has had better days, or Gifford Nielsen, who may never have great days, will be at quarterback. The secondary has been severely affected by off-field drug problems; ex-Redskin Ken Houston, a Houston assistant, is in charge of rebuilding that area.