In the middle of the night before his first NFL starting assignment, Boomer Esiason remembers waking up waving both hands and screaming, "No, No, that's the wrong formation."

His afternoon here in the rain of Riverfront Stadium today was a lot better than his uptight night before. As it turned out, he didn't even need the crib sheet the coaches had ready to sew to his wristbands.

Esiason, a blond, left-handed quarterback from the University of Maryland who fired up folk back in College Park for three years, did the same thing to Bengals fans today. He completed 13 of 24 passes for 159 yards, ran for the game's only touchdown and led Cincinnati to its first victory of the year, 13-3, over forlorn and still winless Houston.

When he ran from the field, fans raised their umbrellas and chanted, "Boomer . . . Boomer . . . Boomer." And in the locker room, all the big-name veterans -- Ken Anderson, Anthony Munoz, Cris Collinsworth -- came over to say, "Nice game, kid."

The highlight of Esiason's day came late in the third quarter, after he had thrown 21 yards to Collinsworth, four yards to Charles Alexander and 26 yards to Stanford Jennings to help get the ball to Houston's three.

On second and goal, Coach Sam Wyche called for Esiason to run a quarterback draw.

"They had drawn the play up during the week and showed me the hole that should be there," Esiason recalled. "But you figure that stuff never happens the way coaches plan it. I just thought, 'Yeah, right, we'll see.'

"But it worked. Just like they drew it. I ran right behind Brian Blados (a former North Carolina rival "who turned out to be a nice guy," he said) and the hole was huge."

No Houston player came close to touching Esiason, whose biggest worry was what to do with the ball. "At Maryland, I couldn't spike it. I said, 'Hey, this is the NFL. I can spike it.' "

So he did, then took the next few moments "to wipe that stupid grin off my face and get back to business." His run helped make it 10-3 in favor of the Bengals and turned out to be the winning score.

He graded his performance a C+, but it was a much better beginning than that for a guy who was third on the depth chart at his position a week ago, and for a rookie who was so tired from cramming all week he nearly overslept his 11 o'clock pregame meeting.

"Let's just say he was a little uptight," said Peter Koch, the Bengals' first-round draft choice from Maryland who shares a house with Esiason.

"We always car-pool together the weekend of home games," Koch said. "But this time he left me. I told him, 'Boomer, you better loosen up. Relax.' "

Esiason admitted he started the game a little nervously. On his second series, Esiason nearly got sacked in his end zone by Robert Brazile.

"That was all my fault," Esiason said. "I was trying to audible at the goal line like an idiot. I should have run the play that was called. I called the right play the wrong way. As soon as I snapped the ball, I said, 'Oh, why am I doing this in my own end zone?' "

He got away -- "Great evade ability," Koch commented -- and threw an incompletion.

And two possessions later, he threw long down the sideline to Collinsworth, who was incorrectly ruled out of bounds. No matter, Esiason had thrown his first downfield pass, and felt good.

As Wyche said, "It was after that when he came over to the sideline and said, 'I'm okay now. I'm a quarterback.' "

Despite two dropped balls, Esiason completed five passes to drive the Bengals far enough for a 33-yard field goal that gave Cincinnati a 3-0 lead just before halftime.

For awhile it seemed as if neither team could score in what had to be among the worst two quarters of NFL play in years.

In the fourth, Esiason didn't do much other than handoff to Alexander, Jennings and Larry Kinnebrew. "The offensive line had control of the game, not me," he said.

"They gave me all day to throw," said Esiason, who wasn't sacked. "I was back there and thought, 'Wow, there's nobody back here but me.' "

His success today, impressive as it was, has to be put into some perspective. The Bengals beat Houston, a team that is 3-28 since 1982, a team that has already allowed more than 2,000 yards this season.

On the flip side, he did something 14-year veteran Anderson and five-year veteran Turk Schonert couldn't get done in five previous games.

Wyche realized he was actually smiling late on Sunday afternoon. "President Reagan call yet?" he asked. Told no, he quipped, "Mondale?"

Wyche sidestepped the real question of the day, which is whether Esiason will start next week at New England.

Esiason, the rookie with a fine sense of diplomacy, was also the wrong person to ask.

"As far as I'm, concerned, Kenny Anderson is still the man," he said. "I was only playing today because he and Turk were injured. I couldn't even have done it today without them. Every time I came off the sideline they were supportive, telling me to look for this or look for that."

This, however, wouldn't be the first time he got an opportunity because of injury to the man in front of him, and didn't let go. He did it in high school and college.

"I don't know if it's a jinx or what," he said. "I hope not. I like Kenny and Turk."

Today after the game, he talked about old times with Houston's Willie Joyner, his backfield mate at Maryland for three years. And a week that started nervously, couldn't have ended much better.

"The main thing is that I contributed, and I feel pretty good. You know what? I just hope we make the Monday Night Football highlights."