Sam Wyche, the rookie coach, just wouldn't give up, even when his team was 0-5 and filled a weekly injury report with 18 names. His earnestness, it seemed, bordered on the absurd. He insisted on delivering a "we're-still-in-it" speech at practice every week, even as the losses mounted.

Amazingly, his players, the Cincinnati Bengals, didn't laugh.

"Nobody gave me a look of disbelief," Wyche said. "They wanted to believe so bad. It was like they were saying, 'Don't tease us.'

"I didn't."

Heading into the final two weeks of the National Football League's regular season, the Bengals (6-8) are one game behind the Pittsburgh Steelers in the race for the AFC Central title. If Cincinnati wins its final two games (at New Orleans, home against Buffalo) and Pittsburgh loses one of its last two (home against Cleveland, at the Los Angeles Raiders), the Bengals go to the playoffs because of a better record in the division.

"We could be a tremendous sports story," said Wyche, a former Washington Redskins reserve quarterback.

It would sell on the numbers alone; an 0-5 team wins six of the next nine games to find itself right in the thick of things in the AFC Central.

But there's more. The Bengals have done this without star quarterback Ken Anderson. Their heroes of late have been quarterbacks Turk Schonert and Boomer Esiason, in his first year from Maryland.

"As a rookie, I was thinking I would throw about 15 passes all year," Esiason said. "Now, I'm throwing 20-25 a game."

Esiason led the Bengals to a 20-17 overtime victory over the Cleveland Browns last Sunday after Schonert separated his right shoulder. Wyche said yesterday that Schonert will undergo surgery at the end of the week and will miss the rest of the season.

Because Anderson also has a slight separation of his left shoulder, Esiason is the Bengals' only healthy quarterback. "Boomer is capable," Wyche said, "but we are going to try to find (another quarterback) in the next 24 hours."

It's doubtful anyone -- aside from Doug Flutie -- will be able to duplicate Esiason's performance against Cleveland. With one second to play in regulation, he threw a one-yard touchdown pass to tackle Anthony Munoz, who had lined up as a tight end in a wingback position.

Wyche installed the play last week. "The coach makes a great call. He throws it to his ace receiver, his tackle," he said, laughing. "If it bounces off his chest, the coach has to answer for it."

The Bengals are 2-1 in the games Esiason has played, including their first victory of the season, 13-3 over then-winless Houston Oct. 7. It's likely he will play this week, no matter who starts.

"We feel real good about our chances," Esiason said. "If you look at our schedule and Pittsburgh's, you'd say they have the tougher schedule. But the most important thing is that we are confident now. Winning has generated confidence, like the kind Seattle or San Francisco has. They know they can win. We used to be like other teams, like Atlanta or Houston, hoping we would not get blown out."

The problems in the first five games were varied: a new coach, a couple of crucial penalties, a tough schedule and injuries.

"Part of it is that the new coaches and the new players are used to each other now," said Wyche, who is 39. The Bengals also are as healthy as they have been all season, Wyche said, although, in addition to the quarterback situation, wide receiver Cris Collinsworth is expected to miss the New Orleans game with a sprained ankle.

"Nobody ever conceded this season," Wyche said. "I told the players we were still in it until we were mathematically out of it. Now, we don't have to hope anymore. We're going to be hard to beat."