even submediocrity -- has burrowed deeply into this division, which in the late '70s and early '80s was ruled with a whip by guys named Mean Joe and Franco or Earl and Bum or Cincy's cool, calm leaders named Anderson, Ross and Collinsworth.

How else can you explain that Pittsburgh won the AFC Central last year with a pedestrian 9-7 record and almost allowed a team that started 0-5 (the Bengals) to steal their title in the season's final week?

Go ahead, credit the Steelers' Chuck Noll for coaching astutely, and his linebacker Mike (15 sacks) Merriweather for blitzing effectively, and his wide receiver/kick returner Louis Lipps (45 catches) for being a gem of a rookie, and his team for getting within one victory of the Super Bowl.

But don't forget the Steelers let slide a three-game lead that nearly allowed the Bengals a remarkable reversal; or that the aggregate 1984 regular-season record in the AFC Central was 25-39 (.391), worst in the NFL.

How might the Steelers get knocked off in 1985? Perhaps the Bengals (8-8) have the best chance. Maybe if quarterback Ken Anderson, 36, can stay healthy and if their top draft pick, wide receiver Eddie Brown (University of Miami), can make the double coverage go away from Cris Collinsworth and if the defense can return to 1981-82 vintage, the Bengals will do it.

Or maybe this is the year for the Quake by the Lake. Cleveland's Marty Schottenheimer heads into his first full season as head coach, needing help on offense and a duplication of last year by the AFC's top-rated defense (290 yards allowed per game).

If rookie quarterback Bernie Kosar gets his chance, maybe the Browns will get their chance, too.

If the running backs run and the offensive line blocks and the quarterbacks throw and if tight end Ozzie Newsome (a league-high 402 catches over six seasons) provides his standard excellence, the Browns can't help but improve on last year's 5-11.

The division's most expensive backfield lies in Houston, home of the 3-13 last-place horrors in 1984. The quarterback is Warren Moon (12 touchdown passes, 14 interceptions in '84) and the running back is Mike Rozier, who rushed for 1,300 yards in the USFL in the spring.

Defensively, the Oilers need help -- desperately -- from their three top draft picks, defensive ends Ray Childress (Houston) and Richard Byrd (So. Mississippi), and cornerback Richard Johnson (Wisconsin). Houston rated last in the league in defending the run in 1984, allowing 174 yards per game.