CINCINNATI, JAN. 6 -- Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason is tired of hearing the comparisons to 1988-89, when the Bengals romped to the Super Bowl. That was an eon ago, he says, a "magical season" that has nothing to do with Playoffs 1991.

But it's only natural such comparisons are now being made. Just as they did two seasons ago, the Bengals are mounting a playoff surge, pinning an embarrassing whipping on the Houston Oilers today in an AFC wild-card game, 41-14, at soldout Riverfront Stadium.

With the victory on a drizzly and cold afternoon, the AFC Central champions will play at the Los Angeles Raiders in an AFC semifinal game next Sunday. The Bengals' victory meant that the Miami Dolphins will play Buffalo for the third time this season, Saturday in Buffalo.

During the closing minutes of Cincinnati's victory, most of the 60,012 fans began shouting, "Beat L.A., Beat L.A."

The Bengals' defense, as in 1988, is playing its best football of the season. The offense, as in 1988, is peaking, the difference being some of the main cast of characters has and still is changing. And Esiason, as in 1988, had one of his most precise and error-free games of the season against Houston.

Esiason said he wants to hear none of this. He thinks comparisons are for people who watch football, not who play it.

"I'm so tired of comparing things to '88," said Esiason, who was 14 of 20 passing for 150 yards and two touchdowns. "It's a whole new season. We're two games away from {the achievements of} '88; '88 was a magical season. If we win those two games then we can start comparing."

The game continued a damaging trend for the Oilers, who now have lost four straight and one of their last 11 games at Riverfront Stadium. The Bengals have a 291-148 scoring advantage in the last six games played here. It may have been the first postseason meeting between these two teams, but in terms of the trend it was business as usual, since Cincinnati set a club record today for playoff points.

Yet the victory was as costly as it was impressive. The Bengals lost running back James Brooks, their leading rusher with 1,021 yards, for at least the Raiders game. Brooks dislocated his left thumb on a routine running play in the first quarter.

Brooks, who rushed for 201 yards two weeks ago against Houston, was taken to Christ Hospital to have the thumb operated on "and put back into place" as Bengals Coach Sam Wyche said. A hospital spokesman said the operation was successful and that Brooks was in stable condition.

Bengals left guard Bruce Reimers severly sprained his right ankle -- he had broken his left foot in preseason -- and may miss the remainder of the playoffs. Center Bruce Kozerski badly bruised his elbow and the Bengals' best offensive lineman, Anthony Munoz, left the game early because of a chronic shoulder problem. Kozerski and Munoz are expected to play against Los Angeles, albeit in pain.

"We are hurting," Wyche said. "We're licking our wounds."

Esiason said: "We had a lot of guys injured. They don't really have a lot of time to heal either. That's going to hurt us."

But it was the only negative aspect for Cincinnati, which led 20-0 at halftime. This was a complete and total blowout.

"I was so sure we were going to win the ballgame and win it handily," Wyche said. "I just had that feeling. It's rare you get that feeling."

Cincinnati so disguised its defensive coverages the Bengals completely confused Oilers quarterback Cody Carlson, in for the injured record-setter Warren Moon. By now Carlson (16 of 33 for 165 yards, two touchdowns and one interception) may wish he was the one on the sideline in street clothes instead of Moon.

Carlson, who played so well against Pittsburgh's top-ranked pass defense last week, fell apart against the Bengals. He had three of his passes knocked down and twice he lost the ball in the middle of his throwing motion. One particularly bad throw led to a 43-yard interception return by safety David Fulcher and subsequent two-yard touchdown pass from Esiason to running back Harold Green for a 17-0 lead.

When Carlson fumbled a snap that was recovered by rookie linebacker James Francis at the Houston 10, it led to one of the more brilliant plays of the game. Esiason, with the help of a play-action fake one way to running back Eric Ball, easily ran the other way and into the end zone after the Oilers defense took the fake. Cincinnati then had a 34-0 lead with 11:09 left in the third quarter.

The Oilers didn't get a first down until there were 28 seconds left in the first half. Houston also had one yard rushing in the first half. The Bengals held the ball for nearly 20 more minutes than the Oilers, scoring on four of their first five possessions.

"When you start out as slowly as we started out it's tough to recover," Carlson said. "We just didn't execute. I didn't throw the ball {well} and it snowballed."

Said Oilers Coach Jack Pardee, a teammate of Wyche with the Washington Redskins in 1971-72: "We didn't throw well, we didn't run well, we didn't catch well."

The Bengals did everything well. Their diverse offense spread the wealth, with five different running backs touching the ball and Esiason -- who rushed for 57 yards -- hitting eight different receivers. When Brooks went down, Green, a rookie from South Carolina, took up the slack, rushing 11 times for 55 yards.

"The Oilers like to talk a bunch of smack and it's up to us to shut their mouths . . . literally kick their butts," said running back Ickey Woods, who did his touchdown shuffle after a first-quarter score.

As for Esiason, he continued to play down any comparisons to previous years. He did have this to say about playing the Raiders:

"It's L.A. and the world is watching," he said. "You're going to have the Raiders cheerleaders doing their thing. {Raiders owner} Al Davis is going to be walking on the sideline. All the stars will be out . . . and if we're lucky it'll be 17 degrees."