LOS ANGELES, JAN. 12 -- The way quarterback Boomer Esiason has it figured, the Cincinnati Bengals are pretty much back where they were at the start of this crazy season.

"At the beginning of the year, all those experts said we were one of the better teams in the AFC," Esiason said. "Now here we are, one of the eight best teams and maybe we proved a few of those people right. And now, all of a sudden, those experts are amazed we're here and I don't see why."

It has been a confusing roller-coaster ride for Esiason, the former University of Maryland quarterback, and his 10-7 team.

Although the Bengals beat the Oilers, 41-14, in the first round of the playoffs, earning a matchup with the 12-4 Los Angeles Raiders Sunday, it has been almost a weekly "what now?" atmosphere in Cincinnati this season.

There were Coach Sam Wyche's actions toward female members of the media subsequent fine and disputes with NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

There has been the initiation of key rookies such as linebackers James Francis and Bernard Clark and cornerback-kick returner Mitchell Price. And there have been injuries to key players such as safety David Fulcher and cornerback Eric Thomas.

"We've had guys playing hurt all year, including myself," said Esiason, who has 224 completions in 402 attempts for 3,031 yards and 24 touchdowns. "We've struggled to this point, no question about that, but our last three games we've played our best football and we've won the games when we've had to win them. That's more an indication of the way this football team is."

In a season filled with blame, Esiason has shouldered a lot of it. Despite a publicized groin injury and a not-so-publicized wrist problem, he's swallowed the criticism and played on. Just enough to win, even though his completion rate is down to 55.7 percent, his lowest since 1987.

"Really, the only people I listen to are ex-quarterbacks or coaches or people who have played the position," Esiason said. "And my own confidant, believe it or not, is myself. But I'm not stupid to the fact that a guy like Sam can tell you why it isn't working. I'm not stupid to the fact that I'm perfect because I'm not. I'm very far from it. You just believe in yourself and you believe in the players around you and you know that everything that is gone is going to come back."

Esiason sees this Bengals team as miscast. Instead of a lot of stars looking for solos, he sees machinery full of replaceable parts and he thinks there are players capable of filling in if three injured regulars are unable to play Sunday.

"It's going to be really hard to replace guys like {tackle Anthony} Munoz, {guard Bruce} Reimers and {running back James} Brooks," Esiason said. "There's no question that those three guys are part of what we've tried to do here over the last five, six years. But, to tell you the truth, the nicest thing about playing on this football team has been the unselfish acts that each of us have conveyed to each other just as long as we win. If there's any mirroring of 1988, it's been that. If Timmy McGee catches two passes, so what, as long as we win. If Eddie Brown catches one pass, so what, as long as we win. If James Brooks only runs for 50 yards, who cares? Just as long as we got more points than they did."

In the romp over Houston last Sunday, Esiason completed 14 passes in 20 attempts for only 150 yards. But he passed for two touchdowns and ran for his first of the year.

"I don't know if it's been a transformation over the year or two but that's the personality of this football team right now," said Esiason. "The motto around here is, 'Whatever it takes.' "