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AFC PREVIEW : Please, Somebody, Give Bills a Break


Psst, you want an AFC championship? There's one available right now. A heck of a deal.

It will be the middle of January, you will be one of only two teams still working, so you'll make extra money. And your players get really popular, fast.

Anything they say, any kind of silly dance they do in the end zone, everybody will laugh. They can make up nicknames, make up life stories, the world will love them, it's the American dream.

What? What does the AFC champion have to do?

Not much, really. Just go to Atlanta at the end of January, play the team from the NFC in the Super Bowl and. . . .

What? Oh. Sorry. You don't have to yell.


It was bound to happen. After having their heads lopped off in the Super Bowl for nine consecutive seasons, being outscored, 349-142, in the process, this year's top AFC teams are acting as if they don't want to go near that championship.

The defending champion Buffalo Bills, who could reach make a record fourth consecutive Super Bowl appearance, don't want the risk of a fourth consecutive embarrassment.

Just ask Warren Moon of the Houston Oilers.

"I've heard some of their players say they don't have a chance to go back to Super Bowl," Moon said of the Bills. "They are frightened to get back because of what might happen when they get there. And I believe it. I watched a bunch of their players come to the Pro Bowl (last season) and to see those guys . . . it was devastating for them."

Moon acknowledged, however, that the Oilers are worried about going to a Super Bowl before their veteran team is torn apart. They even think Coach Jack Pardee's job might be on the line.

"Any coach's job is always in jeopardy, especially when he's been in a place a couple of years and not reached expectations," Moon said. "Jack's job is probably in jeopardy at some point. I don't know what point that is."

Then there are the still-growing San Diego Chargers. They say that after last year's breakthrough season, they are unsure if they have the emotional makeup to advance those final two steps.

"We are at least as good as last year, if not better," General Manager Bobby Beathard said. "But this is a young team, and you always wonder how they will handle their success."

This leaves the Miami Dolphins, who are causing such a stir in south Florida that they recently attracted 1,800 fans to a promotional breakfast .

The Dolphins' off-season acquisitions of Irving Fryar, Mark Ingram and Keith Byars give Dan Marino new weapons.

Don Shula's quest to become pro football's winningest coach--he will pass George Halas with seven victories--provides the inspiration.

Besides, the AFC's Super Bowl losing streak started with the Dolphins, when they lost to the San Francisco 49ers after the 1984 season. They owe.



* New: Ingram, Fryar and Byars replace the departed Mark Clayton and Mark Duper. Tackle Ron Heller joins a questionable offensive line. Terry Kirby could be the first Dolphin rookie running back to start the opening game since Larry Csonka. O.J. McDuffie will be one of the league's most exciting rookie return men.

* Old: The Perfect Season.

* Best guess: The title is the Dolphins' to lose. They finished one game short of the Super Bowl last season, but greatly improved themselves while the Bills remained virtually unchanged.

There is no telling what Marino will do with three new receivers--four, when you consider Keith Jackson joined the team in the middle of last season.

There is also no telling how much better the league's 10th-ranked defense will get with linebackers Marco Coleman and Bryan Cox and cornerback Troy Vincent, none with more than two years' experience.


* New: Jerrol Williams teams with Junior Seau to give the Chargers the quickest, most aggressive linebacker duo in the conference. Darrien Gordon, cornerback and No. 1 draft pick, will eventually replace injured Gill Byrd. Joe Milinichik, a guard from the Rams, lends a hand to the offensive line.

* Old: Missing Air Coryell.

* Best guess: If they can continue their improvement over 16 games as they did over the final 12 games of last season, they will be darn near unbeatable.

But will Coach Bobby Ross' college atmosphere work as well with higher salaries and expectations? Can the defensive front seven compensate for a potentially porous secondary?

And how soon before the offensive line regroups from the trade of tackle Broderick Thompson and defection of guard David Richards? If quarterback Stan Humphries thinks he was mauled Saturday at San Francisco in the final exhibition game, wait until he gets a load of Cortez Kennedy and the Seattle Seahawks in Sunday's opener.


* New: Buddy Ryan signs up to coach a defense that was victimized in the greatest comeback in NFL history last January, the Bills overcoming a 35-3 deficit to steal a 41-38 playoff victory. Wilber Marshall joins his former mentor as a leading linebacker.

* Old: Puns involving Warren Moon's last name.

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