Older NFL fans can remember when the American Conference, with such powerful teams as the Raiders, Pittsburgh Steelers and Miami Dolphins, dominated pro football. Each of those teams have won the Super Bowl at least twice, but all have disappeared again this winter.
In fact, there wasn't a dominating American Conference club at the beginning of the 1987 season, and there still isn't.
"Any of their playoff teams can win the AFC (championship) this year," Hall of Famer O.J. Simpson said the other day. "I doubt if they can win the Super Bowl."
The collapse of the Raiders and Seattle Seahawks, when they didn't get enough out of injured running backs Bo Jackson and Curt Warner, respectively, has left the Denver Broncos and Cleveland Browns as the AFC's most likely to succeed this winter.
If the Browns are slightly better, the Broncos will be at home as long as they last, which probably evens things up.
The AFC's playoff strength, by comparison with the NFC's, is at quarterback. There is a measure of uncertainty at that position everywhere in the National Conference, where Joe Montana of the 49ers and Jim McMahon of the Bears are coming off hamstring injuries, and where the Redskins and Vikings aren't even sure who their quarterback is.
AFC quarterbacking, in contrast, is settled and solid everywhere but at Indianapolis, which doesn't figure, anyway.
The AFC's four survivors:
At 1 p.m. (PST) Sunday, climaxing the four-game NFL weekend, the Broncos will attack the Houston Oilers with a quarterback who has demonstrated that, in a manner of speaking, he can beat any team by himself.
Undefeated in Denver this season, Elway has a career home-field record of 21-4. His somewhat surprising road record is 13-11-1.
"Elway's mechanics as a passer are still kind of sloppy," said Hall of Famer Sid Gillman. "But he's such a great natural athlete that he has a margin for error."
Against their AFC competition, playoff and Super Bowl experience is on the side of the Broncos, who have won three of the last four AFC West titles under Coach Dan Reeves. A year ago, Reeves led them to the final round, where the hot New York Giants won one of the highest-scoring Super Bowls, 39-20.
At times, the Broncos have improved their running game this season, and the defense that coordinator Joe Collier overhauled has remained steady enough, but passing is still the thing they do best. Elway's receivers are Vance Johnson, Orson Mobley and rookie Ricky Nattiel, among a great many others.
They may not play like it. They seldom do. But the Oilers have drafted or otherwise recruited some of the AFC's best players. As a group, the Oilers, indeed, are more talented than the Broncos except at quarterback. And even there, Warren Moon, who wears uniform No. 1, is close to Elway as a passer.
Houston specializes in fast little receivers with Ernest Givins, who at 5 feet 9 weighs 172 pounds; former Ram Drew Hill, 5-9 and 170, and Willie Drewrey, 5-7 and 164.
Against Seattle Sunday, no Houston department was more impressive than the secondary with cornerbacks Steve Brown and Patrick Allen and strong safety Keith Bostic, all high draft choices who have been seasoning since 1984.
The most famous Houston players are their All-American backs, Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier and rookie Alonzo Highsmith.
What the Oilers have needed in recent years, and didn't get until this season, is a first-rate offensive coordinator. The man who fills the bill, June Jones, is a run 'n' shoot expert whose offense has helped turn Houston into a winner.
The Oilers' great deficiency is a lack of playoff experience.
In Ohio at 9:30 a.m. (PST) Saturday, opening the second round of the playoffs, the Browns will attack Indianapolis with the AFC's best backfield, quarterback Bernie Kosar and running backs Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack.
Some scouts in the AFC say that Houston can have Moon and Denver can have Elway, they'll take Kosar.
Kosar, 24, is a third-year NFL veteran who came into pro football with more equipment--as a defense reader and as a quick-release marksman--than most players ever develop.
He has one blue-chip receiver, 170-pound Webster Slaughter, plus reliable tight end Ozzie Newsome, a 10-year veteran.
Defensively, however, the Browns are probably overrated. They get by on emotion, which is a very important thing on defense, but not the only thing.
Aside from their cornerbacks and linebacker Clay Matthews, they are a team with rather ordinary personnel, as the 49ers demonstrated not long ago when they creamed Cleveland, 38-24. And in the meantime, the Browns have lost nose tackle Bob Golic to injury.
They have enough to beat Indianapolis. Their real problem is how to stop Elway.
Eric Dickerson is in the playoffs again, as usual, with a team that upset Cleveland four weeks ago, 9-7, but that's probably the worst thing that could have happened to the young Colts.
Rising NFL teams normally get by for a while by surprising opponents. Thus, in last month's game at Cleveland, the Colts lost whatever chance they might have had to catch the Browns looking in the wrong direction.
Players and coaches for both teams have been talking just that way.
Said Cleveland defensive end Sam Clancy: "They said after that game that they'd see us in the playoffs. I'm not sure they meant it, but they've got us."
Indianapolis Coach Ron Meyer, who had previously described the Cleveland game as the high point of the Colts' season, had this to say on reflection: "They're just a better team than we are. We understand that."
When the better NFL team is motivated by revenge, it usually wins.
In bad weather, the Colts can keep it close by keeping their aces on the field. Dickerson is a great back and his alternate, Albert Bentley, excels both as a third-down pass receiver and a short-yardage runner.
The Colts' best chance is to run one man or the other on every play.
They throw the ball indifferently with either Gary Hogeboom or Jack Trudeau, and their best defensive player, linebacker Duane Bickett, will be playing with a leg injury. They're facing a long, cold day.