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NFL PREVIEW 1988 : Is This Year of Kosar, Browns? : They Are Expected to Win AFC Title but Probably Will Not Be Able to Handle NFC’s Best in Super Bowl

Times Staff Writer

Many of those who work and play in the National Football League have been making these predictions for this season:

--The Cleveland Browns, with Bernie Kosar at quarterback, will advance to the American Football Conference championship.

--In the Super Bowl Jan. 22, the Browns will face one of four from the National Football Conference: the Washington Redskins, Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants or San Francisco 49ers.

Going into the first games of the NFL’s 69th regular season this weekend, it is widely believed that the Browns, with Kosar in his fourth pro year at 24, can develop enough defense to hold off their AFC contention. But probably not the NFC champion--whoever that happens to be.

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“Defense is our Achilles’ heel,” Cleveland owner Art Modell said the other day. “I can’t remember the last time we had a pass rush.”

Pro fans can’t remember the last NFC champion without a pass rush. Although NFL records verify that the conferences are evenly matched, top to bottom--and although AFC teams have actually won or tied the NFC series annually for the last five years--the NFC has been a great deal stronger at the top.

More specifically, the NFC champion has been defensively extraordinary every year, despite a changing cast of champions--the 49ers one season, the Chicago Bears the next, the Giants the next and the Redskins last season.

There probably isn’t any reason for this. The NFC’s best team each year since 1984 has just happened to be a defensive terror.

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A one-year terror, that is.

Neither the 49ers, Bears nor Giants have won a playoff game since winning the Super Bowl.

“It’s too hard to sustain defensive intensity these days,” said Hall of Fame Coach Sid Gillman.

The 1980s will be remembered as a time when NFC teams invested in balance while AFC teams accented offense, drafting, among others, such exceptional quarterbacks as Dan Marino, John Elway, Jim Kelly, Ken O’Brien and Kosar.

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And Cleveland is a typical AFC team, productive on offense, hopeful on defense.

“The Browns can throw it and run it, and they’re better defensively than some,” said Dick Steinberg, the player development director of the New England Patriots.

But they aren’t best by much, in the view of Bill Polian, general manager of the Buffalo Bills. “We have more legitimate contenders this year than ever,” he said.

The Houston Oilers probably lead the AFC in talent--with the Bills, Browns, Indianapolis Colts and Seattle Seahawks next. But in football, leaders are at least as important as talent, and the Denver Broncos have won the last two AFC titles on the leadership of Elway, Dan Reeves and Joe Collier.

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It is because the Browns narrowly lost to Denver in both title games--while appearing to be the better team most of the way each time--that this has the look of a Cleveland year.

The American Conference in 1988:

AFC WEST

Seattle Seahawks: Chuck Knox, after five years with the Rams, five in Buffalo and five in Seattle, starts his 16th season as an NFL coach with a better team than he had last year, when the Seahawks were the AFC favorite. Quarterback Dave Krieg is coming off a Seattle-record 60% pass-completion season. Halfback Curt Warner and four other Seahawks started in the Pro Bowl. Fredd Young, Brian Bosworth and Jacob Green are in the division’s best defense.

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Denver Broncos: John Elway, the one-man team, is 28 this year and in his prime after five seasons in the league. One question is whether his fast little receivers will be as successful, now that AFC defenses have learned from the Super Bowl champion Redskins how to beat up on them. Said Coach Dan Reeves: “I think we can compete with anybody, and I’m not going to overreact over one (loss, to Washington, 42-10).”

Raiders: Nothing in football is harder to appraise than a team with a new coach and quarterback. Mike Shanahan and Steve Beuerlein could be launching a new dynasty--or almost anything else--for Al Davis.

Kansas City Chiefs: New offensive and defensive coordinators have inherited the talent to move this team up with receiver Carlos Carson, quarterback Bill Kenney, defenders Deron Cherry and Bill Maas.

San Diego Chargers: If they weren’t in the football business, the Chargers could just hang out a sign this year, “Closed for Repairs.”

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AFC CENTRAL

Cleveland Browns: As coached by Marty Schottenheimer, the Browns are the NFL’s most closely-knit, family-type team. Their favorite teammate is Earnest Byner, the runner who fumbled the title away to Denver last winter, when, afterward, the Browns seemed to be sadder for Byner than they were about losing. Such a group will be hard to beat--the more so with Bernie Kosar at quarterback. Schottenheimer, a defensive expert, has taken over the offense from Lindy Infante, now the coach at Green Bay.

Houston Oilers: The most gifted AFC team lines up at least five offensive stars: Warren Moon, Ernest Givins, Alonzo Highsmith and the AFC’s top two guards, Mike Munchak and Bruce Matthews. Defensive standouts are all over the field, from safety Keith Bostic to linemen Ray Childress and Raider castoff Sean Jones. The Oilers will go as far as any team could with Coach Jerry Glanville and two other controversial leaders, Bud Adams and Ladd Herzeg.

Pittsburgh Steelers: This team has spent more time than the Raiders flopping around without a quarterback. It is Coach Chuck Noll’s understanding of defense and blocking that keeps the Steelers barely respectable.

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Cincinnati Bengals: Ranking close to the Rams in stinginess, the Bengals decided this summer that they’d rather release center Dave Rimington than pay him, whereupon, in training camp, quarterback Boomer Esiason wore Rimington’s number, 50. This tells you most of what you need to know about the Bengals, though Sam Wyche is a better coach than he seems.

AFC EAST

Indianapolis Colts: The Irsays, father and son, have the best team and the most difficult schedule in their division. General Manager Jim Irsay, with owner Robert Irsay’s money, keeps bringing in the talent, old and new, from Pro Bowl linemen to linebacker Duane Bickett. In a one-back offense, two big contributors, Eric Dickerson and Albert Bentley, can be profitably alternated. One problem is that the Colts’ best quarterback, Jack Trudeau, can’t seem to please Coach Ron Meyer. There is also a question about the design of the pass offense.

New England Patriots: Coach Raymond Berry is operating in the toughest environment possible--changing ownership. But Berry understands defense, pass offense, and people, and his defensive stars are well placed: Garin Veris up, Ronnie Lippett back, and Andre Tippett at linebacker. Quarterback Steve Grogan’s durability is questionable.

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Buffalo Bills: General manager Bill Polian and Coach Marv Levy have strengths at quarterback with Jim Kelly, at defensive end with Bruce Smith, at linebacker with Shane Conlan and Cornelius Bennett, and at so many other positions that many Easterners figure them first in one of the NFL’s most competitive divisions.

Miami Dolphins: Quarterback Dan Marino and Coach Don Shula alone make the Dolphins competitive, and their defense is improving.

New York Jets: This team has again changed the line in front of quarterback Ken O’Brien. The defense is also still a problem.


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