THE NFL PLAYOFFS : Bengals Rain on the Oilers’ Parade : AFC: Cincinnati beats Houston, 41-14, to earn a rematch with the Raiders at the Coliseum.


Missing their star running back but not their instinct to pound relentlessly on division rivals, the Cincinnati Bengals did an audition for Super Bowl contender status Sunday, walloping the Houston Oilers, 41-14, before a drenched Riverfront Stadium crowd of 61,012.

Next week, they travel to the Coliseum to play the Raiders in the second round of the AFC playoffs, and Cincinnati hopes to reverse its 24-7 loss to them Dec. 16. The Bengals, who finished the regular season with a 9-7 record, have won three in a row since the Coliseum debacle.

And Sunday, flush with the kind of confidence that 27-point playoff victories can bring, the AFC Central Champion Bengals sounded convinced that their self-titled run as the AFC’s playoff underdog can go on and on and on.


“The Raiders, they belong in the front category of favorites all the way through the playoffs,” Bengals Coach Sam Wyche said. “We’re a dark horse. We’re the kind of a team that’s a Cinderella.”

Beat L.A. . . . Beat L.A. . . . Beat L.A. . . . was the crowd’s serenade when the Bengals strolled off field. Beat L.A., not treat L.A., which is what the Bengals say they did in December.

“That (Raider) ballgame happened long before this team came around and started to realize what kind of team we really were,” said strong safety David Fulcher, who had an interception and 46-yard return that set up the Bengals’ third score. “I think it will be a whole different ballgame this time. I think we’re proving we’re better than a 9-7 team.”

Said cornerback Lewis Billups: “With the way we’re playing right now, I think the momentum can carry us into the Raider game. The way we’ve been playing defense the past few weeks, we’ve really got the momentum.

“I think that really helps us believe we can play well against an offense like the Raiders.”

They certainly proved they could play defense against the wobbly run-and-shoot offense of the Oilers, who were without Pro Bowl quarterback Warren Moon because of his dislocated thumb and were not entirely comfortable playing in the freezing rain.

The Bengals’ offense rocketed to a 20-0 halftime lead and let their resurgent defense gun down the run-and-shoot.

“It almost made me nervous how sure I was before the game that we were going to win it,” Wyche said. “I was just so sure that we knew that we could do everything it’d take to beat them. We had one of those great days. Everything worked. Every now and then, you have one.”

Backup quarterback Cody Carlson led Houston to a surprise victory over the tough Pittsburgh Steeler defense last week to get the Oilers into the playoffs, but Cincinnati’s defense and the constant precipitation overwhelmed him from the outset.

The Bengals, who say that they have seen the run-and-shoot enough times now to feel comfortable playing against it, made a point of playing each of the Oilers’ four receivers aggressively, then taking away any deep routes with their safeties.

“You take away the deep stuff from the run-and-shoot, and you’ve taken away what they like to do best,” Billups said.

“We watched the Pittsburgh game Sunday night, and we saw that if we put pressure on Carlson and the receivers, he’d be in for a long day,” Fulcher said. “Pittsburgh didn’t blitz as much as we did. They just (stayed) back and waited, and they got burned by it.”

The Oilers’ runners and shooters could manage only one first down in the first half, and by the time they got their second midway through the third quarter, Cincinnati was up, 34-0, and Raider boss Al Davis was probably neck deep in old Bengal game films.

“Early in the game (Houston receiver) Drew Hill went in motion, he got open, they threw it to him and he dropped the ball,” cornerback Eric Thomas said. “And it just seemed to send a message to the other receivers and to their quarterback that this just wasn’t going to be one of their days.

“If you go back and look at that Pittsburgh game, I don’t know if they dropped one ball. But today, they dropped a bunch.”

Carlson finished the day completing 16 of 33 passes for 165 yards, was sacked once, threw an interception and seemed to have trouble gripping the football. Houston’s four starting receivers, who combined for 286 catches during the regular season, caught five Sunday.

Without a rushing attack--starting tailback Lorenzo White carried only four times and gained two yards--Carlson needed to have a Moon day. He didn’t.

“Warren not being in there meant a lot,” Billups said. “On a run-and-shoot team, everything revolves around the quarterback. The defense, everybody responds to what Warren Moon does. And he wasn’t out there.”

The Bengals’ offense, which lost 1,000-yard runner James Brooks in the first quarter--and possibly for the rest of the postseason--with a dislocation of his left thumb, was unstoppable. Brooks rushed for a team-record 201 yards in Cincinnati’s defeat of the Oilers two weeks ago.

Bengal quarterback Boomer Esiason led all rushers with 57 yards on five scrambles, including a sweeping 10-yard dash for a touchdown punctuated by a spiral into the second deck of the stadium.

In the first half Sunday, with rookie Harold Green--who finished with 55 yards on 11 carries--stepping in at tailback, and with Esiason running and passing all over the field, the Bengals went on scoring drives of 70, 51, 16 and 75 yards on their way to a 20-0 halftime lead.

At the half, the Bengals had run off 43 offensive plays to the Oilers’ 13, had piled up 222 total yards to the Oilers’ 36 and had run for 86 yards to Houston’s one.

Then it got worse. The Bengals scored touchdowns on their first two second-half possessions--the second one after Carlson fumbled the snap to Bengal linebacker James Francis at the Oiler 10--and it was 34-0 with almost two full quarters of garbage time left.

“The Oilers like to talk a bunch of . . . and it’s up to us to shut their mouths--literally kick their butts, and that’s what we try to do to them here,” Woods said.