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AFC PREVIEW : Bills Appear to Have It All, Except a Super Bowl Trophy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Most football coaches, scouts and reporters have decided that the Buffalo Bills will finish first in the AFC this season--and possibly in the NFL, ending a long NFC run.

The reasoning is that in bombing the Raiders last winter, 51-3, and then holding the New York Giants to a one-point Super Bowl victory, 20-19, the younger Bills demonstrated that they can play championship football with their no-huddle offense and a robust defense.

As directed by quarterback Jim Kelly, Coach Marv Levy and General Manager Bill Polian, the Bills clearly have become a class organization, one of the NFL’s soundest.

Can anyone challenge them?

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During the NFL’s 72nd season, which starts this weekend, four other AFC teams seem to have some kind of chance:

--The Raiders could challenge if they had a quarterback resembling Jim Plunkett or Kenny Stabler.

--The Houston Oilers, with Warren Moon at quarterback, have been productive enough, offensively. They need to get more out of their defense.

--The Kansas City Chiefs need only to modernize their offense or perfect their conservative ways.

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--The Miami Dolphins, with Dan Marino at quarterback, finished 12-4 a year ago after four problem seasons, and though hurting this summer, are apparently on the rebound.

Kelly, the quarterback they are all chasing, led football toward a new era last season when Levy authorized him to call most of Buffalo’s plays.

“Our offense is limitless,” wide receiver Andre Reed said.

At times, the defense seems similarly dynamic with its furious linebackers and lineman Bruce Smith, the NFL’s 1990 defensive MVP.

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Even so, some Buffalo weaknesses were exposed in the Super Bowl:

--The Giants ran over Smith that day. A clever pass rusher, he proved to be not quite tough enough on ground plays at the point of attack.

--The Kelly offense, for all its no-huddle flamboyance, didn’t seem very creative. For one thing, Buffalo’s pass patterns are surprisingly simple.

--With Kelly operating the no-huddle offense from a shotgun station, instead of up under center, the Bills haven’t been getting the most out of their running game with Thurman Thomas.

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Accordingly, over the winter, other AFC teams took heart.

Here are Buffalo’s principal challengers--the teams most likely to succeed if the Bills misfire:

1. RAIDERS

Quarterback: Jay Schroeder.

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Coach: Art Shell (20-10).

Last season: 12-4 (first, West).

One edge the Raiders have over other teams is that Al Davis is the only NFL club owner who is also a personnel procurement expert. Thus: Three running backs--Marcus Allen, Roger Craig, rookie Nick Bell; plus an improving tight end, Ethan Horton; plus great speed, notably Willie Gault’s; plus defensive power and a new strong safety, Ronnie Lott. Matt Millen once said: “Lott plays like a Raider.” Again the Raiders will go as far as their quarterbacks cantake them.

2. HOUSTON OILERS

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Quarterback: Warren Moon.

Coach: Jack Pardee (62-60).

Last season: 9-7 (second, Central).

The only team still in the undiluted run-and-shoot offense, the Oilers remain the last, best hope of sports fans who are turned off by the defense-minded champion Giants and other NFL conservatives. The Oilers tamed Buffalo, 24-21, last year, and one day in Kansas City, Moon passed for 527 yards against the NFL’s top secondary. But Pardee hasn’t shown that he knows how to make his team run in the run-and-shoot, and he lacks the aggressive defense a quick-scoring offense needs.

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3. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Quarterback: Steve DeBerg.

Coach: Marty Schottenheimer (65-44-1).

Last season: 11-5 (second, West).

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Any quarterback who can throw play-action passes and keep from making big mistakes can win for the AFC’s most conservative coach. Thus at 37, DeBerg should have another winning year. On a power-running team, he led the NFL in fewest 1990 interceptions--four. With a big season from linebacker Derrick Thomas, the Chiefs also led in sacks. There could be a 17-0 NFL championthis year if the Chiefs had Houston’s offense--or if Houston had the Chiefs’ defense.

4. MIAMI DOLPHINS

Quarterback: Dan Marino.

Coach: Don Shula (298-137).

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Last season: 12-4 (second, East).

After four years of weak drafts and poor records, the Dolphins may have found themselves again last season, especially in the playoffs when they upset Kansas City and nearly eliminated the Bills. Their future depends on whether (a) halfback Sammie Smith improves, (b) the defense holds up again and (c) rookie receiver Randal Hill is something special. The quarterback is--but even a Marino needs open targets.

5. PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Quarterback: Bubby Brister.

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Coach: Chuck Noll (202-147-1).

Last season: 9-7 (third, Central).

In Joe Walton’s second year as their offensive coordinator, the Steelers could make a run for the title. They will be in trouble if tight end Eric Green isn’t physically sound or if receiver Louis Lipps has slowed. They return the NFL’s top-ranked defense and a defensive leader, cornerback Rod Woodson.

6. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

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Quarterback: Jeff George.

Coach: Ron Meyer (54-47).

Last season: 7-9 (third, East).

This coach usually wins, but barely. He is 36-31 at Indianapolis after finishing 18-16 at New England. And in the same division with Buffalo and Miami, this may be another typical Meyer year. He has excellence at quarterback and at running back with George and Eric Dickerson. But Dickerson, a candid analyst, was right about the Colts’ offensive line. It isn’t good enough. Nor is the defensive line or the secondary good enough to change the pattern.

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7. CINCINNATI BENGALS

Quarterback: Boomer Esiason.

Coach: Sam Wyche (61-55).

Last season: 9-7 (first, Central).

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One difference between football and baseball is that a sore-armed pitcher can make it in football. And since Cincinnati’s Super Bowl season of 1988, Esiason has, more often than not, thrown the ball like a man with a sore arm. He led the NFL last season in interceptions--22 in 16 games, double his 1989 output. He also threw 24 scoring passes, nine to Eddie Brown. Running back James Brooks is 32. There isn’t much on defense but David Fulcher and James Francis.

8. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

Quarterback: David Krieg.

Coach: Chuck Knox (164-105).

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Last season: 9-7 (third, West).

After losing six linebackers to injured reserve, Knox, in his 18th NFL season, brought the Seahawks in 6-2 for the last half of 1990, one of his finest achievements. In Krieg’s 11th year of NFL ups and downs, he accounted for 20 interceptions, 16 fumbles, 15 scoring passes and two upsets over the Chiefs--once after taking seven sacks from one man. The Derrick Fenner-John L. Williams backfield should improve. Lineman Cortez Kennedy should help the defense.

9. DENVER BRONCOS

Quarterback: John Elway.

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Coach: Dan Reeves (96-66-1).

Last season: 5-11 (fifth, West).

The Broncos haven’t been a predictable team lately, winning in alternate years. They had records of 10-4-1 in 1987 and 11-5 in 1989, but they fell to 8-8 in 1988 and all the way to 5-11 in 1990. If they continue to swing and sway in the same old way, the Broncos will have another up year this time. Much depends on whether they can run the ball again with Bobby Humphrey, who is still holding out, or possibly rookie Greg Lewis, and on how much rookie linebacker Mike Croel helps Karl Mecklenburg. Expect plenty from Elway.

10. SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

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Quarterback: John Friesz.

Coach: Dan Henning (34-61-1).

Last season: 6-10 (fourth, West).

This is Friesz’s team after the trade of Billy Joe Tolliver to Atlanta. Friesz, though promising, is inexperienced--factors conducive to periodic promotions and demotions. A big, talented halfback, Marion Butts, at 248 pounds, and a gifted receiver, Anthony Miller, are among the NFL’s finest. So is defensive coordinator Ron Lynn, who has some standouts: Gill Byrd, Leslie O’Neal and Junior Seau.

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BY THE DIVISIONS

West: Top to bottom, this is the toughest division in football, according to Las Vegas researchers, who have placed all five AFC Western Division teams in the conference’s top 10. The Raiders and Kansas City rank second and third behind Buffalo, with Denver eighth, Seattle ninth and San Diego 10th. No other NFL division is so well represented. . . . Once again, Elway is the division’s only respected quarterback. The Seahawks think they drafted a good one, Dan McGwire. The other AFC West teams are curiously all stronger at other positions.

Central: In this division, Houston has the best offense, Pittsburgh the best balance and Cincinnati has had the best team in recent years. . . . The Cleveland Browns are an open question under a new coach, Bill Belichick, 39. The NFL’s youngest coach, Belichick directed the Giants’ defense in their two winning Super Bowl games. In a sport where continuity is desirable if not essential, quarterback Bernie Kosar this summer greeted his sixth offensive coach in seven NFL years. The Browns have serious problems in their offensive line and defensive backfield, but they still have Michael Dean Perry in the defensive line.

East: Buffalo and Miami remain ahead of Indianapolis, which is clearly better than the other two, the New York Jets and the New England Patriots. . . . The Jets’ nine-year quarterback, Ken O’Brien, playing for second-year Coach Bruce Coslet, hasn’t done it yet. At wide receiver, the Jets line up talented Al Toon and Rob Moore, and they can run some with Blair Thomas, but they don’t have enough else. . . . The Patriots, with a first-class new coach, Dick MacPherson, can’t be expecting much at quarterback with Tom Hodson getting the nod over Hugh Millen. The Patriots are the Cleveland Indians of the NFL.

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