Pro football preview (Part I): Raiders the team to beat in AFC

The National Football League's party line this year is predictable - another balanced season in which all 28 teams have a chance to win more games than they lose. Actually, with a couple of exceptions, that forecast may not be too far off the mark when the 1984 campaign gets underway this weekend.

As to whether the defending champion Los Angeles Raiders and the Washington Redskins will again wind up in the Super Bowl - well, it's a long time between now and Jan. 20, 1985, in Palo Alto, Calif.

Individually, Franco Harris will be closing in on Jim Brown's lifetime rushing record of 12,312 yards - that is, if he finds a new employer. The former Pittsburgh star is now a free agent looking for work. Harris is just 363 yards shy of breaking Brown's mark. Also knocking at the door is Chicago's Walter Payton, who needs 687 yards for the record.

Here are the AFC scouting reports:

EAST - Last year Miami's barbed-wire defense gave up the fewest points (250) of any NFL team. Since then the man who coordinated that defense, Bill Arnsparger, has become head coach of Louisiana State, his duties now in the hands of ex-Houston coach Chuck Studley. The key players who performed so well for Arsnparger are back, though, so basically nothing has changed. All coach Don Shula needs for a repeat division title is another good season from quarterback Dan Marino and his favorite receivers.

If the Dolphins should stumble, rapidly improving New England now has the depth to take advantage of any such situation. Offensively the Patriots utilize a massive line to pound their opponents with a one-back offense that spreads the work among four different runners.

Buffalo, even when ace running back Joe Cribbs was available, still threw the football 571 times last season. Now, with Cribbs playing in the rival USFL, the Bills can look for even more teams to load up defensively against their aerial game. Joe Walton, who begins his second year as head coach of the New York Jets, says his biggest mistake last season was standing pat. So Walton got rid of nine veterans during the off-season, including starting quarterback Richard Todd. That leaves the Jets with two unproved quarterbacks, Pat Ryan and Ken O'Brien.

The Indianapolis Colts, transplanted from Baltimore, should be able to run against anybody, but there are enough questions about the defensive secondary and offensive line to start a quiz show.

CENTRAL - Defense wins games, right? Well, most of the time, and last year Cincinnati led the NFL in defense. New coach Sam Wyche, whose offensive sets were the talk of the league when he assisted Bill Walsh in San Francisco, is expected to produce a division winner.

Pittsburgh didn't look quite right last year without Terry Bradshaw at starting quarterback. Now Bradshaw has retired and the Steelers have released running back Franco Harris after a salary dispute. Quarterback is still up for grabs between David Woodley and Mark Malone.

''It's easy to analyze what we did and didn't do last season,'' says Cleveland Browns' coach Sam Rutigliano. ''When we turned the ball over, we lost. When we didn't, we won. If we get smarter this season, we'll make the playoffs.'' Houston, on the other hand, is almost a cinch to miss the playoffs. The Oilers would have to improve in four areas (speed, defense, pass receiving, and special teams) just to play .500 football. It should be a growing year for new coach Hugh Campbell and his players, though the heralded off-season acquisition of former Canadian League quarterback Warren Moon should make things more interesting.

WEST - The Los Angeles Raiders have so many good players that the potential is here for two first teams on both offense and defense. If the Raiders don't take their press clippings too seriously, they should win their division again.

Seattle's Chuck Knox is the only coach who has taken three teams (the Rams, Bills, and Seahawks) to the playoffs. While the Seahawks aren't yet in a class with the Raiders, they are good enough to make the playoffs. Worried about lack of size in his offensive line, Knox acquired 280-pound tackles Bob Cryder from the Patriots and Bryan Millard from the USFL's New Jersey Generals.

If it were possible to cross the street in an airliner rather than walk, Coach Don Coryell of the San Diego Chargers would be the first person aboard. My , how this man loves to have his quarterbacks throw the football! So you have to wonder what Coryell has up his sleeve now that he has acquired 270-pound fullback Pete Johnson from the Bengals to twin in the same backfield with 236 -pound Chuck Muncie.

Although Denver coach Dan Reeves says the key is how well his team plays defensively, that's only half the story. The other half concerns second-year quarterback John Elway, who had his problems adjusting to life in the NFL last season. If Elway can find his receivers without throwing too many interceptions, the Broncos should be full of surprises.

Kansas City, which lost five games by three points or less last year, hopes to turn it around via a more balanced attack.

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