NFL at midseason: Bengals, not bunglers anymore, join top winners

The National Football League has reached the halfway point in its 16-game regular season with four division leaders (Chicago, New Orleans, Buffalo, and Cincinnati) sporting identical 7-1 records. Did someone say Cincinnati, that 4-11 team from last year that loved gimmicks and used to put whipped cream on its offense just to make it look good?

Not exactly gone from coach Sam Wyche's repertoire is his Rube Goldberg no-huddle offense that often caught opponents with 12 men on the field. There will always be room in Wyche's mind for the unusual.

But by playing it more or less straight this year, the Bengals won their first six games of the season, stumbled briefly against the New England Patriots, and then bounced back last week to whip the Houston Oilers, 44-21.

Actually, the world will have a better line on Cincinnati after Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns, who beat the Bengals twice last season, including once by 34-0.

During the forgettable '87 campaign, the defense was shaky, quarterback Boomer Esiason threw 19 interceptions, and the special teams failed to get the job done. Even so, Wyche detected a silver lining.

``I kept seeing good things last year that only a coach would notice, and it made me believe that we weren't that far away from being a winner,'' he explained. ``Basically, what we needed was another training camp together and a fast start, and we've managed to get both.''

If Esiason, who has the type of arm to throw across two time zones, isn't the chief reason for the Bengals' success, he's prominently in the picture. His passes sailed last year, but now they are arriving so his receivers can catch them.

Cincinnati's offensive and defensive lines also deserve credit for this turnaround, as does an aggressive young defensive secondary that has more speed than a year ago.

Trailing Cincinnati in the AFC Central Division are the Houston Oilers, Cleveland Browns, and Pittsburgh Steelers.

In the AFC East, the Buffalo Bills have gone from steerage to peerage in just one year. Linebacker Cornelius Bennett has become a Lawrence Taylor-like intimidator, and quarterback Jim Kelly directs one of the conference's highest-ranked offenses.

Those who thought the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins might catch the Bills are having second thoughts.

In the AFC West, the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks (both 4-4) are still trying to decide what kind of teams they are. Thus far, both have been major disappointments to their fans, even though they share the division lead. Denver, of course, should improve once it gets injured quarterback John Elway back in the lineup.

While the NFC West belongs to the New Orleans Saints, only a game behind, at 6-2, are the Los Angeles Rams, who are looking better than at any time since their 1979 Super Bowl season. Thanks to quarterback Jim Everett (19 touchdown passes) and offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese, the Rams now have an aerial game to go with their running attack.

More will be known about the Rams when they play the Saints in New Orleans this Sunday.

Although in third place with a 5-3 record, San Francisco is still one of the better teams in this division. On Monday night, the 49ers were handed a tough defeat by the Bears in Chicago. The 10-9 loss snapped San Francisco's string of road victories at 11, one short of the league record.

In the NFC East, the struggle between the New York Giants and the Washington Redskins to hold first place will probably go on all season. Although the Giants have the easier schedule, the Redskins are deep and tough enough to keep pace.

The Phoenix Cardinals and the Philadelphia Eagles are expected to wage a tight battle for third place, with rumors starting to surface that the last-place Dallas Cowboys plan to dump coach Tom Landry at the end of the season.

In the NFC Central, the race for first is between the Bears and Minnesota Vikings, who might have the most underrated quarterback in the league in Wade Wilson. He often plays as well on the road as at home, the sign of a superior athlete. Elsewhere in the NFL

Chicago coach Mike Ditka isn't much on team meetings. ``Once the season starts, I think players who attend team meetings hear only what they want to hear,'' Ditka said. ``Most of the time they will listen to you, but eventually they reach a point somewhere into the season where they just turn it off. They take the attitude that `Hey, this doesn't apply to me.'''

TV commentator and former Raider coach John Madden on specialization in the NFL: ``Today there is an offensive package for every down, whether it's short yardage, long yardage, or simply trying to have your kicking team put three points on the scoreboard. Then the defense counters with its blitzes, double coverage, and extra linebacker, and it becomes difficult to keep track of all the changes. To me, the weakness of specialization is that too many of a team's best athletes play fewer minutes. Also, specialists tend to lose skills in other areas.''

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