The Pittsburgh Steelers won the division, but were ousted in the first round of the playoffs at home by Buffalo. The Oilers got their usual wild-card spot -- they've made the playoffs six straight years, five times via the wild-card route -- and then folded in the second half in Buffalo.
Technically, this division doesn't have a new coach this year, but nobody's told Buddy Ryan that. He was named the defensive coordinator by owner Bud Adams after the collapse in Buffalo last year, but Ryan's acting as if he's already the head coach. He pokes fun at his own team's run-and-shoot offense -- he calls it the "chuck and duck" -- and overshadows nice guy Jack Pardee, who deserves better than this.
Coach on the bubble
The perception around the league is that Ryan is waiting in the wings to take Pardee's job. But the way Ryan tells it, he's going to save Pardee's job by putting together a Super Bowl defense that will get him another head coaching job with another team after he wins the trophy in Houston. Either way, it's not going to be a comfortable year for Pardee.
Barry Foster was a one-man gang in Pittsburgh last year, winning the AFC rushing title with 1,690 yards and losing the league title by only 23 yards to Dallas' Emmitt Smith. New offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt, who did the same thing with the Giants with Joe Morris, featured Foster and he carried the team.
Team on rise
Bill Cowher has shown it's possible to replace a legend. In his first year as head coach of the Steelers, replacing Chuck Noll, he won a division title. Cowher was helped by the fact that the legend had saddled himself with Joe Walton as his offensive coordinator. Walton tried to fit the players to the system instead of fitting the system to the players and it didn't work and Cowher swept him out. Cowher lost his first playoff game -- Noll won his first two decades earlier on the Immaculate Reception -- but he seems to have turned the Steelers into a contender.
Team in decline
The Bengals are proving you get what you pay for. After jettisoning Boomer Esiason's salary, they made no attempt to spend some of that money on big-name free agents. Instead, they have the second-lowest payroll in the league. They rank only above the Patriots, who are in a cost-cutting mode because owner James Orthwein wants to sell the team. The Bengals struggled to a 5-11 record last year and could be even worse this year.
Can a dome team get to the Super Bowl? Since Buddy Ryan took over the defense and started talking Super Bowl, a lot of people are listening. What's been overlooked is that a dome team has yet to make it. Dome teams tend to lose cold weather games late in the year. The key for the Oilers could be to get home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. That way, they could get to the Super Bowl -- which will be played in a dome in Atlanta -- without going outside in the playoffs.
This could bring back memories of the days when Bum Phillips was saying the road to the Super Bowl went through Pittsburgh. The Oilers and the Steelers figure to battle for the division title. The two teams play twice in less than a month on Nov. 28 and Dec. 19. The bad news for the Oilers is that the December game is in Pittsburgh. But the Steelers have to be worrying about Neil O'Donnell's sore arm.
The Cleveland Browns seem to be stuck in third place in this division. They're not good enough to battle the Oilers and Steelers for the title, but they're several lengths ahead of the Bengals.
The Bengals say they're going to find bargains in the free-agent market next year when teams over the salary cap have to unload players. They're talking about next year because it's obvious they don't have much to talk about this year.