Unlike slums, when you've seen one football game, you haven't seen 'em all. For example, in the three most crucial NFL games last weekend—Cincinnati vs. Cleveland, Oakland vs. Kansas City and Dallas vs. Washington—the teams were supposedly so closely matched that the total spread was only 13 points. As it turned out, 67 points separated the six teams as the Raiders, the Cowboys and the Bengals won laughing and all but clinched playoff berths.
Coach Paul Brown can afford a little smile when he explains the rise of Cincinnati, one of the youngest teams in the league, which, in defiance of the saws about experience, has proved that necessity is the mother of exception. "All we've done is stay with it," says Brown, "and now they're down to our size."
Last Sunday in Riverfront Stadium, the callow Bengals, apparently under orders to get home before dark, beat Cleveland 34-17 behind the passing of Ken Anderson and now seem likely to dethrone Pittsburgh as the AFC Central champion next Sunday in the Astrodome.
If Cincinnati beats Houston and Pittsburgh also wins its season finale in San Francisco, the teams will each finish with 10-4-0 records. The Bengals, however, would take the division crown with a better conference record, relegating Pittsburgh to the wild-card berth.
Anderson, who was not considered particularly august when he played for Augustana (Ill.) College, is the 24-year-old son of a high school janitor and, perhaps as much for his humble background as anything else, he has been bum-rapped by Cincinnati fans ever since he took over from the injured Virg Carter. Indeed, Anderson has been booed for such exotic reasons as a lack of charisma.
"I can't figure our fans," publicity man Al Heim said before the Cleveland showdown. "We've gotten calls asking if we plan to surprise the Browns by starting Cook, when Anderson is the fifth-leading quarterback in the conference. Anderson could complete 16 out of 21 and they would boo him for the five he missed."
On Sunday Anderson was 11 for 19, including three first-half touchdown passes to rookie Isaac Curtis. In the team's first scoring drive, a 58-yard march that ended with a nine-yarder to Curtis, Anderson hit on five of six throws for 43 yards. After Cleveland's Don Cockroft had kicked a field goal, Anderson showed he had some charisma after all by unleashing a 70-yard bomb to Curtis. The other scoring pass covered 20 yards and came with 36 seconds left in the half.
When Horst Muhlmann booted a 10-yard field goal early in the third quarter to boost Cincinnati's lead to 24-3, it seemed the Bengals were home free. But Mike Phipps, who has an uncanny talent for ducking wrathful defensive linemen, got Cleveland its first touchdown on a six-yard pass to Gloster Richardson and, 1:39 later, it looked like the Browns might yet grab another of the slightly mystical victories that had kept them in the race when Van Green picked up a Boobie Clark fumble and returning it 15 yards for another touchdown. But Clark made amends for his fumble by bolting over from the one to make it 31-17. Muhlmann's 45-yard field goal completed the scoring.
After an unexpected opening-day loss to Denver, Cincinnati now sits atop the division whose leader it once trailed by three games. "It took us a number of weeks to get our confidence back," says All-Pro Defensive Tackle Mike Reid. "Our young players have really been surprising. Boobie wasn't in awe of the NFL the way I was. He'll take the ball and run over a middle linebacker the way he would a reserve at Bethune-Cookman."
Clark, a 6'2", 238-pound 23-year-old rookie whom the Bengals picked in the 12th round, has now rushed for 934 yards, only slightly less than the wraithlike veteran Essex Johnson, and he is second in pass receptions with 41.