At last, a contender.

For an alarming number of years now, the American Football Conference has been an emasculated, non-threatening cousin of the National Football Conference.Dominance in the NFL has been measured against the offensive productiveness and defensive prowess of the 49ers, the Giants, the Bears, the Redskins.

The AFC? It has offered glitz, sparkle, Broncos, Dolphins, Patriots - and 45-point defeats in the Super Bowl.

This season threatens to be different. In today's AFC championship game at Rich Stadium, the NFL's most beleaguered conference serves up the Raiders against the Buffalo Bills, a couple of teams that offer the look, play, sound and feel of the NFC's finest.

Regardless of who wins today, the AFC figures to give a much better account of itself than usual at this year's Super Bowl, to be played a week from today in Tampa, Fla.

The junior conference has lost six straight Super Bowls, and has won the league championship only twice in the past 10 years, both times by Raiders muscle teams ('80 and '83).

The Raiders are seeking to play in their fifth Super Bowl. The Bills have yet to get to that peak, but have been threatening over the last three seasons. In each case, the championship bid has featured an emphasis on some of the most basic, down-and-dirty principles of the game.

Listen to Raiders coach Art Shell talk about the Bills: "A very dominating quarterback, a dominating defensive line, the offensive line is tough, their defensive backs will knock your head off. It's a great team, with some of the best talent in football."

With that description, he could easily be speaking of the Niners. Or the Raiders.

Listen to Bills coach Marv Levy talk about the Raiders: "They don't throw that much, that's why it's a good offense. It's so explosive, it bites off so many yards, it makes you commit to stop the run, then they come with the deep (pass) routes."

He could easily be speaking of the Giants. Or the Bills.

The Raiders and the Bills will get together today in an anticipated 20-degree chill, with possible flurries of snow, and at a stadium steeled with extra security against the implied threat of Persian Gulf-related terrorism.

The Raiders aren't as ready as they'd like to be for this one, however, because halfback Bo Jackson, one of their prime offensive players, is not expected to play because of a sprained left hip.

But they have Marcus Allen, who rushed for 140 yards in a playoff win over Cincinnati last week, and they figure to have Greg Bell, an established back (and ex-Bill) who was an effective ball carrier before Jackson arrived and consigned him to the oblivion of injured reserve.

The two teams' preparations for one another should have been simple enough. They are virtual mirror images.

- From the standpoint of passing offense, each team traded frequency for efficiency during the season. Among AFC quarterbacks who played regularly, the Raiders' Jay Schroeder and the Bills' Jim Kelly ranked 1-3 in fewest passes attempted (334 and 346). Yet, the two ranked among the leaders in touchdown passes, combining for 43.

- In AFC rushing, the Bills and Raiders ranked 4-5. Buffalo's Thurman Thomas led the conference with 1,297 yards on the ground. If the Elias Sports Bureau had a category for halfback platoons, Allen-Jackson-Bell and their 1,544 combined yards would have topped that.

- Defensively, the Raiders were the AFC's second-stingiest, while Buffalo ranked fifth. These teams have learned well the NFL dogma that the best defenses are built front to back. The Bills' forward seven features end Bruce Smith (19 sacks) and linebackers Cornelius Bennett, Shane Conlan and Darryl Talley. The Raiders offer Greg Townsend, Howie Long, Bob Golic, Scott Davis, et al.