NFL preps for road to the Super Bowl

August 21, 2001 7:59 AM
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            Although the opening of the NFL regular season is still two weeks away, it is not too soon to take a broad look at what may be in store for each team as they wind down their training camps and prepare to start the regular season.

            In this column I’ll present my initial thoughts for the three AFC Divisions and next week the focus will be on the NFC.  I’ll give an early assessment of each team’s playoff chances, looking to broadly classify each team as to whether it is a likely Playoff contender, a possible Playoff contender, an unlikely Playoff contender or a team that figures to finish near the bottom of the standings.  In two weeks I’ll have more precise thoughts and predictions for the Divisional and Wild Card races, including my forecast for Super Bowl XXXVI which will be played next January 27th in New Orleans.

            AFC East ”” Indianapolis appears to be the best team in a Division that can best be described as featuring rebuilding teams.  As recently as 1998 four of the Division’s five teams made the Playoffs with that number decreasing by one in each of the seasons since then with just Indianapolis and Miami advancing to the postseason last year.  The Indianapolis Colts will feature the Division’s most potent offense with the trio of QB Peyton Manning, RB Edgerrin James and WR Marvin Harrison poised to continue posting All Pro stats.  Miami will be strong on defense once again but questions remain on offense, although RB Lamar Smith emerged late last season as a capable back.  Miami should be in the thick of the AFC East race and is a threat to repeat last season’s division title.  Of the remaining three teams in the division the Jets may hold the most promise to make a run at the playoffs.  They have an improving defense that should be even better under new defensive-minded coach Herman Edwards.  They have a capable QB in Vinnie Testaverde and one of the best and most versatile running backs in the NFL in Curtis Martin.  The Jets started 6-1 last season before fading to finish 9-7 and just miss the Playoffs.  Let’s call New York a potential playoff contender.  New England looks like the fourth best team in the division with the potential to challenge for a playoff berth if they can find a running game to take the pressure off of QB Drew Bledsoe.    The team that really figures to struggle this season is Buffalo.  Sure, they finally decided on a full time QB in Rob Johnson but he’s been injury prone throughout his career and the Bills lack depth at the position.  The defense will be retooling under a new coach and with the losses of key players from last season may struggle early but show improvement later in the season.  The Jets may hold the key as to who wins the AFC East.

            AFC Central ”” This division boasts of four teams capable of making the Playoffs.  The last two AFC Super Bowl representatives reside here and both defending champion Baltimore, and defending Division champion Tennessee show no signs of falling deeply back into the pack.  More intriguing will be whether Jacksonville can recover from last season’s injuries and whether Pittsburgh can continue the improvement they showed in 2000.  Baltimore will again be one of the league’s strongest teams on defense and but for the season ending injury to RB Jamal Lewis might have been the odds on favorite to win the AFC once again.  Depth is an issue at both positions and should either go down the Titans might suffer a similar fate to that of Jacksonville last season.  The Tennessee defense is still their strong suit and because of this the call is for Tennessee to be classified as a likely Playoff contender.  Pittsburgh is a team on the rise with coach Bill Cowher again doing a fine job of rebuilding the Steelers for the second time in his tenure.  Last season’s 9-7 record could have been better but for officials’ calls that arguably cost them three wins.  The League office admitted as much following the games in question.  Pittsburgh will still rely on defense and their ability to make the playoffs will likely depend upon QB Kordell Stewart’s ability to reverse the downward direction of his career from the past few seasons.  RB Jerome Bettis remains the workhorse of the offense and any improvement in Pittsburgh’s receivers to catch the ball will make Pittsburgh a playoff contender.  Jacksonville’s best chance of advancing to the Super Bowl may be behind them.  They were the favorite in 1999 and fell short losing the AFC Championship game at home to Tennessee.  Last year they started to show signs of age as injuries to QB Mark Brunell and RB Fred Taylor exposed a lack of depth on offense and placed too much pressure on the defense.  The Jags may struggle this season even if Brunell and Taylor remain healthy.  Pittsburgh is more likely than Jacksonville to make the playoffs although right now they’d each be classified as potential playoff teams.  At the bottom of the division are Cincinnati and Cleveland.  Cleveland has to be better on offense than in their first two seasons, especially if QB Tim Couch can stay healthy.  Both Cleveland and Cincinnati should be underdogs in each of the eight games against the top four teams in the division.  Should the Browns or Bengals pull an upset or two in these games, the contenders able to pull off season sweeps of these lowly teams will make the Playoffs.  Baltimore and Tennessee are vulnerable to being upset because of questions on offense despite outstanding defenses.  Jacksonville is vulnerable because of age and Pittsburgh is vulnerable because of the uncertainty of QB Stewart.  Still, it won’t be a surprise if the top three teams in the AFC Central make it to the Playoffs.

            AFC West ”” Oakland and Denver figure to dominate this division and there may be a significant gap between these two and the other three teams.  Oakland was dominating at home last season and will again win the division IF they can finally defeat the Broncos at least once.  Former Raider coach Mike Shanahan has made beating Oakland a priority since taking over in Denver.  The Broncos have beaten Oakland seven straight times and is 11-1 against the Raiders.  If Oakland can win at least one of the two meetings (they host Denver in early November and close the season in Denver) the Raiders should at least match last season’s 12-4 record.  They lost just once at home last season ”” to Denver ”” and won their other seven home games by an average of 24 points per game.  Denver will be in a new stadium this season and look to establish the home field advantage that served them so well at Mile High.  The Broncos have a trio of proven running backs in Mike Anderson, Terrell Davis and Olandis Gary and although each has had some sort of nagging injury the group, as a whole, is productive.  Oakland and Denver are both likely playoff teams.  Seattle is the unknown team in the AFC West.  It is unlikely that they can contend for the division title but they could fall to the basement in the division.  The Chargers were 1-15 last season but were competitive in many games.  Six losses were by a FG or less and had those games gone the other way San Diego would have come close to duplicating their 8-8 mark of 1999.   Kansas City is rebuilding under new coach Dick Vermeil and that usually involves some mistakes and inconsistent efforts.  QB Trent Green is familiar with Vermiel’s offense from their days in St Louis but the Chiefs have an unproven running game.  Vermiel is trying to repeat his St Louis success by building with speed but that takes time.  Kansas City is closer to being a playoff team than is San Diego but both must be considered longshots to make a run at the playoffs in 2001.  Seattle’s chances may hinge upon their performances against the Chiefs and the Chargers.

(Next week the NFC.)