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AFC: Miami, or bust

Aug 26, 2003 4:54 AM

The best time of the sports calendar is upon us ”” football season! College football has its first major slate of games this weekend and the NFL regular season kicks off Thursday, Sept. 4.

This week, I’ll look at the frontrunners to win their divisions in the AFC. Next week, the NFC picture.

DOLPHINS: Miami has rolled the dice. The Dolphins are going for it this season, adding defensive depth by trading for Junior Seau and bringing in QB Brian Griese. The Dolphins badly needed a decent backup QB last year when starter Jay Fiedler went down and it may have cost the Fish a playoff spot.

Statistically, Miami was one of the best teams in 2002, with the No. 3 defense (fifth vs the run, ninth vs the pass) and the NFL’s top rushing offense (157 ypg) behind workhorse Ricky Williams. Miami scored 77 more points than it allowed, bettered only by Atlanta, Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Oakland, and Philly. All those teams, but Miami, made the playoffs.

Fiedler’s mid-season injury and a late-season collapse left a foul taste among Dolphins players and fans, but they look very strong this year. Williams (16 TDs, 1,835 yds rushing) was a huge addition, taking the pressure of Fiedler (14 TDs, 9 INTs, 61 percent completions).

The defense is outstanding, anchored by Zach Thomas and Jason Taylor. Kicker Olindo Mare is a fine special teams weapon. The Dolphins have gone 14-2 at home the last two seasons, but play like a different team on the road (2-6 both SU and ATS in 2002). Miami has the pieces in place to take the next step, provided the road record improves and the December losses are reduced.

STEELERS: Pittsburgh fans can breath a sigh of relief: The Kordell Stewart era is officially over. QB Tommy Maddox added life to the passing game and, after a 1-3 start, Pittsburgh made the playoffs. Bill Cowher scrapped the ball control style for a quick-strike offense that utilized a remarkable group of speedy wideouts in Hines Ward (1,329 yds, 12 TDs, 112 rec), Plaxico Burress (1,325 yds, 7 TDs, 78 rec) and Antwaan Randle-El (49 rec, 2 TDs).

Maddox was a great story, finishing with 20 TDs, 16 INTs and completing 62 percent of his passes for 2,836 yards. He hopes for good health and a full season at QB. The successful offensive formula (No. 5 offense, 246 yds ppg) helped the OVER go 12-6 in Pittsburgh’s games. The Steelers are never out of any game with all this offensive speed, and while the passing attack took center stage, the running game ranked eighth in the NFL.

The defense was No. 1 against the run for the second straight year, but the pass defense was a disappointing 20th. That had much to do with the Steelers allowing 20 ppg last year, compared to just 13 in 2001. This is why they drafted safety Troy Polamula (USC) in the first round and DE Alonzo Jackson (Florida State) in the second.

Pittsburgh finished third in the NFL in sacks and has a strong front line, led by DTs Casey Hampton, Joey Porter, and Jason Gilden. If the pass defense tightens, Pittsburgh should roll to a third-straight postseason and may challenge the Raiders as the best offense in the AFC.

TITANS: Defense and Steve McNair provide the Titans with a good shot to return to the postseason. The team also has confidence, after bouncing back from a 1-5 SU start to win 10 of 11. Don’t underestimate Jeff Fisher and McNair: Tennessee is 14-8-1 ATS as an underdog since the 1999 Super Bowl Âí­season.

This is one tough defensive front (No. 2 vs the run), led by Jevon Kearse, DEs Kevin Carter (10 sacks) and Carlos Hall (8) along with DT Albert Haynesworth. The secondary was a very different story. For the second year in a row Tennessee was awful against the pass, allowing 225 ypg. The Titans let two cornerbacks go and picked DB Andre Woolfolk (Oklahoma) with the 28th selection in the draft. Woolfolk (toe) won’t play until mid-Âí­September.

On offense, McNair is a warrior, the heart and soul of this unit. The stats (3,387 pass ypg, 22 TDs, 15 INTs, 66 percent comp, 440 rush ypg) were remarkable.

Veteran RB Eddie George (1,165 yds, 12 TDs) has seen better days. Tennessee hopes rookie Chris Brown will add some zip to the ground game. The defense has the talent to be one of the best in the AFC. With a dose of good health, don’t be surprised if McNair carries this team to the playoffs again.

RAIDERS: Pity poor Bill Callahan, who took Oakland to the Super Bowl in his first season. Unless the Raiders win it all, things can only go downhill for him. Despite an aging offense, there is hope for another strong season.

The offense returns its best players to a unit that ranked No. 1 in the NFL. QB Rich Gannon will turn 38 in December, but the numbers (4,689 pass ypg, 26 TDs, 10 INTs) don’t show any dropoff. Gannon has plenty of targets in WRs Tim Brown, Jerry Rice (1,211 yds) and TE Doug Jolley. The Raiders averaged 279.7 yards passing, best in the league.

RBs Charlie Garner and Tyrone Wheatley compliment the passing game. The special teams are strong, anchored by PK Sebastian Janikowski. There could be plenty of points if Gannon stays healthy, but be aware of inflated totals: After starting 4-0 OVER the total last season, the Raiders went 11-4 UNDER the rest of the year.

Defense has been the weak link. The Raiders can stop the run (No. 3 in the NFL), but the pass defense has been inconsistent. Oakland raided crosstown rival San Francisco by adding DT Dana Stubblefield and CB Anthony Parker along with drafting CB Nnamdi Asomugha and DE Tyler Braxton in the first round. Owner Al Davis hopes they are the missing pieces and would like nothing better than to taste the champagne Tampa Bay drank last January.