The Gazette's 1997-98 NFL FORECAST
As long as Drew Bledsoe's at the helm in New England the east division should be aware. Bledsoe threw for 4,086 yards last season, leading his team to the Super Bowl, only to lose to the Green Bay Packers. He has the strength to lead his team back to the AFC championship game. At age 25, he already has plenty of experience with four years under his belt. Bledsoe will benefit under the departure of head coach Bill Parcells.
In Miami, somebody should tell quarterback Dan Marino to take his tanned beach-boy muscles off the field and stick to Isotoner commercials. Coming off the worst season of his career, Marino will have the same sorry sack of receivers to throw to. Not even the great leadership of Jimmy Johnson can make this Dolphins team an East champ.
All Buffalo fans have to look forward to this year, aside from chicken wings, is their first season without having to see the receding hairline of Jim Kelly. The defensive line is still great with veteran Bruce Smith, but an aging offense will keep the Bills in the middle of the Eastern division.
In Indianapolis, injuries have plagued the team since their '95 breakout season when they reached the AFC championship game. If the offensive line can stay healthy and protect QB Jim Harbaugh, the Colts could challenge the Bills for third.
The New York Jets have Parcells leading the way which is a healthy step, but sadly that's about the only one. QB Neil O'Donnell is overpaid at $25 million, especially due to his frequent injury problems. The receiving core is strong, but even good coaching can get the ball in their hands without a decent quarterback.
There's no team in this division that jumps out as an obvious favourite. Jacksonville's late-season heroics last year should earn them the nod however, providing that Mark Brunell can continue the magic he worked last year. Brunell must be sure he can minimize his turn-overs and deliver the ball into the hands of last year's biggest surprise, wide receiver Jimmy Smith.
The Jaguars will have to step it up a bit now that other teams know what to expect. Cincinnati could challenge with quarterback Jeff Blake and wide receiver Carl Pickens, but the return of Boomer Esiason (and his big mouth) in a back-up role spells trouble for the Bengals.
Getting running back Jerome Bettis back into his Pro Bowl form is key to Pittsburgh's offense, yet the inexperience of Kordell Stewart may be offsetting. He may be able to run but he can't hide all year from his average passing skills.
Tennessee's running game is incredible if Eddie George puts up his past numbers. The year will be a test for Steve McNair, a quarterback who was given the starting role after the departure of Chris Chandler to Atlanta. Time will tell whether the move from Houston will be a beneficial one.
The Baltimore Ravens still lack depth on defense and Vinny Testaverde's great offensive numbers at quarterback with 4,177 passing yards last season, do not make up for the fact he threw 17 interceptions a sign of his true ability. Michael Jackson and Derrick Alexander provide the team with a good receiving core, but the lack of a strong defense will kill them. Expect old-fashioned shootouts every time the Ravens take the field.
No team in the central will compete come playoff time.
This is definitely the year that the Denver Broncos will rule the AFC. Even though John Elway is coming off shoulder surgery the team is incredibly strong and at the age of 37, Elway still amazes. Running back Terrell Davis was incredible with 15 rushing touchdowns last season and 1,538 yards rushing. Shannon Sharpe should dispel any Bronco receiving questions with his quick hands. Denver also has a great mix of Pro Bowl linebackers.
Kansas City will be a distant second in the West this year with ex-49er Elvis Grbac at the helm. The team hopes Grbac's big numbers as Steve Young's back-up will filter over with the move. Unfortunately for head coach Marty Shottenheimer, the Chiefs are not the 49ers. The team is also expecting big things from wide receiver Brett Perriman.
The question in Oakland will be whether Jeff George can finally grow up and become the quarterback he has always been touted as being. Veteran Tim Brown at wide out might make things easier for big George to rid himself of his overrated label.
Seattle took a big hit in its first game with the loss of starting quarterback John Friesz for six weeks. The Seahawks will be well out of the race by the time he returns. Warren Moon may help out as back-up, but a weak offensive line won't give an aging Moon the protection he needs. The team does, however, have a strong running game and solid wide receivers.
San Diego will round out a tough division with Stan Humphries again leading the charge on offense and Junior Seau, a sure bet Pro Bowler, taking care of business on defence. A glaring team weakness is the absent running game which must be improved if they hope to exit the basement.
AFC by John Intini
Not all of the stars are shining big and bright deep in the heart of Texas. With the relocation of the Houston Oiler franchise to Tennessee, an aging Dallas Cowboy squad will be the Lone Star State's only hope for a Super Bowl. Both the offensive and defensive lines of the Cowboys are nowhere near the championship form they displayed in 1993, 94 and 96, but as long as Dallas has a healthy quarterback Troy Aikman, runningback Emmitt Smith and wide receiver Michael Irvin, they will be contenders.
With a Cowboy team which appears to be beatable, the division is wide open for Philadelphia's taking. RB Ricky Watters will be the Eagles go-to guy most of the time, but QB Ty Detmer can also rely on the hands of WR Irving Fryar.
In Washington, the Redskins have looked impressive in their first two games of the season. Offensively, QB Gus Frerotte and company have been impressive thus far and with RB Terry Allen returning to the active roster, things appear to be on the upswing. The Redskins have one of the quickest group of receivers and defensive secondaries in the league.
Arizona did something last Sunday that the team hadn't done this decade they beat Dallas at home. Now it'll be interesting to see if the Cardinals can carry the momentum through the rest of the season. Although there's some talent on the roster including cornerback Aeneas Williams and fullback Larry Centers, QB Kent Graham is nothing to brag about.
It's tough to understand why New York didn't make an effort to improve the team, especially the quarterback position. Dave Brown has had two poor seasons in succession and when you pair a struggling passer with a weak offensive line, that spells trouble for the Giants.
Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren is confident his team can win another Super Bowl and so should any coach who has an offense led by last year's MVP, quarterback Brett Favre and a defense led by the "Secretary of Defense", Reggie White at his disposal. Packer fans won't even notice the departure of wide receiver Andre Rison and Super Bowl MVP Desmond Howard with a roster that still has receivers Antonio Freeman and Robert Brooks.
Among the teams that should be in the wild card hunt will be a vastly improved Tampa Bay squad. QB Trent Dilfer will lead a young team of predominantly unproven players. One veteran the Bucs want desperately to do well is wide receiver Alvin Harper, who they hope can return to his Pro Bowl form like back in his days with Dallas.
Minnesota has slipped a bit in recent years with the loss of QB Warren Moon and an aging offensive line. QB Brad Johnson is nothing special, but wide receivers Chris Carter and Jake Reed form one of the most entertaining tandems in the NFL and help to pad Johnson's stats.
The winds are blowing in Chicago, but in the wrong direction and any team that has linebacker Bryan Cox can expect a maelstrom. Cox is a great player, but the Dennis Rodman of football can never keep his mouth shut and always ends up costing his team in penalty yardage. Thus far, Rick Mirer has been the starting QB, but Erik Kramer could easily inherit the position should Mirer struggle.
Head coach Wayne Fontes wore out his welcome in the Motor City, so Detroit brought in Bobby Ross as his replacement. Barry Sanders has had a mediocre start to the season, but so has QB Scott Mitchell. Only WR Herman Moore has played up to par. Detroit's defense is atrocious to put it mildly.
The toughest division to predict is the NFC West. With both Carolina and San Francisco's starting quarterbacks injured, maybe even St. Louis can sneak up to the top of the division.
The first game of the season proved costly for the 49ers, losing quarterback Steve Young and wide receiver Jim Rice. Although Young may start this weekend, Rice is gone for the season and there's no one in the NFL that can replace his skill. Likewise, the 49ers are nowhere near as good with Jim Druckenmiller quarterbacking in place of Young.
Before the season started, Carolina may have been the favourite to win this division, but two games into the season, the Panthers have managed to score less than 20 points in total. Defensively, the Panthers are one of the best in the league and could afford to let LB Kevin Greene go, but until Collins comes back in week six or so, expect a lot of low scoring games in the opponent's favour.
The St. Louis Rams are an extremely young, but talented team and the addition of the "Pancake Man" tackle Orlando Pace via the college draft should help buy time for second-year QB Tony Banks to find one of his speedy receivers. WRs Isaac Bruce and Eddie Kennison are sure to become household names.
There was quite a bit of attention given to Canadian O.J. Santiago, who made Atlanta's starting roster at tight end. It's too bad he's not on a more competitive team. The hiring of head coach Dan Reeves and the acquisition of under-rated QB Chris Chandler will help somewhat.
Then there's the New Orleans Saints. Mike Ditka, good luck.
NFC by Alex Chiang
JOHN'S PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS
AFC Championships: Denver over New England
NFC Championships: Green Bay over San Fransisco
Super Bowl: Denver over Green Bay
ALEX'S PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS
AFC Championships: Denver over New England
NFC Championships: Green Bay over Dallas
Super Bowl: Green Bay over Denver