1999 NFL Preview
Weekly lineup

 Tuesday, September 7
AFC now a great horse race
By Mark Cannizzaro
Special to ESPN.com

 The retired John Elway is playing golf and enjoying life as a full-time father for the first time. As a result, the entire AFC is a confusing, jumbled mass of teams hopeful of thwarting the Broncos' bid for a threepeat.

  When the AFC finally shakes itself out, the Broncos will not threepeat. Denver will win the AFC West, but the champs will lose before getting back to the AFC Championship Game.

The Jets will win the AFC East despite the heavy competition. New York will advance to the AFC title game for the second consecutive year and then reach the Super Bowl for the first time since Joe Namath was making predictions and wearing pantyhose.

The AFC runner-up this year will be the Jaguars, who'll win the AFC Central and lose to the Jets at Giants Stadium.

The wild-card teams will be Miami, Buffalo and Tennessee.

-- Mark Cannizzaro

Just three games into the preseason schedule, Elway's supposed successor, Bubby Brister, has already been exposed as a fraudulent starter and is back to being what he's always been -- a backup.

That leaves Denver's hopes resting on the right arm of raw second-year project Brian Griese, whom Mike Shanahan anointed as his starting quarterback even though the coach smugly insisted all summer that Brister was his starter no matter what, and there was no competition.

That leaves the Jets, whom the Broncos dispatched in the AFC Championship Game last January, and the always-talented and knocking-on-the-door Jaguars as the favorites to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XXXIV at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

The Broncos, of course, cannot be ruled out -- even if Paul Tagliabue was quarterbacking the team -- because they have the game's best player in running back Terrell Davis, who rushed for 2,008 yards, a 5.1-yard average and scored 23 touchdowns last year.

The Broncos, too, have an array of skill-position talent that matches any in the league, with wide receivers Rod Smith (86 catches for 1,222 yards and six touchdowns in 1998) and Ed McCaffrey (64 for 1,053 yards and 10 touchdowns), along with tight end Shannon Sharpe (64 for 768 and 10 touchdowns).

 Ed McCaffrey
Ed McCaffrey and the Broncos hope to keep flying high with young Brian Griese at quarterback.

Denver also enters the season with one of the league's most experienced offensive lines intact. The '99 starters consist of Tom Nalen at center, Mark Schlereth and Dan Neil at guards and Tony Jones and Matt Lepsis at tackles. Of those five, all started every game, including the postseason, last season except for Lepsis, the right tackle who's replacing the departed Harry Swayne.

So, quarterback problems aside, the Broncos still have a lot going for them, including a weak division -- something Jacksonville also has -- and an advantage both the Broncos and Jaguars have over the Jets, who are in the NFL's most competitive division.

Only the Mike Holmgren-led Seahawks should remotely challenge the Broncos in the AFC West -- and that's only if first-time starting quarterback Jon Kitna proves he can handle the task.

The Raiders won't be much better than they always are, which is an inconsistent team with a questionable offense. The Chiefs, still with bad blood on the roster left over from last season's mutiny-ravaged ship, are unlikely to take major strides forward, even with new coach Gunther Cunningham at the controls.

The surprise of the AFC West could be the Chargers, who with dillusional brat Ryan Leaf shelved for the season, actually have a decent veteran quarterback tandem in Jim Harbaugh and Erik Kramer to go along with Natrone Means and a decent defense. The question with San Diego lies in whether its defense was overrated last year, because teams jumped to big leads on them in '98 and then took the air out of the ball in the second half.

If Harbaugh stays healthy and returns to form, though, and the defense is decent, the Chargers could finish as high as third in the division.

In the AFC Central, the Jaguars are the cream of the crop, and they should make a serious challenge for a Super Bowl berth in their fourth season.

The rest of the division is somewhat muddled. You can automatically rule out the expansion Browns, who simply don't have enough talent to put around No. 1 pick Tim Couch to make any kind of threat and will experience major growing pains. You can also eliminate the Bengals, because they're still the bumbling Bruce Coslet-led Bengals.

The Tennessee Titans, finally playing in their own stadium before their own enthusiastic, passionate fans, should be a wild-card team this season. There's too much talent, such as quarterback Steve McNair, running back Eddie George and a deep defense, for the Titans to finish their usual 8-8. Everything is now in place for them to succeed, so there are no more excuses.

The Steelers are a curious team, because Bill Cowher is too good a coach to miss the playoffs for two seasons in a row. Yet he's sticking with a similar cast of characters that disappointed last year. Everything for Pittsburgh rests on quarterback Kordell Stewart showing some improvement and maturity.

Baltimore, which possesses a terrific young defense with a load of talent, particularly at linebacker, will likely undergo growing pains under new coach Brian Billick.

Billick, who is accustomed to directing the prolific Vikings' offense, will have his hands more than full with this offense, because quarterback Scott Mitchell enters the season as a major question mark. Mitchell, who's somehow made quite a nice financial living for himself while accomplishing little on the field, must prove he's worthy of being a starter. Otherwise, he'll take down not only himself but Billick and the rest of the team.

In the AFC East, this is an illustration of how good the Jets are: The No. 1, most talked-about and somewhat controversial topic of training camp and the preseason has been about who the backup quarterback will be.

A year ago, the Jets entered the season wondering who their starting quarterback was going to be. At this time in 1998, everyone wondered two other things: Whether Bill Parcells was taking too much of a risk giving unproven Glenn Foley the starting job despite his propensity to get hurt, and why was journeyman Vinny Testaverde signed?

The way '98 shook out was magical for the Jets, with Testaverde eventually taking over the starting job from the injured Foley and leading the Jets to a 12-1 record in games he started, throwing a team-record 29 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. Testaverde also outplayed Elway in that blustery AFC title game at Mile High Stadium.

Foley's now vying for the backup job in Seattle, and Testaverde is the cornerstone of the Jets' hopes for a Super Bowl run in '99. He's also surrounded by some pretty serious talent, with running back Curtis Martin talking about reaching the 2,000-yard rushing plateau, and receivers Keyshawn Johnson, Wayne Chrebet and Dedric Ward comprising one of the finest threesomes in the game. New York's defense, which is still led by the genius of Bill Belichick, added talent in safety Steve Atwater and linebacker Roman Phifer.

The one thing that could derail the Jets from at least another trip to the AFC title game is the Jets themselves. Parcells has deep concerns that his team will bathe itself in the hype, and after the brutal first five games of the season (New England, at Buffalo, Washington, at Denver, Jacksonville), find itself in an inoperable hole.

New York has a lot of players remaining from last year's group, and Parcells hopes his team's hunger will be even greater now that they've gotten a taste of playoff success.

There have been times this summer, though, when Parcells has openly expressed a concern that this team might learn some hard lessons by thinking it's good enough to waltz past some lesser teams.

A close friend of Parcells' who's not a member of the Jets' organization made this analogy: "This is Bill's worst nightmare. High expectations are what he hates the most. To use a horse racing analogy, Bill is the kind of guy who loves to take the $500 claimer and shock everyone by winning and moving up in class."

Two things are going to test the Jets severely this season. First, they have the second-most difficult schedule in the NFL, playing 10 games against 1998 playoff teams. And second, their division is the toughest in the league, with four teams having made the playoffs last year.

Miami could prove to be New York's toughest competition if controversial running back Cecil Collins emerges as the Dolphins' featured running back. Collins, who has nearly as many arrests and accusations on his resumé as career college football games (six), could be the most explosive back the Dolphins have had under Jimmy Johnson.

Since arriving in Miami in 1996, Johnson has been desperate to run the football effectively to complement Dan Marino. If Collins works out, this could be a big year for the Dolphins, whose defense ranked among the best in 1998.

Buffalo will not prove to be a fluke, though some teams might have found new ways to defend Doug Flutie.

The Peyton Manning-led Colts will be improved, but the trade of Marshall Faulk -- as good as rookie Edgerrin James might turn out to be -- will hurt Indianapolis. Faulk was the most productive overall back in the NFL and a significant security blanket for the young Manning.

In New England, Pete Carroll has problems. First, according to those close to the team, Carroll's new tough-guy approach during training camp was not bought into by the veterans, who know him better.

And second, he's got serious injury problems. Middle linebacker Ted Johnson, who's the glue of the defense, is out for the year, leaving rookie Andy Katzenmoyer as a forced-into-duty starter. And, whether the Patriots can keep oft-injured defensive end Willie McGinest and receiver Terry Glenn healthy is a major question.

Despite quarterback Drew Bledsoe predicting the Pats have enough talent to win it all, New England doesn't have enough to even make the playoffs this year, and that will almost certainly spell the end of Carroll's head-coaching career.


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