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NFC EASTArizonaLast season: 4-12, 5th place.Playoffs: None.NFC...

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NFC EAST

Arizona

Last season: 4-12, 5th place.

Playoffs: None.

NFC rankings: Offense, 11th; defense, 13th.

Coach: Vince Tobin, first season as a head coach.

Offense: Old Boomer Esiason (35) has replaced even older Dave Krieg (37) at QB (Krieg is now the Bears' backup), inheriting an offense that tied for 27th in scoring and finished next to last in rushing. Esiason is the team's eighth starting quarterback in eight years. RB Garrison Hearst was waived, leaving the starting job to rookie Leeland McElroy and the backup role to speedster LeShon Johnson. Frank Sanders and Rob Moore are respectable wide receivers and Larry Centers last year became the first running back to catch more than 100 passes, but will Esiason have time to find them? The line allowed 55 sacks last year, third worst in the league. A bright spot: LT Lomas Brown, a good one, was signed as a free agent.

Defense: Dead last against the run and in points allowed last year, but there is some fine talent to build around in DT Eric Swann (who bounced back from a poor 1994 season), LB Eric Hill and CB Aeneas Williams. Plus, hopes are high for DE Simeon Rice, the third overall pick of the draft. But there are too many holes to expect dramatic improvement.

Extra point: The Cardinals haven't had a winning season since 1984 and haven't won a playoff game since 1947.

Dallas

Last season: 12-4, 1st place.

Playoffs: Beat Eagles in divisional, 30-11; beat Packers in NFC championship, 38-27; beat Steelers in Super Bowl, 27-17.

NFC rankings: Offense, 4th, defense, 4th.

Coach: Barry Switzer (24-8, .750), third season with Cowboys.

Offense: The Cowboys' dynasty has been based mainly on QB Troy Aikman, RB Emmitt Smith and WR Michael Irvin operating behind the game's best offensive line. But Irvin will miss five games on a drug-related suspension and TE Jay Novacek (back) may be out for the season. The Cowboys hope the foursome of Deion Sanders, Kevin Williams, Kelvin Martin and rookie Stepfret Williams will fill the void. Age is a concern on the line, with LG Nate Newton 34, LT Mark Tuinei 36 and C Ray Donaldson 38.

Defense: Four starters were lost to free agency: DT Russell Maryland, LBs Dixon Edwards and Robert Jones and CB Larry Brown, the Super Bowl MVP. The Cowboys did add LBs Fred Strickland and Broderick Thomas through free agency and traded for S Roger Harper but figure to be thinner and weaker overall. The line should be strong at tackle with Leon Lett, Chad Hennings and Tony Casillas re-signed, but DEs Tony Tolbert (knees) and Charles Haley (back) are coming off injuries.

Extra point: The Cowboys have lost 22 free agents in the past three years.

New York

Last season: 5-11, 4th place.

Playoffs: None.

NFC rankings: Offense, 15th; defense, 7th.

Coach: Dan Reeves (135-96-1, .584), fourth season with Giants, 16th overall in NFL.

Offense: The Giants finished dead last in the league in passing, next-to-last in total offense and 24th in scoring last year. Improvement rides mostly on the progress of QB Dave Brown, who is in the put-up-or-else stage as he enters his third season as starter. Help was added at wide receiver by signing free agent Lawrence Dawsey and drafting Michigan's Amani Toomer, who had an impressive preseason. Rodney Hampton and Tyrone Wheatley form a fine one-two punch at RB, but the offensive line, which lost Jumbo Elliott to free agency, is in disarray. G Ron Stone could help in that area.

Defense: The Giants took DE Cedric Jones with their No. 1 draft pick to help a line that was porous against the run (27th in the league) and managed only 29 sacks. The situation at linebacker, traditionally a Giants strength, is even worse, thanks in good measure to the departure via free agency of Michael Brooks. One bright spot is the secondary, especially CBs Phillipi Sparks, a rising star, and Thomas Randolph. Depth, however, is a problem.

Extra point: Last year, the Giants lost four games they were leading going into the fourth quarter, most in the league.

Philadelphia

Last season: 10-6, 2nd place.

Playoffs: Beat Lions in wild card, 58-37; lost to Cowboys in divisional, 30-11.

NFC rankings: Offense, 12th; defense, 2nd.

Coach: Ray Rhodes (10-6, .625), second season with Eagles.

Offense: The Eagles were great on the ground but awful in the air last season. RBs Ricky Watters and Charlie Garner gave them one of the league's best 1-2 duos, helping the Eagles finish fourth in rushing. But they were next-to-last in passing with Rodney Peete throwing just eight TD passes. WRs Irving Fryar and Mark Seay were signed to provide better targets (second-year man Chris T. Jones also had a terrific preseason), and veteran OT Richard Cooper, plus 320-pound No. 1 draft choice Jermane Mayberry, should make for better blocking.

Defense: The Eagles were first in the NFC in pass defense and fourth in the NFL in total defense, and have added a good cornerback in free agent Troy Vincent to go with standout second-year man Bobby Taylor. DE William Fuller and DT Andy Harmon are a high-quality tandem on the left side, accounting for 24 sacks between them last year, but two starting linebackers, Bill Romanowski and Kurt Gouveia, departed and must be replaced.

Extra point: In the past three seasons, seven different players have started at left tackle for the Eagles.

Washington

Last season: 6-10, 3rd place.

Playoffs: None.

NFC rankings: Offense, 9th; defense, 8th.

Coach: Norv Turner (9-23, .281), third season with Redskins.

Offense: In keeping with tradition, the Redskins have a quarterback controversy -- or had one, until Gus Frerotte, taken in the seventh round of the '94 draft, got the nod over Heath Shuler, the third overall selection that same year. At wide receiver, veteran Henry Ellard (35) is back after consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, and look for a breakout year from Michael Westbrook, the third overall pick of the 1995 draft who was hampered by injuries half of last season but averaged nearly 15.4 yards per catch. Newcomer Bill Brooks will help the receiving corps, as well. The running game improved from 24th to seventh in the league last year, thanks to Terry Allen's 1,309 yards.

Defense: The addition of DE Sean Gilbert gives a much-needed boost to a line that finished next-to-last in the league against the run last year and has averaged just 15 1/2 sacks over the past three seasons. Fourth-year lineman Sterling Palmer (4 1/2 sacks) is a rising star. The linebacking trio of Pro Bowler Ken Harvey, Rod Stephens and Marvcus Patton is strong, as is the cornerback duo of veteran Darrell Green and fourth-year man Tom Carter.

Extra point: Since Joe Gibbs retired as coach after the 1992 season, the Redskins are 13-35.

Division glance

Best quarterback: Troy Aikman, Cowboys.

Best runner: Emmitt Smith, Cowboys.

Best receiver/tight end: Michael Irvin, Cowboys.

Best defender: DT Eric Swann, Cardinals.

Best acquisition: DT Sean Gilbert, Redskins.

Rookie to watch: RB Leeland McElroy, Cardinals.

First quarterback benched: Rodney Peete, Eagles.

Coach on hot seat: Dan Reeves, Giants.

Sleeper team: Redskins.

NFC CENTRAL

Chicago

Last season: 9-7, 3rd place.

Playoffs: None.

NFC rankings: Offense, 6th; defense, 9th.

Coach: Dave Wannstedt (25-23, .521), fourth season with Bears.

Offense: QB Erik Kramer blossomed at 31 in his first full year as a starter last season, throwing 29 TD passes and only 10 interceptions. The Bears lost a 1,000-yard receiver, Jeff Graham, to free agency, but return another in Curtis Conway and have high hopes for second-round draft pick Bobby Engram. Last year's top draft choice, RB Rashaan Salaam, rushed for 1,074 yards and 10 TDs but also had eight fumbles. Three members of an offensive line that allowed only 15 sacks were lost to free agency, including C Jerry Fontenot, and replacing them without a decline in performance is a priority.

Defense: The Bears were strong against the run last year (fifth in the league) but poor against the pass (27th). The Bears are looking for major improvement in the pass rush with the free-agent acquisition of LB Bryan Cox, who will drop down and rush in passing situations. The Bears are set at end with Jim Flanigan and Alonzo Spellman, but the tackle spot is unsettled. The return to health of CB Donnell Woolford and the drafting of CB Walt Harris with the No. 1 pick should strengthen the secondary.

Extra point: The Bears traded up for the first time in 20 years to get Harris.

Detroit

Last season: 10-6, 2nd place.

Playoffs: Lost to Eagles in wild card, 58-37.

NFC rankings: Offense, 1st; defense, 12th.

Coach: Wayne Fontes (61-56, .521), ninth season with Lions.

Offense: In a word, potent; perhaps the best in the NFL. QB Scott Mitchell blossomed in his first healthy season as a starter with 32 TD passes; WRs Herman Moore and Brett Perriman combined for 231 catches, 3,174 yards and 23 TDs; and RB Barry Sanders was his usual super self with 1,500 yards rushing and 11 TDs. To help, RB/WR Glyn Milburn was brought in and also could have a big year. However, three starting offensive linemen were lost, two to free agency, one of them standout T Lomas Brown. How well their replacements do will determine if the guys at the skill positions continue to pile up the yards and points.

Defense: The other side of the coin. The Lions finished 23rd in the league in total defense and lost star LB Chris Spielman to free agency. To replace him, the Lions drafted Reggie Brown with their No. 1 pick and Michael Brooks was brought in from the Giants, but Brown is out 4-6 weeks with a knee injury. The line is a revolving-door, position-switching mess; all three of last year's starting linebackers are gone; and cornerback badly needs to be upgraded.

Extra point: The Lions are 22-6 in the final four games of Fontes' seven full seasons as coach.

Green Bay

Last season: 11-5, 1st place.

Playoffs: Beat Falcons in wild card, 37-20; beat 49ers in divisional, 27-17; lost to Cowboys in NFC championship, 38-27.

NFC rankings: Offense, 5th; defense, 6th.

Coach: Mike Holmgren (38-26, .594), fifth season with Packers.

Offense: Much rides on whether QB Brett Favre can put his off-season problems (rehabilitation from addiction to painkillers) behind him and regain his MVP form of last year, when he threw for 4,413 yards and an NFC-record 38 TD passes. WR Robert Brooks was his favorite target (102 receptions, 1,497 yards, 13 TDs) and Edgar Bennett provided balance with 1,067 yards rushing. But rookie WR Derrick Mayes, who had been counted on, will be out at least six weeks with a knee injury. Mark Chmura and Keith Jackson will duel at tight end. The offensive line -- decent last year -- will miss LT Ken Ruettgers, sidelined at least the first six games with a degenerative left knee.

Defense: Peerless DE Reggie White is 34 but still going strong, as his 12 sacks last year prove. A strong line has been made stronger with the addition of free-agent DT Santana Dotson. LB Ron Cox is another free-agent addition the Packers hope will add aggressiveness to a unit that needs it. The secondary had an NFC-low 13 interceptions and a reputation for playing soft.

Extra point: Favre has 71 TD passes and just 27 interceptions the past two seasons.

Minnesota

Last season: 8-8, 4th place.

Playoffs: None.

NFC rankings: Offense, 3rd; defense, 10th.

Coach: Dennis Green (38-26, .594), fifth season with Vikings.

Offense: He'll be 40 in November, but QB Warren Moon is still the man in Minnesota. Last year he threw for 4,228 yards, had an excellent touchdown-to-interception ratio of 33-14 and was the main reason the Vikings finished fourth in the NFL in scoring. A trio of running backs rushed for 1,409 yards, led by Robert Smith's 632, and Smith has bulked up by 15 pounds. WRs Cris Carter (122 catches, 1,371 yards, 17 TDs) and Jake Reed (72 catches, 1,167 yards, 9 TDs) were terrific. Led by Pro Bowl G Randall McDaniel, the offensive line is solid.

Defense: The team's downfall last year was the defense, which was strong against the run but 28th against the pass and 27th in scoring. The defensive line has one terrific veteran, T John Randle (10 1/2 sacks), but nothing much else. Two of last year's starting linebackers, Jack Del Rio and Broderick Thomas, left via free agency, though Dixon Edwards arrived as a free agent. The Vikings allowed 4,416 passing yards last season and the secondary remains mediocre. Orlando Thomas, who led the NFL with nine interceptions as a rookie, is back at free safety.

Extra point: Carter's 244 receptions over the past two seasons are an NFL record.

Tampa Bay

Last season: 7-9, 5th place.

Playoffs: None.

NFC rankings: Offense, 14th; defense, 14th.

Coach: Tony Dungy, first season as a head coach.

Offense: Miserable. The Bucs were next-to-last in the league in scoring and 27th in total offense. QB Trent Dilfer, the sixth pick overall in the '94 draft, was the lowest-rated starter in the league, throwing just four TD passes with 18 interceptions and being sacked 47 times. WR Alvin Harper, a pricey free agent, must bounce back from a disappointing first year with the Bucs, especially in light of a season-ending injury suffered by WR Horace Copeland. At running back, Errict Rhett (1,207 yards) remains a holdout; he would be replaced as a starter by either recent-acquisition Reggie Brooks or Jerry Ellison.

Defense: The Bucs hope to further improve a promising young defense with their two first-round draft picks, DE Regan Upshaw and DT Marcus Jones. Linebacker is a strong point with team leader Hardy Nickerson in the middle and Derrick Brooks, a rookie star last year, on the outside. But the secondary is a concern. The safeties, youngsters Melvin Johnson and John Lynch, will be first-year starters, and the incumbent cornerbacks, Charles Dimry and Martin Mayhew, are expected to be pushed by three younger players.

Extra point: The Bucs' highest point output last season was 24. They were under 20 points in 11 games.

Division glance

Best quarterback: Brett Favre, Packers.

Best runner: Barry Sanders, Lions.

Best receiver/tight end: Herman Moore, Lions.

Best defender: DE Reggie White, Packers.

Best acquisition: LB Bryan Cox, Bears.

Rookie to watch: CB Walt Harris, Bears.

First quarterback benched: Trent Dilfer, Buccaneers.

Coach on hot seat: Wayne Fontes, Lions.

Sleeper team: Buccaneers.

NFC WEST

Atlanta

Last season: 9-7, 2nd place.

Playoffs: Lost to Packers in wild card, 37-20.

NFC rankings: Offense, 7th; defense, 15th.

Coach: June Jones (16-16, .500), third season with Falcons.

Offense: The only run-and-shoot team left in the NFL, the Falcons put up big numbers last year. They featured a 4,000-yard quarterback in Jeff George; a 1,000-yard rusher in Craig Heyward; three 1,000-yard receivers in Eric Metcalf, Bert Emanuel and Terance Mathis; and, overall, the league's 10th-ranked offense. George had 58 completions of 20 or more yards, a slimmed-down Heyward (who'll be pushed by Jamal Anderson) fumbled just three times in 273 rushes and receptions, and Metcalf fell just 17 short of 2,000 all-purpose yards. LT Bob Whitfield is the lone star on a solid offensive line.

Defense: The Falcons finished next to last in the league, allowing more passing yards (4,751) than any team in NFL history. They lost 35-year-old DE Chris Doleman to free agency and traded S Roger Harper, but added eight veterans through free agency or trade, the most notable being S Patrick Bates and LB Cornelius Bennett. Four of their six draft choices play defense, but their first selection, DT Shannon Brown, is on injured reserve.

Extra point: The Falcons have won the past 15 games in which they've held opponents to 20 or fewer points.

Carolina

Last season: 7-9, tied for 3rd place.

Playoffs: None.

NFC rankings: Offense, 13th; defense, 3rd.

Coach: Dom Capers (7-9, .438), second season with Panthers.

Offense: Weak in the club's inaugural season (26th in yards gained, tied for 25th in points), the Panthers' hopes for improvement depend largely on continued development by QB Kerry Collins, who showed promise as a rookie, and the running of No. 1 draft pick (eighth overall) Tim Biakabutuka. Seven of the club's 10 draft picks, including the top three, were on offense. One was WR Muhsin Muhammad, who may oust one of the starters (Mark Carrier and Willie Green) by year's end. The Panthers also added two free-agent veterans, TE Wesley Walls and RT Greg Skrepenak, plus veteran backup QB Steve Beuerlein and WR Rocket Ismail.

Defense: To a defense that finished tied for seventh in the league, the Panthers added a pair of free agents who made the Pro Bowl last year, LB Kevin Greene and CB Eric Davis. The best of the returning defenders are LB Sam Mills, DE Mike Fox, CB Tyrone Poole and FS Pat Terrell. Age is a source of concern, however, considering that Mills, the captain and leader of the defense, is 37.

Extra point: Collins' 61.9 quarterback rating was second worst in the NFL, but he was 7-6 as a starter, the best for any rookie since the Dolphins went 7-3 under Dan Marino in 1983.

New Orleans

Last season: 7-9, tied for 3rd place.

Playoffs: None.

NFC rankings: Offense, 10th; defense, 11th.

Coach: Jim Mora (91-68, .572), 11th season with Saints.

Offense: QB Jim Everett has been durable (32 consecutive starts, third best in the league at the position) and solid (3,970 yards, 26 TDs, 14 interceptions in '95), but he needs help. His two favorite targets, WR Quinn Early and TE Wesley Walls, were lost to free agency, and the running game needs upgrading, ranking third-worst in the league last season with an average of 86.9 yards per game. Three wide receivers were drafted, though none higher than the fifth round, and free agent Haywood Jeffires was signed. At running back, the team is looking for leading holdover Mario Bates (951 yards) to produce more consistently. Also look for production from second-year FB Ray Zellars.

Defense: From the heady years 1991 and '92, when the Saints led the NFL in fewest points allowed, they slipped all the way to 18th last season (and 22nd in total yardage). Six new players, three veteran free agents and the club's first three draft picks, will work under Jim Haslett, the third defensive coordinator in as many seasons. The veterans are CB Mark McMillian, a potential star, and DEs Darren Mickell and Fred Stokes.

Extra point: Mora, who has never won a playoff game with the Saints, has the longest tenure of any active coach.

St. Louis

Last season: 7-9, tied for 3rd place.

Playoffs: None.

NFC rankings: Offense, 8th; defense, 5th.

Coach: Rich Brooks (7-9, .438), second season with Rams.

Offense: Much rides on two newcomers, veteran QB Steve Walsh and rookie RB Lawrence Phillips. Walsh, signed as a free agent from the Bears, replaces battered-into-retirement Chris Miller as starter. Walsh didn't throw a pass last year, but in 1994 he led Chicago to the playoffs, going 8-3 as a starter. Phillips, talented but troubled, was a gamble as a No. 1 pick (sixth overall). He did not help his image or ease Rams apprehension by getting arrested on a drunken-driving charge before training camp. Wide receiver should be a bright spot again, featuring Isaac Bruce (119 catches, 1,781 yards and 13 TDs), Alexander Wright and rookie Eddie Kennison.

Defense: Two significant new faces are being counted upon to improve a defense that finished 12th in the NFL in yards allowed but next-to-last in points. DE Leslie O'Neal is 32 but still an effective pass-rusher (54 sacks over the last four seasons, including 12 1/2 for the Chargers last season), and LB Robert Jones arrives with three Super Bowl rings from his years in Dallas. Undersized DT D'Marco Farr (6-1, 270) led the team with 10 1/2 sacks last season.

ZTC Extra point: In the first four weeks last year, the Rams had a plus-14 turnover ratio. In the final 12 games, it was minus-17.

San Francisco

Last season: 11-5, 1st place.

Playoffs: Lost to Packers in divisional, 27-17.

NFC rankings: Offense, 2nd; defense, 1st.

Coach: George Seifert (86-26, .768), eighth season with 49ers.

Offense: The passing game remains outstanding, featuring Steve Young throwing to Jerry Rice and J. J. Stokes, who showed great potential as a rookie last season. Young missed five games with midseason arthroscopic surgery last year, but still finished fourth in the NFC in passing with 3,200 yards. The running game is questionable. FB William Floyd will start the season on the reserve/physically unable to perform list and can't be activated until the seventh game, leaving the job to Tommy Vardell until then. At running back, newly acquired Terry Kirby will fight for the starting spot with Derek Loville, who gained 1,385 total yards and scored 13 TDs last year.

Defense: Outstanding, statistically No. 1 in the league last year. The 49ers were first against the run, giving up only 66.3 yards per game (fewest by any team in a 16-game season), and first in interceptions with 26. A quartet of Pro Bowlers led the way: LBs Lee Woodall and Ken Norton, FS Merton Hanks and SS Tim McDonald. The line features new ends in Chris Doleman and Roy Barker.

Extra point: In 1994, with Ricky Watters, the 49ers were sixth in the NFL in rushing. Without Watters in '95, they ranked 23rd.

Division glance

Best quarterback: Steve Young, 49ers.

Best runner: Craig Heyward, Falcons.

Best receiver/tight end: Jerry Rice, 49ers.

Best defender: DT Wayne Martin, Saints.

Best acquisition: CB Eric Davis, Panthers.

Rookie to watch: RB Lawrence Phillips, Rams.

First quarterback benched: Jim Everett, Saints.

Coach on hot seat: Jim Mora, Saints.

Sleeper team: Falcons.

Pub Date: 8/31/96

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