But the NFL's two most dominant teams of the past decade found themselves trying to hold the line this season against insurgents both young and old.
For Dallas, there were the relentless Green Bay Packers, intent on bringing the Lombardi Trophy back to Titletown.
In a Week 12 clash in Irving, Texas, the Cowboys repelled the injury-depleted Packers, 21-6. But will they be able to do it in January, on the tundra of Lambeau Field, where other Dallas teams have failed?
Indeed, with their seasoned defense and youthful offense, the Panthers are an expansion team in name only.
It was no accident that Carolina and the Jacksonville Jaguars, the two teams that started play in 1995, are in the playoffs. Free agency and extra draft picks helped put them there.
It was a great year for expansion teams, a struggle for reigning dynasties. Looking back, here are some of the highlights and lowlights from the 1996 regular season:
Although 1,500-yard rusher Terrell Davis helped turn the Denver Broncos into legitimate Super Bowl threats, he can't match what quarterback Brett Favre means to Green Bay. With a negligible running game, Favre has maneuvered the Packers into the driver's seat in the NFC. Last year, he threw 38 touchdown passes. This year, with receivers dropping weekly, he threw 39. Only the Miami Dolphins' Dan Marino, with seasons of 48 and 44 TD passes, has ever thrown more.
Once Dallas defensive tackle Leon Lett began serving NFL time for his drug of choice, he forfeited a Pro Bowl trip to Hawaii and all kinds of awards. This is one of them. It now goes to pass rusher supreme Bruce Smith of the Buffalo Bills, who can consistently beat the double team.
Brad Johnson started the year as an obscure backup with the Minnesota Vikings, but finished the regular season with a new four-year, $15.5 million contract. That was his payback for resuscitating the Vikings' season after replacing Warren Moon, 40. How far has Johnson come? At Florida State, he lost his starting job to Casey Weldon, who is now a backup to Trent Dilfer in Tampa Bay.
Washington's Heath Shuler was the third pick in the draft three years ago, signing a $19.25 million contract. This year, he lost his job to seventh-round pick Gus Frerotte and took one snap all season. The Redskins won't pick up the option on the last two years of the contract, so Shuler will be job hunting shortly.
Best free-agent buy
Bill Romanowski did not attract a lot of attention when the veteran linebacker moved from the Philadelphia Eagles to the Broncos in the off-season, but he's made a world of difference for the once-toothless Broncos defense. No longer soft against the run because of Romanowski, the Broncos dictate to offenses this year.
Worst free-agent buy
Imagine committing $25 million to Super Bowl quarterback Neil O'Donnell, then watching him go 0-6 and out for the season. That's what the New York Jets got for signing the former Maryland quarterback. When O'Donnell tried to return in Week 14, he suffered a calf injury in warm-ups and was finished for the year.
Pro Bowl receiver Jerry Rice was so upset when he didn't get the ball on the 49ers' final offensive play in a 30-24 loss to the Panthers on Dec. 8 that he went to team president Carmen Policy for a talk immediately after the game. The result? The next week in Pittsburgh, Rice was the target of Steve Young's first three passes, and got the ball on eight of the 49ers' first 16 plays. Oh, by the way, the 49ers led 16-0 by then.
Offensive Rookie of Year
The Houston Oilers' Eddie George was drafted behind running backs Lawrence Phillips and Tim Biakabutuka, but he showed winning the Heisman doesn't have to be a jinx. He had only four 100-yard rushing games this season, but ran for more than 1,300 yards.
Defensive Rookie of Year
Middle linebacker Zack Thomas of the Dolphins had a nice season, even if he was taken to school by the Cowboys in their Week 9 mismatch. But the rookie who had the most impact was defensive end Simeon Rice of Arizona, who racked up 12.5 sacks.
Executive of Year
There was nothing happenstance about the Panthers' rise to prominence this season. General manager Bill Polian, the architect of Buffalo's AFC dynasty, built Carolina's budding juggernaut with one thing in mind: to beat the 49ers.
Jerry Stiller of "Seinfeld" fame was magnificent as the ghost of Vince Lombardi in Nike's clever commercials.
Rich Kotite as an NFL coach. He went 4-28 as coach of the New York Jets the past two seasons. Counting his last seven games as coach of the Eagles in 1994, Kotite won four of his last 35 NFL games.
Coach of Year
Carolina's Dom Capers was the perfect fit for a start-up team, with his zone-blitz defensive schemes and fanatical attention to detail.
Co-winners, uh, losers, for the biggest collapse of the season. After the Redskins went 7-1 in the first half of the season, they lost six of seven to plummet out of playoff contention. The Kansas City Chiefs knew the feeling, too. Returning 42 of the 53 players who posted an AFC-best record of 13-3 a year ago, the Chiefs lost four of their last five to miss the playoffs for the first time this decade.
For all his reported discontent in New England, will Bill Parcells really walk away from a team with marquee quarterback Drew Bledsoe to go to the Jets? Would you?
He's not in Dallas anymore
Once, Jimmy Johnson could guarantee a win over the 49ers in the NFC championship game and get away with it. Maybe he forgot where he was in Week 15, when he called a radio station to semi-guarantee a win over the New York Giants. Bite your tongue next time, Jimmy: 17-3, Giants.
An indoor kind of guy
Minnesota's Pro Bowl receiver Cris Carter had 10 touchdown receptions this season, and all but one of them came in a dome. He had seven at home in the Metrodome, one in Atlanta's Georgia Dome and another in Detroit's Silverdome. He was shut out outdoors until Sunday in Green Bay.
The AFC may not be able to win a Super Bowl, but this season, for only the second time in the 1990s, it won the season series from the NFC, 32-28.
Three teams that have to make some big off-season moves to avoid a free fall next season: San Diego Chargers, Chiefs, Bills.
What do you really think?
When told that the movie "Jerry Maguire," starring Tom Cruise, was about the life of an NFL agent, Carolina's Polian offered this perspective: "The apocalypse is upon us."
Pub Date: 12/24/96