Young, restless AFC has one goal Fast-improving teams threaten dominance in Super Bowl by NFC

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Sooner or later, it's going to happen.

Some day, an AFC team is going to win another Super Bowl. That team will have had a bellyful of NFC domination, an offense filled with playmakers and a defense populated by bullies.

That is what it will take to break the NFC's awe-inspiring, 13-year stranglehold on the Lombardi Trophy.

No more relying on John Elway's arm or Jim Kelly's offense. The day of the one-dimensional AFC team is done. Over. Finished.

The gap between the NFC and AFC is closing, and if you don't believe it, look at this week's schedule.

It's a sign of changing times that the marquee game of Week 6 is the Monday night showdown of unbeaten AFC powers, the New England Patriots (4-0) against the Denver Broncos (5-0).

It's Drew Bledsoe matching laser beams with Elway.

It's a Curtis Martin cutback followed by a Terrell Davis breakaway.

It's Ben Coates and Shannon Sharpe, the NFL's two best tight ends, taking the ball to the house.

It's a truckload of playmaking wide-outs: Shawn Jefferson, Terry Glenn and Vincent Brisby for the Patriots, and Rod Smith, Ed McCaffrey and Willie Green for the Broncos.

And it's defense, too. The Patriots are allowing 10 points a game so far with 21 sacks, both league bests. The Broncos have allowed 14.4 points and they come in with 17 sacks.

They're not the only AFC teams making noise, either. The Jacksonville Jaguars made it to the AFC championship game in their second season with a roster filled by young, promising talent. After revamping both their offense and defense in the off-season, the Kansas City Chiefs are off to a 4-1 start. Along with the perennially-strong Pittsburgh Steelers, those teams represent the cream of the AFC.

"If you pick the best teams in the league today, Denver, New England and our team would be among some of the better teams," said Michael Huyghue, senior vice president for the Jaguars.

"Our team's one of the better AFC teams, one of the younger teams. In our [Central] division, quarterback play has improved dramatically. [The Ravens'] Vinny Testaverde went to the Pro Bowl last year, and there's a youth movement with [Tennessee's] Steve McNair, [Cincinnati's] Jeff Blake, [Pittsburgh's] Kordell Stewart and [Jacksonville's] Mark Brunell."

When it comes to weapons, the Patriots almost had enough to win last season's Super Bowl. But the Green Bay Packers had one too many (see Desmond Howard's 99-yard kickoff return), and so the Lombardi Trophy stayed in NFC territory one more year.

Whether that accumulation of talent is enough to beat the Packers, or the Dallas Cowboys, or the San Francisco 49ers, in a Super Bowl is another story, so heavy is the NFC mystique now.

But the 3-2 Packers face a different kind of showdown Sunday at Lambeau Field when they play the 5-0 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. If the injury-riddled Packers fall three games behind the Bucs in the NFC Central, they'd have to start thinking wild card.

The Cowboys and 49ers have similar problems -- they are creaking dynasties whose best offensive players, for the most part, are on the decline. Defense has had to carry both teams in the early going of 1997.

Huyghue (pronounced Hewg) could be speaking for all AFC teams when he looks at the Broncos and Patriots.

"We have a chance to be a good club this year," he said. "Certainly, being able to beat Denver or New England would be as difficult a task as any team we would face from the NFC."

Here are six reasons why this might be the season the AFC snaps the NFC's Super Bowl streak:

1. The clock is running on the aging NFC kingpins.

The 49ers are the oldest team in the NFL. The Cowboys are the second oldest. Both teams have problems in the offensive line. Both are being kept afloat by defense.

After three concussions in 10 months, 49ers quarterback Steve Young is probably one more nasty hit away from retirement. Dallas' Troy Aikman broached the retirement subject himself last off-season out of frustration over the limp Cowboys offense.

The 49ers lost Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice for at least most of the season with a serious knee injury. The Cowboys seemingly have lost running back Emmitt Smith as their MVP workhorse. Coming off a season when he averaged a career-low 3.7 yards a carry, Smith is averaging 3.9.

The Cowboys' passing game isn't all that great, either. Aikman, who completed 62.9 percent of his passes coming into 1997, has completed just 51.9. And the Cowboys are 5-for-17 in the red zone (inside the 20) for a punchless touchdown percentage of 29.4.

TC 2. The Packers aren't the same dominating team they were in 1996.

A year ago, the Packers led the league in points scored and fewest allowed. This year, they're barely outscoring the opposition (24.6-22). Injuries are part of the problem. Running back Edgar Bennett and cornerback Craig Newsome are gone for the season. The knee injury suffered by defensive tackle Gilbert Brown has hobbled the defense, even though he's still playing.

The Packers also have had red-zone problems. They've scored 10 touchdowns in 25 trips inside the opponents' 20. After the loss in Detroit, coach Mike Holmgren had to defend a third-down pass attempt in the end zone to rookie tackle Ross Verba, saying Verba was a former tight end. "I wouldn't say Ross Verba is our red-zone savior," Holmgren conceded.

3. Not only are the AFC powers younger, but they have more good, young quarterbacks.

After Aikman (three Super Bowl victories), Young (one) and Favre (one), the drop-off in the NFC is significant. The Bucs' Trent Dilfer leads the NFC in passing, but has 27 career touchdowns and 46 interceptions. Then there is Minnesota's Brad Johnson (28, 17), Washington's Gus Frerotte (36, 34), and Carolina's Kerry Collins (32, 36), who was benched this week after committing nine turnovers in two games.

The AFC counters with Bledsoe (92, 76), Brunell (35, 29), Blake (71, 45), Kansas City's Elvis Grbac (24, 21) and Oakland's Jeff George (104, 81). Up and coming are McNair and Stewart.

The Patriots, meanwhile, are tied for the third-youngest team in the NFL and the Jaguars are the fifth youngest. The Broncos are the third oldest.

4. Free agency has changed the landscape.

"With free agency, it's hard for divisions to stay the way they've been," Huyghue said. "What's happening, more people are leaving conferences to go to other teams."

Among the players who made the leap from NFC to AFC this season were George, Grbac, Howard (Oakland), William Fuller and Eric Metcalf (San Diego) and Howard Griffith (Denver).

5. AFC coaching has improved.

Bill Parcells (two Super Bowl victories) brought his NFC philosophy to the AFC in New England in 1993 and to the New York Jets this season. Jimmy Johnson (two Super Bowl wins) moved to Miami in 1996. Other prominent AFC coaches with NFC coaching backgrounds include Jacksonville's Tom Coughlin, Denver's Mike Shanahan and New England's Pete Carroll.

6. The Broncos want to make amends for last season's playoff loss to the Jaguars.

"We know what we have to do," Terrell Davis said. He was the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year in 1996 for Denver. "Everybody is reminded by the loss, you have two different seasons, the regular season and the playoffs. We're trying to put ourselves in a situation where we get enough wins to get back where we were last year."

Asked if he felt this is the Broncos' year to finally win the Super Bowl, Davis said, "I really do. A lot of people might say that, but I have a strong conviction about it."

Pub Date: 10/03/97

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