AFC's strides not so great In games that matter, NFC still superior

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Signs abound that the AFC may finally be ready to win a Super Bowl.

More good, young teams. More good, young quarterbacks. More transplanted NFC coaches. An 18-10 advantage in the interconference series this year.

But you can forget about Jacksonville, New England and Denver. Ignore Kordell Stewart, Drew Bledsoe and Mark Brunell. And don't even mention Bill Parcells, Jimmy Johnson or Tom Coughlin.

The bottom line is, the AFC still can't beat the NFC when it counts. Not even with the Green Bay Packers in turmoil, and the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers in the final gasp of their golden era.

That's what the first half of the 1997 NFL season proved once again. Just look at the facts:

The Cowboys, riddled by age and injury, beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 37-7, in Week 1 and the Jacksonville Jaguars, 26-22, in Week 8.

The Packers, retreating on defense, beat the Miami Dolphins, 23-18, in Week 3 and the New England Patriots, 28-10, in Week 9.

And just when you thought the Dolphins might have turned a corner, they lost to the Chicago Bears -- the NFC doormats -- 36-33.

The Denver Broncos? They were run over by the defenseless Oakland Raiders, the AFC West doormats, in Week 8.

The NFC has won 13 Super Bowls in a row. There's no reason to believe the streak won't reach 14.

Here are some other observations from the first half of the season: Offensive MVP: With 1,068 yards, Denver running back Terrell Davis is on a pace to break Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards. He has four 100-yard rushing games, two 200-yard games, and his 5.0 average carry helps obscure the fact that quarterback John Elway is fading.

Defensive MVP: Buffalo's Bruce Smith has 10 sacks, but the Bills are over the hill. The player who has meant the most to his team and defense is Tampa Bay tackle Warren Sapp. He has 6.5 sacks and is the main reason the Buccaneers are fourth against the run this year.

Best free-agent buy: The Seattle Seahawks made headlines when they nabbed highly coveted linebacker Chad Brown from the Steelers. But where would they be without quarterback Warren Moon? Not in the playoff hunt, that's for sure. The 40-year-old wonder signed a two-year, $1.65 million contract, then replaced injured starter John Friesz in the opener and is 5-2 as the Seahawks' starter.

Worst free-agent buy: Did Al Davis really believe Desmond Howard could play wide receiver? Probably not. But he did expect him to dial long distance on a few punt and/or kick returns. That's why he signed the Super Bowl MVP to a four-year, $6 million deal. Howard is barely a blip on the Raiders' screen. He ranks 10th in the AFC in kickoff returns with a 22.8 average and can't even break into the top 10 in punt returns.

Best offensive rookie: Running back Warrick Dunn has given Tampa Bay the big-play element it sorely missed. He is an amazing runner between tackles for a man 5 feet 8, and once he's through the line, he's a terror. Dunn has three 100-yard rushing games and one 100-yard receiving game.

Best defensive rookie: The sky's the limit for Ravens linebacker Peter Boulware, who has 4.5 sacks. Despite missing all of training camp in a contract dispute, Boulware has made an immediate impact. He's every bit as good as scouting reports said he was.

Biggest first-round washouts: New Orleans guard Chris Naeole, taken by Mike Ditka with the 10th pick, barely made it to the field between injuries that ultimately ended his season. At least the jury's still out there. In Philadelphia, it's hard to find defensive end Jon Harris, the 25th pick, on the field or the stat sheet.

Best coaching job: Tony Dungy has done a great job making the Bucs competitive in the NFL's toughest division. And Pittsburgh's Bill Cowher has been superb in restocking the Steelers. But nobody's had a half-year like Jim Fassel, the rookie coach of the New York Giants. He lost center Brian Williams and running back Rodney Hampton going in, then saw his top two draft picks, wide receiver Ike Hilliard and running back Tiki Barber, go down with injuries as well. He's even winning with backup quarterback Danny Kanell, a move that was inevitable even if Dave Brown hadn't gotten hurt.

Worst coaching job: There are a lot of candidates. Lindy Infante's Indianapolis Colts have the only winless record in the league. Bruce Coslet's Cincinnati Bengals are bungling again, despite his 7-2 late-season success a year ago. Vince Tobin's Arizona Cardinals are pathetic as usual. And Dave Wannstedt's Bears are toothless.

But the vote here is a tie between Dick Vermeil and Ditka. Vermeil has been less than smashing in St. Louis after 15 years away from the sidelines. The Rams have good, young talent, but are only 2-6. Their star receiver, Issac Bruce, had this to say: "Last year, in my opinion, we made some strides. This year, we're in reverse."

In New Orleans, Ditka's Saints have refined the art of the %J shutout. After scoring in 216 consecutive games, they were blanked in back-to-back games. At 2-7, Ditka can't take this much longer.

Executive of the half-year: Tampa Bay general manager Rich McKay, along with personnel director Jerry Angelo, pulled off a coup in the draft when the Bucs got Dunn with the 12th pick of the first round and wide receiver Reidel Anthony with the 16th. Those speed additions to the offense took a significant burden off quarterback Trent Dilfer.

Worst front-office move: When he relocated from Houston to Tennessee, Oilers owner Bud Adams figured he'd cash in on the luxury boxes at Memphis' Liberty Bowl during a two-year layover while a new stadium was being built in Nashville. He couldn't have used worse judgment. Still inflamed over its snub in NFL expansion, Memphis has turned a cold shoulder to the Oilers, and Adams is awash in apathy once more. In four "home" games in Memphis, the Oilers are averaging 24,005 in attendance.

Worst trades: Despite all of Rick Mirer's problems in Seattle, the Bears actually gave up a first-round pick -- the 11th overall -- to get the quarterback. This was a monumental blunder that very well could get Wannstedt fired. Playing parts of four games, Mirer is averaging a meager 4.38 yards per pass, has thrown four interceptions and no touchdowns and generated all of three field goals. Mercifully, he was replaced by Erik Kramer, who engineered the upset of Miami.

The Saints didn't do much better, though, when they dealt a fifth-round pick this year and a third-rounder next year to the Washington Redskins for first-round bust Heath Shuler. Shuler has thrown two touchdown passes and 11 interceptions and, like Mirer, has been benched.

Best comeback: Gary Brown, a 1,000-yard rusher with the Houston Oilers in 1993, spent the 1996 season working out at a YMCA in Williamsport, Pa., when no team would sign him. This year, the San Diego Chargers gave him a chance and he has made the most of it. The five-year veteran has rushed for 643 yards, averaging 4.2 a carry. Better yet, he can bank a $1 million incentive clause if he gains 1,000 yards.

Worst holdout: Defensive tackle Sean Gilbert was an integral part of the Redskins' defense a year ago. Even though the Redskins were last in the league in rush defense, Gilbert believed he deserved $5 million a year in a new contract. The Redskins offered $3.5 million. Neither side budged and Gilbert is sitting out the season. Without him, the Redskins are still last in rush defense. That holdout hurts both sides.

Best makeover: Much-traveled Andre Rison joined his fifth NFL team in the past four years (his sixth team overall) this season, and he seems determined to make this stop with the Kansas City Chiefs work. Rison picked up a Super Bowl ring in an eight-game stint with Green Bay in 1996, but was deemed expendable by the Packers. He arrived in Kansas City with a bad-boy reputation, but that may be changing. Rison has 43 catches for 590 yards and five touchdowns as the prime target of Elvis Grbac. He also has shed his "Bad Moon" nickname and adopted a new one. Now he's known as "Spiderman."

Worst disappearing act: Cornerback Larry Brown went from MVP of Super Bowl XXX for the Cowboys to invisible man with Oakland. The Raiders demoted him and then suspended him for unspecified reasons. He is losing $56,250 per week while on suspension.

Most costly idle time: Brown has nothing on Colts quarterback Jim Harbaugh, who is losing approximately $140,000 a week while his fractured right little finger heals. Harbaugh took exception to some critical remarks by former quarterback and current TV analyst Jim Kelly, and hurt his hand punching Kelly. Harbaugh was placed on the non-football injury list until he's recovered.

Most candid quarterback: Buffalo quarterback Billy Joe Hobert did not wow anyone with his relief performance in a 33-6 loss to the Patriots in Week 7, but what he had to say later sure got everyone's attention. Hobert confessed that he had not spent much time studying for the Patriots game (it showed: he was 17-for-30 with two interceptions). That's all coach Marv Levy had to hear. Levy cut Hobert before the next practice.

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NFL midseason report

Five biggest surprises

Team .. ..W-L..Skinny

Giants .. 6-3..Even with 5th-place schedule, 1st place is a shock

Bucs .. ..5-3..Trent Dilfer is NFL's 8th-rated passer

AJets .. ..5-3..Bill Parcells primed for hostile takeover in East

Chiefs ...6-2..New offense, new defense, same coach

Vikings ..6-2..QB Brad Johnson was worth $15.5 million

Five biggest disappointments

Team .. ..W-L..Skinny

Raiders ..3-5..Napoleon Kaufman can't override NFL-worst

.. .. .. ... ..defense

Bengals ..1-7 .They are 4-28 in October in the 1990s

Panthers .4-4 .The bloom is off the wilted expansion rose

Patriots .5-3 .Went 1-3 in games that measured worth

Rams 2-6 Rich .Brooks could've done better than this

Five players who've exceeded expectations

Pos., Player, team .. .. .. .Skinny

QB Kordell Stewart, Pit. .. .Has come a long way in two months

RB Raymont Harris, Chi. .. ..Lone threat in popgun offense

K Richie Cunningham, Dal. .. Rookie on record pace with 25 FGs

RB Gary Brown, S.D. .. .. ...Overweight, unemployed a year ago

WR Terrell Owens, S.F. .. .. Six TDs in absence of Jerry Rice

Five players who haven't measured up

Pos., Player, team .. ..Skinny

KR Desmond Howard, Oak..He's 10th among AFC kick returners

DE Mike Mamula, Phi. ...Still looking for his first sack

LB Greg Lloyd, Pit. .. .Hasn't recovered from knee surgery

QB Stan Humphries, S.D..15th-rated passer in the AFC

Tony Banks, St.L. ...Completed 49.8 percent with 7 INTs

Five toughest second-half schedules

Team .. .W-L .. ..Opp. W-L .. .. ..Skinny

49ers ...7-1 .. .. ..40-24 .. .. ..Now we find out if they're for real

Chiefs ..6-2 .. .. ..39-26 .. .. ..Never quite match their promise

Colts ...0-8 .. .. ..37-27 .. .. ..Yes, 0-16 is a possibility

Patriots 5-3 .. .. ..36-28 .. .. ..They could fall a long way

Bills .. 4-4 .. .. ..36-28 .. .. ..Spunky even without Jim Kelly

Five easiest second-half schedules

Team .. .W-L .. ..Opp. W-L .. .. ..Skinny

Rams .. .2-6 .. .. ..23-42 .. .. ..Dick Vermeil's return is shaky

Saints ..2-7 .. .. ..22-34 .. .. ..Ditto, Mike Ditka

Redskins 4-4 .. .. ..28-38 .. .. ..If they can only stop the run

Jets .. .5-3 .. .. ..29-35 .. .. ..From worst to first?

Giants ..6-3 .. .. ..26-30 .. .. ..Playoffs really could happen

Pub Date: 11/02/97

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