NFL '99 AFC PREVIEW

THE BALTIMORE SUN

East

Buffalo Bills

Last season: 10-6, tie for second. Lost wild-card game at Miami, 24-17.

Coach: Wade Phillips (27-25), second season with Bills, fifth in NFL.

Strength of schedule: Tie for 25th.

Starting quarterback: Doug Flutie (16-8) or Rob Johnson (4-3).

Best move: Rebuilding the team through the draft and selective free-agent signings. The Bills drafted starters LG Ruben Brown, WR Eric Moulds, RB Antowain Smith and ILB Sam Cowart (second round) with their top picks the previous four years and took promising CB Antoine Winfield in the first round this year.

Toughest call: Not getting a power running back. Smith gained 1,124 yards last season, but couldn't be counted on to gain the tough yardage.

Pressure's on: Flutie to play at his 1998 level. There will be pressure to play Rob Johnson, who got an $8.5 million signing bonus a year ago.

Biggest question: With a full off-season of film study, will opposing defensive coordinators find a way to negate Flutie's play-making skills?

Key statistic: Flutie was sacked just 11 times in 365 drop-backs, turning what had been considered a weakness in the offensive line into a strength.

Ticket to Atlanta: The Bills play in the toughest division in the league, so getting home-field advantage is imperative. They should make the playoffs, but a Super Bowl run would require a phenomenal season from Flutie or Johnson.

Indianapolis Colts

Last season: 3-13, fifth.

Coach: Jim Mora (94-81), second season with Colts, 13th in NFL.

Strength of schedule: 11th.

Starting quarterback: Peyton Manning (3-13).

Best move: Dumping RB Marshall Faulk after his spectacular 1998 season, when he had 1,319 rushing yards and 908 receiving yards. At 26, Faulk has five seasons in the league and wanted a big payoff with two years left on his contract. The Colts gambled that Faulk won't repeat his career year.

Toughest call: Keeping open the pipeline to the Carolina Panthers, president Bill Polian's former team. The Colts have at least five former Panthers who could start this season, and Carolina won just four games last year.

Pressure's on: Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who rejoined Mora from Carolina. The Colts ranked 29th in total defense a year ago; the Panthers ranked 30th.

Biggest question: Without former teammate Michael Strahan (15 sacks in 1998) on the other side of the pass rush, will free-agent acquisition Chad Bratzke come close to his 11.5 sacks at defensive end?

Key statistic: With Howard Mudd coaching the offensive line, the Colts allowed just 22 sacks in 597 drop-backs, after giving up 62 the year before.

Ticket to Atlanta: The Colts need binoculars to see the playoffs.

Miami Dolphins

Last season: 10-6, tie for second. Lost divisional playoff game at Denver, 38-3.

Coach: Jimmy Johnson (71-57), fourth season with Dolphins, ninth in NFL.

Strength of schedule: 14th.

Starting quarterback: Dan Marino (142-87).

Best move: The commitment to upgrade the running game. Johnson drafted running backs with three of his first four picks, including Cecil Collins, a talented player with a troubled past. He also signed free- agent guard Kevin Gogan, one of the league's strongest linemen, and hired a new line coach.

Toughest call: Giving a $3.3 million signing bonus to wide receiver Tony Martin, who faced serious legal problems but was found not guilty at trial. The Dolphins had just six catches of 40 yards or more.

Pressure's on: Marino, who isn't likely to play past his 17th season, even though his contract is for two more years.

Biggest question: Have the Dolphins done enough to give Marino a reasonable running game?

Key statistic: The Dolphins converted only 18 of 39 third-down plays in which they needed 2 yards or fewer.

Ticket to Atlanta: While the offense tries to find its legs, the defense is the heart of the team. It was the second-youngest defense in the league a year ago, and allowed the fewest points.

Buffalo Bills

Division at a glance

New England

Patriots

Last season: 9-7, fourth. Lost wild-card game at Jacksonville, 25-10.

Coach: Pete Carroll (25-23), third season with Patriots, fourth in NFL.

Strength of schedule: Sixth.

Starting quarterback: Drew Bledsoe (50-39).

Best move: Bringing in John Friesz to back up Bledsoe, a marked improvement over last year's backup, Scott Zolak. While Zolak had no running game in a playoff loss at Jacksonville, he was an erratic 21-for-44 passing.

Toughest call: Not trading first-round picks for running back Jamal Anderson when the Falcons dangled him on draft day. It's up to rookie Kevin Faulk or veteran Terry Allen to produce a running game and take some heat off Bledsoe.

Pressure's on: Carroll, who has had to endure the inevitable comparisons to previous coach Bill Parcells. The Patriots have suffered a steady erosion under Carroll.

Biggest question: Without a running game, will Bledsoe break his NFL record of 691 pass attempts, set in 1994?

Key statistic: With Ted Johnson at middle linebacker last year, the Patriots allowed 3.3 yards a rush. When Johnson missed the last four games, the number jumped to 4.0. And Johnson's already lost for the season with another biceps injury.

Ticket to Atlanta: Their downward spiral should knock the Patriots out of the playoffs this season.

New York Jets

Last season: 12-4, first. Lost AFC championship game at Denver, 23-10.

Coach: Bill Parcells (130-92-1), third season with Jets, 15th in NFL.

Strength of schedule: Tie for second.

Starting quarterback: Vinny Testaverde (60-84-1).

Best move: Drafting guards Randy Thomas (second round) and David Loverne (third round) with their top two picks. The two veteran guards the Jets brought in either quit or were cut.

Toughest call: Going for broke in what could be Parcells' final season. Ten of the Jets' free-agent acquisitions are over 30. The Jets are getting older, but they may not be getting better.

Pressure's on: Testaverde had a near-perfect season in 1998, throwing for 29 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. He went to the AFC championship game and the Pro Bowl. Now he's got to do it all over again, with heightened expectations.

Biggest question: Will Parcells really call it quits after this year, or could he be enticed to return under new ownership?

Key statistic: Running back Curtis Martin had a career-high 369 carries and a career-low average carry of 3.5 yards.

Ticket to Atlanta: Many believe the Jets are the team to beat in the AFC, but they've got too many holes going into the season to be a Super Bowl team.

Division at a glance

Best rookie: RB Edgerrin James, Colts.

First-round risk: LB Andy Katzenmoyer, Patriots.

Best free agent: DE Chad Bratzke, Colts.

Up-and-comer: ILB Sam Cowart, Bills.

Biggest gamble: RB Cecil Collins, Dolphins.

Most overrated: TE Eric Green, Jets.

Most underrated: LB Bryan Cox, Jets.

Hot assistant: Joe Pendry, Bills offensive coordinator.

Central

Cincinnati Bengals

Last season: 3-13, fifth.

Coach: Bruce Coslet (43-62), fourth season with Bengals, eighth in NFL.

Strength of schedule: 30th.

Starting quarterback: Jeff Blake (22-32).

Best move: Upgrading the offensive line with free agents Brian DeMarco and Matt O'Dwyer. Their experience could be critical to the development of rookie QB Akili Smith.

Toughest call: Failing to get Smith signed early in training camp. The lost time severely hampers what Smith will be able to do his first season. The contract stalemate of WR Carl Pickens, which ended yesterday, was another blight.

Pressure's on: Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, whose defense ranked 28th, gave up the most points in franchise history, was last against the run and allowed 6.6 yards on first-down plays. The Bengals were fortunate to win three games with those numbers.

Biggest question: Does the team have the front-office leadership to make decisions that will turn around a decade of ineptitude?

Key statistic: The Bengals are 39-89 since president/general manager Mike Brown took over for his father, the late Paul Brown. Mike was hung in effigy last fall. Think the Bengals fans don't know who's to blame?

Ticket to Atlanta: They have some talent, but major issues haunt them at the top.

Cleveland Browns

Last season: 0-0 (expansion team)

Coach: Chris Palmer (0-0), first season with Browns.

Strength of schedule: 31st.

Starting quarterback: Ty Detmer (10-9).

Best move: Hiring Palmer, a proven mentor of young quarterbacks (Drew Bledsoe in New England and Mark Brunell in Jacksonville). Tim Couch, the first pick in the draft, will be in good hands.

Toughest call: The big decision is when to start Couch. The better Detmer plays, the more time Couch has to learn and the better prepared he will be when the time arrives. If Detmer fails, Couch learns on the run.

Pressure's on: CB Antonio Langham, on the rebound after getting benched in San Francisco a year ago. Langham returns to Cleveland, where he began his career. If Langham can't regain his confidence, he'll be replaced by Ryan McNeil.

Biggest question: How quickly can team president Carmen Policy, a master in salary cap politics, build a Super Bowl contender with Al Lerner's millions?

Key statistic: RB Terry Kirby has not carried more than 134 times in any of his six NFL seasons.

Ticket to Atlanta: Given the absence of play-makers at running back and wide receiver, it would be a great season to get close to .500, even with their lightweight schedule.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Last season: 11-5, first. Lost divisional playoff at New York Jets, 34-24.

Coach: Tom Coughlin (35-29), fifth season with Jaguars.

Strength of schedule: 22nd.

Starting quarterback: Mark Brunell (31-22).

Best move: Hiring deposed Carolina coach Dom Capers to run the defense. Capers turned the zone blitz into a league-wide craze. His pressure schemes are just what the Jaguars need to improve a limp pass rush.

Toughest call: When the Jaguars lost Palmer, their offensive coordinator, to the Browns, Coughlin decided to take the job himself. He was known to override Palmer's calls anyway, but this means he'll have to devote more time to offense and less to other areas.

Pressure's on: LB Bryce Paup, who got a $6 million signing bonus a year ago and then delivered only 6.5 sacks.

Biggest question: Does injury-prone DE Tony Brackens, a second-round pick in 1996, develop into a pass-rushing force this season?

Key statistic: The Jaguars, who won their first division title last season, play only four games against 1998 playoff teams, a remarkably soft schedule that almost guarantees another division crown.

Ticket to Atlanta: The defense, which ranked only 25th a year ago, must make a huge leap, and RB Fred Taylor and QB Brunell must stay healthy. Then it can happen.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Last season: 7-9, third.

Coach: Bill Cowher (71-41), eighth season with Steelers.

Strength of schedule: Tie for 16th.

Starting quarterback: Kordell Stewart (18-14).

Best move: Hiring Kevin Gilbride as offensive coordinator. His charge is to get Stewart back on track after a miserable 1998 season. Gilbride had success in Houston and Jacksonville before getting jettisoned as head coach in midseason at San Diego last year.

Toughest call: Giving Stewart an $8.1 million signing bonus and contract extension through 2003. Unless Stewart reclaims his 1997 form, it's money burned. Stewart did not have a good preseason.

Pressure's on: Stewart. He went from a total of 32 touchdowns passing and running in 1997 to 13 in 1998. He threw 18 interceptions, challenged the coach and cried on the sideline.

Biggest question: After enduring another round of free-agent losses -- DB Carnell Lake, WR Charles Johnson, reserve NT Oliver Gibson -- do the Steelers have enough talent left to get back to the playoffs this season?

Key statistic: RB Jerome Bettis saw his rushing yardage drop from 1,665 in 1997 to 1,185, and he missed a major part of training camp with knee surgery. Stewart needs a healthy Bettis.

Ticket to Atlanta: It's time to regroup in Pittsburgh.

Tennessee Titans

Last season: 8-8, second.

Coach: Jeff Fisher (32-38), sixth season with Oilers.

Strength of schedule: 24th.

Starting quarterback: Steve McNair (20-18).

Best move: Bringing in former NFL Executive of the Year Jeff Diamond (Minnesota) gives the franchise new leadership. On the field, getting rush end Jevon Kearse in the draft should enhance a pass rush that generated a meager 30 sacks.

Toughest call: Letting LB Lonnie Marts go because of salary-cap considerations, and seeing him get scooped up by the Jaguars. It lessened team depth and improved a division rival.

Pressure's on: WR Kevin Dyson, a first-round pick taken five spots ahead of Randy Moss. Four of the team's top five pass-catchers last year were not wide-outs.

Biggest question: Can the Titans go from a dink-and-dunk passing game to hitting the home run?

Key statistic: RB Eddie George, the 14th pick in the 1996 draft, averaged just 60 rushing yards a game in the last seven games. His season totals of 1,294 yards, five touchdowns and 3.7 yards per carry were career lows.

Ticket to Atlanta: The Titans would be tickled to break out of their 8-8 rut and make the playoffs.

Division at a glance

Best rookie: CB Chris McAlister, Ravens.

First-round risk: WR Troy Edwards, Steelers.

Best free agent: LB Jamir Miller, Browns.

Up-and-comer: SS Donovin Darius, Jaguars.

Biggest gamble: CB Antonio Langham, Browns.

Most overrated: OT Orlando Brown, Browns.

Most underrated: OT Leon Searcy, Jaguars.

Hot assistant: Jim Haslett, Steelers defensive coordinator.

West

Denver Broncos

Last season: 12-4, first. Beat Atlanta, 34-19, in Super Bowl XXXIII.

Coach: Mike Shanahan (55-29), fifth season with Broncos, seventh in NFL.

Strength of schedule: Tie for fourth.

Starting quarterback: Brian Griese (0-0).

Best move: Signing free-agent CB Dale Carter from the rival Kansas City Chiefs. Carter is a huge upgrade on departing Darrien Gordon and joins Ray Crockett to give the Broncos one of the best cornerback tandems.

Toughest call: Letting FS Steve Atwater go in free agency to create cap money for Carter.

Pressure's on: Griese, a second-year QB who's thrown three NFL passes, will try to fill the void left by John Elway's retirement. The son of Miami Hall of Famer Bob Griese, Brian won the job because of Bubby Brister's lackluster preseason. His first start will come against his father's old team.

Biggest question: Will the workload on RB Terrell Davis increase significantly while Griese learns on the job? Davis has been nicked each of the last two seasons, but played through his injuries.

Key statistic: Counting the postseason, Davis has carried the ball a numbing 951 times for 4,807 yards the last two years.

Ticket to Atlanta: The Broncos were due for a comedown even if Elway returned. But with uncertainty at the most critical position, a three-peat is almost impossible.

Kansas City Chiefs

Last season: 7-9, fourth.

Coach: Gunther Cunningham (0-0), first season with Chiefs.

Strength of schedule: Tie for 16th.

Starting quarterback: Elvis Grbac (16-9).

Best move: Recruiting veteran QB Warren Moon to serve as mentor and backup to Grbac, who has missed major chunks of the last two seasons with injuries. Moon can play at a moment's notice.

Toughest call: Choosing to go with Grbac over Rich Gannon as the QB choice of the future. The decision appeared to be dictated by finances.

Pressure's on: LB Derrick Thomas, who nearly self-destructed in 1998. Thomas had six sacks in the opener, but only five in his final 12 games. He had three personal fouls in one brutal Monday night affair, which earned a one-game suspension imposed by the team. He'll be a true outside linebacker again this year, which should help.

Biggest question: Can offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye and new quarterback coach Tom Rossley salvage the career of Grbac, who's had two so-so, injury-prone seasons in Kansas City?

Key statistic: The Chiefs were the most undisciplined team in the league last year, with 158 penalties for 1,304 yards -- both NFL records -- and 55 first downs.

Ticket to Atlanta: After a long run as Super Bowl contenders, the Chiefs have fallen back in the pack.

Oakland Raiders

Last season: 8-8, tie for second.

Coach: Jon Gruden (8-8), second season with Raiders.

Strength of schedule: First.

Starting quarterback: Rich Gannon (31-27).

Best move: Dumping QB Jeff George and KR Desmond Howard, a pair of underachieving, overpriced veterans. George didn't fit in Gruden's West Coast offense and Howard's impact on the kick-return game was negligible.

Toughest call: Failure to improve the running game, especially to locate a power running back. Napoleon Kaufman is a great change-of-pace back, but can't pound for the tough yards.

Pressure's on: Gannon, who must operate behind a suspect offensive line without a legitimate running back. The good thing is, he's a mobile quarterback who can improvise and make plays.

Biggest question: Can Willie Shaw's defense keep the Raiders competitive, especially through a difficult early schedule, until the offense comes around?

Key statistic: The Raiders were 5-1 in games decided by three points or fewer under the demanding Gruden; they went 1-5 in those games in 1997.

Ticket to Atlanta: Gannon holds the key to any playoff run.

San Diego Chargers

Last season: 5-11, fifth.

Coach: Mike Reilly (0-0), first season with Chargers.

Strength of schedule: Ninth.

Starting quarterback: Jim Harbaugh (60-63).

Best move: Since they haven't made even a good move, maybe they should try keeping injured QB Ryan Leaf out of public view. He has been a lightning rod in a short pro career. At least they helped their secondary with the late addition of CB Darryll Lewis, cut by the Titans at the end of training camp.

Toughest call: Trying to decide on a quarterback to fill the Leaf void. The choices aren't great -- Harbaugh or Erik Kramer, two brittle quarterbacks at the end of their careers.

Pressure's on: GM Bobby Beathard, whose only high-impact pick in the previous three drafts is TE Freddie Jones in 1997. His worst move was giving away the store to move up one spot and grab Leaf in 1998.

Biggest question: Which team is going to take a chance on Leaf after the Chargers finally admit their monumental mistake? And what can San Diego possibly get in return?

Key statistic: The Chargers led the league with 51 giveaways last season -- 34 of them interceptions -- that turned into 139 opponent points. That underminded the best defense in the league.

Ticket to Atlanta: A good television, maybe even a big screen.

Seattle Seahawks

Last season: 8-8, tie for second.

Coach: Mike Holmgren (75-37), first season with Seahawks, eighth in NFL.

Strength of schedule: 15th.

Starting quarterback: Jon Kitna (4-2).

Best move: Hiring Holmgren. He knows how to get the job done and he starts with more talent than he did in Green Bay. He's got the unlimited funds of owner Paul Allen.

Toughest call: Replacing defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur with linebackers coach John Lind. Shurmur, one of the best in the business, died of cancer on Aug. 30.

Pressure's on: Kitna, a 26-year-old graduate of the World League who's being asked to run Holmgren's sophisticated offense. Holmgren likes what he sees, but he still drafted QB Brock Huard.

Biggest question: Can Holmgren handle the dual load of general manager/coach? He had the benefit of working with one of the NFL's finest personnel men in Ron Wolf in Green Bay.

Key statistic: Even though the Seahawks' defense scored 10 touchdowns last season -- eight off interception returns -- it still ranked only 27th in total yards and 27th in pass defense. The Seahawks had big-play people who weren't consistent.

Ticket to Atlanta: Catching Denver will be the first priority. If the Seahawks can do that, they've got as good a shot as anyone.

Division at a glance

Best rookie: DE Lamar King, Seahawks.

First-round risk: OT John Tait, Chiefs.

Best free agent: CB Dale Carter, Broncos.

Up-and-comer: TE Tony Gonzalez, Chiefs.

Biggest gamble: RB Bam Morris, Chiefs.

Most overrated: LB Derrick Thomas, Chiefs.

Most underrated: FB Howard Griffith, Broncos.

Hot assistant: Willie Shaw, Raiders defensive coordinator.

Pub Date: 09/10/99

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