The winning formula; NFL: Pick a Super Bowl contender; pick a different approach. Is it the quarterback, the running back, defense or coaching?


You're looking for the next great team in the NFL, or at least the next Super Bowl champion. Where to start, that is the question.

In Miami, where the Dolphins imported running backs by the boatload, regardless of character references, in an effort to balance quarterback Dan Marino's offense?

In Jacksonville, where the Jaguars lost two coordinators to head coaching jobs but may have found a defense?

In New York, where rumblings suggest the venerable Bill Parcells will make his coaching last stand with Vinny Testaverde and the Jets?

Or in Green Bay -- good old Titletown -- where Packers quarterback Brett Favre hopes to shed as many interceptions as he did pounds in the off-season?

If dynasties are built around quarterbacks (see Joe Montana and Steve Young in San Francisco, and Troy Aikman in Dallas), then the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos are in trouble. They are already two quarterbacks removed from John Elway, retired MVP of Super Bowl XXXIII. Bubby Brister couldn't hold the job through training camp, so now it's Brian Griese's turn. Griese, a second-year pro, threw three passes last year.

Oddly, the team with the highest expectation of reaching the Super Bowl this season perhaps did the least to improve itself in the off-season. The Minnesota Vikings lost the offensive coordinator from a record-breaking attack, their best cornerback, a run-stopping defensive tackle and a first-round draft pick (after just one day in training camp) from a 15-1 team that was upset at home in the NFC championship game last season.

But the Vikings did add a pair of quarterbacks -- well-traveled Jeff George and raw rookie Daunte Culpepper -- in case Randall Cunningham reverts to his erratic days as a Philadelphia Eagle.

Is Vikings coach Dennis Green worried about having lost offensive coordinator Brian Billick to the Ravens? Doesn't sound like it.

"Brian didn't create the system; we created the system," Green told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "It's the Minnesota Vikings system. When Brian leaves, the system stays. We think we can be better on offense, we really do."

That's because he still has Randy Moss, Cris Carter and Jake Reed, with his surgically repaired back, returning to shag Cunningham's deep throws.

But the Vikings have potential problems on defense. They generated a modest 38 sacks a year ago and ranked just 19th in pass defense. If there's any slippage, the Vikings won't be able to hold off the Packers in the NFC Central.

The Packers snapped up so many cornerbacks in the off-season, they were able to trade one (Craig Newsome) who helped them win a Super Bowl three years ago. New coach Ray Rhodes, dumped in Philadelphia last December, gave Newsome's starting job to third-round draft pick Mike McKenzie, a safety at Memphis. The Packers' first-round pick, Antuan Edwards, hasn't gotten a starting job.

The big difference in Green Bay, though, could be Favre, who threw more than 30 touchdown passes for an NFL-record fifth straight season but botched things with an NFC-high 23 interceptions. The result: The Packers were minus-11 in turnover ratio. Favre rededicated himself since then by giving up alcohol and losing weight.

The Atlanta Falcons would love to make Super Bowl XXXIV at the Georgia Dome their home game -- and they've gone 20-4 since mid-1997 under coach Dan Reeves -- but they have glaring deficiencies. Their backup quarterback behind injury-prone Chris Chandler is New York Giants reject Danny Kanell, and he had a brutal preseason. They let wide receiver Tony Martin go after he was indicted on federal charges of money-laundering and conspiracy, but have yet to find a deep threat to replace him.

Martin was acquitted of those charges and now fills a void in Miami. Not only hasn't Marino had a running game to keep defenses honest, he hasn't had a deep threat under coach Jimmy Johnson, either. This season, he may have both.

Three of Johnson's eight draft picks last April were running backs, including Cecil Collins, who had a limited and troubled run in college. Johnson signed two free-agent running backs, both of whom were cut, fired his line coach and traded for massive guard Kevin Gogan. That's how close Johnson thinks his team is to the Super Bowl, and he's probably right.

The Dolphins' defense led the league in fewest points allowed, and ranked third in total defense. Their running game, though, was a dismal 24th. If they can muster a running game from Collins, second-round pick James Johnson, and/or returning Karim Abdul-Jabbar, Marino might be able to write a career-ending script like Elway.

Jacksonville is another Florida team that made significant upgrades in the off-season. The Jaguars lost offensive coordinator Chris Palmer (Cleveland) and Dick Jauron (Chicago) to head-coaching jobs. Dom Capers, the deposed Carolina Panthers coach and zone-blitz fanatic, replaces Jauron. He'll need some blitzes to revive a pass rush that collected just 30 sacks a year ago on a defense that ranked 25th.

Free safety Carnell Lake, signed as a free-agent from Pittsburgh, should lend leadership and experience to a secondary that was 23rd against the pass. If those elements click, the Jaguars have enough weapons on offense -- starting with quarterback Mark Brunell and running back Fred Taylor -- to make a legitimate Super Bowl run in only their fifth season.

The Jets made a hard run at last year's Super Bowl -- they led the Broncos 10-0 in the third quarter before losing, 23-10, in the AFC championship game at Denver -- and because of that, many believe the Jets are the team to beat.

The big issue with the Jets is whether Testaverde can repeat his magnificent performance of last season. The former Raven threw for 29 touchdowns and only seven interceptions, and went 12-1 as a starter.

An encore effort and Parcells could wind up in the Super Bowl with his third team in what some believe is his final season.

The next champion in the NFL might be the old champion, though. Despite the controversy over coach Mike Shanahan's decision to bench Brister and start Griese tomorrow night against Miami, the Broncos upgraded their defense with the free-agent signing of four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Dale Carter. And they still have tailback Terrell Davis, who became the fourth player to rush for 2,000 yards last season.

Shanahan appreciates the difficulty of shooting for an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl victory.

"If you concentrate on what you're doing, then you've got a chance to have success," he said. "If you're worried about where you are in history or what you've done or what you're supposed to do, I think it bites you in the rear end real quick and you have a hard time having any success at all."

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