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THE BALTIMORE SUN

DENVER BRONCOS

Last season: 6-10, fifth.

Coach: Mike Shanahan (61-39), sixth season with Broncos, eighth in NFL.

Strength of schedule: tie for 26th.

Starting quarterback: Brian Griese (4-9).

Best move: Upgrading the defense by signing DE Lester Archambeau and trading for S Billy Jenkins to bring more stability on that side of the ball. The Broncos doled out $5.3 in signing bonuses to add that pair.

Missing piece: The loss of perennial Pro Bowl TE Shannon Sharpe will deny the Broncos one of the best third-down producers and red-zone threats in the history of the franchise.

Pressure's on: Second-year QB Griese learned the hard way about life without John Elway and Terrell Davis. With Davis back from his knee injury, Griese gets no special dispensation in 2000. Gus Frerotte is waiting in the wings.

Biggest question: Rookie CB Deltha O'Neal replaces veteran Dale Carter, out for the year with a league substance abuse violation. Will O'Neal measure up? And will Davis be close to the same after missing the season?

Key statistic: Backup RB Olandis Gary proved his worth in Davis' absence by rushing for 1,159 yards and seven touchdown and averaging 4.2 yards on 276 carries. Now Denver has great depth in the backfield.

Ticket to Tampa: If Davis assumes the Pro Bowl form he flashed in those back-to-back Super Bowl years, the Broncos could be back in the AFC championship hunt.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Last season: 9-7, tied for first.

Coach: Gunther Cunningham (9-7), second season with Chiefs.

Strength of schedule: tie for eighth.

Starting quarterback: Elvis Grbac (25-16).

Best move: Convincing QB Warren Moon to stick around for one more season means the erratic Grbac could be replaced by a future Hall of Famer still capable of a huge game when it counts.

Missing piece: Once again, the Chiefs lack a consistent deep threat. WR Derrick Alexander is great one week, non-existent the next. The passing game is built around TE Tony Gonzalez.

Pressure's on: DTs Chester McGlockton and Dan Williams each have faded noticeably since 1997. Even with the death of LB Derrick Thomas, this could be a dominant defense if that pair ever played up to potential.

Biggest question: Will this team develop some fortitude outside of Arrowhead Stadium? They were 3-5 on the road in 1999, a nagging trend in recent years.

Key statistic: Using their trademark running-back-by-committee approach, the Chiefs still managed to rank fourth in the NFL in rushing. The Chiefs have not had a 1,000-yard rusher since 1991.

Ticket to Tampa: The Chiefs can play defense and grind it out on offense with anybody. A huge season from Alexander could take them into January.

OAKLAND RAIDERS

Last season: 8-8, tie for third.

Coach: Jon Gruden (16-16), third season with Raiders.

Strength of schedule: tie for 28th.

Starting quarterback: Rich Gannon (39-35).

Best move: Putting a premium on special teams play was necessary, since the Raiders finished at or near the bottom in most league categories. This compelled them to take K Sebastian Janikowski in the first round.

Missing piece: The tragic offseason death of FS Eric Turner forced the Raiders to scramble for a replacement, and Anthony Dorsett has yet to prove he can do the job on an every-down basis.

Pressure's on: Gruden can't afford to steer the Raiders to another mediocre finish. Oakland has not made the playoffs since 1993. Another failure could cost Gruden his job.

Biggest question: Will someone finally step up to complement WR Tim Brown, who is still playing at a Pro Bowl level but can't do it much longer. It's time for TE Rickey Dudley to be one of those guys.

Key statistic: Janikowski needs to shed some weight and his off-the-field problems and help the Raiders win some close games. Oakland lost five games by four points or less in 1999.

Ticket to Tampa: Another Pro Bowl season from Gannon should end the Raiders' playoff drought.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

Last season: 8-8, tie for third.

Coach: Mike Riley (8-8), second season with Chargers.

Strength of schedule: 19th.

Starting quarterback: Ryan Leaf (0-0).

Best move: Upgrading at WR was a huge need, and the Chargers addressed it by signing Curtis Conway to a four-year, $14 million deal. Leaf and Conway will give the offense a big-play dimension it has lacked for years.

Missing piece: Leaf, Conway and an offensive line that features new LT Ben Coleman must revive a running game that produced only 69 first downs, third-worst in the AFC. RB Jermaine Fazande and FB Fred McCrary have much work to do.

Pressure's on: Future Hall of Fame LB Junior Seau once again must carry a defense that lacks playmakers and depth and faded often in the second half a year ago. Seau still can turn around a game by himself.

Biggest question: Has Leaf really grown up? So far, his career has been one big blooper-injuries, confrontations with coaches, players, reporters. But he finally appears to have matured enough to allow his obvious talent to flourish.

Key statistic: The Chargers scored a league-low 22 touchdowns in 1999. St. Louis managed that in about a month.

Ticket to Tampa: If Leaf can take this group to the .500 mark, it will feel like a playoff berth.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

Last season: 9-7, tie for first, lost to Miami in wild-card playoff round, 20-17.

Coach: Mike Holmgren (84-44), second season with Seahawks, ninth in NFL.

Strength of schedule: tie for sixth.

Starting quarterback: Jon Kitna (12-9).

Best move: Drafting Alabama RB Shaun Alexander was an excellent insurance move, with an eye toward the inevitable decline of Ricky Watters, who has lost some of his elusiveness, having been a workhorse for so long.

Missing piece: If Kitna goes down, the backup situation looks shaky with Glenn Foley, who has had a poor preseason. Third-stringer Brock Huard might need one more year of seasoning.

Pressure's on: Both lines must stay healthy, since those areas have taken some considerable free-agent hits and are lacking depth. The Seahawks can't afford to lose an impact player like OT Walter Jones, DE Michael Sinclair or DT Cortez Kennedy.

Biggest question: Will Holmgren be able to turn this into an outdoor team after the Seahawks have been built for the indoors for so long?

Key statistic: The Seahawks got off to an 8-2 start and looked like a serious playoff contender. Then, they limped home with a 1-5 finish, then lost in the wild-card round to a Miami team that was not very good.

Ticket to Tampa: After showing encouraging signs early, Kitna needs to take a major step forward in his mastery of Holmgren's West Coast offense. Then, Seattle might build on a good start, instead of fading.

Division glance

Best rookie: RB Shaun Alexander, Seahawks.

First-round risk: K Sebastian Janikowski, Raiders.

Best free agent: S Billy Jenkins, Broncos.

Up-and-comer: QB Brian Griese, Broncos.

Biggest gamble: DE Kavika Pittman, Broncos.

Most overrated: DT Chester McGlockton, Chiefs.

Most underrrated: MLB Greg Biekert, Raiders.

Hot assistant: Gary Kubiak, Broncos' offensive coordinator.

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