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These days in NFL, it's often bottom's up

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It wasn't so long ago that handicapping an NFL season was about as simple as picking Secretariat in the Belmont.

The way things used to be, a group of elite teams tended to dominate a decade.

From the 1971 to 1980 seasons, just four teams - the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins and Oakland Raiders - won all 10 Super Bowls. From the 1981 to 1991 seasons, just three teams - the San Francisco 49ers, Washington Redskins and New York Giants - combined to win nine of 11 Super Bowls.

In a seven-season span from 1988 to 1994, either San Francisco or the Buffalo Bills made the Super Bowl every year.

In the era of the salary cap and free agency, things are much more unpredictable, and it's much more difficult to keep the pieces of a contending team in place.

Three of the four 1998 semifinalists failed to make the playoffs last season, and the St. Louis Rams and Tennessee Titans jumped from 4-12 and 8-8 to make the Super Bowl. The Indianapolis Colts went from 3-13 to 13-3.

The good teams can't afford to keep all their players and injuries have more of an impact because teams don't have much depth, so this might be called the pogo stick era. Teams tend to go up and down. Teams can rebuild quickly and fall back just as fast. It's hard to maintain continuity.

There might not be as much change this season as last because three of last season's four semifinalists - St. Louis, Tennessee and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers - have gotten through training camp without a major injury. But the Jacksonville Jaguars already have lost offensive tackle Leon Searcy until at least November and safety Carnell Lake for the season and may not have running back Fred Taylor ready to start the season.

"Denver and Atlanta taught us last year just how devastating one injury might be," Floyd Reese, the general manager of the Titans, said in reference to the injuries that cost those two teams their running backs, Terrell Davis of the Broncos and Jamal Anderson of the Falcons.

Both teams also suffered blows at quarterback as John Elway retired and Chris Chandler was hampered by injuries much of the season.

When quarterback Vinny Testaverde was lost for the season in the opener last year, the New York Jets' playoff hopes were doomed. That's why the Minnesota Vikings were the only one of 1998's semifinalists to make it to the playoffs.

"I think this might be one of our more interesting seasons," Reese said. "We had a few new members jump into the elite, and we've got a group of unsuspecting teams ready to explode."

Explaining the key to success, he said: "If you have a quarterback, a running back, cover corners and can knock down the [opposing team's] quarterback, you have a chance to be competitive every single year."

Here's a look at three teams that failed to post winning records last season, but have the potential to become surprise teams and three playoff teams that could have disappointing seasons.

Possible surprise teams

Chicago Bears: The Bears went 6-10 last year, but lost six games by seven or fewer points, including three division games by four or fewer.

Using new offensive coordinator Gary Crowton's wide-open offense, they were third in the league in passing yards and should be just as prolific this year now that Cade McNown is maturing in his second year at quarterback, and Jim Miller, suspended in the last four games, is ready to step in if McNown falters. They got a scare when wide receiver Marcus Robinson, who caught 84 passes last year, suffered an abdominal pull during training camp, but he returned and caught two 45-yard touchdown passes from McNown against the Bengals.

The Bears proved last year they could move the ball. The problem was that their defense couldn't stop anybody and ranked 29th. The key is whether four new players, rookie linebacker Brian Urlacher, free-agent defensive end Phillip Daniels, cornerback Thomas Smith and safety Shawn Wooden, can improve the defense enough to turn them into a playoff team.

Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles had the worst passing offense in the league last season, which explains why they went 5-11. Now it's up to Donovan McNabb to change all that. The second-year quarterback was brought along slowly last year, but looks poised and could have a breakout season. His two starting receivers, Charles Johnson and Torrance Small, have to show they can get open, but if they do, McNabb should take a step up.

The Eagles seem to have the rest of the pieces in place. They signed offensive tackle Jon Runyan to team with Tra Thomas, who struggled somewhat in camp, to form a good tackle combo to block for underrated Duce Staley. The best-kept secret in pro football is that Staley rushed for 1,273 yards in 1999. They have a pair of skilled pass rushers in Hugh Douglas and Mike Mamula and a pair of good cornerbacks in Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent, and they think free agent Carlos Emmons will upgrade their linebacking corps.

San Diego Chargers: Ryan Leaf is an early candidate to be comeback player of the year. It's always dangerous to get on Leaf's bandwagon, because he's been the poster child for today's spoiled, immature athletes. But Leaf may be growing up, and he's overcome a shoulder ailment to come out of limbo during training camp to become the hope of the franchise.

Last year, the Chargers went 8-8 with Jim Harbaugh and Erik Kramer at quarterback. They threw 12 touchdown passes and 24 interceptions for a team that ranked 26th in offense. Their leading rusher, Jermaine Fazande, gained 365 yards. They were a .500 team because Junior Seau anchored a defense that ranked 12th in the league. The defense suffered a blow when Raylee Johnson was lost for the year with a knee injury, but is solid enough if the Chargers can move the ball.

That's where Leaf comes in. In four exhibitions, he was 40 of 63 for 447 yards and three touchdowns with two interceptions. If Leaf plays like that during the regular season, the Chargers should be in the playoffs.

Possible disappointments

Washington Redskins: They figure to make the playoffs, but may be disappointing because they're not likely to live up to the unbelievable Super Bowl hype surrounding the team. Owner Daniel Snyder has put together the most expensive team in NFL history by mortgaging the future with a $100 million spending spree and bringing a Super Bowl-or-bust mentality to the team.

But the Redskins may be no better than the third-best team in the NFC behind St. Louis and Tampa Bay. They had the second-worst defense in the league last season, and the signing of aging Deion Sanders and Bruce Smith and the hiring of new defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes aren't likely to turn them into the top-10 defense they need to complement their second-ranked offense.

On top of that, the Redskins beat just one team with a winning record last season and play a tough schedule that includes the teams that played in last season's conference title games (Rams, Titans, Bucs and Jaguars) plus the usual two games against Dallas, a team that has beaten them five straight times. It doesn't help that Snyder seems to think they should go 19-0 and is likely to erupt if they lose a game or two.

Jacksonville Jaguars: This was supposed to be the last year the window of opportunity was open for the Jaguars. They have to prune more than $20 million from their payroll next year, and there's persistent speculation that coach Tom Coughlin will leave for Notre Dame.

But the window may have slammed shut a year early when the team was hit by injuries in training camp. In addition to Searcy, Lake and Taylor, Pro Bowl offensive tackle Tony Boselli also missed most of camp with a knee injury and probably won't be in top form.

They still have Mark Brunell throwing to Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell, and that should be enough to go 6-0 against the Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns and make the playoffs. But they couldn't beat Tennessee in three tries last year (they went 15-0 in their other games) and the injuries likely killed their chances of overtaking the Titans this year.

Minnesota Vikings: Coach Dennis Green seems to think his system is so good that he can plug in virtually any quarterback and make it work. That theory gets his ultimate test this season. Green dumped Jeff George, failed to talk Dan Marino out of retirement and then handed the starting job to Daunte Culpepper, who didn't throw a pass in his rookie year.

Culpepper has been surprisingly effective in training camp and was 23 of 37 passing in his last two preseason games. But it's still risky to turn over a team that was 15-1 and 10-7 the last two seasons to an untested quarterback, especially because the Vikings' defense ranked 27th last year.

The Vikings, of course, surround Culpepper with a lot of weapons, notably wide receivers Cris Carter and Randy Moss. But both tend to get frustrated when the quarterback doesn't get them the ball. If they get frustrated a lot, Minnesota's playoff run may be over.

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