NFCWEST

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Atlanta Falcons

Last season: 5-11, third.

Coach: Dan Reeves (167-128-1), fourth season with Falcons, 20th in NFL.

Strength of schedule: tie for 22nd.

Starting quarterback: Chris Chandler (52-58).

Best move: WR Shawn Jefferson may be overpaid at $14.2 million over five years, but the Falcons badly needed someone to stretch opposing defenses and take some pressure off of Jamal Anderson.

Missing piece: The vacancy at DE is alarming. Lester Archambeau and Chuck Smith, the most underrated tandem in the NFL, have gone to Denver and Carolina. They've been replaced by Patrick Kerney-a lacrosse standout at Virginia-and Brady Smith.

Pressure's on: A suspect OL must give Chandler time to pick apart defenses. They also have to provide fuel for a running game that, without the injured Anderson, sputtered as the second-worst in the league.

Biggest question: Can RB Jamal Anderson return from major knee surgery and basically carry the team like he did during its Super Bowl run of 1998? That could be the difference between a mediocre team and a playoff contender.

Key statistic: The Falcons finished last with 18 takeaways, and the league's worst turnover ratio at minus-17.

Ticket to Tampa: A thin OL and the loss of two cornerstones on defense keeps this team in the middle of the pack at best.

Carolina Panthers

Last season: 8-8, second.

Coach: George Seifert (106-38), second season with Panthers, 10th in NFL.

Strength of schedule: 21st.

Starting quarterback: Steve Beuerlein (38-43).

Best move: The Panthers transformed their 26th-ranked defense by adding DE Chuck Smith, CB Jimmy Hitchcock and LB Lee Woodall and by drafting five defensive players, including second-round sleeper S Deon Grant - IS HE HURT?.

Missing piece: They have no proven pass rusher to replace the retired Kevin Greene, who went out with a 12-sack season.

Pressure's on: RB Tim Biakabutuka can produce with the best of the league's ball carriers, but he has never stayed healthy for an entire season. That must change to get this team deep into the playoffs.

Biggest question: The Panthers did not significantly upgrade an OL that surrendered 51 sacks, fifth-most in the league. Can Beuerlein survive like he did during his career year in 1999?

Key statistic: Biakabutuka averaged 5.2 yards per carry-second only to Marshall Faulk-but missed six games with an ankle injury.

Ticket to Tampa: If Beuerlein and Biakabutuka stay on the field, the team that won five of its last seven last year could be a January dark horse.

New Orleans Saints

Last season: 3-13, fifth.

Coach: Jim Haslett (0-0), first season with Saints.

Strength of schedule: tie for 26th.

Starting quarterback: Jeff Blake (25-41).

Best move: Owner Tom Benson gave new GM Randy Mueller the means to overhaul an offense that lacked playmakers under journeyman QB Billy Joe Tolliver. Bringing in QB Jeff Blake from Cincinnati is a huge improvement at the game's most critical position.

Missing piece: Changes needed to happen in the mediocre secondary, but CB Kevin Mathis and S Darren Perry are not exactly top-shelf material. Mueller could have done better.

Pressure's on: RB Ricky Williams took some unfair criticism during his injury-plagued rookie year, but with a potentially superb line and Blake in the mix, Williams must carry the offense at times.

Biggest question: Will Blake, who still can throw the deep ball better than most, put his good tools to good use over a 16-game span? He last went to the Pro Bowl in 1995.

Key statistic: The Saints generated only 27 touchdowns, tied for econd-fewest in the league. They scored 17 or fewer points in 10 games, all losses.

Ticket to Tampa: Scratching their way to six or seven victories would be a fine start.

San Francisco 49ers

Last season: 4-12, fourth.

Coach: Steve Mariucci (29-19), fourth season with Niners.

Strength of schedule: 25th.

Starting quarterback: Jeff Garcia (2-8).

Best move: Gutting an aging, expensive team and beginning the rebuilding through the draft. The Niners drafted 11 players, including two fine QB prospects in Giovanni Carmazzi and Tim Rattay, and figure to start three rookies on defense.

Missing piece: They are everywhere, starting with the fact that Garcia is no Steve Young. But the weakest link remains a secondary that surrendered big plays every other series and dragged the pass defense to last in the league.

Pressure's on: Garcia must give the QB position stability, and he'll be pushed in time by Carmazzi and/or Rattay. Garcia has had a good off-season and preseason.

Biggest question: Is WR Terrell Owens ready to take over Jerry Rice's leadership role, or is Owens fading along with the future Hall of Famer.

Key statistic: San Francisco allowed 453 points, second-worst in the league and even worse than Cleveland.

Ticket to Tampa: They will have to buy tickets to get into the stadium.

St. Louis Rams

Last season: 13-3, first, won Super Bowl XXXIV over Tennessee, 23-16.

Coach: Mike Martz (0-0), first season with Rams.

Strength of schedule: 30th.

Quarterback: Kurt Warner (13-3).

Best move: Promoting from within, as Martz takes over for the retired Dick Vermeil. Martz constructed the offense beautifully, and he does not have to sell his ideas to a team that has stayed intact.

Missing piece: Chemistry on the OL, the most unheralded part of last year's Super Bowl champion, could suffer with the off-season losses of C Mark Gruttaduria and RT Fred Miller.

Pressure's on: Warner was the best story of a magical season. He's a secret no more, and he must cope with the weighty expectations that come with his $45 million contract extension.

Biggest question: Will the players respond to Martz the same way they responded to the charismatic Vermeil?

Key statistic: The Rams gave up 14 or fewer points in 11 games, each of them a victory. Opponents only scored 49 points in the first quarter.

Ticket to Tampa: By sticking with the 1999 script-jumping teams early, then pressuring them with a pass rush led by DE Kevin Carter-the Rams should be defending their crown in the hot sun.

Division glance

Best rookie: LB Julian Peterson, 49ers.

First-round risk: CB Ahmed Plummer, 49ers.

Best free agent: QB Jeff Blake, Saints.

Up-and-comer: WR Torry Holt, Rams.

Biggest gamble: WR Joe Horn, Saints.

Most overrated: OL Wally Williams, Saints.

Most underrated: LB Mike Jones, Rams.

Hot assistant: Peter Giunta, Rams' defensive coordinator.

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