AFC

THE BALTIMORE SUN

EAST DIVISION

Buffalo Bills

Last season: 8-8, fourth place.

Coach: Gregg Williams, first season with Bills.

Strength of schedule: 27th.

Starting QB (W-L): Rob Johnson (9-10).

Best move: Picking up FB Larry Centers in free agency for the new West Coast offense. Centers has 685 catches, most ever for a back.

Weakest link: The Bills ranked last in the NFL in punt- and kick-return average. First-round pick Nate Clements, a CB, is expected to return punts, and Chris Watson will handle kick returns again.

Pressure's on: Johnson, who was the QB of choice over fan favorite Doug Flutie. He was sacked 49 times in 306 pass attempts - one every 6.2 drop-backs - the highest sack rate in team history.

Biggest question: Will Johnson emerge as a franchise quarterback and vindicate the decision to dump the more popular Flutie?

Key statistic: The injury-prone Johnson has been knocked out of the game in seven of his 18 Bills starts.

Ticket to New Orleans: It's more likely the Bills will take a plunge than reach the Super Bowl in Williams' first season.

New England Patriots

Last season: 5-11, fifth place.

Coach: Bill Belichick (41-55), second season with Patriots, seventh in NFL.

Strength of schedule: 20th.

Starting QB (W-L): Drew Bledsoe (63-58).

Best move: Bringing in a phalanx of mid-level free agents at bargain-basement prices. The Patriots needed an overhaul, and Belichick did it as inexpensively as he could.

Weakest link: The Patriots averaged just 3.3 yards per rush attempt last season, which tied for 28th in the league. Among the free agents they signed was Buffalo reject Antowain Smith. Still, the running game could fall into the hands of J. R. Redmond, a third-round pick in 2000.

Pressure's on: The offensive line. Last year, this patchwork ensemble got Bledsoe sacked 45 times. This year, the Patriots will be very young and very inexperienced at the tackles.

Biggest question: Can Bledsoe regain his status as one of the elite quarterbacks in the league without the suspended Terry Glenn, his best receiver?

Key statistic: Minus a rushing threat, the Patriots scored 23 touchdowns in 53 possessions inside the opponent's 20. That ranked 24th in the NFL.

Ticket to New Orleans: Not anytime soon. If the Patriots can escape the division cellar, it would be a major accomplishment.

Miami Dolphins

Last season: 11-5, first place. Lost to Oakland in divisional playoff game, 27-0.

Coach: Dave Wannstedt (51-61), second season with Dolphins, eighth in NFL.

Strength of schedule: Tied for fifth.

Starting QB (W-L): Jay Fiedler (11-5).

Best move: Getting speed receivers for the offense in free-agent James McKnight and second-round pick Chris Chambers.

Weakest link: Now that the Dolphins have speed on the outside, the quarterback must go deep. Fiedler threw 11 interceptions in the final five games and was awful in the playoff loss.

Pressure's on: Fiedler, because he's on a short leash. The Dolphins ranked 27th in pass offense in 2000.

Biggest question: Can the Dolphins follow the Ravens' script of tenacious defense and efficient running game well enough to reach the Super Bowl?

Key statistic: The Dolphins have lost six straight games to the Jets, including last year's 40-37 overtime epic when they blew a 23-point fourth-quarter lead.

Ticket to New Orleans: The defense is at a Super Bowl level, but the offense is strictly one-dimensional. So much rides on the quarterback that the Dolphins could get to New Orleans, or miss the playoffs altogether.

Indianapolis Colts

Last season: 10-6, second place. Lost to Miami in wild-card game, 23-17.

Coach: Jim Mora (117-90), fourth season with Colts, 14th in NFL.

Strength of schedule: Third.

Starting QB (W-L): Peyton Manning (26-22).

Best move: Upgrading the receiving corps by drafting WR Reggie Wayne. He should take some defensive heat off Marvin Harrison.

Weakest link: Run defense killed the Colts in 2000, when they gave up 121 rush yards per game and 4.3 a carry. Missing out on the draft's best tackles, the Colts settled for recycled DT Christian Peter. They'll also have two new starters at linebacker in Rob Morris and Marcus Washington.

Pressure's on: Mora, who is 0-6 in the postseason at New Orleans and Indianapolis. It's an ugly record.

Biggest question: How many touchdowns will Manning have to produce if the defense doesn't improve?

Key statistic: RB Edgerrin James has more 100-yard rushing games (19) over the past two seasons than any other back in the NFL.

Ticket to New Orleans: If the Colts can toughen up the middle of that defense, Manning and James can torment opponents with their balance.

New York Jets

Last season: 9-7, third place.

Coach: Herman Edwards, first season with Jets.

Strength of schedule: Tied for fifth.

Starting QB (W-L): Vinny Testaverde (69-92-1).

Best move: Drafting Maryland's LaMont Jordan in the second round as heir apparent and understudy to workhorse RB Curtis Martin. Jordan will get an opportunity to play and learn right away.

Weakest link: One year after an Achilles' injury wiped out his 1999 season, Testaverde threw an NFL-high 25 interceptions. Behind Testaverde is second-year man Chad Pennington.

Pressure's on: The rookie tandem of Edwards and general manager Terry Bradway. It's tough enough when one of those two positions is a rookie, let alone both. In New York, the pressure's even greater.

Biggest question: How much will first-round pick Santana Moss contribute after tearing knee cartilage in the preseason? The 5-9 receiver/punt returner is out until mid-year.

Key statistic: The Jets had 40 giveaways last season, 29 of them interceptions, to rank 29th.

Ticket to New Orleans: If Testaverde rebounds with a great year and Edwards' new cover-two defense clicks, the Jets could make the playoffs. But they're not a Super Bowl team by any stretch.

AT A GLANCE

MVP candidate:

QB Peyton Manning, Colts

Impact rookie:

WR Reggie Wayne, Colts

Best buy:

WR James McKnight, Dolphins

Biggest loss:

WR Terry Glenn, Patriots

Breakout season:

DE John Abraham, Jets

Most vulnerable:

QB Jay Fiedler, Dolphins

Make or break:

QB Rob Johnson, Bills

Unsung hero:

DT Daryl Gardener, Dolphins

CENTRAL DIVISION

Cincinnati Bengals

Last season: 4-12, fifth place.

Coach: Dick LeBeau (4-9), second season with Bengals.

Strength of schedule: Tied for 16th.

Starting QB (W-L): Jon Kitna (18-15).

Best move: Hiring Bob Bratkowski as offensive coordinator and then signing Kitna as insurance in case Akili Smith can't cut it this season. Kitna worked under Bratkowski in Seattle and has an understanding of the multi-formation, motion offense he runs.

Weakest link: The passing offense (121.6 yards per game) ranked last in the NFL last season, when Smith completed just 44.2 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and six interceptions in 12 games. His passer rating of 52.8 was the worst of any starter.

Pressure's on: Left tackle Richmond Webb, who was signed as a free agent to fill a gaping hole in the offensive line. The Bengals are getting Webb near the end of an illustrious 11-year career.

Biggest question: Can Bratkowski resuscitate Smith's career, or is the third pick of the 1999 draft doomed to be a major bust?

Key statistic: The Bengals' 19 offensive touchdowns were third fewest in the league.

Ticket to New Orleans: Not this season, perhaps not again in our lifetime. This franchise has finished last or next-to-last in the AFC Central in eight of the past 10 seasons.

Cleveland Browns

Last season: 3-13, sixth place.

Coach: Butch Davis, first season with Browns.

Strength of schedule: Tied for 21st.

Starting QB (W-L): Tim Couch (4-17).

Best move: Going to a shorter, quicker passing game under new offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. The vertical game was a bad fit for Couch, who ran the run-and-shoot at Kentucky. Newly signed TE Rickey Dudley should help in the red zone.

Weakest link: The Browns haven't had a respectable running game since they returned to the league in 1999. Nevertheless, they passed on a chance to take the draft's best back, LaDainian Tomlinson, and chose DT Gerard Warren instead. Third-round pick James Jackson is the tentative starter.

Pressure's on: Director of football operations Dwight Clark, whose first two drafts yielded modest returns and whose power was weakened with the arrival of Davis.

Biggest question: Have the Browns surrounded Couch with enough firepower to allow the first pick in the 1999 draft to blossom?

Key statistic: The Browns' 16 offensive touchdowns were fewest in the NFL. They scored just five offensive touchdowns in the final nine games.

Ticket to New Orleans: Davis would be successful if he made the Browns competitive.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Last season: 7-9, fourth place.

Coach: Tom Coughlin (56-40), seventh season with Jaguars.

Strength of schedule: Tied for 13th.

Starting QB (W-L): Mark Brunell (51-33).

Best move: Re-signing Brunell to a four-year, $30 million contract. Last season, Brunell threw for 20 touchdowns, tying his career best, and 3,640 yards, second most in his career.

Weakest link: The offensive line underwent the most revision in 2000, sending three starters to injured reserve. The spinoff was that Brunell got sacked an alarming 54 times.

Pressure's on: Rookie Maurice Williams, a second-round pick who will be asked to protect Brunell's blind side at right tackle at some point this season.

Biggest question: Will the Jaguars regret not taking OT Kenyatta Walker with the 13th pick of the first round instead of DT Marcus Stroud?

Key statistic: Despite missing all or parts of six games, RB Fred Taylor rushed for a team record 1,399 yards.

Ticket to New Orleans: The window of opportunity is closing fast for this group of players, and a Super Bowl doesn't look likely this season.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Last season: 9-7, third place.

Coach: Bill Cowher (86-58), 10th season with Steelers.

Strength of schedule: Tied for seventh.

Starting QB (W-L): Kordell Stewart (30-24).

Best move: Into a new stadium, $260 million Heinz Field. Three Rivers Stadium held a lot of tradition, but the Steelers needed to maximize their stadium revenue.

Weakest link: The passing game ranked 29th and produced just 12 touchdown passes, tied for third fewest in the league. Part of the problem was Pittsburgh's receivers, and part of it was the quarterback.

Pressure's on: Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, former tight ends coach who replaced fired Kevin Gilbride. Mularkey reduced the number of reads Stewart must make to simplify the offense.

Biggest question: Will Stewart finally achieve a level of consistency or remain the enigmatic QB he has been?

Key statistic: WRs Plaxico Burress and Troy Edwards, first-round picks in 2000 and 1999, combined for 40 catches and no touchdowns last season. Both were demoted.

Ticket to New Orleans: The offense is too ragged to be a real threat yet, but the Steelers appear headed in the right direction.

AT A GLANCE

MVP candidate:

MLB Ray Lewis, Ravens

Impact rookie:

WR Chad Johnson, Bengals

Best buy:

DE Kevin Carter, Titans

Biggest loss:

RB Jamal Lewis, Ravens

Breakout season:

LB Brian Simmons, Bengals

Most vulnerable:

QB Tim Couch, Browns

Make or break:

QB Kordell Stewart, Steelers

Unsung hero:

MLB Randall Godfrey, Titans

Tennessee Titans

Last season: 13-3, first place. Lost to Ravens in divisional playoff game, 24-10.

Coach: Jeff Fisher (58-44), eighth season with Titans.

Strength of schedule: Tied for seventh.

Starting QB (W-L): Steve McNair (41-23).

Best move: Trading for DE Kevin Carter after losing Kenny Holmes in free agency. Teamed with Jevon Kearse, Carter gives the Titans' pass rush a menacing look. He had 17 sacks in St. Louis' 1999 Super Bowl season.

Weakest link: Al Del Greco's kicking game was disastrous in the playoff loss to the Ravens. He's been replaced by Joe Nedney, a journeyman kicker who has been signed or claimed by nine teams in seven seasons.

Pressure's on: Jim Schwartz, who was elevated to defensive coordinator after Gregg Williams was named head coach in Buffalo. Schwartz, who coached linebackers last year, inherits the No. 1-ranked defense in the NFL.

Biggest question: Is McNair completely recovered from a severe, off-season shoulder infection, or will it be a chronic problem?

Key statistic: The Titans have the best regular-season record in the NFL (26-6) over the past two years.

Ticket to New Orleans: If the Titans can get over the Ravens' loss, and McNair and RB Eddie George stay healthy, Tennessee has a legitimate shot.

WEST DIVISION

Denver Broncos

Last season: 11-5, second place. Lost to Ravens in wild-card game, 21-3.

Coach: Mike Shanahan (72-44), seventh season with Broncos, ninth in NFL.

Strength of schedule: Tied for 30th.

Starting QB (W-L): Brian Griese (11-12).

Best move: Hiring Ray Rhodes to run the Broncos' 24th-ranked defense. Rhodes raised the Redskins' defense from 30th to fourth in one season. If he can do that for the Broncos, the repercussions will be felt throughout the AFC.

Weakest link: The secondary, which ranked 31st in pass defense and allowed 26 touchdown passes. The Broncos cleaned house at cornerback and will turn to No. 1 picks Deltha O'Neal (2000) and Willie Middlebrooks (2001) and free agents Denard Walker and Eric Davis.

Pressure's on: Left tackle Trey Teague, who missed the 2000 season with a knee injury and now replaces Tony Jones on Griese's blind side.

Biggest question: Can Griese stay healthy? He missed 10 starts, including the postseason, the past two years.

Key statistic: The Broncos allowed 5.8 yards per snap last year, second worst in the NFL.

Ticket to New Orleans: Rhodes' rebuilt defense will be vastly improved. Now it falls on the offense to deliver. The Broncos are a very serious threat.

Kansas City Chiefs

Last season: 7-9, third place.

Coach: Dick Vermeil (76-73), first season with Chiefs, 11th in NFL.

Strength of schedule: 12th.

Starting QB (W-L): Trent Green (8-11).

Best move: Coaxing Vermeil to come out of retirement again and reshape the offense. Two years after winning the Super Bowl in St. Louis with dynamic offense, he will place a high priority on speed, quickness and athleticism.

Weakest link: The Chiefs were dreadful on pass defense a year ago. They allowed a 65.2 completion percentage, 25 touchdown passes and collected only 15 interceptions.

Pressure's on: Green, who cost the Chiefs the 12th pick in the draft and missed off-season workouts because of knee surgery. Still, he knows Vermeil's offense from his time in St. Louis.

Biggest question: Can Vermeil re-create the Rams' high-powered offense with lesser parts?

Key statistic: The Chiefs face only one non-division team with a winning record in 2000 on the road this year, and get three playoff teams (Indianapolis, Philadelphia, New York Giants) at home, where they are 68-20 the past 11 years.

Ticket to New Orleans: Because of their favorable schedule and Vermeil's system, the Chiefs could become a playoff contender. A lot depends on the status of Green's left knee.

Oakland Raiders

Last season: 12-4, first place. Lost to Ravens in AFC championship game, 16-3.

Coach: Jon Gruden (28-20), fourth season with Raiders.

Strength of schedule: Tied for 23rd.

Starting QB (W-L): Rich Gannon (51-39).

Best move: Adding RB Charlie Garner to the league's No. 1 rushing attack. With 1,142 yards for San Francisco last year, Garner joins Tyrone Wheatley (1,046) to give the Raiders a pair of 1,000-yard rushers.

Weakest link: The Raiders' red-zone defense was atrocious last year. It kept the opponent out of the end zone on only 17 of 47 possessions inside its own 20, a success rate of just 36.2 percent.

Pressure's on: WR Jerry Rice. The 38-year-old Rice is starting over with the Raiders. To accommodate Tim Brown, he'll move from flanker to split end, where he'll have a tougher time getting off the line of scrimmage.

Biggest question: If Gannon gets hurt again -- as he did in the AFC title game -- will the Raiders be able to win with backup Bobby Hoying?

Key statistic: The Raiders won all 13 games a year ago when they held the edge in turnovers, and lost all five when they didn't.

Ticket to New Orleans: Better defense would go a long way toward making the Raiders a viable threat, because the offense looks good enough.

San Diego Chargers

Last season: 1-15, fifth place.

Coach: Mike Riley (9-23), third season with Chargers.

Strength of schedule: Tied for 28th.

Starting QB (W-L): Doug Flutie (30-14).

Best move: Hiring former Buffalo executive John Butler as general manager. Butler replaced five defensive starters through free agency, landed his QB of the present (Flutie) and future (Drew Brees), and traded away the top pick in the draft to fill several holes.

Weakest link: The running game in San Diego has been terrible for years. Last season, the Chargers were last in the league in yards per rush (3.0) and per game (66.4). That's why Butler was compelled to trade the rights to QB Michael Vick to secure the top RB in the draft, LaDainian Tomlinson.

Pressure's on: Riley, who was hampered by poor personnel decisions, among them the Ryan Leaf fiasco. That won't be the case now. And with Norv Turner on board as offensive coordinator, there won't be any excuses for inept offense.

Biggest question: How long before Brees can push Flutie for the starting job?

Key statistic: The Chargers' sieve-like secondary gave up 33 touchdown passes last season. Butler's response was to sign CBs Ryan McNeil and Alex Molden, an instant upgrade.

Ticket to New Orleans: There are quick turnarounds in the NFL, but not this quick.

Seattle Seahawks

Last season: 6-10, fourth place.

Coach: Mike Holmgren (90-54), third season with Seahawks, 10th in NFL.

Strength of schedule: Tied for 16th.

Starting QB (W-L): Matt Hasselbeck (0-0).

Best move: Attempting to stabilize the defense up the middle with two new DTs (John Randle and Chad Eaton), a new MLB (Levon Kirkland) and a new FS (Marcus Robertson). If Randle (33), Kirkland (32) and Robertson (31) were in their primes, it'd be a better move. The jury is out, however.

Weakest link: The Seahawks' defense was one of the worst ever last year. It gave up the third-most total yards in league history (6,391), and was shredded for 43 touchdowns.

Pressure's on: Hasselbeck was looking over his shoulder when Super Bowl-winning QB Trent Dilfer showed up in training camp. A three-year backup to Brent Favre in Green Bay, Hasselbeck has never started a game.

Biggest question: Did Dilfer land in the right place at the right time again?

Key statistic: The Seahawks were second in the NFL in red-zone offense, scoring 28 touchdowns in 46 trips inside the 20.

Ticket to New Orleans: The Seahawks appear to have too many major question marks to make a serious run, but they could contend for the playoffs.

AT A GLANCE

MVP candidate:

QB Brian Griese, Broncos

Impact rookie:

RB LaDainian Tomlinson,Chargers

Best buy:

QB Doug Flutie, Chargers

Biggest loss:

QB Elvis Grbac, Chiefs

Breakout season:

WR Darrell Jackson,Seahawks

Most vulnerable:

Coach Mike Riley, Chargers

Make or break:

RB Terrell Davis, Broncos

Unsung hero:

DE Trace Armstrong,Raiders

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