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AFC's strengths stand out, with Dolphins among them


Three weeks into the NFL season, some things have become more obvious than others. To wit:

The AFC is hip deep in Super Bowl-quality teams; the NFC is barely ankle deep. The New England Patriots' Bill Belichick is one of the hottest coaches going right now; the Cincinnati Bengals' Dick LeBeau is lost somewhere in space. The Miami Dolphins are for real; the Carolina Panthers are not.

Of the seven remaining unbeaten teams in the league, the Dolphins might be the one best suited to play deep into January. For the first time since pre-Dan Marino, the Dolphins have balance and depth, from offense to defense, from passing game to running game.

Running back Ricky Williams has liberated Miami from the one-dimensional Dolphins of old. Free of his own ghosts in New Orleans, where he spent three seasons with the Saints, Williams looks more and more like the Heisman Trophy winner from Texas.

Three straight weeks, he has crashed the 100-yard barrier with increasing yardage totals - 111, 132, 151. When he bolted to a 53-yard touchdown run on Sunday, he not only broke Miami's four-year losing streak against the New York Jets, but also shattered the stereotype that he is nothing more than a power runner.

Because the offense finally can can carry its weight - Jay Fiedler is 25-10 as a starting quarterback - the Dolphins could vanquish their recent history of December collapses. Assuming they survive a trip to Kansas City on Sunday, they will battle the Patriots for the AFC East lead on Oct. 6 at home.

The Panthers, meanwhile, have fashioned a nice 3-0 record against opponents with a combined 0-8 record (Ravens, Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings). And while that triples last year's win total, Carolina has just five more winnable games on the schedule. Best scenario: 8-8.

Rookie coach John Fox has achieved a substantial turnaround, but the playoffs are nowhere in sight just yet.

Here's a primer on the early returns this season.

What's real: Wide receiver Antonio Freeman's revival in Philadelphia. Cut by Green Bay because of his big contract, Freeman landed with former Packers assistant Andy Reid and the Eagles in August. In three games, he has helped embolden the team's once-weak receiving corps and destroyed the intimation in Green Bay that he was on his last legs.

Willing to go over the middle and take the hits, Freeman is quickly becoming Donovan McNabb's go-to receiver. Against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, he had six receptions for 118 yards, including one for a 59-yard touchdown. He's got plenty of big plays left.

What's not: The truce between Terrell Owens, San Francisco's Pro Bowl receiver, and 49ers coach Steve Mariucci. Owens criticized Mariucci on Sunday for taking a knee at the end of a 20-10 win over the Washington Redskins instead of trying to score an in-your-face touchdown against Steve Spurrier. He said Mariucci lacks a killer instinct.

The 49ers will attempt to muffle the noise, but ill will remains.

What's real: Tom Brady's standing as one of the league's bright young quarterbacks. It wasn't so much Brady's numbers for the Patriots in Week 3 that stood out - and he threw for 410 yards and four touchdowns - but his ability to function in the face of a fierce Kansas City pass rush. The Chiefs sacked him four times and knocked him down at least another six. Brady didn't flinch. He just kept completing throws.

What's not: The notion that Jake Plummer is a franchise quarterback. Although he has notched 17 fourth-quarter comebacks for the Arizona Cardinals, he has played so badly this season it seems inevitable the team will let him become a free agent when his contract expires at the end of the year. A six-year veteran, Plummer is completing just 42.6 percent of his passes and is killing the offense.

What's real: Priest Holmes' ascension as a big-time running back. The former Raven gouged the Patriots' defense for 180 yards on 30 workhorse carries Sunday, keeping the Chiefs in a game they would eventually lose. The Patriots had allowed only 106 rushing yards in their two previous games. Last year's league rushing champion is averaging 129 rush yards per game and 5.2 per carry.

What's not: The contention that the Houston Texans are the best of the NFL's recent expansion teams. While the franchise itself may be the best of the group, the team looks woefully uncompetitive so far. Rookie quarterback David Carr has hit just 40.6 percent of his passes, and the Texans haven't scored a touchdown since their upset of Dallas in the opener. He's not ready to carry the offense with such a leaky line in front of him.

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