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Hot Spots

Team-by-team breakdown of what to look for in the AFC

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Posted: Monday September 03, 2001 2:41 PM
  Brian Billick Several AFC contenders are looking to take what belongs to Brian Billick and the Ravens. Doug Pensinger/Allsport

By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated

With Super Bowl champion Baltimore dealt its share of Hard Knocks in training camp, hope is running rampant among AFC contenders. Oakland, Denver, Tennessee and Indianapolis enter the regular season with legitimate dreams of supplanting the Ravens.

Other aspirants, like Miami, the Jets, Jacksonville and Seattle, harbor the belief that they will be this year's version of the long shot made good.

This preseason, there were positive signs for almost everyone, if you looked hard enough. A cool 13 of the AFC's 16 teams had two or more wins. Only two teams had more than two losses. Four AFC teams have new head coaches. Five have new starting quarterbacks. Two will be getting used to new stadiums. How will it all stack up? Sunday starts providing the answers:

AFC EAST

Team Page | Schedule
Buffalo Bills: Preseason record (2-2) -- New head coach Gregg Williams has a few heads a scratchin' in Buffalo. With the cut of 11-year veteran strong safety Henry Jones, the Bills are now without five of the starters on a defense that ranked No. 3 last year, and first overall in 1999. Maybe Buffalo won't miss Jones, John Holecek, Sam Rogers, Ted Washington and Marcellus Wiley as it shifts from the 3-4 to the 4-3. But with three playoff teams from 2000 looming in the season's first three weeks, it won't take long to find out.

Team Page | Schedule
Indianapolis Colts: (2-2) -- In the past two seasons, only Tennessee (26) has more regular-season wins than the Colts (23, tied with St. Louis). Repeat, regular season. Indy is a team out of balance, with all those great weapons on offense and an under-sized, under-achieving defense. But there is hope. Maybe a full season of middle linebacker Rob Morris will make a difference. Maybe defensive tackle Christian Peter will add muscle. Maybe it won't all be about the talented Messrs. Manning, James and Harrison this year.

Team Page | Schedule
Miami Dolphins: (1-4) -- Call us naysayers, but if the Dolphins are so sold on quarterback Jay Fiedler, how come they tried to trade for Matt Hasselbeck and then did so for Cade "Mr. Chicago" McNown? And while we're at it, can Miami's always suspect running game rely on Lamar Smith repeating his career-best 1,139-yard showing of 2000? What's not to like about that Dolphins defense? But a brutal September schedule -- Titans, Bills, Raiders and Rams -- should tell us whether that spare-parts offense is for real.

Team Page | Schedule
New England Patriots: (3-1) -- You know how you can tell preseason games are meaningless? The Patriots played .750 ball. That despite the losses of players like linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer and wide receiver Terry Glenn. New England is paying top dollar to $103 million quarterback Drew Bledsoe, and having him throw to a bunch of bargain basement wide receivers like Troy Brown, David Patten, Charles Johnson, Torrance Small and Bert Emanuel. And the defense looks stitched together, too. Maybe the Jets really won the Bill Belichick battle.

Team Page | Schedule
New York Jets: (2-2) -- An air of promise and enthusiasm surrounds this team, but then, the highs are always higher and the lows always lower when you're a Jet. New head coach Herman Edwards already is beloved. Wait 'till he wins a game. Offensively, the Jets might struggle early with coordinator Paul Hackett's short, controlled passing game. But that's OK, because coordinator Ted Cottrell's defense can hold down the fort for a while. The losses of defensive tackle Jason Ferguson and rookie wide receiver Santana Moss will hurt, but Edwards will keep alive the good vibes.

AFC CENTRAL

Team Page | Schedule
Baltimore Ravens: (1-2) -- The defending Super Bowl champions had the NFL's fifth-rated running game last season and needed every bit of it. But that was a Jamal Lewis ago. The re-worked plan calls for Terry Allen, Jason Brookins and maybe a Moe Williams-level pickup to tough out some yards behind a big, physical offensive line that still has a few injury problems of its own.

Team Page | Schedule
Cincinnati Bengals: (1-3) -- The last time the Bengals entered a season with anything set at quarterback was 1996, when Jeff Blake was coming off his breakthrough 1995 season. This year, Jon Kitna becomes the fourth different Bengals opening-day starter in the past four years. Kitna didn't so much win the three-man QB competition in camp as just not lose it. Then again, he's the Bengals' starting quarterback, so maybe he did.

Team Page | Schedule
Cleveland Browns: (2-2) -- Knowing they won't be very good, the Browns have seemingly decided to not be boring. On Sunday, they shipped away two of their four healthy quarterbacks (Ty Detmer and Spergon Wynn) and their leading rusher last season (Travis Prentice) in trades. Those late surprises could be taken as another indictment of the front office's personnel decisions in 1999-2000. Speaking of which, it's time for QB Tim Couch to deliver.

Team Page | Schedule
Jacksonville Jaguars: (2-2) -- Head coach Tom Coughlin acknowledged that next year's huge cap over-run, $28.5 million and counting, had plenty to do with cutting safety Carnell Lake and backup quarterback Jamie Martin. That's not to say the Jags are taking a pass on 2001. But they're thin, young in spots, and already banged up (six injured starters) as the opener approaches. The Jags could contend, or be a mishap or two away from 6-10.

Team Page | Schedule
Pittsburgh Steelers: (3-1) -- You don't want to bet the ranch on it lasting, but quarterback Kordell Stewart finished the preseason on an upswing and just might be over the hump in his long, strange quest to return to form. If there's any credit to be doled out, it belongs to new offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, who has stopped trying to mold Stewart into something he's not. Now, if Mularkey could turn his attention to Pittsburgh's underachieving receivers ...

Team Page | Schedule
Tennessee Titans: (3-1) -- With a deadline of the regular-season opener to sign cornerback Samari Rolle to a contract extension, or risk losing him in free agency in March, there may be no hotter spot to watch in the NFL this week. Look for the Titans to avoid the distraction and get something done with one of the league's best cover corners. Once that's out of the way, the answers will again far outweigh the questions in Tennessee.

AFC WEST

Team Page | Schedule
Denver Broncos: (3-1) -- The Broncos' wonderful problem of deciding which 1,000-yard rusher to start is rightfully going to get the most attention. But with no bad choices to make on that front, the more important matter will be how early Ray Rhodes' re-worked defense comes together. Denver is bigger and better up front, and in the back. Just watch. The Broncos' D won't be their downfall this year.

Team Page | Schedule
Kansas City Chiefs: (2-2) -- The Chiefs' offense spent all offseason trying to make itself into a cross-state version of the Rams, but that's hard to do when you fall so woefully short on the receiver front. Kansas City has just five wide receivers on its roster and only one has started an NFL game, Derrick Alexander. Derrick Mayes and ex-Ram Tony Horne were cut, and Sylvester Morris is injured and out for the year. Look for receiver tryouts in K.C. this week.

Team Page | Schedule
Oakland Raiders: (3-2) -- There's no reason the Raiders' offense, which was sixth-ranked a year ago, shouldn't be in the top three this year. In signing wide receiver Jerry Rice and running back Charlie Garner, Oakland picked up nearly 2,000 yards of offense from their neighbors, the 49ers. The Raiders are so set that their only gamble may be whether wide receiver David Dunn can handle returning both punts and kickoffs, now that Eric Metcalf is gone.

Team Page | Schedule
San Diego Chargers: (3-1) -- Don't snicker, but the Chargers could be the story of the early season in the NFL. If they're still unbeaten heading into Week 6, it won't be a shocker. San Diego has serious offensive line problems, but if quarterback Doug Flutie can produce on the run, the Chargers are capable of beating Washington, Dallas, Cincinnati and Cleveland, their first four opponents. Throw in a second-week bye and you have the makings of a run. If not a much-needed running game.

Team Page | Schedule
Seattle Seahawks: (2-2) -- Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck had a great offseason for a guy still waiting to make his first regular-season NFL start. First, he was the object of a bidding war between Miami and Seattle in trade talks with Green Bay. The Seahawks won, handed him the starting job, signed a supportive veteran behind him in Trent Dilfer, and then in preseason presented Hasselbeck a five-year contract extension. The least he could do now is live up to all the flattery.


 
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SI's Don Banks: NFC Hot Spots for 2001
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