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  Posted: Tuesday December 17, 2002 5:31 PM

Sports Illustrated's Don Banks tackles three issues from around the league:

 1  Is Dave Campo a dead man walking in Dallas? 
  Dave Campo Dave Campo

Obviously, the Cowboys' head coach is in serious jeopardy of getting canned. But he's probably not quite as far gone as most assume for many of the same reasons he got the job in the first place. Don't forget, Dallas is a unique situation for any head coach; the Jerry Jones factor looms over everything.

With Jones' all-pervasive role that extends to the club's personnel matters -- a trend that's not likely to change any time soon -- not just anybody can coach in Dallas. Thus, when and if the Cowboys' owner/GM pulls the plug on the Campo era, he better have a pretty good idea of who he can hire to replace him.

Jones isn't likely to make the first move without knowing who fills in the blank that he would create. But who could he entice to take the job, given what everyone knows comes with the territory when you work in Dallas?

The two most distinguished names in the potential head-coaching talent pool don't seem to fit. If Seattle's Mike Holmgren left Green Bay for Seattle in order to run his own shop, is he going to want to go the other extreme and work for Jones? If the Seahawks lef Holmgren go, it seems a stretch he would end up in Dallas. The same could be said of ex-Vikings head coach Dennis Green, who accumulated total control late in his 10-season Minnesota tenure.

That's why Campo has a better chance of surviving than any other head coach staring at his third consecutive losing season. Judged on sheer won-loss numbers (he's 15-31), today's NFL standards say you can't bring him back. But Campo got the job in part because he could deal with the Jones' factor, and that's still the best thing going for him. He puts up with Jerry being Jerry.

That said, if the Cowboys lose at home to Philadelphia on Saturday and at Washington next week, finishing 5-11 for the third consecutive season, Jones' hand will be forced. It's hard to argue there's been improvement when your record remains frozen and your team drops its final four games of the season. The pressure for change from fans and the media would be overwhelming.

But things aren't as clear cut in other scenarios. Should the Cowboys split their final two games and climb to 6-10, Campo's odds improve, albeit slightly. At 7-9, Campo has a great chance to survive in Dallas. The key question is, who comes next? So much depends on who would be Jones' leading candidate.

If Jones is thinking of elevating someone on staff, which is the easiest way to keep his level of involvement status quo, there are three likely candidates: Offensive coordinator Bruce Coslet, who largely has failed in prior head coaching stops with the Jets and Bengals; defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, whose unit is the club's brightest hope; and longtime special teams coach Joe Avezzano, who is a long shot but at least has head coaching experience.

In Dallas, a coaching change is always tricky. There's more to think about than simply out with the old and in with the new.

 2  Who's making a late challenge for the defensive rookie of the year? 
  Dwight Freeney Dwight Freeney
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Let's be honest, we all gift-wrapped this one for Julius Peppers about six weeks ago. The Carolina defensive end was on pace to break Jevon Kearse's 1999 rookie sack record of 14 1/2, and he looked every bit as much a slam dunk as Denver running back Clinton Portis is for offensive rookie of the year.

But a not-so-funny thing happened on the way to the hardware. Peppers was suspended by the NFL for the season's final four games for a positive drug test for ephedrine, giving Indianapolis defensive end Dwight Freeney the opening he needed to mount his own bid for the award.

In the 12 games he played, Peppers finished with 12 sacks, one interception and 27 solo tackles. Those are strong numbers, and may very well still be enough to land him both the defensive rookie honor and serious Pro Bowl consideration. But there's something to be said for playing by the rules and being available for every one of your team's games.

Freeney, the draft's 11th overall pick, may not match Peppers, but he is giving the voters something to think about as he polishes his gifted speed rush into a lethal defensive weapon. In his 14 games, which includes six starts, Freeney has recorded 10 sacks, which ties him for seventh among league leaders. According to the Colts, they have appealed to the Elias Sports Bureau this week to credit Freeney with an 11th sack, on a play Sunday in Cleveland.

Freeney's 10 sacks leads Indianapolis, and is just one shy of the club's rookie record, set by linebacker Vernon Maxwell in 1983. Though he began the season as a situational pass rusher for the first eight games, Freeney has been a model of consistency, posting his 10 sacks in 10 different games.

In addition, Freeney's superb play-making ability is showing up in other ways, as he leads the NFL in forced fumbles with seven, and has chipped in 35 solo tackles and a Colts-best 32 quarterback pressures. As for those pre-draft doubts about Freeney's size -- he's a classic tweener at 6-foot-1, 268 pounds -- nobody seems too concerned these days.

On Sunday in Cleveland, Freeney was a force at times in the Colts' most important win of the season. He finished with nine tackles, one or two sacks depending on how Elias rules, and on another play ran down Browns rookie running back William Green for a 5-yard loss.

Perfectly suited to play for a dome team on the fast track of an artificial surface, Freeney is creating havoc on the edge of the Colts' defense. Against the Eagles five weeks ago, he forced three fumbles, helping lead Indianapolis to the upset win. Whether or not he can run down Peppers remains to be seen. But at least now the defensive rookie honor is a two-man race.

 3  Which AFC team will have blown it if it misses the playoffs? 
  Marty Schottenheimer Marty Schottenheimer

All the good karma that Marty Schottenheimer has created in San Diego this season won't count for much if the Chargers don't suck it up and finish the job in the next two weeks. Sorry, Boltheads, but that's the hard, cold reality when you start 6-1 and haven't made the playoffs since 1995. Especially after last year's Chargers opened 5-2, but finished 5-11.

San Diego has lost five of its past seven, starting with that Week 9 debacle at home against the Jets, and all the ghosts of its recent-vintage season-killing losing streaks are starting to become the story. But the 8-6 Chargers, who are currently the AFC's seventh seed -- just out of the money -- still have time to write themselves a happy ending.

To do that, San Diego faces a must-win this week at Kansas City. How ironic. After all those years of trying to get his Chiefs over the hump in the playoffs, Schottenheimer returns to Arrowhead in desperate need of beating Kansas City. Otherwise, his Chargers almost certainly will be denied a trip to this year's playoffs.

San Diego gets a huge break if Chiefs all-world running back Priest Holmes can't play because of his hip injury. With good fortune being a bit rare of late in Southern California, the Chargers' defense must capitalize on that development and assert itself against a Kansas City offense that hung up 34 points against it in mid-October.

If the Chargers respond to the pressure of this week's elimination-game setting, their regular-season finale at home against Seattle gives them an opportunity to rescue their season and earn the 10th win that would be necessary to lock up a playoff berth. But depending on how things break in the other key AFC games, like Denver at Oakland this week, and Miami at New England next week, two more wins by San Diego still may not assure them of anything.

Once riding so high, the Chargers now need to win and get some help to make the playoffs. If they don't, San Diego fans can rightly make the case that nobody in the AFC let more slip away.