The plan: Play high-percentage offense with Johnson's precision passing (his 61.8 career completion percentage ranks third all-time), preventing teams from stacking the line to contain Dunn. Build a lead early in the second half. Finish off foes by sledge-hammering them with eight to 10 carries in the fourth quarter by the 248-pound Alstott.
Dunn, the smallest of the 23 NFL backs to gain at least 1,000 yards last season, is a poor man's Barry Sanders. Last year Dunn had a career-high 248 carries, and during one late four-game stretch, all of them Tampa Bay victories, he had no fewer than 20 carries and as many as 28. So he isn't afraid of the pressure he faces or the beating he might take. As the Buccaneers wrapped up a 1-3 preseason, he wore his typical don't-worry, be-happy look. "I think I can do it," says Dunn. "I just have to be smart. I have to know what hits to take and what hits to avoid, but I've known how to do that since I came into the NFL."
If Dunn is still standing in early January, Tampa Bay should be sitting pretty.
3 Will there be a surprise Super Bowl team like the 1998 Falcons, the '99 Rams or the 2000 Giants?
In the middle of last year's 1-15 debacle, San Diego's All-Pro linebacker, Junior Seau, said, "I pray that I don't end up playing out my career on teams that don't have a chance." Fast-forward to training camp this summer, when Seau looked across the line and realized the Chargers' offense, toothless for so long, had been reborn under offensive coordinator Norv Turner and quarterback Doug Flutie. "The defense had dominated the offense for so long in practice," Seau says. "Now it's like we're playing chess every day; we even have trouble against the vanilla plays. Flutie has so much energy, and Norv's the smartest coach I've practiced against in 12 years as a pro."
Say what you want about Flutie—he's too short, he's 38, he's never been a long-term NFL starter, he's a bad foil for Terry Bradshaw in those long-distance commercials—but you have to give him this: He's no Ryan Leaf, on or off the field. Importing the perennially underappreciated Flutie (30-14 as an NFL starter) should pay big early dividends for new general manager John Butler, because an immobile quarterback could get killed playing behind San Diego's leaky line. Butler also improved a decent pass rush by signing free-agent end Marcellus Wiley, and he addressed an awful cornerback situation by signing better-than-average cover men Ryan McNeil and Alex Molden. From the draft came TCU tailback LaDainian Tomlinson, who should make a horrendous running game much better.
Better offense, better players and the league's stingiest run defense over the last three years combined, in a division loaded with good backs, will all be factors. However, don't underestimate the importance of the schedule in our pick of the Chargers as the sleeper of this season. No schedule in recent history may have been more suited to a fast start than San Diego's. After opening with the Redskins at home, the Chargers face four serious contenders for the cellars of their respective divisions: the Cowboys, Bengals, Browns and Patriots. The next three foes—the Broncos, Bills and Chiefs—will be tougher, but all of them have to travel to San Diego.
It may sound like a foolish prediction, with Super Bowl contenders Denver and Oakland in the same division, but San Diego has a real chance to be playing in January. Let's face it: If the Chargers aren't in the postseason hunt in November, coach Mike Riley (9-23 in two seasons) will know it's time to update his r�sum�.
"As bad as we've been, we've got to keep our mouths shut and go to work," says defensive tackle John Parella. "It's been a long time since I've looked at our team and said we've got a chance—but we do."
4 Which one of last year's playoff teams might be fighting for its postseason life by mid-October?