Commentary

DIVISION QUEST

Updated: July 10, 2012, 1:54 PM ET
By JOHN BRODER, ALAN GRANT, JOHN CLAYTON, DARRELL TRIMBLE, JOHN HASSAN

NFL '01 PREVIEW

GROUND ZERO

We SIZE UP YOUR NFL-The ONE with SIX DIVISIONs and 31 TEAMS-one last

Someday, your grandkids may want to know. Was Arizona really in the NFC East? Before they won those seven Super Bowls, were the Bengals really that bad? Tell us, Gramps, did the NFC West really have three teams east of the Mississippi-or are you just getting senile? So before the league switches to eight four-team, geographically correct divisions for 2002, you need to digest every last nostalgic McNugget you can about the way things were back in 2001. As always, we'll set you straight on every starter and every team in this final traditional Division Quest, but we'll also give you reasons why this patchwork arrangement of teams once made so much sense: the Black and Blue Division, The Hammer vs. The Mad Bomber, the golden arms of the AFC East. No grainy footage, no John Facenda voice-over-we promise. Just a little look back before we move on. Hey, the kids might like to hear about those outdoor stadiums.

Player Breakdowns provided by Ourlads' Scouting

CHRIS BERMAN'S SUPER

A momentous pick for me. The first time in two decades that The Swami has picked neither San Francisco nor Buffalo. 2001 is indeed my space odyssey.

Tampa Bay: This is the year they get it right. We know the D is a rock, and Brad Johnson elevates the O. Plus, they'll bid farewell to the NFC Norris with a sub-40 degree win.

Denver: Brian Griese proved last year that he is a true leader, and they have enough topflight running backs to fill a team bus. Should be a wonderful Super Bowl.

THE MAG'S CHAMP... DENVER

Once Ray Rhodes gets that defense snarling, Shanahan takes it to the house.

SURPRISE TEAM...SEAHAWKS

Ricky Watters and the D-men bring the heat while Holmgren cooks up an offense.

THE OLD AFL GOT ITS CRED RIGHT HERE

WHAT IT was The birthplace of credibility for the old American Football League: Joe Willie guaranteeing victory over the Colts; Bob Griese going perfect with the Fish. Later came the classic nicknames: the Electric Company, the No-Name Defense, the Sack Exchange. The best of times? 1972: Dolphins go 17-0, the only undefeated season in NFL history. And the worst-at least in upstate New York? 1990-93: four straight Super Bowls for the Bills, four straight losses.

WHAT IT IS Peyton's Place, and don't you forget it. Manning-to-Marvin Harrison is a knife in the heart. But focusing too hard on stopping them earns you a kick in the head from Edgerrin James, who has not only a bling-bling smile but also the opportunity to become just the third player in history to lead the NFL in rushing three straight seasons. The Manning-Harrison-James trio just might meet its match in Miami, where Pro Bowlers Zach Thomas, Jason Taylor and Sam Madison-Lethal Weapon 3-head up a Dolphins SWAT team that turns ugly, really ugly, when you wander onto their side of the 50.

TO ROCK IT Stop Manning & Co.-sometimes they give you a little help with turnovers. Miami has the D to do it, but no QB to take advantage. New England has the QB, but no D. The key: Keep the Colts from running the table in September-October and force them to win late-season games in Buffalo, where arctic weather is like a 12th man on defense, and Miami, where the D already plays like it has a 12th.

IT AIN'T OVER

AFC East teams won a total of 14 games last season in which they trailed in the fourth quarter, the most of any division.

JETS (4) G .B. N .E. T.B. MIA

BILLS (3) S.D. N .E. K.C.

PATRIOTS (3) IND CIN BUF

DOLPHINS (2) IND N .E.

COLTS (2) BUF N .E.

1 AFC EAST

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

D-DAY

Here's a sneak preview of the Colts' game plan: Score as many points as possible, and hope the D shows up. Everyone knows the Colts can score; last season they put 20 or more on the board in all but four regular-season games. In Peyton Manning, Indianapolis has the best signal-caller in the AFC, and his rapport with RB Edgerrin James and WR Marvin Harrison makes for a happy zone only the Rams can relate to. Ken Dilger and Marcus Pollard make one effective TE; last season they combined for 77 catches and 6 TDs. Mike Vanderjagt is money-he's the most accurate kicker in NFL history (89.6%). If the Colts D (No.25 against the run; No.18 against the pass) improves just a little bit, reservations in New Orleans will not be out of the question. Too bad that's not so easy. Picking up DT Christian Peter from the Giants was a good move. But DE Shawn King's retirement is a big blow. King sat out 2000 for violating NFL drug regs. With King, DE Chad Bratzke had 12 sacks in '99; he had only 7.5 without King in 2000. There'll be no gumbo without a Rambo defense, even with that jumbo offense.

player| the word

OFFENSE

WR |J. Pathon Still? Only until R. Wayne gets some snaps| B

WR |M. Harrison Makes Peyton look good. Could make B.J. Hobert look good |A

LT |T. Glenn "Touch Peyton and I'll kill you" |B

LG |S. MCKinney See T. Glenn |B

C |J. Sat urday They'll take him any day of the week |B

RG |L. Moore You are the weakest link! |C

RT |A. Meadows Protects well on passes, but expect James to go left a lot |B

TE |K. Dilger Plays it like they drew it up |B

QB |P. Manning Four years, no playoff wins. Nice stats, though |A

FB |J. Finn Once Mr. Irrelevant, always Mr. Irrelevant |C

RB |E. James Only a goober would think his missing minicamp will matter |A

SPECIAL TEAMS-K |M. Vanderjagt has a killer leg. And is deadly accurate |A

OFFENSIVE GRADE A

DE |B. Scioli Journeyman could really use a good backup |C

DT |J. Williams I f only he were bigger |C

DT |E. Johnson Him, too-but not as much |B

DE |C. Bratzk e Just a little too little of everything |B

LB |M. Washingto n Looked tough at times; must be tough all the time |C

LB |R. Morris Holdout and a blowout (knee) in '00. So '01 must be better |C

LB |M. Peterson Will find you, chase you down and break you |B

CB |J. Burris Thinks fast, but wheels can't keep up |B

SS |C. Cota Has had a damn fine run for a guy with his tools |C

FS |I. Bashir Second-round hitter starts because he has to |I

CB |M. Muhamma d By any other name, he still gets beat |C

SPECIAL TEAMS-P |H. Smith likes to see how far he can punt |C

DEFENSIVE GRADE C

The Deal See EJ run, see Peyton throw, see Marvin catch. See any D?

TEAM GRADE B

2 AFC EAST

MIAMI DOLPHINS

FIGHTING FISH

JJ and Marino retired because the Fish had no ground game. Who knew RB Lamar Smith would rush for 1,139 yards (16 TDs) in 2000? Nice break for Dave Wannstedt, who rode Smith's legs and a stone-cold D (No.6 in the NFL) to Miami's first AFC East title since '94. But their anemic offense (26th in the NFL) kept the Dolphins from surviving deep into January. QB Jay Fiedler started the season strong but tailed off. His numbers-57.1%, 2,402 yards, 14 TDs, 14 INTs-scream for more big plays and fewer dumb ones. (Hello, Ray Lucas.) But that D is sick: Goal-line stands, picks and helmet-popping hits are how the Dolphins win. CBs Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain combined for 10 of Miami's league-high 28 picks. If Surtain's slowed by a knee injury he suffered in camp, first-round pick Jamar Fletcher appears ready. LB Zach Thomas (99 tackles) and his brother-in-law, DE Jason Taylor (14.5 sacks), get the ink, but it's DTs Tim Bowens and Daryl Gardener who clog up the middle and allow Thomas and Taylor to roam. Problem is, winning seasons beget tougher schedules and these Fish will have to swim in deeper waters.

PLAYER|THE WORD

OFFENSE

WR |J. McKnight If he's so fast, why isn't he always open?| C

WR |O. Gadsden If he's so slow, why is he always open? |B

LT |M. Spriggs Last man standing would be better off sitting |C

LG |M. Dixon Someone the Fish will be bragging about for a long time |B

C |T. Ruddy From "on the bubble" to blowing up |A

RG |T. Perry Bears resume isn't what attracted Wannstedt |B

RT |T. Wade See M. Dixon |B

TE |H. Goodwin Squint and he kinda looks like a backup T |C

QB |J. Fiedler Just glad to be here. But not as glad as R. Lucas |C

FB |R. Konra d Looks the part, still learning to play it |C

RB |L. Smith Workhorse will be mighty busy |B

SPECIAL TEAMS-K |I f you watch only one foot this season, make it O. Mare's |A

OFFENSIVE GRADE C

DEFENSE

DE |K. Mixon Strong vs. run. Then over to you, L. Bromell |B

DT |T. Bowens Wide load doesn't need to be quite so wide |B

DT |D. Gardener And we were ready to write him off |B

DE |J. Taylor Cynics will point out Pro Bowl year was also walk year |A

LB |S. Galyon Keeping the seat warm. But for whom? |C

LB |Z. Thomas The soul of the D. But you knew that already |A

LB |D. Rodgers Finally figured out what to do with that speed |A

CB |P. Surta in Would be S. Madison if S. Madison weren't him already |B

SS |B. Walker Led team in picks, but still QB's best bet |B

FS |B. Marion Wait, no one else wanted him? That's just silly |B

CB |S. Madison Alpha dog in this kennel |A

SPECIAL TEAMS-P |M. Turk missing old form |C

DEFENSIVE GRADE A

The Deal Fish have basics: D , running game. So they're good and boring

TEAM GRADE B

3 AFC EAST

NEW YORK JETS

REFUELING

GONE ARE the scowls and paranoia of the Parcells-Groh era. Herman Edwards brings a happy-camper feel to a team led by 37-year-old QB Vinny Testaverde and iron-horse RB Curtis Martin. Unable to get to the 2000 playoffs, the Jets brought in GM Terry Bradway. He added free agent WR Matthew Hatchette (6'3") to provide Vinny a big target and drafted Smurflike WR Santana Moss (5'9", 4.31 40) for his speed-though he's out 8-12 weeks with a knee injury. Add supertough WR Wayne Chrebet and Pro Bowl FB Richie Anderson (88 catches), and Testaverde has enough solid targets to orchestrate the new West Coast O. The change in the D (tied for 10th in 2000) from a 3-4 to a 4-3 is a gamble (page 86), but one worth taking. DE John Abraham was a force before an injury ended his rookie season; he should do wonders for LBs Marvin Jones (133 tackles) and Mo Lewis (88). Losing DT Jason Ferguson, who could miss the season with a shoulder injury, will hurt. Edwards' presence is welcome on a team that almost mutinied under Groh. But remember this: The last feel-good Jets coach, Pete Carroll, ended his stay with five losses-followed by the infamous Kotite era.

PLAYER|THE WORD

OFFENSE

WR |M. Hatchette Big receiver Vinny's lacked since Key left B

WR |W. Chrebet Still the best little wideout in Jersey B

LT |J. Fabini There's a short list of LTs we'd rather have. Very short A

LG |K. Jenkins "Yeah, we think we've found your problem right here" C

C |K. Mawa e U nit should do as he says-and as he does A

RG |R. Thomas N ot off the charts yet, but getting close B

RT |R. Young I n three seasons, seventh-rounder has done well for himself C

TE |A. Becht This is the year Jets find out if they finally have a TE C

QB |V. Testav erde Can't go back. C. Pennington is not ready B

FB |R. Anderson Know how many RBs had fewer catches? All of them B

RB |C. Mart in I f only he didn't have to work so hard. Hellooo, L. Jordan A

SPECIAL TEAMS-K |J. Hall can split uprights on kickoffs, so why not on FGs? B

OFFENSIVE GRADE B

DE |J. Abraham Blink, and your QB is roadkill B

DT |S. Ellis Brought it from the outside, now brings it from the inside B

DT |J. Wiltz N ever heard of him? Now you have I

DE |S. Burto n You don't notice him, until he's in your backfield C

LB |M. Lewis Best news of off-season: Mo re-signs A

LB |M. Jones Two straight injury-free seasons may be too much to ask B

LB |J. Farrior Meet a guy hanging in the lineup by his fingertips C

CB |A. Glenn Tiny but tenacious A

SS |V. Green Will beat you black and blue. But you can beat him B

FS |D. Robinson N otorious problem spot gets solved B

CB |M. Colema n Tall but tenacious B

SPECIAL TEAMS-P |T. Tupa has nice average, now he'll have nice coverage, too B

DEFENSIVE GRADE B

4 AFC EAST

BUFFALO BILLS

STOPPED

Buy a program, Bills fans, you're gonna need one. Coach Wade Phillips: gone. GM John Butler: see ya. Say hi to coach Gregg Williams and new GM Tom Donahoe. Also shufflin' out of town: QB Doug Flutie, DE Marcellus Wiley, LBs Sam Rogers and John Holecek (all gone to San Diego) and DT Ted Washington (Chicago). The only free agent signing of significance is FB Larry Centers. You want significance? Try QB Rob Johnson, now the undisputed No.1 despite doubts about whether he can stay healthy or run the intricate West Coast O. Johnson has some lethal weapons in WRs Eric Moulds, Peerless Price and Jeremy McDaniel. One problem: The O-line gave up a whopping 59 sacks. Another problem? The D. Imagine American Pie 2 without Nadia and Finch. That's how important Wiley and Washington were to the Bills D. The switch from the 3-4 to the 4-3 means LB Sam Cowart will man the middle with his kamikaze style. But without Washington and Wiley, there are real weaknesses at defensive tackle and defensive end. Bills fans are used to a High level of play, but this season it will take a while for everyone to get with the program.

PLAYER|THE WORD

OFFENSE

WR|E.MOULDS|Bet you thought M. Harrison was best of '96 class|A

WR|P.PRICE|Still has rough patches, but needs a lot less sandpaper|B

LT|J.FINA|Durable leader, which is enough|B

LG|R.BROWN|Pro Bowler five seasons straight ('96-00). Add No.6|B

C|B.CONATY|Two starts in three seasons. Gets chance-to be flattened|C

RG|J.OSTROSKI|Third spot in as many years. At least he has an excuse|C

RT|J.JENNINGS|Didn't win spot, R. Hicks lost it|I

TE|J.RIEMERSMA|Superstar hands, injury report long as his arm|B

QB|R.JOHNSON|Won't have Flutie to get in the way again, uh, bail him out|B

FB|L.CENTERS|Has caught more passes than Johnson has thrown|B

RB|S.BRYSON|Speed, hands, size. If only he knew what to do with them|C

SPECIAL TEAMS-K|Longtimer S. Christie may have stuck around too long|B

OFFENSIVE GRADE B-

DEFENSE

DE| P. Hansen |4-3 D keeps him young a little longer| B

DT |P. Williams| G ive him some rest, he'll give you one of NFL's top DTs |A

DT |S. Price| He won't |C

DE |E. Flowers| As in blossoming into pass-rush terror |B

LB |K. Newman |Coming off a very solid year. Spot is ideal for him |B

LB |S. Cowart |Apparently, you have to ankle him to slow him down |A

LB |J. Foreman |As in "Hey, someone get out here and do my job" |C

CB |A. Winfield |Tough as nails against run, covers receivers like a blanket |A

SS |H. Jones |Not getting older. Okay, getting older. Still can play, though |A

FS |K. Carpenter |IN T leader making it hard for team to sit him down| B

CB |N. Clements |This year's A. Winfield|I

SPECIAL TEAMS-P |J. Taylor or B. Moorman. Hope coverage is strong |C

DEFENSIVE GRADE C-

THE DEAL New Coach, GM and QB. Can anybody say "rebuilding"?

The 8-8 Bills finished last season with the third-ranked D (led by Sam Cowart) and ninth-ranked O, but were 18th in points allowed and 20th in points scored.

TEAM GRADE C

5 AFC EAST

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

DOWN

AND YOU thought finishing 5-11 was Bill Belichick's biggest problem. Welcome to training camp. The Pats' best LB (Andy Katzenmoyer) disappeared because he was scared by a chronic neck injury; their best WR (Terry Glenn) was suspended by the team for the season. Get used to watching Drew Bledsoe (sacked 100 times the past two seasons) vs. the world again. Being a hero is nice, but for the Pats to be successful, Bledsoe must be able to go downfield-and without Glenn, that's going to be tough. Every year, Bledsoe's supporting cast seems to get worse: RB Robert Edwards, who has missed the past two seasons because of a career-threatening knee injury, actually has a shot at the starting job. The OL is still a major concern, especially with the retirement of RG Joe Panos. Belichick has his work cut out for him on D, too. Having drafted five defensive players and signed 10 free agents, most notably LB Brian Cox, he has some players to work his magic. But anything better than 7-9 for this team won't be magic-it'll be a miracle.

PLAYER|THE WORD|

OFFENSE

WR |T. Brown| Can't get deep, but Bledsoe won't have the time anyway |B

WR |B. Emanuel |Plus T. Small and C. Johnson doesn't equal T. Glenn |C

LT |A. Klemm |Seemed skittish last year. Can't blame him |C

LG |M. Compton |Vet may shape up unit, and maybe Will will marry Grace| C

C |D. Woody |A Pro Bowler if he keeps it up. Unless he can't keep weight |A

RG |J. Andruzzi |Journeyman. They're looking to end his journey |C

RT |M. Light |Second-rounder is future, not present|I

TE |J. Wiggins |They think he's a playmaker. Yeah, we believe them| C

QB |D. Bledsoe |The best arm in the game deserves a supporting cast |B

FB |M. Edwards |Soft hands, sturdy. Can you say "dump off "? |C

RB |J.R. Redmond |Was supposed to be the answer. Isn't|C

SPECIAL TEAMS-K |Nothing's a gimme for A. Vinatieri |C

OFFENSIVE GRADE C

DEFENSE

DE |B. Hamilton |Led NFL in tackles by a DL. Sacks are another story| B

DT |G. Johnson |Enough obvious weaknesses to overshadow his strengths| C

DT |R. Seymour |Too young to matter just yet |I

DE |W. McGinest |He didn't seem to care all that much even when he had help |B

LB |M. Vrabel| Maybe he's a DL. Maybe he's an LB. Maybe he's ready |C

LB |T. Johnson |The body is worn out, but the mind is working fine| B

LB |T. Bruschi |Does quite a bit with not so much |

CB |T. Law |Does not quite enough with a whole bunch| B

SS |L. Milloy |Crushes ballcarriers. Laser focus. Stay away. Seriously| A

FS |T. Jones| Like a failed dot.com without the initial success|D

CB |O. Smith |Nice guy, strong leader, but he must be paying someone off| C

SPECIAL TEAMS-P |L. Johnson can boot it, but they can't cover it| C

DEFENSIVE GRADE

The Deal Belichick knows football, so he must know Pats are in trouble

Drew Bledsoe is 19 TD passes away from setting Patriots record (Steve Grogan, 182). Bledsoe has averaged 20.5 per season.

TEAM GRADE C

AFC CENTRAL

RUN, DON'T WALK

What it Was Home to Jim Brown. The Dawg Pound. Hey, Drew Carey was on to something-Cleveland did rock. Want to learn about the NFL? Got to check in here. Some of the oldest franchises (Cleveland, Pittsburgh), most charismatic owners (Paul Brown, Art Modell, Art Rooney) and dominant teams (Bradshaw's Steelers) made this a storied division.

What it is The AFC's power division once again. Home of the last two Super Bowl reps, Tennessee and Baltimore. The NFL's baddest RB (Eddie George), best WR (Jimmy Smith, when he's healthy) and best LB (Ray Lewis) play here. Smitty aside, this ain't no passing division. It's the home of the RB. George, Jerome Bettis, Corey Dillon, Fred Taylor: It's like having Randy Moss, Keyshawn Johnson and Terrell Owens in the same place-only quieter. One problem: Lewis and the Baltimore D. No one-and we mean no one-can run on the Ravens.

To Rock It Send it air mail. All the big boys here can move the chains with the ground game while derailing yours. If one of these passing games takes off, they're golden. (Hear that, Elvis?) But be careful out there: the D's in this division plan team meals around grinding quarterbacks into hamburger.

DEFENSE DEPARTMENT

This division became only the second in 50 years to have two teams hold opponents to less than 12 points per game (Ravens, 10.3; Tita ns, 11.9). The NFC West did it in 1977 when the Falcons (9.2) and Rams (10.4) flashed the D.

AFC CENTRAL

1 TENNESSEE TITANS

TOUGH

Tables keep turning in Nashville. In the 1999 season, the Titans couldn't win the AFC Central, but scrapped their way to the Super Bowl. Last season the Titans won the division crown, had the best record in the NFL (13-3) and homefield advantage in the playoffs, but couldn't handle the Ravens in January. Look for the Titans to take care of the Central again, but don't bank on them getting past Denver for that ticket to New Orleans. Keeping key players healthy is always a challenge. Oft-injured QB Steve McNair's style makes him a marked man, and Eddie George's 400-carry workload is a blown knee in waiting. WR Kevin Dyson (54 catches in 1999) is working his way back from last season's torn ACL. True, there's plenty of talent here. TE Frank Wycheck tied his career high with 70 catches, and WR D errick Mason (63 catches) is ready to be a star. And the league's topranked defense got better by adding DE Kevin Carter, who should return to his 17-sack form of '99 playing opposite Jevon Kearse. Can the Titans win it all if everyone stays intact?

Sure. But they were healthy last year. Right.

PLAYER|THE WORD

OFFENSE

WR |D. Mason| '00's surprise will get a lot more attention in '01 |B

WR |C. Sanders |If you got points for effort A- |C

LT |B. Hopkins |One of two reasons they'll run left|A

LG |B. Matthews| The other reason |B

C |K. Long |He's, oh, three weak games from being replaced |C

RG| B. Olson |The whole package-if he takes it out of the box C

RT |F. Miller| Someone tell Fred that yellow flags are a bad thing |B

TE |F. Wycheck| What this team needs is a Pro Bowl TE. Oh, never mind|A

QB |S. MCNair |Still not a sure bet, but would you bet against him? |B

FB |W. Floyd |Great blocker has good hands. Which is nice, since A- |B

RB |E . George| A- All-Pro Ed needs 400 carries like he needs turf toe |A

SPECIAL TEAMS-K |J. Nedney's as reliable as A. Del Greco's short game |B

OFFENSIVE GRADE B

DE |K. Carter |Last year's MIA should be TNT on same line with Freak |A

DT |J. Thornton |Keeping blockers off 'backers is a dirty job A- |B

DT |J. Fisk A- |but someone has to do it. And they both do it-well |B

DE |J. Kearse |If da Vinci were a pass-rusher, he'd be Jevon |A

LB |G. Favors |Battles for job with K. Bulluck. He'll lose come October |B

LB |R. Godfrey| Why hasn't he been to Hawaii in February? |A

LB |E . Robinson |Took pay cut to stay with team. Translation: likes to win |B

CB |D. Sidney |Oy! |C

SS |B. Bishop |Forget Robinson: This guy would play for free |A

FS |B. Myers |When you're young and little, having Blaine next door helps |B

CB |S. Rolle|As fluid as his name. One of the best A

SPECIAL TEAMS-P |C. Hentrich spots balls like Greg Maddux |A

DEFENSIVE GRADE

THE DEAL Poised to reclaim swagger, Ravens' early setbacks make it so

First downs didn't come easily against Jevon Kearse and The Freaky Titans' top-ranked D. They held foes to a 29.6% success rate on third and fourth downs.

TEAM GRADE A

2 AFC CENTRAL

BALTIMORE RAVENS

TELL-TALE

THE TEAM you love to hate came up with two new ways to make your blood boil. First, in-your-face coach Brian Billick pumped out a motivational book with chapters like "Crafting a Mosaic of Effective Leadership." Then he flung open the doors of Ravens training camp for a six-week HBO documentary. Of course, the real reason you can't stand the Ravens is they're good-really good. Signing Elvis Grbac (4,169 yards, 59.6% completions) helps an offense that won it all last season despite its QB. Losing RB Jamal Lewis (1,364 yards) for the season (torn ACL) and T Leon Searcy for three months puts plenty of pressure on 12th-year RB Terry Allen. But as long as Grbac can put a few points on the board, the D will take care of the rest. Only one player (SS Kim Herring) left a unit that hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 37 games. The Ravens surrendered just 3,967 yards-only 970 on the ground, the first team to keep opponents under 1,000 in 16 games-and with Super Bowl MVP Ray Lewis concentrating on football instead of his rep, there'll be plenty of reasons to hate the defending champs again this year.

PLAYER|THE WORD

OFFENSE

WR |Q. Ismail |Surely a third option, maybe a second, definitely not a first| C

WR |P. Johnson|Anxiously awaiting T. Taylor. (Not him, the offense) |C

LT |J. Ogden |Maybe Boselli is better. Maybe |A

LG |E. Mulitalo |Any yards gained on ground will come this way |B

C| C. Rabach |Letting J. Mitchell go may not have been best idea| I

RG |M. Flynn |This guy must have something on B. Billick|C

RT |H. Swayne| Older than Moses, with a body to prove it| C

TE |S. Sharpe |E . Grbac's most reliable weapon will be sure to remind him |A

QB| E. Grbac |Shaky WRs, no RB, a patchy OL. What else is new? |B

FB |S. Gash |O. Ayanbadejo could unseat him |C

RB |T. ALLEN |1,353 yards, 21 TDs-in '96 |C

SPECIAL TEAMS-K| M. Stover's a lock inside 40. Needs to be a lock inside 60 |B

OFFENSIVE GRADE B

DEFENSE

DE |R. Burnett |About to be too old to keep getting better with age|B

DT |S. Adams |Went to Pro Bowl keeping guys out of R. Lewis' way |B

DT |T. Siragusa |Fine, as long as he hasn't gotten fat(ter) on success |B

DE |M. McCrary |You know he's coming, so why is your QB chewing turf? |A

LB |P. Boulware |So good vs. pass, he's forgiven for being so-so vs. run |B

LB |R. Lewis |Nothing to prove this year. Won't matter |A

LB| J. Sharper |He's back and feeling loved again|B

CB| D . Starks |Size lulls you. Skills kill you |A

SS |C. Harris |Only guy every other team wouldn't love to see on theirs| C

FS |R. Woodson |Wise old man has mop-up duty on unit with few spills |B

CB |C. McAlister |Year behind D. Starks on curve, but right on schedule |B

SPECIAL TEAMS-P |K. Richardson pins 'em deep, which, of course, is unfair |B

DEFENSIVE GRADE

The Deal It's too tough at the top to give banged-up Ravens a free pass

Don't bet the mortgage on Elvis Grbac. Only once has a Super Bowl champ started the next season with a new QB. The '99 Broncos wound up 6-10.

TEAM GRADE A

3 AFC CENTRAL

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

SLASH BACK

LISTEN CLOSELY-people in Pittsburgh are actually using the words "Super Bowl" and "Steelers" in the same sentence. Why? Two possibilities: 1) They're nuts; or 2) they're just geeked by a 9-4 finish that almost propelled their boys into the postseason. Fact is, the optimism's solidly grounded in a D that held opponents to nine points or fewer six times last year. They'll miss LB Levon Kirkland, who signed with Seattle, but rookie DT Casey Hampton and LB Kendrell Bell look like the real deal. On the other side of the ball, Jerome Bettis (1,341 yards, 8 TDs) reminded us why he's nicknamed The Bus and Kordell Stewart not only regained his confidence, but his team's as well. Slash may not get all the way back to his 1997 form, when he made more plays than Shakespeare, but last year he took giant steps in the right direction. So did the front office, hiring Tom Clements as the team's first QB coach since 1973 and elevating TE coach Mike Mularkey to O-coordinator. If they can get Stewart to play at the top of his game, Pittsburgh fans may really go nuts.

PLAYER|THE WORD

OFFENSE

WR |P. Burress |See K. Stewart |C

WR |H. Ward |Took job from first-rounder. That doesn't say much, however |B

LT |W. Gandy| DE s hate playing against him |A

LG |A. Faneca |Slow out of the gate, but making great strides |C

C |J. Hartings| Won't fill D. Dawson's shoes, but also won't fill his casts|B

RG |R. Tylski|Overachiever won't give anything back this year |B

RT |M. Smith |He's got something. Not sure what, but something |C

TE |M. Bruener| Explosive blocker. Dud receiver |C

QB ||K. Stewart |Absolutely the best. Wideout. In Pittsburgh |C

FB |J. Witman |Not especially anything |C

RB |J. Bett |is Easy to catch, painful to ride| A

SPECIAL TEAMS-K |K. Brown as reliable on FGs as he isn't on kickoffs |B

OFFENSIVE GRADE

DEFENSE

DE |A. Smith |Surprise in '00. But only because they thought he stunk |C

NT |C. Hampton |At very least, he'll plug that gaping hole in middle |I

DE |K. Von Oelhoffen |They still need a big pass-rusher| C

LB |J. Gildon |Yes, he's as good as all that |A

LB |M. Jones |Weakness vs. run will eventually cost him |B

LB |E. Holmes |He'll miss L. Kirkland, but not many tackles |B

LB |J. Porter| Should join J. Gildon in Hawaii, though not this year |B

CB |C. Scott |Always close to ball; not always close to WR |C

SS |L. Flowers |NFL irony: sweet name, vicious hitter |B

FS |B. Alexander |For a solid backup player, he's a pretty mediocre starter |C

CB |D. Washington |Nice hobby for a CB: collecting INTs |A

SPECIAL TEAMS-P |J. Miller is good, not great |B

DEFENSIVE GRADE B

The Deal Finished '00 with a bang; will need to start '01 with one

Artificial turf may be what the Steelers miss most when they play in Heinz Field this season. Their record on grass is 210-320-19. On plastic, 251-166-1.

TEAM GRADE B

4 AFC CENTRAL

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

DECLAWED

Which way are the Jags headed? Two seasons ago, they battled the Titans in the AFC title game. Last year, they suffered their first losing season since 1995. Some point to injuries that decimated the O-line and crippled the D, and say they're ready to rebound. Others insist this team has tired of Tom Coughlin's intensity and will never return to the top on his watch. Our take? Expect the Jags to finish with a winning record, but still looking up at the Titans and Ravens. Two reasons for optimism: LB Hardy Nickerson (knee) and S Carnell Lake (broken foot) return from injuries. A healthy dose of RB Fred Taylor-who gained 1,399 yards, but once again played a less-than-full schedule (13 games)-is crucial. Three reasons for concern: WR Jimmy Smith, their best player (91 catches, 1,213), may miss time in September while he recuperates from off-season abdominal surgery; R. Jay Soward, 2000's No. 1 pick and top return man, will lose the first four games to league drug regs; and the D is still in decline. Sure, they're worried about the Jags' in Baltimore and Nashville. But not too worried.

PLAYER|THE WORD

OFFENSE

WR |J. Smith |He's a Rolex: takes the cake |A

WR |K. McCardell |He's a Timex: takes a licking A- |A

LT |T. Boselli |Cut off that bum leg and he'd still be NFL's best |A

LG |B. Meester |Came on strong in '00, should keep coming in '01 |B

C |J. Smith |Oh well, he's better than a blocking sled |C

RG| Z. Wiegert |Well, none of his rehab people have been sacked lately| C

RT |M. Williams| Where's that blocking sled? |D

TE| K. Brady |Always a blocker. Now a receiver, too |A

QB |M. Brunell |Says here he's still got a year or two left |A

FB|P. WASHINGTON| Says here they're watching the waiver wire |D

RB |F. Taylor |Fantasy player's dream |A

SPECIAL TEAMS-K| M. Hollis takes aim, rarely misses |A

OFFENSIVE GRADE

DE |R. Wynn |Must learn that he should sack QB, not just chase him |C

DT |M. Stroud |If he can't beat 'em, the rookie can sit on 'em |I

DT| G . Walker |Still stops run, stopped collecting sacks |C

DE|T. Brackens |Sack numbers off, but intensity stays the same |B

LB |K. Hardy |If he's on this team next year, we'll buy you a lemonade| C

LB |H. Nickerson |If only Hardy were hearty. And younger |B

LB |T. Slaughter |Gleeful run-stuffer looks very sad in coverage|B

CB| F. Bryant| Forget last year: He's still tops on this D |B

SS| D. Darius| Nobody will confuse him with J. Lynch |C

FS| C. Lake |This 34-year-old Lake is almost drained |C

CB |A. Beasley |Another DB who spends too much time chasing receivers |C

SPECIAL TEAMS-P |Rookie D. Leaverton can kick off, too |I

DEFENSIVE GRADE C

THE DEAL Their battle with the cap already has them used to losing

Third down belongs to Jacksonville WR Keenan McCardell. He led all NFL receivers in third-down receptions (32) and yards (485).

TEAM GRADE B

5 AFC CENTRAL

CINCINNATI BENGALS

DE-FANGED

When the Bengals drafted Akili Smith third overall in the Great QB Draft of 1999, they were certain he was the one to lead the franchise out of the wilderness. Three seasons later, Smith is No. 3 on the depth chart. Got another map? The Bengals signed free agent Jon Kitna, who ended a four-year run in Seattle last year with 18 TDs, 19 INTs and 2,658 yards passing. That last number looks good only in comparison to the 2,219 put up by Smith and Scott Mitchell, who enters the season as No. 1. At least coach Dick LeBeau has Peter Warrick, who did enough in an uneven rookie season-51 catches, 592 yards-to make the Bengals believe they have a blue-chip receiver and kick returner in waiting. The solid running game is headed by Corey Dillon (1,435 yards), who should get even better with FB Lorenzo Neal opening holes for him. LBs Takeo Spikes, Brian Simmons and Steve Foley can play, and 315-pound DT Oliver Gibson is a force in the middle. But the rest of the D has too many holes for this team to compete-especially with that gaping hole behind the center on the other side of the line.

PLAYER|THE WORD

OFFENSE

WR| D. Scott |Return from injury makes two spots stronger (see below) |B

WR |P. Warrick |Some flashes, but way too many blackouts| C

LT |R. Webb |Still plenty left for his 12th season|B

LG |M. O'Dwyer |Nasty, which is nice |B

C |R. Braham |Rhymes with graham, as in cracker. A brittle cracker |C

RG |M. Goff |Almost rhymes with Goth. And almost as scary |C

RT |W. Anderson |You don't play with him, you play among him |A

TE |T. McGee |His kingdom for a QB |B

QB| S. Mitchell |Or J. Kitna. Or A. Smith. Who cares? |D

FB| L. Neal |Tough-guy blocker is another 400 yards for C. Dillon |B

RB |C. Dillon |Good for him. You couldn't pay us enough to play here| A

SPECIAL TEAMS-K |N . Rackers didn't live up to expectations. Shocking |D

OFFENSIVE GRADE C

DEFENSE

DE |V. Booker |Clock started ticking when ink dried on K. Henry's deal|C

DT |O. Gibson |One DL teams have to game-plan against |A

DT |T. Williams |Will make O. Gibson better (and he's not so bad himself) |B

DE |J. Smith |Promising rook, which isn't quite stigma it once was here| I

LB |S. Foley |Unsung member of trio that plays like a solid half-dozen |B

LB| B. Simmons |S. Foley and T. Spikes make his job easier |B

LB |T. Spikes| King of D won't lose role just because B. Simmons is back |A

CB| R. Heath |Has come a long way, still has a long way to go| C

SS |C. Hall |Hasn't come as far, but doesn't have as far to go |C

FS| C. Carter |All the success has been wrung from this name |C

CB |A. Hawkins| Theoretically, he has the skills. But this ain't physics |C

SPECIAL TEAMS-P |D.Pope is a hang-time specialist| C

DEFENSIVE GRADE

The Deal This team could be better, but without a QB, we'll never know

Can Dick LeBeau literally jump-start his Bengals? Since 1991, Cincinnati's combined record in September and October is 12-64.

TEAM GRADE C

6 AFC CENTRAL

CLEVELAND BROWNS

DEPRESSING

Do two seasons give you enough time to breathe life into an expansion franchise? Cleveland management thought so, and jettisoned head coach Chris Palmer after the Brownies finished at the bottom of the league in points (161), yards (220.6 per game), third down conversions (27.6%) and first downs (176, a whopping 63 fewer than the next-worst team). Enter the much-sought-after Butch Davis, whose intense approach has shaken up a team that sleepwalked through a 3- 13 season. Davis' biggest challenge is restoring the confidence of QB Tim Couch, who's taken a pounding after being taken No. 1 overall in 1999. Telling numbers: 22 TDs, 22 INTs and 66 sacks in 22 games. Couch, who broke his thumb after Week 7, is better suited to Davis' short passing attack than Palmer's vertical game. Free agents TE Rickey Dudley and T Ross Verba will help, but there's still no running game. Davis also has plenty of work to do on D-Cleveland allowed 419 points (27th) and 5,643 yards (26th). Will Davis get more than two years from management? Hey, he might not want more than that.

PLAYER|THE WORD

OFFENSE

WR |K. Johnson |Can you be the go-to guy if no one wants to go to you? |C

WR |Q. Morgan |First-round talent, waiver-wire possibility|I

LT |R. Oben |Way more penalties than pancakes| C

LG|J. Pyne |Could have started here even if ACL hadn't healed| C

C |D. Wohlabaugh| Rock-solid pro anchors squishy unit |B

RG|T. Johnson |Too busy watching weight to watch rushers |C

RT |R. Verba |New position, new surroundings equals same old back| B

TE|R. Dudley |Underachiever won't be so obvious here|C

QB |T. Couch |If he stays upright, we'll finally see the truth: He's overrated| C

FB |M. Sellers |Browns think he could be sleeper surprise. Zzzzzz| C

RB| J. Jackson |Knowing the coach gets him only so far |I

SPECIAL TEAMS-K |Who knows P. Dawson? No one ever gets to see him |C

OFFensive Grade C

DEFENSE

DE|K. McKenzie| Too small to be every-down end |C

DT |O. Roye |Too small to be any-down tackle| C

DT |G. Warren |Rook's talent, bulk, strength mean D-line is halfway there |I

DE|C. Brown |The other half of halfway there |B

LB |J. Miller| Can rush passer, but teams have expected more for too long|C

LB |W. Rainer| Roams middle like he owns it. Or at least leases it| B

LB |D. Rudd |Speed intimidates, presence doesn't |B

CB |C. Fuller| Probably too slow for corner, definitely too small for safety |C

SS |M. Smith| At least he's not too small for safety| C

FS| P. Ellsworth |Really, really bummed about XFL folding| D

CB |D. McCutcheon |Nickel-corner skills make him king of hill here |C

SPECIAL TEAMS-P |Looks like C. Gardocki will be team MVP again |A

DEFENSIVE GRADE C

The Deal It's gettin' better all the time, Dawgs. It can't get much worse

While the Ravens' TD drought made news last year, the Browns, with Tim Couch hurt, finished with just 17 TDs, fifth fewest in a 16-game season.

TEAM GRADE C

AFC WEST

WHERE THE SCOREBOARDS DO THE WORK

What it was: The Wild, Wild West, shootouts and all. With roots and rivalries that stretch back to those down-and-dirty days of the old AFL, these boys set the scoreboards spinning like roulette wheels. And they had nicknames to match: the Mad Bomber, Bambi, The Snake, The Stork, The Hammer. You didn't so much win a game in this division as crawl away hoping there were no bullet holes in your muddy uniform (just ask Kellen Winslow). Biggest winners: the outlaws in O akland, who also won unanimously for most hated.

what it is: These AFL refugees still like big numbers, and bring it by land and air. So while tight ends still don't block here (they catch), the runners are stealing the show. That's why Oakland led the league in rushing. That's why every Denver running back is a phenom. That's why Ricky Watters looks so damn good in Seattle. And that's why K.C. and San Diego can't get any love. And no matter what the offensive flavor, the D's are always playing catch-up. Every team seems to employ a liberal off-season catch-and-release program (case in point: Hasn't Chester McGlockton played for every team in the AFC West? No, just three) trying to load up because last season just wasn't good enough. Guess when you empty all your bullets every year, you've got to find more ammo when the shooting stops.

To Rock IT: Don't even think about bringing half a team. That Bucs-Ravens stuff just won't cut it here. Denver and Oakland are deep and fast, and you've got to score points just to get in the game. But the measuring stick will be stopping the likes of Charlie Garner, Watters and any RB with a horse on his head. If you can't do that, you're rebuilding.

SHOOTOUTS

The five teams in the AFC West combined to average 23.9 points per game last season. That's the highest average for any division since the 1989 NFC West teams averaged 24.

Broncos (30.3)

Raiders (29.9)

Chiefs (22.2)

Seahawks (20)

Chargers (16.8)

1 AFC WEST

DENVER BRONCOS

FULLY

Don't ever challenge Mike Shanahan: "Two years ago, people were saying that by this year there'd be no way we could sign free agents." Oh, yeah? This off-season, the Broncos resembled Home Shopping Network addicts. Chester McGlockton, Leon Lett and Keith Washington to add depth to the D-line. WR Eddie Kennison for quickness on third-and-long. LB Lee Woodall, QB Steve Beuerlein and CB Eric Davis, all at bargain prices. Plus Shanahan locked up core players Brian Griese, Trevor Pryce, Matt Lepsis, John Mobley and Dan Neil with long-term deals. And he still has $6M to spare. "People don't understand what six million free is," Shanahan says. "By the end of the season, it will go toward working future caps." Thanks to his shrewd money management, the Broncos are the NFL's deepest squad, with veterans spilling over onto the third team. It's as though he were loading up Noah's ark. Beuerlein, who's out until October with an elbow injury, disagrees: "Noah's ark is different, because they only went in pairs." Point taken-Shanahan may actually be a better cap manager than Noah.

PLAYER|THE WORD

OFFENSE

WR |R. Smith |One half of the best WR tandem in the AFC| A

WR |E . McCaffrey| The other half |A

LT |T. Teague |Hope he's renting his house |C

LG |L. Friedman |Replaces M. Schlereth. Well, his spot, anyway |C

C |T. Nalen |Is on a first-name basis with Don Ho| A

RG| D . Neil |Best pull blocker in NFL? If not, he's close |B

RT |M. Lepsis |Not the best, but definitely better than most |B

TE| P. Hape |Gives what they expect-a bunch of great blocks| B

QB |B. Griese |If he stays healthy: "John who?" But that's a big if |A

FB |H. Griffith |He wrote the book on being a role player. Literally |C

RB |M. Anderson |TD and Gary are hurt. So what else is new? Anderson isn't |A

SPECIAL TEAMS-K| J. Elam's kicks would still rock one mile below sea level |B

OFFENSIVE GRADE B

DEFENSE

DE |L. Lett |As talented as he is immature |

DT |C. McGlockton |Clapper: Makes great play, fans applaud, he turns off |B

DT |T. Pryce |Worth every penny |A

DE |K. Pittman |Like your first girlfriend: steady but unspectacular |B

LB |B. Romanowski |Football's Cal Ripken-on the field, anyway |B

LB |A. Wilson |Toughed it out with two bad shoulders. Old-fashioned hitter |A

LB |J. Mobley |Best of a strong bunch |A

CB |D . Walker |Free agent will stabilize secondary that needs stability| A

SS |B. Jenkins|He and Brown are kinda like Sammy Sosa A- |C

FS |E. Brown |A- hard hitters when they're not missing completely |C

CB |D . O'Neal |If this were touch football, he'd be All-Pro |C

SPECIAL TEAMS-P |Rookie Nick Harris will beat out T. Rouen |I

DEFENSIVE GRADE B

The Deal You know what? Maybe Mike Shanahan really is a genius

Last year's top-rated QB, Brian Griese, (102.9) was even better at crunch time- 109.6 on third down, 112.6 in the fourth quarter, both NFL highs.

TEAM GRADE B

2 AFC WEST

OAKLAND RAIDERS

JUST IN IT

PLAYER|THE WORD

OFFENSE

WR| T . Brown |"Yo, DBs. Jerry's over there. He needs company" |A

WR |J. Rice |Crossed Bay Bridge. Won't face the bridge in front of him |B

LT |M. Stinchcomb |Gets his shot by default. Won't get many more|D

LG |S. Wisniewski |Still in there scrapping, but not for much longer |A

C| B. Robbins| Talk about being centered. One of the best|A

RG |M. Collins |Needs a fire lit under him. F. Middleton will light it |C

RT |L. Kennedy |Reborn at RT. But he's older now |B

TE |R. Williams |No R. Dudley, meaning no dropsies in red zone |B

QB| R. Gannon |What got into him? Who cares-it's still there |A

FB |J. Ritchie| They've got guys who can run. This guy blocks and catches |B

RB |T . Wheatley |We said he'd be this good-six years ago|B

SPECIAL TEAMS-K |S. Janikowski: Kicks go higher than he does|A

OFFENSIVE GRADE

DEFENSE

DE |T. Bryant Needs reps, won't get 'em (T. Armstrong will rush passer| B

DT |G . Jackson |Hard on OLs. Gotta ease off BLTs|

DT |R. COLEMAN |Holdover until D. Russell returns from suspension |B

DE |R. Upshaw |Only the strong survive. And he's getting stronger |B

LB |E . Alexander| Good. Not good enough to fight off R. Phillips |C

LB| G. Biekert| Dominates field on runs, dominates sideline on passes |B

LB| W. Thomas | If he'd play run as well as pass, opponents would pass more |B

CB|C. Woodson |What is it about DBs named Woodson? |A

SS|M. Pope |Makes big plays when he's not making big mistakes |B

FS| A. DORSETT |Has his father's name, but not his game |C

CB |E .Allen |Played last year like it was 1997. Don't tell him it wasn't |A

SPECIAL TEAMS-P |S. Lechler: In Yiddish, Shane means "beautiful." Just saying |A

DEFENSIVE GRADE B

THE DEAL If Gannon's cannon is fully mended, they just might win, baby

New Raiders Charlie Garner and Jerry Rice combined for 2,592 total yards and 17 TDs last season while working across the Bay.

TEAM GRADE B+

3 AFC WEST

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

PARTLY

Last YEAR was all about youth. But this off-season, Mike Holmgren hit the marketplace desperately looking for experience, particularly on defense. Ten losses (and allowing 399.4 yards a game) will do that to you. Tapping owner Paul Allen's mountain of cash, he booked John Randle and Chad Eaton at DT , Levon Kirkland at MLB and Marcus Robertson at FS. The revamped D figures to be light years better. But for the Seahawks to go anywhere, they'll need to grow up fast on offense, too. New QB Matt Hasselbeck will be throwing to one of the youngest receiving corps in the NFL. Koren Robinson should be a star, but hamstring problems nagged him in training camp. Darrell Jackson had a solid rookie season (53 catches), but inexperienced James Williams has been slowed by a stress fracture in his right ankle. Holmgren wants to develop Shaun Alexander a little more slowly, so he resisted the temptation to trade Ricky Watters; he'll still be the featured RB. The Hawks have certainly bulked up, but they still can't trade punches with the heavyweights in Denver and Oakland.

PLAYER|THE WORD

OFFENSE

WR |K. Robinson |Explosive. Too bad that's true on field and off |I

WR| D . Jackson |Find him under "second receiver" in dictionary |B

LT |W. Jones |With C. McIntosh, solid bookends |B

LG |S. Hutchinson| More talent than departed P. Kendall, same work ethic |I

C| C. Gray |Small, not especially talented-and refuses to quit |B

RG |F. Wedderburn |Moved inside, and likes his new neighborhood |A

RT |C. McIntosh |That other bookend. Made of granite |A

TE |C. Fauria |Good hands + no speed = a lot of "7 yards and turn around" |B

QB |M. Hasselbeck |He's Holmgren's guy, right? Right? Hey, Trent!!| B

FB |M. Strong |Aptly monikered. But his middle name isn't "Nimble"| B

RB |R. Watters |What can we say that Ricky hasn't? |A

SPECIAL TEAMS-K |R. Lindell: More long balls from him than the M's |A

OFFENSIVE GRADE

DEFENSE

DE |M. Sinclair| Was off '00 a) a fluke or b) beginning of end? Hint: b) |B

DT |C. Eaton |Few realized how good he was with Pats. They'll soon know |A

DT |J. Randle| The hope: he's a leader. The fear: he's a geezer|B

DE |L. King |Still a kid-the kind they make scary movies about |A

LB |A. Simmons |Hope he likes macadamia nuts |A

LB |L. Kirkland |Rejected Steeler has something to prove-and will |B

LB |C. Brown| Kirkland and the beef up front should set him free |B

CB |S. Springs |The bet is he'll rebound from bad hammy |A

SS |R. Tongue |Hits like he's angry-at himself, for being so inconsistent |C

FS| M. Robertson |Better QB on D than any of their QBs on O |A

CB |I . Charlton |Has physical gifts, now must unwrap them |C

SPECIAL TEAMS-P |J. Feagles' kicks aren't high, but they're highly effective|B

DEFENSIVE GRADE B

THE DEAL At least Holmgren realizes that the new millennium really did start this year

The key to losing 10 games? Giving up 6.3 yards on first down. LB Chad Brown heads a new crew signed to transform the NFL's worst defense.

TEAM GRADE B

4 AFC WEST

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

SHORT STORY

Short is in. QB Doug Flutie (5'10"). QB Drew Brees (six feet). QB Dave Dickenson (5'11"). WR Tim Dwight (5'9"). Goodbye-and good riddance-Ryan Leaf (6'5"). Improving on a 1-15 season shouldn't be a tall order-opening against the Redskins, Cowboys, Bengals, Browns and Patriots, the Chargers could sail into their Oct. 21 game against Denver at 4-1. "This team didn't have a 1-15 attitude," says new GM John Butler, who brought some winners with him from the Bills (Flutie, DE Marcellus Wiley, LBs Sam Rogers and John Holecek) and signed veteran CBs Ryan McNeil and Alex Molden. Where will the Chargers end up? Better than 1-15. Why? Start with Flutie running O-coordinator Norv Turner's QB-friendly offense. But that mean defense is the real reason. Butler made sure he got Junior Seau (122 tackles) some help. Wiley (10.5 sacks) is an up-and-coming pass-rusher, and DE Raylee Johnson, who had 10.5 sacks in '99 but missed all of last season with a knee injury, won't be welcomed back by AFC West QBs. Don't be surprised if the Chargers bolt up the standings.

PLAYER|THE WORD

OFFENSE

WR |J. Graham |Loves the middle more than Clinton did |B

WR |C. Conway |Great speed-to and from trainer's room|C

LT |V. Parker |Team's best OL is, well, very okay. And it's a new position |B

LG |R. Roundtree |As opposed to Raleigh, who's not very okay |C

C |R. Fortin |Critics: He's old! Fans: He's cagey! Us: Good luck!| C

RG| K. Jacox |Fred Flintstone in cleats. Wilmaaaaaaa! |C

RT| E. Ellis|We're starting to see trend here: QBs in ER|C

TE| S. Heiden |Even he's praying for F. Jones to get well soon |C

QB| D . Flutie |Great improviser will have to. (Note: see OL) |A

FB| F. MCCrary |If he picked up LBs better, he'd pick up paychecks longer |C

RB |L. Tomlinson |Makes own holes, and will have to (Note: see OL) |I

SPECIAL TEAMS-K |W. Richey as erratic as he is long. And he's very long |B

OFFENSIVE GRADE

DEFENSE

DE |M. Wiley |Actually is the next Bruce Smith |A

DT |J. Williams |A lot of natural ability here A-|A

DT| J. Parrella| A- and here A- |B

DE |R. Johnson |A- will make his comeback from ACL a lot easier |B

LB |S. Rogers |From Buffalo, like everyone else| B

LB| J. Holecek |Here's hoping (praying?) all these ex-Bills come due| C

LB| J. Seau |No, not yet. Soon, but not yet |A

CB |A. Molden| Third-down guy, as in, he plays well every third down or so| B

SS| R. Harrison |Stopped taking stupid penalties, kept making nasty hits |A

FS |R. Beckett| Shined in spots as rookie; now must shine in spotlight| B

CB| R. McNeil |Every D needs a savvy-if-slow vet. Now they have two |B

SPECIAL TEAMS-P| D . Bennett. Boom! |A

DEFENSIVE GRADE B

THE DEAL Surprise team of the AFC? Wouldn't surprise us one bit

He's not Michael Vic-get over it. But RB LaDainian Tomlinson might be able to do something about last year's league-worst three yards per carry.

TEAM GRADE C+

5 AFC WEST

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

RAMS LITE

GO! GO! GO! That's the mantra for the Chiefs offense, a reprise of the fast-break attack Dick Vermeil unveiled in St. Louis. The two major components are QB Trent Green, who ran Vermeil's system before Kurt Warner did, and TE Tony Gonzalez, who prepped for the new O playing basketball in the L.A. Summer Pro-Am League. "This offense is like basketball," says Gonzalez (93 catches, 1,203, 9 TDs last year). "You're always hitting the seam, catching the ball and getting into breaks." Problem is, Vermeil doesn't have Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce and Az Hakim to make him look like a genius. But he does have tools: Former Charger Mikhael Ricks joins Gonzalez in two-TE sets that should spread the field and create room for WRs Derrick Alexander and rookie Snoop Minnis. On defense, DEs Duane Clemons and Eric Hicks (21.5 sacks combined) will draw attention and free up LB Donnie Edwards (151 tackles) to make more big plays. But beyond that, this D is essentially AWOL. Vermeil built one in St. Louis, but he doesn't have enough talent to do it again in this part of the state.

PLAYER|THE WORD

OFFENSE

WR |D. Alexander |Isaac Bruce wannabe may get what he wants |B

WR |D. Mayes |Very A- soft A- hands. But he's awfully slow| C

LT |J. Tait|Double trouble: Young and talented|B

LG |M. Spears |He'll replace D. Szott, which says a lot| C

C |C. Wiegmann| A pit bull who can hike |B

RG |W. Shields |Should be prepared for February trip |A

RT |V. Riley |If Big Macs were defensive ends he'd be a Pro Bowler |B

TE |T . Gonzalez|NFL's best TE or NBA's worst PF? You make the call, Tony |A

QB| T . Green |Vermeil's original Kurt Warner. (The sequel is better) |B

FB |T . Richardson |Best blocking FB can run, too. And he may have to A- |B

RB |P. Holmes| A- unless Priest brings long-sought salvation at RB |B

SPECIAL TEAMS-K |T . Peterson: Former Seahawk comes off an ordinary season| C

OFFENSIVE GRADE C

DEFENSE

DE |E . Hicks| Huge surprise. Street free agent a tough pass-rusher |A

DT |J. Browning |Can play all DL spots. May need to (see below)|B

DT |D . Williams|Good when healthy. When is that again? |C

DE|D . Clemons |If teams passed every down he'd be thrilled |C

LB |M. Maslowski |Not very much talent, not very aware of it |C

LB |M. Patton |Old Blood 'n Guts, emphasis on "old" and "guts" |B

LB |D. Edwards| Solid cover guy wants to rush passer more. Let him |B

CB |R. Crockett| You can hear bones creak-as he makes another tackle|B

SS |G. Wesley |Wild thing needs a sedative sometimes |B

FS |J. Woods |He's coach on field in unit that needs one |A

CB |W. Bartee |Big battle for spot, small results |C

SPECIAL TEAMS-P| D . Stryzinski: You can clock his hang time with a sundial| B

DEFENSIVE GRADE

THE DEAL The next retirement party will need something a little stronger than champagne

Dick Vermeil picked a nice place to unretire: K.C. (60-28, .682) dominated division rivals in the '90s, when the AFC West was the NFL's strongest.

TEAM GRADE C

NFC EAST

GET BALL. RUN BALL. WIN GAME.

WHAT IT WAS In a single word? Dominant. From Lilly, Randy and Too Tall to Dorsett, Riggins and Emmitt, the Smashmouth Division featured marquee heavies. Mammoth offensive lines-Hogs! Attacking defenses- LT! LT! The motto-Control the Trenches, Win the Game-worked in the postseason, too. No unit of the NFL's old setup has produced more conference champs (17) or Super Bowl winners (10). Think of it as America's Division.

WHAT IT IS In a single word? Balanced. Flash takes a backseat to substance. Solid outranks spectacular. Efficient offenses, stingy defenses. Sounds like the Giants, right? Special teams loom large because field goals win so many games here. No domes, so come November and December, the passing attack gives way to the ground game and time of possession becomes the key stat. The Parcells Way or the highway. Can't run? Then you can't compete. Can't stop the run? Ditto. That's why the Giants (who could do both) were division champs in 2000, not the Eagles (even with Donovan McNabb).

TO ROCK IT If you can't keep McNabb in check, start thinking about next week's game. The Giants had his number last season. The Eagles' hope is that the off-season broadening of their offensive arsenal-signing James Thrash, drafting Freddie Mitchell, getting Duce Staley healthy-will counter the Giants' focus on their big, powerful, New Age QB. If not, Big Blue will wreck McNabb's crew again.

FROM BEAST TO LEAST

Yeah, the Giants made it all the way to Tampa last season. But over the past four years, the East has played doormat against the other five divisions, compiling the worst record in interdivisional play each year.

W| L |T |%

NFC East 66 |93 |1 |.416

NFC West 68 |92 |0 |.425

AFC Central 73 |78| 1 |.484

AFC West 80 |80 |0 |.500

AFC East 93 |67 |0 |.581

NFC Central 95 |65|0 |.594

1 NFC EAST

NEW YORK GIANTS

BADA BING

Working in Big Blue's favor is the motivation they'll get from being called the weakest team ever to reach the Super Bowl. Working against them is the fact that it's true. They do have balance on both sides of the ball, and they've bumped up their overall talent level, but the odds are still against a repeat. Of the last seven Super Bowl losers, only the Steelers made it back to the conference championship game. Even winning their division will be a struggle; the Eagles and Redskins have gotten better, and there are signs of fraying in the bond between Jim Fassel and his players. But adding DE Kenny Holmes to a line that was second- best in the NFL against the run (72.3 ypg) could give the Giants the best front four in the league. Offensively, the Giants might start the season slowly. Big-play RB Tiki Barber (wrist) missed three weeks in preseason and possession receiver Ike Hilliard (toe) sat out all of camp. The good news: Ron Dayne showed up 20 pounds lighter. The bad news: The Giants will need more than less of Dayne to prove 2000 was no fluke.

PLAYER|THE WORD

OFFENSE

WR |A. Toomer |Giants have a deep threat. Go figure |A

WR |R. DIXON |Great speed. Hands of stone. Wish I. Hilliard were healthy| C

LT |L. Brown |Definitely, positively on his last legs. We think |B

LG| G. Parker| Like the fine wines he loves, he gets better with age| B

C| D. Zeigler| When does nice surprise become old reliable? Now! |B

RG| R. Stone| First among equals after best season |B

RT| L. Petitgout |Youngster doesn't need to learn a whole lot from his elders |B

TE| H. Cross |Blocks like a lineman. Catches like one, too |C

QB| K. Collins |Feel-good story can't become what-have-you-done-lately |B

FB| G . Comella |Blocks, catches passes. Thought FBs like this were extinct |B

RB| T. Barber| You gotta like Tiki. Unless you're R. Dayne |B

SPECIAL TEAMS-K| J. Holmes? J. Markham? Who knew they'd miss B. Daluiso? |C

OFFENSIVE GRADE B

DEFENSE

DE| M. Strahan |Avoid at all costs |A

DT |C. Griffin |Future superstar. Future is now |A

DT |K. Hamilton| Inside pass-rusher. And they're coming from the ends, too |A

DE |K. Holmes |Anybody's better than C. Jones; few are better than Holmes |B

LB |B. Short |The hope? That he'll be better than R. Phillips |C

LB| M. Barrow |It's easy to look good behind those DTs-and he does |B

LB |J. Armstead |See M. Strahan |A

CB| D. Thomas| Doesn't deserve bad rap. Hasn't earned good rep |B

SS| S. Garnes| Doesn't get beat much. Makes you pay when he does |B

FS| S. Williams| You know who's a better safety? (Seriously, we're curious) |A

CB |J. Sehorn |Great off-season. Back in football shape, too. |B

SPECIAL TEAMS-P |For a punter, R. Williams is a damn fine athlete |C

DEFENSIVE GRADE B

THE DEAL The G-Men still get no respect ... and that's just the way they want it

It wasn't all RB Ron Dayne's fault the Giants led the NFL in being stopped behind the line: 86 of their 507 rushes (17%) went for negative yards.

TEAM GRADE B

2 NFC EAST

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

GIANT STEPS

You lose a Duce Staley for the season in Week 5, you figure it's time to call off the dogs, because the hunt's over. Not the Eagles, who went on to win 11 games last year for the first time since 1992. In fact, the Eagles overcame virtually every adversity except the blues-Big Blue, to be specific. They've lost nine games in a row to their North Jersey rivals, and the road to a division title still runs through the Meadowlands. But if Staley's 100%, the Eagles have somebody to chop down the beanstalk besides Donovan McNabb (see page 68), who accounted for 75.8% of the team's total offense last year. To upgrade a suspect receiving corps, Philly signed free agent James Thrash (50 receptions, 653 yards, 2 TDs) and drafted Freddie Mitchell. Philly's snarling, ballhawking D (sixth in the league with 50 sacks) will again make things tough on the NFC E ast. Defensive end Hugh Douglas is unstoppable off the end and DT Corey Simon's a monster in the middle. But the paper-thin offense is an injury or two away from making Eagles fans sing the blues all over again.

PLAYER|THE WORD

OFFENSE

WR |J. Thrash| Do SB contenders have go-to guys named Thrash? Maybe| C

WR |T. Pinkston |Some cheesesteak would help. F. Mitchell, grab a helmet |C

LT |T. Thomas |The pass rush stops here| A

LG |J. Welbourn| Keeps DTs out of the way |B

C |B. Miller| Longtime backups are that for a reason| C

RG |J. Mayberry |Inconsistency makes him average |C

RT |J. Runyan| Who can block M. Strahan? This guy comes closest |A

TE| C. Lewis |Good hands. Just don't ask him to go long| B

QB |D. McNabb |Once and for all: He's no Ricky Williams. Now rejoice |B

FB |C. Mart |in Blocks, catches and he's always ready to play |B

RB |D. Staley |He's tough-when, you know, he's not injured| B

SPECIAL TEAMS-K |D. Akers makes kicks that count |B

OFFENSIVE GRADE B

DEFENSE

DE |N. Kalu |It'll be him, B. Whiting or G. Jefferson. It'll be a problem |C

DT| C. Simon |2000's very good rook will be 2001's great soph |B

DT |H. Thomas |Tough run defender supplies very little pass rush |C

DE |H. Douglas |Tell us again how Parcells is such a genius |A

LB |C. Emmons |Does nothing spectacularly; does everything well enough |B

LB |J. Trotter |A star when he's on-it's just that he's not on enough |B

LB| I. Reese |Until Q. Caver ties his shoes |D

CB| T. Vincent |He's lost a step, but still has a couple left |B

SS| D. Moore |Can he hold off R. Cook? Don't bet on it |C

FS |B. Dawkins |Where post patterns go to die |A

CB |B. Taylor |Smart, fast, tall, tackles A- well, smart, fast and tall |B

SPECIAL TEAMS-P |We're impressed S. Landeta can even lift his leg |B

DEFENSIVE GRADE B

THE DEAL If last year was a fluke, the tougher schedule will fry these Birds

DE Hugh Douglas' 15 sacks and DT Corey Simon's 9.5 (an Eagles rookie record) helped Philly finish third in the NFC in pass defense.

TEAM GRADE B-

3 NFC EAST

WASHINGTON REDSKINS

FIRST

Which QB do you keep? Jeff George, who was 1-4 as a starter last year, has the worst winning percentage (.377) among active QBs with at least 100 starts and has a rifle arm ill-suited to the dink-and-dunk offense you're installing? Or Brad Johnson, who was 7-4 as a starter and is an adaptable, savvy veteran? If you're new coach Marty Schottenheimer, you hang on to George, because you see him thriving as he did in 1999, when he went 9-2 with the Vikings. Problem is, these Skins don't have the talent of those Vikes. The only consistent impact player on offense is RB Stephen Davis (1,318 yards, 11 TDs). WR Michael Westbrook is coming off a knee injury that shelved him after Week 2. He can help George, but he's an injury away from making Schottenheimer's vision blurry. New coordinator Kurt Schottenheimer (Marty's brother) will rely on CB Champ Bailey and LB LaVar Arrington to fire up his defense. Good start. But DEs Bruce Smith and Marco Coleman are way past their prime. Marty shouldn't be worried, though. The team's owner would never think of meddling if things went wrong.

PLAYER|THE WORD

OFFENSE

WR |M. Westbrook |Still waiting for him to sucker punch opposing D's |C

WR |R. Gardner |Big guy has big promise |I

LT ||C. Samuels |Good enough now |A

LG M. Campbell| Good enough for now |B

C |C. Raymer |Solid when healthy. When is that again? |B

RG |B. Coleman |Does everything but windows |B

RT |J. JansenOn |road to superstardom. Don't pass on right-or left |B

TE |S. Alexander| Soon to be known as S. Alexander the Great |B

QB |J. George |Rest of him tired of playing catch-up with his arm |B

FB |D. Bennett| Marty brought him from K.C., so he must be a plus. Right? |C

RB |S. Davis| Just wind him up and let him go |A

SPECIAL TEAMS-| B. Conway was big question last year. We're asking again |C

OFFENSIVE GRADE B

DEFENSE

DE |M. Coleman |Rush specialist. Emphasis on "special" |B

DT |D. Wilkinson| They kept the wrong DT |C

DT |M. Bankston |Loss of D. Stubblefield left hole. He plugs it. And no more| C

DE |B. Smith |A sure future HOFer. Just not for anything he'll do this year |C

LB| L. Arrington |Dangerous, but out of control too much |B

LB |K. Mitchell| R. Jones wants to fight him for job. Isn't that cute? |B

LB| S. Barber |Small body, big heart |C

CB |C. Bailey| Best of D. Maybe of team |A

SS| S. Shade| Knocks your lights out-when he gets there in time |C

FS| D. Terrell| He's no M. Carrier-which they'll be reminded of frequently |C

CB| D. Green |He's gotta be an alien, right? That explains it |B

SPECIAL TEAMS-P Know how D. Green doesn't age? Well, B. Barker does |C

DEFENSIVE GRADE C

THE DEAL New coach. New QB. No Neon. Old D. Old owner. And same old story

Memo to Daniel Snyder: Last time the Redskins finished 8-8 (1981), they won it all the next year-but they did it with the same coach and same QB.

TEAM GRADE C+

4 NFC EAST

ARIZONA CARDINALS

SNAKE

As the Snake goes, so go the Cards. The past two seasons, Jake Plummer stunk up the desert, throwing more than twice as many INTs (45) as TDs (22)-and the Cards have gone 9-23. In his defense (and the Cards could use one), 14 of Plummer's 21 picks last year came as he was trying to bring Arizona back from a 2-TD-or-more deficit. Listen for an echo this fall-the miserable Arizona D spots most teams a couple of scores at the coin toss. On a brighter note, the perennially weak O-line is shaping up with the additions of mammoth first-round selection Leonard Davis and free agent signee Pete Kendall. Make that way up-the talented unit now averages 331 pounds. New coordinator Rich Olson hopes to capitalize on that bulk with a run-oriented attack designed to double last year's feeble 80 rushing yards per game and reduce the pressure on Plummer. The Cards may well put a lot more points on the board, but with a secondary in shambles and a D-line in decline, it won't be enough to get them to .500.

PLAYER|THE WORD

OFFENSE

WR |R. Moore |Back from ACL, but can he come back from being 33? |C

WR| D. Boston |Big-play threat prays answer to above is yes| B

LT |L.J. Shelton |A rock-solid tackle and ...| B

LG|P. Kendall| a top free agent signing ... |A

C| M. Gruttadauria |make for a strong ... |B

RG| L. Davis |though in places young ... |I

RT| A. Clement| backbone to an offense that could use some| B

TE|T. Hardy |Showed he can catch; didn't show it enough |C

QB |J. Plummer |Remember when he was on our cover? Sorry about that |C

FB |J. Makovicka |Throwback blocker, meaning you can't throw to him |C

RB |T. Jones |Rookie season as nondescript as his name |C

SPECIAL TEAMS-k B. Gramatica has good genes |I

OFFENSIVE GRADE C

DEFENSE

DE|B. Ott |is Can't be any more disappointing than Wadsworth, can he? |C

DT |R. Davis |Bears didn't want him. Neither will Cards |D

DT |M. Tosi |Only time separates him from greatness. Okay, goodness, too |C

DE|K. Vanden| BOSCH On third and long, S. Rice will be missed |I

LB |R. Fredrickson |Plays hard-and that still works in this league |C

LB |R. MCKinnon |Does a lot with what he's got |C

LB |R. Thompson |Has the goods, may not have the guts| C

CB |C. Chavous |Huge step down from A. Williams, but wouldn't anyone be?| D

SS| P. Tillman |Overachiever, which on this unit is rare |C

FS| K. Lassiter |Half-full: has it covered. Half-empty: just barely |D

CB |T. Knight |The next big play he makes will be his first. Okay, third |D

SPECIAL TEAMS-p |J. Player is a player |B

DEFENSIVE GRADE D

THE DEAL It'll take more than moving a stadium for the Cards to get off the ground

Cards opponents converted 52.7% of third and fourth downs, highest in NFL. Tell us again why ex-D coordinator Dave McGinnis got promoted to head man?

TEAM GRADE D+

5 NFC EAST

DALLAS COWBOYS

BIG DUD

For years, the face of the Cowboys was the Big Three-Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith. Now only Smith remains, and he's pushing 32 (that's 52 in RB years). The rest of the offense fizzled last year, mainly because WRs Joey Galloway and Rocket Ismail missed a combined 22 games. If they return to form, the Cowboys have blue chips at three skill positions. But they'll depend on raw rookie QB Quincy Carter to deliver on Jerry Jones' promise that the Boys will win 10 games this season. The rookie from Georgia has all of Greater Irving hopeful Jones' decision to release Tony Banks after one preseason game was a good one. A bigger question is whether the defense will be any good. Once as much a Cowboys trademark as the Lone Star on their helmets, the D imploded last season. In the Boys' first 40 years, they had allowed only two 200-yard rushers; in 2000, they gave up an NFL-record three. With no major upgrades on D during the off-season, and the loss of free agents Leon Lett and Alonzo Spellman, last year's collapse may not be an aberration, it could be a way of life.

PLAYER|THE WORD

OFFENSE

WR |J. Galloway |Like Rocket, loves to go long |B

WR| R. Ismail |Like Joey, hates to go across middle |C

LT| F. Adams |They call him The Hotel-enough said| B

LG |L. Allen |Knows what it's like to be best in the world at something |A

C |M. Stepnoski |Still waiting for age or injuries or an asteroid to stop him |B

RG| A. Jackson |Battles K. Garmon, C. Page; not exactly the Thrilla in Manilla |C

RT |S. Page |Must fill E. Williams' shoes. Has big feet| C

TE| D. LaFleur |Or J. Harris. Whatever| C

QB| Q. CARTER |Could be worse. They could be on fire |

FB| R. Thomas |Never trust a man with two first names. Except to block |B

RB |E. Smith |How does "NFL's all-time rusher" sound? About a year away |B

SPECIAL TEAMS-k |T. Seder plagued by inconsistency |C

OFFENSIVE GRADE C

DEFENSE

DE |E. Ekuban |May be a pass-rusher. Definitely not a run-stopper |C

DT |M. Myers |How not to fortify an interior defense: Exhibit A |D

DT |B. Noble |Exhibit B |D

DE |G . Ellis |Path of most resistance on this line| C

LB |M. Steele |Good, solid football name. It's the rookie's job to lose |I

LB |D. Nguyen |In '00: plucky li'l guy. In '01: plucky li'l guy |C

LB |D. Coakley |In '00: fastest LB in NFL. In '01: yup |B

CB |I . Reese |Making trip from safety to corner. Should arrive safely |C

SS| D. Woodson |Sole leader on a team that needs more leaders |B

FS| G. Teague| Reliable, if they could rely on him not to get hurt |C

CB| M. Edwards |Battles K. Larrimore and D. Goodrich. No winners here |D

SPECIAL TEAMS-p |Teams like this need more reliable punter than M. Knorr |

DEFENSIVE GRADE D

THE DEAL The owner's saying 10 wins. We're saying way too much PlayStation

The home record (174-74, .702) is the best of any team with 30 games at its current stadium. So why should Texas taxpayers build Jerry Jones a new one?

TEAM GRADE D

NFC CENTRAL

BAD TO THE BONE

WHAT IT WAS Backyard brawls breaking out in a cloud of dust, a sea of mud or, now and then, "on the fro-zen tun-dra of Lam-beau Field." The Black and Blue Division came by the name honestly. True to its Midwestern roots, the NFL Central defined bonejarring, bone-chilling football, in rep and reality a blue-collar game devoured by never-say-brrrrr fans. No division offered better bellringers-from Dick Butkus to Ray Nitschke to Mike Singletary to John Lynch-or fiercer rivalries. Packers-Lions. Lions-Bears. Packers-Vikings. So who invited the Buccaneers?

WHAT IT IS Even with a Florida team trying to pass for Midwesterners, you're still looking at one tough bunch. Multiple contenders every season. A rep in the last six NFC championship games. Why? Because there's no better way for a team to prep for the postseason than by surviving the special brand of intradivision warfare that's still common here. You don't win the NFC Central so much as you survive it.

TO ROCK IT You must have a good ground game. The Bucs call Warrick Dunn's number. The Packers bring Ahman Green and sometimes Dorsey Levens. The Vikings had the best in Robert Smith, but then the doc decided to practice a little preventative medicine and hang 'em up at age 28. Your ground game's so important because it's the only hope you have of keeping Warren Sapp honest. But you've got to be able to go up top every now and then, as the Bucs found out against the Eagles in the playoffs. So they signed Brad Johnson. They had to have somebody who could give Keyshawn the damn ball.

GRAND CENTRAL

Each team in the NFC Central had a 1,000-yard rusher last year. That was only the fourth time since the current division alignment was set in 1970 that every team featured a back who hit the 1K mark.

Vikings Robert Smith (1,521)

Lions James Stewart (1,184)

Packers Ahman Green (1,175)

Buccaneers Warrick Dunn (1,133)

Bears James Allen (1,120)

1 NFC CENTRAL

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

SAPP, CRACKLE

THOUGH THEIR D slipped a bit last season, the Bucs' Achilles' heel was still their O. True, they scored the most points in team history (388). The problem, though, was quality, not quantity. Simply put, the Bucs had trouble sustaining drives. Enter Brad Johnson. While Johnson isn't an elite QB, he'll be a big upgrade over Shaun King. With a career completion rate of 61.8%, Johnson will keep the chains moving. Still, don't expect the Bucs to open up the offense. Tony Dungy, now on his third O-coordinator (Clyde Christensen) in as many seasons, has vowed that his offensive philosophy will be no different. In fact, a better passing game within the same scheme should translate into success. Dungy's ball-control mantra (which means a lot of RB Warrick Dunn) is custom-made for his hardcore defense, anchored by T Warren Sapp (16.5 sacks) and LB Derrick Brooks (128 solo tackles). And the rich got richer: The stacked unit adds DE?Simeon Rice (7.5 sacks). With these key additions, anything less than a trip to New Orlea ns will be a disappointment.

PLAYER|THE WORD

OFFENSE

WR |J. Green |Not bad for "the other guy"| B

WR |K. Johnson| We fear way too many corny "Johnson & Johnson" references| A

LT |K. Walker |Can be the next P. Gruber. Which is high praise in these parts| I

LG|R. McDaniel |Some guys stay around too long. He's not one of 'em |B

C |J. Christy |They could do a lot worse |B

RG|C. Coleman |Has to show he can do a lot better |C

RT| J. Wunsch |You can't teach size, but you can teach footwork. Show him |B

TE|D. Moore |What do you call a solid blocker who drops passes? Backup |C

QB |B. Johnson| On second thought, we're not so worried about that J&J thing |B

FB |M. Alstott| Would be an A if ball came with a handle |B

RB W. Dunn |Looks like a sapling, plays like an oak |A

SPECIAL TEAMS-K |M. Gramatica's big leg pays off on team that rarely gets close |A

OFFENSIVE GRADE B

DEFENSE

DE|M. Jones |Finally had his year. Looks like start of a trend |A

DT |A. McFarland|Go ahead, double W. Sapp. "Booger" dares you| A

DT| W. Sapp |He's leaner and likely meaner. Hide your QBs |A

DE|S. Rice| As if leaving 'Zona weren't enough, he's playing for new deal| B

LB |S. Quarles |Does a little of everything, but mostly doesn't get in way |B

LB |J. Duncan |Great D's cover their weaknesses. He's one of them |B

LB |D Brooks| Unit makes lots of plays. He's in on most of them| A

CB |D. Abraham |Try to outrun him, because you won't outplay him |A

SS| J. Lynch |Call him "DJ" because the hits just keep on coming |A

FS |D. Jackson |Injury kept him from starting last year. So he's a year angrier |B

CB |R. Barber |Can be toasted. But gives as good as he gets |B

SPECIAL TEAMS-P |M. Royals gets it off; coverage will be there when it lands B

DEFENSIVE GRADE A

THE DEAL If they don't get to New Orleans in January, Tony Dungy better update his resume

Since Warren Sapp's second season (1996), the Bucs have held opponents to 20 or fewer points in 54 games, most in the NFL over that span.

TEAM GRADE A-

2 NFC CENTRAL

GREEN BAY PACKERS

LEAP YEAR

Mike Sherman's first season as head coach was all ups and downs. Want proof? A 5-2 record against playoff teams, contrasted with a dismal 4-5 against teams not good enough to get there. Now, in his first season as GM/head coach, Sherman wants his Packers to be more consistent. That should be easier on defense, where second-year coordinator Ed Donatell adds a slimmer Gilbert Brown (is that possible?) and pass-rushing top pick Jamal Reynolds to his attacking schemes. On offense, the Pack could be consistently good if RB Ahman Green (1,734 yards rushing and receiving) proves 2000 was no fluke and Dorsey Levens (out 4 to 6 weeks with a broken hand) returns ready to complement Green. With Green and Levens providing a strong one-two punch out of the backfield, QB Brett Favre would be under less pressure to win games by himself. A breakout season from second-year TE Bubba Franks and a return to form by WR Antonio Freeman would give Favre more weapons than he's had since ... well, since the Pack packed for the playoffs. That would be plenty up enough.

PLAYER|THE WORD

OFFENSE

WR |A. Freeman |Weird off-season. "Earth to Antonio: Come back!" |B

WR |B. Schroeder| Shouldn't be second option. Won't be if R. Ferguson rises |C

LT| C. Clifton |Huge rookie was huger surprise |B

LG|M. Wahle |Struggled on outside. Will struggle on inside, too C

C |F. Winters |So old he came via Plan B. M. Flanagan is ready |B

RG|M. Rivera |N eeded to get better in pass protection-and did| B

RT |M. Tauscher |Versatile, which is fortunate. See LG |B

TE|B. Franks| He's no M. Chmura. On the field, that's not a compliment |C

QB| B. Favre |Still the guy you want with the ball when it counts |A

FB| W. Henderson |Throw it to him or run behind him. But don't hand it to him |B

RB |A. Green |Unlike Levens, Green's always healthy and dangerous| B

SPECIAL TEAMS-K |R. Longwell as reliable as December weather in Green Bay |A

OFFENSIVE GRADE B

DEFENSE

DE|V. Holliday |Aloha. Get ready for a Hawaiian Holliday| A

DT |R. Maryland| He's been around the block, but still gets around blocks| B

DT| S. Dotson |Doesn't, um, rock RBs like he used to |B

DE|J. Thierry| Few noticed the Pack in '00, so few noticed his turnaround |B

LB |N . Diggs| Natural athlete needs to become thinking athlete |B

LB |B. Harris |Team's top tackler is a run-stuffer, which is good because ... |A

LB |N. Wayne |... team's hardest worker must work harder against run |B

CB| M. McKenzie |Has talent. But his wheels need rotation| B

SS| D. Sharper |Why'd they re-sign him so quickly? Cuz it was a no-brainer| A

FS| L . Butler |Can the Butler do it one more time at 33?| B

CB| T. Williams |WRs rarely catch it vs. him; he rarely pops 'em when they do| B

SPECIAL TEAMS-P |J. Bidwell actually slipped notch after returning to field |C

DEFENSIVE GRADE B

THE DEAL Favre & Co. finished red-hot. Can they ride that heat wave into the postseason?

Ryan Longwell is the NFL's all-time leader in FG accuracy (84.7%), a hair (.11 percentage points) ahead of the Dolphins' Olindo Mare.

TEAM GRADE B

3 NFC CENTRAL

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

WOUNDED

A YEAR AGO, his club leaking bodies and talent, especially at QB, Dennis Green vowed he would field a better team. We all laughed, of course, until he and Daunte Culpepper proved us wrong. In his first season as a starter, Culpepper rolled up 40 TDs (33 passing) en route to the NFC title game. Sure, all-world WRs Cris Carter and Randy Moss made things easier, but Culpepper stole the show, playing like a poised vet. Now the Vikes will need him to get better just to make the playoffs. With the departure of Todd Steussie and the tragic loss of Korey Stringer, Minnesota will be without their bookend tackles. Also gone is retired RB Robert Smith (1,521 yards, 7 TDs), whose running opened the field for Carter and Moss. Green will need rookie RB Michael Bennett to step in soon and T Chris Liwienski to fill Stringer's shoes. Good luck. On D, Green enlisted DB guru Willie Shaw to help a porous secondary (28th in the league). A reshuffled front seven must create more pressure in the pocket (only 31 sacks in 2000). It's a lot to ask, but we've learned not to laugh when Dennis does the asking.

PLAYER|THE WORD

OFFENSE

WR |R. Moss |DBs' only hope: get him on one of the plays he takes off |A

WR |C. Carter |Nice guy, nicer leader, nicest hands |A

LT |B. Badger |Until training camp, T. Steussie was line's biggest loss |C

LG|C. Lacina |Shortcomings will be more obvious this year |B

C|M. Birk |All of a sudden, the next great center is on his own |A

RG|D. Dixon| Blue-collar scrapper on line that needs more Wall Street |B

RT| C. Liwienski |Would have hard time even without tragic circumstances |C

TE|B. Chamberlain| Catches well on team that needs more blocking |B

QB| D. Culpepper |That late-season sound: Daunte hitting the wall| A

FB| J. Kleinsasser| Soft hands, hard blocks make him a keeper |B

RB |D. Chapman| Battles M. Bennett, ghost of R. Smith. Two no-contests |C

SPECIAL TEAMS-K |G . Anderson older than dirt, but as long as O gets close A- |B

OFFENSIVE GRADE A

DEFENSE

DE|T. Sawyer| First name (Talance) much more intriguing than game| C

DT |C. Hovan| Ford work ethic with a Ferrari first step |B

DT| F. Smith |Fernando for Robert is definitely not our choice of Smiths |C

DE|L. Johnstone |Raiders didn't want this speed rusher. Vikes need him| B

LB| G. Northern |Situational pass-rusher would prefer different situation| C

LB| K. Wong |With Rudd gone, he's best of lot. Maybe better than that |B

LB| E. McDaniel| Has seen better days. Lots of them |C

CB| K. Wright|Denny, you're kidding, right?| D

SS |R. Griffith |Best-kept safety secret in NFL. Well, not anymore |A

FS |O. Thomas |Nose for the ball, but the big man tackles small |B

CB |R. Tate |Giants playoff game his worst nightmare-until this season |C

SPECIAL TEAMS-P |M. Berger is league's best punter. There, we said it |A

DEFENSIVE GRADE C

THE DEAL Every time you write the Vikes off, Denny Green finds a way to write them back in

Don't bring up third-and-long to S Robert Griffith. The Vikes allowed opposing QBs a lofty 103.8 passer rating on third down, worst in the NFL.

TEAM GRADE B-

4 NFC CENTRAL

DETROIT LIONS

TALK ABOUT a bad day at the office. The Lions blew a playoff berth with a homefield loss to the lowly Bears in last season's finale. In the aftermath, owner William Clay Ford purged his front office, then surprised everyone by hiring ex-Raider-turned-broadcaster Matt Millen as club president. Millen brought in veteran exec Bill Tobin and tabbed offensive guru Marty Mornhinweg as head coach. Under Mornhinweg, the Lions will run the West Coast offense. How it runs in Motown depends on whether QB Charlie Batch can grasp the offense, stay healthy and mesh with WRs Germane Crowell, Johnnie Morton and Herman Moore (a question mark with a shoulder injury suffered in camp). Though the Lions D is solid and deep, new D-coordinator VInce Tobin, looking to reinvigorate sack-happy DE?Robert Porcher and get more pressure on the QB, hired Charles Haley as a "pass-rush" coach. Millen & Co. could be facing a little negative deja vu, with five of the last six games against division rivals. Then again, that homefield season-ender against the Bears might not matter this year.

PLAYER|THE WORD

OFFENSE

WR |J. Morton |Like salt: easy to find, goes with everything| A

WR |G. Crowell |With H. Moore winding down, he'll have to do. And he will |C

LT| J. Backus| Has ability to send McDougle to the inside| I

LG|S. McDougle |Has ability to move to the inside |A

C |E. Beverly |Rookie D. Raiola will push him. He won't budge |B

RG|B. Stai |Jags couldn't afford him, Lions couldn't afford not to |C

RT| A. Gibson |He'd like to forget bad shoulder ... and weigh-ins| B

TE|D. Sloan |Gets deep in the seam. Seems not to get deep into blocking |B

QB| C. Batch |Think he has a future here? Wanna buy a tunnel to Canada? |C

FB| C. Schlesinger |Pure blocker, as in that's all he can do |C

RB |J. Stewart |He's no Barry, but he's a more than adequate James |B

SPECIAL TEAMS-K |J. Hanson would be great in Lambeau, let alone indoors| A

OFFENSIVE GRADE C

DEFENSE

DE|R. Porcher| Last year proved he needed camp. Now he'll prove he went |B

DT |J. Jones| Fine against run and may end up finer against pass |B

DT| L. Elliss |One of top DTs. Not in Detroit, in football |A

DE|T. Scroggins| A subpar season last year. And he's back for more? |C

LB |A. Aldridge |Millen will like this playmaker |B

LB| S. Boyd |Millen will love this run-stopper |A

LB |C. Claiborne |Millen will give this guy one more chance| C

CB| B. Westbrook|On track to stardom before tearing Achilles. He's back |A

SS| R. Rice |Dependable-but one thing you can count on is an injury |B

FS| K. Schulz |What he lacks in skill, he makes up for in leadership |B

CB |T. Fair |Imagine his game if his pals stay healthy. Pretty picture |A

SPECIAL TEAMS-P |J. Jett should have strong leg-it gets lots of practice| A

DEFENSIVE GRADE B

THE DEAL The Lions will be toothless pussycats if Batch can't manage to stay healthy

Since 1996, no one has more sacks than Lions DE Robert Porcher, who has bagged 57 quarterbacks over five seasons.

TEAM GRADE C

5 NFC CENTRAL

CHICAGO BEARS

ILL WIND

NO TEAM HAS scored fewer points over the past four seasons than the Bears. You can make it five if coach Dick Jauron can't decide on a QB. Shane Matthews is the early starter, but he'll be pushed by Jim Miller and ... well, forget about Cade McNown. He's trade bait. To take the pressure off whoever is at QB, new O-coordinator John Shoop is installing a more run-oriented attack that will feature two-back formations. Ex-Jag FB Daimon Shelton will block for James Allen and second-round pick Anthony Thomas. Allen, a shifty runner, rushed for 1,120 yards last year, but that was out of a spread formation. Thomas figures to be used in short-yardage situations. Despite the addition of top pick David Terrell, the passing game won't work unless WR Marcus Robinson recovers from nagging back problems. LB Brian Urlacher led the team in tackles (102) his rookie season-and he didn't even start the first two games. He was the first Bears defender to get a trip to Hawaii since 1993. With that offense, though, Urlacher might be too tired to go.

PLAYER|THE WORD

OFFENSE

WR| B. Engram| Great hands. Lousy ACL |C

WR| M. Robinson |Big-play guy must stay away from big injuries| B

LT |B. Brockermeyer |Like Chicago itself, impressive but not top tier |C

LG|R. Tucker |Finesse player. Translation: J. Wisne, come on down|C

C |O. Kreutz| If not for bum knee, you'd know his number |C

RG|C. Villarrial |Half-full: Strong, young and tough. All-full: Improving |C

RT| J. Williams |Q: When does "experienced" become "old"? A: Not quite yet |B

TE|F. BAXTER |Decent blocker and hands, decent chance to be replaced| C

QB |S. Matthews |Not the best arm, but knows the O in his sleep |C

FB |D. Shelton |One-dimensional, meaning tacklers will get flattened |C

RB |J. ALLEN |Will make chains run on time |B

SPECIAL TEAMS-K |Kicker P. Edinger is unorthodox-but accurate |B

OFFENSIVE GRADE D

DEFENSE

DE|B. Robinson "|Ho-boy" against run. "Ho-hum" against pass |B

DT |K. Traylor| Broncs cap casualty is Bears bargain |B

DT |T. Washington| As if Chi-Town doesn't have enough beef already |B

DE|P. Daniels |Won't show up linemates, but won't be shown up, either |B

LB| R. Colvin |Found a home on strongside. He's buying, not renting ... |B

LB| B. Urlacher| A- and he's got the neighborhood enforcer to grow old with |A

LB| W. Holdman |Kicking butt before knee injury, which hinders butt-kicking| B

CB| J. Azumah |It's his job to lose, and he might |C

SS |T. Parrish |Came back strong last year. Must keep coming |B

FS| M. Brown |Urlacher got all the rookie props, but he'll soon get his |B

CB |T. Smith |Started weak, finished strong. Needs to skip the first part| B

SPECIAL TEAMS-P |B. Maynard goes from breezy Meadowlands to Windy City |C

DEFENSIVE GRADE B

THE DEAL Not nearly enough horses to play with the big boys this season

No team had fewer opportunities (26) inside the 20 and fewer red zone TDs (11) than the Bears. New QB Shane Matthews faces a heavy lift.

TEAM GRADE D

NFC WEST

TAKE THE POINTS

WHAT IT WAS Gone With the Wind meets L.A. Confidential. A streetcar named Desire to Hollywood and Vine, then a cable car to Peachtree Street. Chardonnay with gumbo, Spago pizza and Dixie beer-but somehow you wake up in St. Louis. The NFL had a plan-it must have had a plan, right?- when it rearranged the map in this crazy way. Hardly mattered, because for almost two decades-and 16 division titles-all roads led to San Francisco.

WHAT IT IS The most exciting division in the NFL. Period. The Rams' attack is a continuous-loop highlight film. The Saints' strut is a parade down Bourbon Street. Both are legitimate powers with plausible Super Bowl dreams. What else? A team rising from the ashes (49ers), another in free-fall (Panthers) and one that has the Next Michael (Falcons). Hey, two out of three ain't bad. Defense? Sure, you gotta have one when the other team has the ball, but people in this division think scoring first. And second. Kurt Warner. Aaron Brooks. Jeff G arcia. Ricky Williams and Marshall Faulk. Torry Holt, Terrell Owens and Joe Horn. The Old West was wild, and so's the new one-five different division winners since 1996.

TO ROCK IT Points matter. Yes, they do. But at some point you have to play a little D. Last year, the Saints beat the Rams twice behind a front four that was the league's best: DTs Norman Hand and La'Roi Glover, DEs Joe Johnson and Darren Howard. St. Louis got the point and went D-crazy in the off-season, hiring a new coordinator, Lovie Smith, and bringing in eight new starters. That should be enough, right? Maybe not. Remember, the Saints D will be even better this year-and the Saints O will be a lot better.

AIR WEST

Quarterbacks in the NFC West combined for an 88.4 passer rating, the highest for any division since 1995. Here's how the top guns fared last season:

Trent Green Rams (101.8)

Kurt Warner Rams (98.3)

Jeff Garcia 49ers (97.6)

Aaron Brooks Saints (85.7)

Jeff Blake Saints (82.7)

Steve Beuerlein Panthers (79.7)

Chris Chandler Falcons (73.5)

1 NFC WEST

ST. LOUIS RAMS

DON'T BLINK

PLAYER|THE WORD

OFFENSE

WR |I. Bruce |Big play waiting to happen-about three times a game |A

WR |T. Holt |Same as above. And more. Not all of it good, though |A

LT |O. Pace |Better pancakes than IHOP. Better blocking than anyone |A

LG|T. Nutten |The worst guy on this line, and that's no insult |B

C |A. McCollum |Traffic cop doesn't have to hand out many tickets |B

RG|A. Timmerman |Still tops in league (at holding calls, too) |B

RT| R. Tucker |More than enough to replace most tackles |A

TE|E. Conwell |Rams don't ask much from TEs. He's more than qualified |B

QB |K. Warner |Some are as good; none are better| A

FB |J. Hodgins |Rams decided bigger and stronger was better |C

RB |M. Faulk |Some may be as good; you'd never trade him for any of them |A

SPECIAL TEAMS-K |No one gets more PAT reps than J. Wilkins |C

OFFENSIVE GRADE A

DEFENSE

DE|L. Little |Washout LB moves up. Well, he can rush the passer |C

DT |T. JACKSON S|hould fit in well here. Would fit in well anywhere |C

DT| D. Lewis |Superfast rook needs to catch on super quick |I

DE|G. Wistrom |Twice the player anyone but his mom thought he'd be |B

LB| L. Fletcher |Shouldn't be as good as he is|A

LB |D. Davis |Good thing T. Polley and B. Allen are on bench |D

LB |M. Fields |"Please be a run, please be a run"|C

CB |A. Williams |Hey, no one thinks D. Green is old |A

SS |A. Archuleta |If he plays half as hard as he trains, people will get hurt |I

FS |K. Herring |Fast, smart, soft. Two out of three ain't bad! |B

CB |D. McCleon |Some DBs look good when ball flies at them. Not Dexter |C

SPECIAL TEAMS-P |With this O, Rams don't even know punter's name (J. Baker) |C

DEFENSIVE GRADE C

THE DEAL If all those defensive fixes click, they can start practicing their Bourbon Street strut

Marshall Faulk scored 11 TDs last December, the most by a non-QB in a month since O.J. Simpson's 11 in November 1975.

TEAM GRADE B

2 NFC WEST

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

NO JOKE

The Saints started last year with a prayer and finished with a miracle. That's what happens when you win a playoff game. The next step is the conference title game-which will not require divine intervention. The Saints are that good. At quarterback, pick your poison, Brooks or Blake (we'll take Brooks). With Ricky healthy and rookie Deuce McAllister available as a second option, RB is a lock. WRs Albert Connell and Joe Horn will stretch the field for Williams and McAllister, and the return of TE Cam Cleeland from a torn Achilles tendon provides the short-route receiver needed in the West Coast offense. The D-line is the best in the league, though the LB corps is thin. And then there's the secondary. The CBs are either old, hurt or small; this unit is definitely the weakest link. Overall, though, coach Jim Haslett doesn't have to worry about a letdown. His guys are tough and hungry and ready for what's next. The Saints will march deeper into the playoffs, but with that secondary, a home game on the final Sunday in January looks like a stretch.

PLAYER|THE WORD

OFFENSE

WR |A. Connell |Fresh start will help; so would fresh attitude| C

WR| J. Horn |We'll ask again: Where did he come from? |A

LT |W. Roaf |Finally doesn't have to be The Man. Still is |A

LG|W. Williams |Got carried along on wave last year, but he'll stay afloat |B

C| J. Fontenot |Head of a vet, and body doesn't look a day over 50 |B

RG|C. Naeole |First-rounder is finally playing like, well, a second-rounder| B

RT |K. Turley |The Man in training |A

TE|C. Cleeland |Exactly what offense needs (a big target) |B

QB |A. Brooks |We believe. You will too |B

FB |T. Smith |Strong blocker, will get plenty of chances to show skills |B

RB |R. Williams |Marches to own drummer, but runs to beat of Pro Bowler |B

SPECIAL TEAMS-K |J. Carney in, D. Brien out. Saints win |B

OFFENSIVE GRADE B

DEFENSE

DE|D. Howard |Rookie sensation set bar pretty high |B

DT| N. Hand |And we thought leaving San Diego was a mistake |B

DT| L. Glover |Inside pass rush ends again in Honolulu |A

DE|J. Johnson |Speaking of high bars. (Note: This line rocks) |A

LB |K. Mitchell |Another Pro Bowler. (Yeah, took us by surprise too) |B

LB |C. Clemons |Ring with Rams, nice run with Saints. Lucky on both |C

LB |D. Smith| Saints dumped Pro Bowler M. Fields. They won't miss him |B

CB| F. Weary|Back from ACL, but may not be able to keep up |C

SS| S. Knight |Know who hits harder? A BattleBot. Maybe |A

FS| J. Bellamy| Ex-Seahawk gets invited to shindig. Party on| B

CB |K. Mathis |Even he had a career year. Jeez, can we try out? |B

SPECIAL TEAMS-P |T. Gowin doesn't generate Dome numbers |C

DEFENSIVE GRADE B

THE DEAL Great defense. Awesome offense. Plus they know all the best places in the Quarter

With a 3-5 mark at the Dome, Jim Haslett's Saints became the first team in history to win a division or conference despite a losing record at home.

TEAM GRADE B

3 NFC WEST

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

FAULT LINES

The Niners wrote the book on dynasty-building. Who knew they could start from scratch, too? Steve Mariucci, that's who. "This team is young and hungry," he says. He didn't mention "thin" or "cap-strapped." But so what? Jeff Garcia (4,278 yards passing, 31 TDs) to Terrell Owens (97 catches, 1,451 yards, 13 TDs) is a great start. If another WR (J.J. Stokes, Tai Streets, Cedric Wilson) emerges, watch out. Garrison Hearst's comeback could be the season's feel-good story, but FB Fred Beasley may end up the featured back, based more on his hands (31 catches) than his feet. The O-line is solid with G Ray Brown and T Derrick Deese. The D is talented but young. The front four went from bad to good with the drafting of DE Andre Carter and the signing of ex-Niner DT Dana Stubblefield. They should free up stud DT Bryant Young (9.5 sacks). Two second-year starters at LB and in the secondary make the defense vulnerable. But somehow Mariucci will cajole 7 or 8 wins out of this group, and then he'll see what he has in December: a better team that's still young and hungry.

PLAYER|THE WORD

OFFENSE

WR| T. Owens |Big, fast-and almost as talented as he thinks he is |A

WR |J.J. Stokes |Needed more than ever. Rarely been there for them before |C

LT |D. Deese |Small body,* big heart* (*relatively speaking) |B

LG |R. Brown |Can someone this big really be that quick? Well, yes| A

C |J. Newberry |Like oatmeal: thick, bland, reliable |B

RG| D. Fiore |Made switch from OT without much trouble| B

RT |S. Gragg |Bulldozer with a head |A

TE|G. Clark |Can block and catch. Might do both in Hawaii| B

QB |J. Garcia|Best Canadian import since Molson's. Or Rush |A

FB |F. Beasley |A FB who blocks and catches. How unoriginal |A

RB| G. Hearst |Well, he should be rested |I

SPECIAL TEAMS-K| J. Cortez might lose job to J. Rheem-so what |C

OFFENSIVE GRADE B

DEFENSE

DE |C. Okeafor |Gets better with time-if only there were enough of it |C

DT| B. Young |Plays hard, expects mates to follow |A

DT |D. Stubblefield| They say you can't go home again. Don't bet on it |B

DE |A. Carter| Mind of a vet, body of a rook, future of Bruce Smith |I

LB |J. Peterson |C. Haley when he's healthy, Halley's comet when he's not |B

LB |D. Smith |Not a hitter, but gets in the way of a lot of plays |C

LB |J. Winborn| Short and powerful, like an M-80 |I

CB |A. Plummer |Big body, big brain, big future |B

SS| L. Schulters| Hits so hard your family feels it |B

FS |Z. BRONSON |Ditto-if he catches up to you (or your mom) |C

CB |J. Webster |Nose for ball, but only reaches WRs' chests (5'9'') |C

SPECIAL TEAMS-P |C. Stanley never met a sub-40-yard punt he wouldn't kick| C

DEFENSIVE GRADE C

THE DEAL After Montana-Rice and Young-Rice, Garcia-Owens will take some getting used to

The last time the 49ers were shut out- Oct. 9, 1977-Jeff Garcia was 7. It's the longest scoring streak ever (403 games). Next? Dallas (248, 1970-85).

TEAM GRADE B

4 NFC WEST

ATLANTA FALCONS

NO-FLY ZONE

That screech you hear is the brakes on the Falcons' slide. Sure, Michael Vick, with his scary speed and rocket arm, is here, but so is Jamal Anderson, who appears fully recovered from a torn ACL. That means Vick won't be asked to save the season, because Anderson's bruising running will still be the O's main focus. If he can stay healthy, QB Chris Chandler, a surprisingly gracious lame duck, will have a decent trio of deep-threat WRs in Shawn Jefferson, Terance Mathis and Tony Martin. But this offense has enough question marks to make Vick happy he's pondering them from the sidelines. The D should be more consistent. The line is serviceable, though DEs Brady Smith and Patrick Kerney need to match the play of neighbors Travis Hall and Ed Jasper at DT. The Birds are deep at LB: Keith Brooking could have a Pro Bowl year and Jeff Kelly and Mark Simoneau will improve with the return of Jessie Tuggle. The Falcons are 9-23 since the 1998 NFC title game, and they won't get much better this year. Next year? That's when Vick will be asked to save the season. And the franchise.

PLAYER|THE WORD

OFFENSE

WR |S. Jefferson |Some teams have deep threats. The Falcons don't |C

WR |T. Mathis |Will keep drive going-if someone gets it started |B

LT |B. Whitfield |As good as it gets here-by far| A

LG |C. Collins |A cry for help |C

C |T. McClure| A desperate cry for help |C

RG| B. HALLEN |Wins job by default; upgrade needed here |D

RT |T Claridge| Actually, some help |B

TE |R. Kelly |What did they see in him? |C

QB |C. Chandler |Sorry, Chris, but the over/under on M. Vick is 5 games |C

FB |B. Christian |Blocking beginning to erode, but pluses outweigh minuses| C

RB |J. Anderson |Back at full strength. Too bad team isn't |B

SPECIAL TEAMS-K |Rookie (J. Arians) replaces legend (M. Andersen). Uh-oh |I

OFFENSIVE GRADE D

DEFENSE

DE |B. Smith |QBs don't have to worry about pressure from this guy |C

DT |T. Hall |If only they had four of him. (Or even two) |B

DT |E. Jasper| Clogs middle. Of course, so do those damn SUVs |C

DE |P. Kerney |Small, hard-working rusher needs to improve against run |C

LB |H. Crockett| Signed away inMay. Traded back in August.Must be a secret| C

LB |J. Tuggle| A gamer, but a body only has so many tackles in it |B

LB |K. Brooking |Quick, tough-and by December very, very tired|B

CB |R. Buchanan |Deserves respect even if age doesn't warrant it |A

SS |M. Carter |Tackling he's got covered; coverage he's never tackled |B

FS |R. Bradford |Speedy and steady, and better as a backup |C

CB |A. Ambrose| On second thought, he's just not worth the bucks| B

SPECIAL TEAMS-P| Vet punters like C. Mohr don't recover from down years |C

DEFENSIVE GRADE C

THE DEAL How long before Mike-sorry, Michael-is running the show?

The Dirty Bird is back: Jamal Anderson (1,024 yards) accounted for 84% of Atlanta's rushing attack last season, the highest percentage of any NFC back.

TEAM GRADE C

5 NFC WEST

CAROLINA PANTHERS

PUSSYCATS

After four years of poor drafts and quick fixes, the Panthers have a new plan: Get better by getting younger. After shoring up a horrible O-line (69 sacks), coach George Seifert gambled by cutting QB Steve Beuerlein. First up: Jeff Lewis, who hasn't shown much in five NFL seasons. Behind him is Chris Weinke, who at 29 has had no NFL seasons to show anything. Plan B: run more-but with Richard Huntley and Tim Biakabutuka carrying the ball, that's not much of a plan either. WR Muhsin Muhammad is a Seifert favorite who needs a QB; he'll have to get on line. The verdict on D is mixed, as in there is a good mix of rookies and solid veterans. S Mike Minter is a hard-hitting playmaker and, as a five-year vet, provides much-needed leadership. Rookie LB Dan Morgan joins a solid unit that should improve the run defense. But that hole behind the center will look like the Grand Canyon by December. Seifert has to hope owner Jerry Richardson doesn't decide next year's plan calls for hiring another coach.

PLAYER|THE WORD

OFFENSE

WR |M. Muhammad |Talent like this should be on the Rams. Or Vikings, at least| A

WR |D. Hayes |Has some tools. But so do we, and our faucet's leaky |C

LT |T. Steussie |One step forward |B

LG |J. Nesbit |One step back |D

C |J. Mitchell |One step forward| A

RG| K. Donnalley |One step back |D

RT |C. Terry| Best of bunch. (Note: on line that gave up, like, 300 sacks) |B

TE |W. Walls |Doubtful for start of season, team more so than him |A

QB |J. Lewis |G .Seifert climbs out on limb. C. Weinke saves him |C

FB |C. Hetherington |Makes $650K a year. Worth almost every penny |C

RB |T. Biakabutuka |Fumbles. Always gets hurt. But he looks so good doing it| C

SPECIAL TEAMS-K| J. Kasay (two knee surgeries) is a question mark |I

OFFENSIVE GRADE D

DEFENSE

DE |J. Williams| All those free agent DLs, and here's one who earned his cash |B

DT| K. Jenkins |You can't have enough DLs. Especially when most suck |I

DT |S. Gilbert |Too far away from rep to be carried by it |C

DE| C. Slade |Yet another castoff. Have they learned nothing?| C

LB| D. Wells |Wide-open position. With or without Wells |C

LB |L. Towns| Last year's best seventh-round pickup |B

LB |D. Morgan |How long until he's team's best LB? What time is it? |I

CB |J. Hitchcock |Some money not terribly spent |B

SS| M. Minter |A top safety and, please note, a draftee |A

FS| D. Grant| Wasn't much of a hitter before that bad hip injury |C

CB| D. Evans |Big corner coming off big season |B

SPECIAL TEAMS-P |Anyone remember when T. Sauerbrun didn't underachieve?| C

DEFENSIVE GRADE C

THE DEAL It really wasn't all that long ago that these guys were good. It just seems that way.

George Seifert arrived in Carolina with the best winning percentage (.765) among NFL coaches. He needs 6 wins to stay in the top 5. Not a sure thing

TEAM GRADE D

The Deal It really wasn't all that long ago that these guy