AFC's strides not so great In games that matter, NFC still superior

November 02, 1997|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Signs abound that the AFC may finally be ready to win a Super Bowl.

More good, young teams. More good, young quarterbacks. More transplanted NFC coaches. An 18-10 advantage in the interconference series this year.

But you can forget about Jacksonville, New England and Denver. Ignore Kordell Stewart, Drew Bledsoe and Mark Brunell. And don't even mention Bill Parcells, Jimmy Johnson or Tom Coughlin.

The bottom line is, the AFC still can't beat the NFC when it counts. Not even with the Green Bay Packers in turmoil, and the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers in the final gasp of their golden era.

That's what the first half of the 1997 NFL season proved once again. Just look at the facts:

The Cowboys, riddled by age and injury, beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 37-7, in Week 1 and the Jacksonville Jaguars, 26-22, in Week 8.

The Packers, retreating on defense, beat the Miami Dolphins, 23-18, in Week 3 and the New England Patriots, 28-10, in Week 9.

And just when you thought the Dolphins might have turned a corner, they lost to the Chicago Bears -- the NFC doormats -- 36-33.

The Denver Broncos? They were run over by the defenseless Oakland Raiders, the AFC West doormats, in Week 8.

The NFC has won 13 Super Bowls in a row. There's no reason to believe the streak won't reach 14.

Here are some other observations from the first half of the season: Offensive MVP: With 1,068 yards, Denver running back Terrell Davis is on a pace to break Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards. He has four 100-yard rushing games, two 200-yard games, and his 5.0 average carry helps obscure the fact that quarterback John Elway is fading.

Defensive MVP: Buffalo's Bruce Smith has 10 sacks, but the Bills are over the hill. The player who has meant the most to his team and defense is Tampa Bay tackle Warren Sapp. He has 6.5 sacks and is the main reason the Buccaneers are fourth against the run this year.

Best free-agent buy: The Seattle Seahawks made headlines when they nabbed highly coveted linebacker Chad Brown from the Steelers. But where would they be without quarterback Warren Moon? Not in the playoff hunt, that's for sure. The 40-year-old wonder signed a two-year, $1.65 million contract, then replaced injured starter John Friesz in the opener and is 5-2 as the Seahawks' starter.

Worst free-agent buy: Did Al Davis really believe Desmond Howard could play wide receiver? Probably not. But he did expect him to dial long distance on a few punt and/or kick returns. That's why he signed the Super Bowl MVP to a four-year, $6 million deal. Howard is barely a blip on the Raiders' screen. He ranks 10th in the AFC in kickoff returns with a 22.8 average and can't even break into the top 10 in punt returns.

Best offensive rookie: Running back Warrick Dunn has given Tampa Bay the big-play element it sorely missed. He is an amazing runner between tackles for a man 5 feet 8, and once he's through the line, he's a terror. Dunn has three 100-yard rushing games and one 100-yard receiving game.

Best defensive rookie: The sky's the limit for Ravens linebacker Peter Boulware, who has 4.5 sacks. Despite missing all of training camp in a contract dispute, Boulware has made an immediate impact. He's every bit as good as scouting reports said he was.

Biggest first-round washouts: New Orleans guard Chris Naeole, taken by Mike Ditka with the 10th pick, barely made it to the field between injuries that ultimately ended his season. At least the jury's still out there. In Philadelphia, it's hard to find defensive end Jon Harris, the 25th pick, on the field or the stat sheet.

Best coaching job: Tony Dungy has done a great job making the Bucs competitive in the NFL's toughest division. And Pittsburgh's Bill Cowher has been superb in restocking the Steelers. But nobody's had a half-year like Jim Fassel, the rookie coach of the New York Giants. He lost center Brian Williams and running back Rodney Hampton going in, then saw his top two draft picks, wide receiver Ike Hilliard and running back Tiki Barber, go down with injuries as well. He's even winning with backup quarterback Danny Kanell, a move that was inevitable even if Dave Brown hadn't gotten hurt.

Worst coaching job: There are a lot of candidates. Lindy Infante's Indianapolis Colts have the only winless record in the league. Bruce Coslet's Cincinnati Bengals are bungling again, despite his 7-2 late-season success a year ago. Vince Tobin's Arizona Cardinals are pathetic as usual. And Dave Wannstedt's Bears are toothless.

But the vote here is a tie between Dick Vermeil and Ditka. Vermeil has been less than smashing in St. Louis after 15 years away from the sidelines. The Rams have good, young talent, but are only 2-6. Their star receiver, Issac Bruce, had this to say: "Last year, in my opinion, we made some strides. This year, we're in reverse."

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