Teams listed in predicted order of finishAFC EastNew...

September 04, 1998|By Sun Staff Writer Ken Murray

Teams listed in predicted order of finish

AFC East

New England

Last season: 10-6, first place. Lost divisional playoff game to Pittsburgh, 7-6.

Coach: Pete Carroll (16-16), second season with Patriots, third in NFL.

Roll call: Running back Robert Edwards, one of two first-round picks, has big shoes to fill after the departure of Curtis Martin to the Jets. Tebucky Jones, the other first-rounder, is expected to take Jimmy Hitchcock's cornerback job. Ernie Zampese replaces Larry Kennan as offensive coordinator.

What works: Drew Bledsoe is one of the league's most prolific passers with 55 touchdown throws over the last two seasons. Zampese, Bledsoe's third coordinator in three years, will try to make him a finished product. One beneficiary of the system should be Ben Coates, who has 30 touchdown catches over the last four years.

What doesn't: The secondary gives up a ton of passing yardage 216.2 yards a game last season. The Patriots were so unimpressed with Hitchcock that they traded him to Minnesota before knowing if Jones can play.

Key stat: Even with the gritty Martin in the backfield, the Patriots averaged only 91.5 rushing yards per game, which ranked 26th in the league.

Biggest gamble: That either Chris Canty or Jones will be able to handle the cornerback position.

Ticket to Miami: The Patriots need a running game to keep the heat off Bledsoe. If they get it, they could go all the way.


Last season: 9-7, second place. Lost wild-card game to New England, 17-3.

Coach: Jimmy Johnson (61-51), third season with Dolphins, eighth in NFL.

Roll call: Guard Kevin Donnalley, safety Brock Marion, linebacker Robert Jones and first-round pick John Avery at running back all fill needs for the Dolphins. Losses included offensive lineman Everett McIver, fullback Roosevelt Potts and offensive coordinator Gary Stevens, who was fired.

What works: Dan Marino will be 37 this month, but he can still zip the ball. The problem is, without a running game, he is seeing more blitzes than ever before. With no serious deep threat and a collection of mediocre receivers, the Dolphins still had the second-ranked passing game.

What doesn't: After two failed attempts, Johnson swears he'll finally fix the running game. Donnalley, a free-agent coup, and Avery, a third-down back with big-play potential, will figure large in that equation. The Dolphins rushed for just 83.9 yards, next-to-worst in the NFL.

Key stat: They averaged an anemic 3.1 yards a rush, the all-time franchise low.

Biggest gamble: That a combination of Karim Abdul-Jabbar and Avery will deliver a legitimate running game.

Ticket to Miami: Johnson probably thought this would be his year, but he has too many questions on both sides of the ball.

New York

Last season: 9-7, third place.

Coach: Bill Parcells (118-88-1), second season with Jets, 14th in NFL.

Roll call: Parcells made sweeping changes, bringing in running back Curtis Martin, center Kevin Mawae and guard Todd Burger on offense. He also dumped Neil O'Donnell and added Vinny Testaverde as insurance that Glenn Foley can be a full-time quarterback. Defensive end Hugh Douglas and running back Adrian Murrell departed in trades.

What works: Parcells' system will win in time. His defense allowed 167 fewer points in 1997 than in 1996. That, and improved special teams play, made the Jets competitive. Now he's retooling the offense. He went for bulk and power in the offensive line this off-season.

What doesn't: The man who once chose Scott Brunner over Phil Simms with the Giants has chosen Foley over O'Donnell. Parcells knows how to put a team together, but he can be a little foggy picking his quarterbacks. Watch for fireworks when Testaverde has to play.

Key stat: The Jets committed 83 penalties for 678 yards, both AFC lows. Parcells' teams don't beat themselves.

Biggest gamble: That Foley, with a 1-4 record as a starter, is the man to lead the Jets.

Ticket to Miami: The Jets could soon be the power in a turbulent division. But not this soon.


Last season: 6-10, fourth place.

Coach: Wade Phillips (16-16), first season with Bills, third in NFL.

Roll call: The Bills got their quarterback of the future when they traded for Rob Johnson, then signed him to a five-year, $25 million contract. They'll change offenses as well under new coordinator Joe Pendry, who replaces the deposed Dan Henning. The two biggest free-agent defections were linebacker Bryce Paup and cornerback Jeff Burris.

What works: With pass rusher Bruce Smith and tackle Ted Washington, the defense is still a strong point. A year ago, with Phillips as coordinator, it ranked fourth in the AFC, ninth overall. The departures of Paup and Burris will hurt, but outside linebacker Sam Cowart, the team's second-round pick, is another building block.

What doesn't: The quarterback rotation from Todd Collins to Alex Van Pelt was brutal (the Bills' pass offense ranked 25th). But it wasn't all the quarterbacks' fault; the offensive line (46 sacks) was porous.

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