Broncos rewrite playoffs script Predictions: Inspired by Denver's wild-card win, more than a half-dozen contenders are expected to mount serious challenges for a Super Bowl crown.

NFL Week 1

September 06, 1998|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

The Denver Broncos showed us how it can be done.

Blitz Brett Favre until he's looking out the earhole of his helmet, not the face mask.

Then unleash a hard-charging running back who cuts back and watch the ponderous Gilbert Brown grab for grass.

Only the Broncos have running back Terrell Davis, MVP of Super Bowl XXXII, of course. But in the wake of Denver's 31-24 victory over the Green Bay Packers last January, every playoff contender now has renewed hope.

Once the Broncos broke the NFC's 13-year stranglehold on the Super Bowl, it became a whole new playoff world in the NFL.

If a wild-card team from the AFC -- indeed, a four-time Super Bowl loser, at that -- can beat the mighty Packers, why not the Pittsburgh Steelers? Or Jacksonville Jaguars? Or San Francisco 49ers?

And if the Packers are no longer the dominant team of two years ago, are they still the best team in the NFC?

Rarely has a season started with so many would-be contenders for the crown.

In the AFC, no less than five teams appear capable of reaching the Super Bowl -- the Broncos, Steelers, Jaguars, New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs. Some are more capable than others, but all are flawed.

Then there is a second tier of wannabes, among them the Miami Dolphins, New York Jets and Seattle Seahawks.

There is no shortage of optimism on either tier.

"The AFC is wide open," says Jets cornerback Aaron Glenn. "I think we've got a chance to win much more than nine games if we just put everything together. We can do it this year."

The NFC has fewer potential champions, but the competition at the top will be no less fierce. After losing in the playoffs to the Packers three straight years, the 49ers are delirious with desire to get back to the Super Bowl. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, meanwhile, are following their own pied piper -- coach Tony Dungy --on a calculated Super Bowl journey.

Throw in the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants as possible sleepers and you have a full house in the NFC, too.

How did it come to be this way?

Young quarterbacks coming to power in the AFC. Old dynasties fading in the NFC. Free agency diluting the talent pool in both conferences. A return to the running game.

On opening day, this is how the two conference races shape up in the countdown to Super Bowl XXXIII in Miami.

Chasing the Packers

The big question in the NFC is how far the Packers have fallen, and whether they can get back up. They lost four starters to free agency, including three from a defense that wasn't great to begin with (17th in sacks, 20th against the run).

They lost their punter to an unprecedented $1 million-a-year contract, and watched their best running back, Dorsey Levens, miss the entire preseason in a contract squabble. Depth, particularly on defense, has become a major concern.

Two key players on defense figure to be rookie end Vonnie Holliday, who's expected to boost the pass rush, and Brown, the 350-pound nose tackle whose 1997 season was undermined by a series of injuries.

Nevertheless, the Packers still have Favre, their three-time MVP quarterback, and the implication is that he may be enough.

"Under his guidance, we have been able to go to the Super Bowl the last two years," said general manager Ron Wolf. "We expect to be able to do the same thing in 1998."

The Packers, stunned by their upset loss to Denver, seek redemption this season. The 49ers' motivation clearly is revenge after being eliminated each of the last three seasons by Green Bay.

Toward that end, the 49ers have revamped their offensive line, withheld All-Pro receiver Jerry Rice in the preseason, and gotten younger on defense.

The team's two biggest losses were defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield, last season's NFL player of the year, and club president Carmen Policy, who left after a falling out with estranged owner Eddie DeBartolo. It had the appearance of a chaotic off-season for the 49ers.

"Time will tell what kind of effect it has on the team," coach Steve Mariucci said, "but my guess is this football team will remain very focused and will take care of business.

"This is our time. This is our time to go get another Super Bowl."

Playing in the woeful NFC West, the 49ers' chances for a sixth Super Bowl should not be discounted. They had home-field advantage in the playoffs last season, but couldn't capitalize -- losing to the Packers, 23-10, in the championship game.

Quarterback Steve Young, who turns 37 next month, and Rice, recovering from two knee surgeries, are critical elements in any 49er revival.

The Bucs went from 6-10 to 10-6 under Dungy last year, collecting their first playoff win in 18 years. But in two seasons, Dungy is 0-5 against the Packers, including a 21-7 playoff loss.

Worse yet, the Bucs have scored just 39 points in those five games. As good as their defense is, they can't beat Favre's Packers averaging 7.8 points on offense.

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