Nfl '99 Afc Preview

September 10, 1999|By Sun staff writer Ken Murray


Buffalo Bills

Last season: 10-6, tie for second. Lost wild-card game at Miami, 24-17.

Coach: Wade Phillips (27-25), second season with Bills, fifth in NFL.

Strength of schedule: Tie for 25th.

Starting quarterback: Doug Flutie (16-8) or Rob Johnson (4-3).

Best move: Rebuilding the team through the draft and selective free-agent signings. The Bills drafted starters LG Ruben Brown, WR Eric Moulds, RB Antowain Smith and ILB Sam Cowart (second round) with their top picks the previous four years and took promising CB Antoine Winfield in the first round this year.

Toughest call: Not getting a power running back. Smith gained 1,124 yards last season, but couldn't be counted on to gain the tough yardage.

Pressure's on: Flutie to play at his 1998 level. There will be pressure to play Rob Johnson, who got an $8.5 million signing bonus a year ago.

Biggest question: With a full off-season of film study, will opposing defensive coordinators find a way to negate Flutie's play-making skills?

Key statistic: Flutie was sacked just 11 times in 365 drop-backs, turning what had been considered a weakness in the offensive line into a strength.

Ticket to Atlanta: The Bills play in the toughest division in the league, so getting home-field advantage is imperative. They should make the playoffs, but a Super Bowl run would require a phenomenal season from Flutie or Johnson.

Indianapolis Colts

Last season: 3-13, fifth.

Coach: Jim Mora (94-81), second season with Colts, 13th in NFL.

Strength of schedule: 11th.

Starting quarterback: Peyton Manning (3-13).

Best move: Dumping RB Marshall Faulk after his spectacular 1998 season, when he had 1,319 rushing yards and 908 receiving yards. At 26, Faulk has five seasons in the league and wanted a big payoff with two years left on his contract. The Colts gambled that Faulk won't repeat his career year.

Toughest call: Keeping open the pipeline to the Carolina Panthers, president Bill Polian's former team. The Colts have at least five former Panthers who could start this season, and Carolina won just four games last year.

Pressure's on: Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who rejoined Mora from Carolina. The Colts ranked 29th in total defense a year ago; the Panthers ranked 30th.

Biggest question: Without former teammate Michael Strahan (15 sacks in 1998) on the other side of the pass rush, will free-agent acquisition Chad Bratzke come close to his 11.5 sacks at defensive end?

Key statistic: With Howard Mudd coaching the offensive line, the Colts allowed just 22 sacks in 597 drop-backs, after giving up 62 the year before.

Ticket to Atlanta: The Colts need binoculars to see the playoffs.

Miami Dolphins

Last season: 10-6, tie for second. Lost divisional playoff game at Denver, 38-3.

Coach: Jimmy Johnson (71-57), fourth season with Dolphins, ninth in NFL.

Strength of schedule: 14th.

Starting quarterback: Dan Marino (142-87).

Best move: The commitment to upgrade the running game. Johnson drafted running backs with three of his first four picks, including Cecil Collins, a talented player with a troubled past. He also signed free- agent guard Kevin Gogan, one of the league's strongest linemen, and hired a new line coach.

Toughest call: Giving a $3.3 million signing bonus to wide receiver Tony Martin, who faced serious legal problems but was found not guilty at trial. The Dolphins had just six catches of 40 yards or more.

Pressure's on: Marino, who isn't likely to play past his 17th season, even though his contract is for two more years.

Biggest question: Have the Dolphins done enough to give Marino a reasonable running game?

Key statistic: The Dolphins converted only 18 of 39 third-down plays in which they needed 2 yards or fewer.

Ticket to Atlanta: While the offense tries to find its legs, the defense is the heart of the team. It was the second-youngest defense in the league a year ago, and allowed the fewest points.

Buffalo Bills

Division at a glance

New England


Last season: 9-7, fourth. Lost wild-card game at Jacksonville, 25-10.

Coach: Pete Carroll (25-23), third season with Patriots, fourth in NFL.

Strength of schedule: Sixth.

Starting quarterback: Drew Bledsoe (50-39).

Best move: Bringing in John Friesz to back up Bledsoe, a marked improvement over last year's backup, Scott Zolak. While Zolak had no running game in a playoff loss at Jacksonville, he was an erratic 21-for-44 passing.

Toughest call: Not trading first-round picks for running back Jamal Anderson when the Falcons dangled him on draft day. It's up to rookie Kevin Faulk or veteran Terry Allen to produce a running game and take some heat off Bledsoe.

Pressure's on: Carroll, who has had to endure the inevitable comparisons to previous coach Bill Parcells. The Patriots have suffered a steady erosion under Carroll.

Biggest question: Without a running game, will Bledsoe break his NFL record of 691 pass attempts, set in 1994?

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