AFC notebook

September 19, 1999|By Ken Murray

East

If last week's rout of the Bills was a statement game for the new and improved Colts, today's contest against the Patriots in Foxboro, Mass., could stamp their legitimacy as a turnaround team in 1999. With 10 new starters and quality players at the offensive skill positions, the Colts, 3-13 a year ago, are a team to watch this season. Rookie RB Edgerrin James' running complements QB Peyton Manning's passing game nicely, and new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio goes after the quarterback (he sent at least five players after the Bills' Doug Flutie on almost every passing down). The Patriots represent a big hurdle for the Colts, though. New England swept the series last season, winning 29-6 at Foxboro, where Manning threw three interceptions. Jets defensive coordinator Bill Belichick has the secret to defensing Flutie, whom he'll face tonight in Buffalo. In two games against the Jets last year (both losses), Flutie completed 38.2 percent of his passes and averaged 5.5 yards a pass. Against the rest of the league, he completed 61.5 percent and averaged 8.2 yards. Belichick stressed keeping Flutie in the pocket, using 3-4, 4-3 and 4-4 fronts, a spy and sometimes seven defensive backs. Dolphins QB Dan Marino, who just turned 38, outgunned 24-year-old Brian Griese on Monday night, and this week stares down the Cardinals' Jake Plummer, also 24. "I don't feel old at all going against younger guys," Marino said. "In fact, it makes me feel a lot younger." FB Rob Konrad last week became the 51st different Dolphin to catch a Marino TD pass. New Jets QB Rick Mirer has thrown at least one interception in each of his 54 NFL starts.

Central

Ready or not, rookie Tim Couch will start for the Browns at Tennessee in place of veteran Ty Detmer, a move that smacks of desperation. Coach Chris Palmer opened the door to controversy when asked if Detmer might return as the starter. "The thing we have to guard against is [Tim] going in, getting shellshocked, being in a situation where he loses confidence, the players lose confidence," Palmer said. "That would be the only time we'd make a change." Palmer also is benching CB Antonio Langham and RG Scott Rehberg this week, going with rookies Daylon McCutcheon and Steve Zahursky instead. The Colts' Manning says starting Couch is a good idea. "The best way for Tim to learn is to be out there and play," Manning said. Two of the Bengals' most questionable training camp decisions have come back to bite them. They opted to keep rookie QBs Akili Smith and Scott Covington behind starter Jeff Blake, and when Blake went out of last week's game with leg cramps, neither quarterback could produce a first down in three fourth-quarter possessions. The other mistake was cutting CB Corey Sawyer, a sixth-year veteran, and going with second-year man Artrell Hawkins and promising rookie Charles Fisher at the corners. Fisher suffered a career-threatening knee injury and will be replaced by first-year player Rodney Heath.

West

Broncos TE Shannon Sharpe needs six catches to pass Kellen Winslow (541) for second-most career receptions by a tight end, but is 126 behind all-time leader Ozzie Newsome (662). Catching Newsome won't be easy because Sharpe, 31, is in the last year of his contract and the Broncos are curiously quiet. After a 38-21 loss to the Dolphins, Broncos RB Terrell Davis said the defending champs need to adjust their attitude. "When we came into the [1998 season], we had just won one [Super Bowl] and people didn't really believe the Broncos were for real, and we wanted to prove a point," Davis said. "We don't have that attitude. We need to have the same attitude this year, that we want to come out and prove a point." It would've helped if they could've solved Miami's two-tight end offense, too. First-year Chiefs coach Gunther Cunningham said he wants to be more involved in on-field coaching against Denver, and those close to him already think he's too intense.

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