3 hope to continue this Cinderella trend

Chargers, Bills, Saints want to be 4th to pull off turnaround to Super Bowl

NFL Week 7 in review

Pro Football

October 22, 2002|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

History is at work in the unexpected rise of the San Diego Chargers, the startling turnaround by the Buffalo Bills and the offensive breakout by the New Orleans Saints.

They're all trying to become the New England Patriots of 2001, the Ravens of 2000 or the St. Louis Rams of 1999.

That is to say, they're all trying to emerge as the surprise team that comes out of the NFL's shadows to win the Super Bowl.

The Patriots went 5-11 the season before winning their Super Bowl, the Ravens went 8-8 and the Rams 4-12.

Seven weeks into the season, the 6-1 Chargers are alone in first place in the AFC West, the league's toughest division, after beating the Oakland Raiders in overtime. A year ago, the Chargers went 5-11, losing their last nine games.

The 4-3 Bills pulled to a game off the AFC East lead on Sunday by beating the first-place Miami Dolphins. Last year, Buffalo went 3-13 under new coach Gregg Williams.

The 6-1 Saints took undisputed possession of the NFC South lead with their win over the San Francisco 49ers in Week 7. Last year, they went into a four-game tailspin at season's end that locked them out of the playoffs at 7-9.

What precipitated the resurgence of these three teams?

In San Diego, new coach Marty Schottenheimer put his offense in the hands of second-year quarterback Drew Brees and second-year running back LaDainian Tomlinson, and both players have responded.

Buffalo's turnaround began with the acquisition of former Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Bledsoe, expendable in New England. Bledsoe has had two 400-yard passing games and a four-touchdown passing game. Only an opening-day, overtime loss to the New York Jets has kept the Bills out of a first-place tie.

New Orleans cleaned house after December's collapse, and after general manager Randy Mueller restocked the roster, he was sent packing as well. Coach Jim Haslett opted for the big-play versatility of running back Deuce McAllister over the brute force of Ricky Williams and hasn't been disappointed. McAllister has five 100-yard rushing games, including three in a row.

Nearing the midway point of the season, here's how these three dark-horse teams stack up in several important categories:

Schedule: The Saints have the best schedule to produce a division title. Their remaining opponents are a combined 24-34, and they have just one team left with a winning record - Tampa Bay in their division. A finish against Minnesota, Cincinnati and Carolina could be icing on the cake.

Buffalo's remaining opponents are 30-28. The Bills face a demanding four-game stretch in December with home games against Miami and San Diego and away games against New England and Green Bay.

San Diego's remaining opponents are 30-29. The Chargers have an equally tough four-game stretch, but get three of the four (San Francisco, Denver, Oakland) at home, so they have a measure of control.

Quarterbacks: Bledsoe has the most success and best track record of the three, along with an electric pair of receivers in Eric Moulds and Peerless Price. The Saints' Aaron Brooks has thrown for a touchdown and at least 200 yards in every game this season. He's got wide-outs Joe Horn and Jerome Pathon as game-breakers, as well.

Brees has performed capably in Schottenheimer's run-first offense and has a dependable receiver in Curtis Conway, but doesn't appear ready to carry a team yet.

Defense: The Saints have been winning shootouts, and their defense has not really shut any team down, although it held Green Bay to 20 points. The Chargers have the most complete defense. They held Kansas City's rushing champion, Priest Holmes, to 63 yards on 23 carries, but they've been vulnerable in the air.

The Bills disqualify themselves on defense. Until they picked off four passes Sunday against Miami, they hadn't had an interception in six games. The defense should improve, but it probably won't be playoff-caliber this year.

Synopsis: If there's a team here capable of reaching the Super Bowl, it would appear to be New Orleans. The NFC is up for grabs, depending on the health of quarterbacks Brett Favre in Green Bay and Donovan McNabb in Philadelphia.

Buffalo might settle for an 8-8 season and look toward next year. The Chargers are an intriguing choice with Tomlinson's ability to control games, but the inexperience of Brees ultimately could prove crucial. Winning the AFC West would be a major feat.

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