Division winners in '02 chasing upstarts in '03

Reason vary for haves, have-nots trading places

NFL Week 6 in review

Pro Football

October 14, 2003|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Turnover, upheaval, insanity. It's one thing not to have dynasties any longer in the NFL, but it's quite another when you can't even get repeat division winners.

Look at the league standings today. Not one division winner from the 2002 season is in first place. The Green Bay Packers, perhaps the surest repeat division champ there was before the season started, have been bounced by the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC North. Oakland won the last three AFC West titles, but the Raiders are a fading third this year.

Even the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers don't control their own division, having been supplanted by the Carolina Panthers in the NFC South.

It can't all be traced to the salary cap or free agency. It's not attributable only to injuries or coaching changes. It's not just a slump or gradual deterioration.

It's all of the above, a little of this and some of that.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are suffering from an identity crisis in the AFC North. No longer able to dominate with the run, they haven't harnessed the passing game yet, thus opening the door to the Ravens.

The Philadelphia Eagles were wounded, with injuries to their defense, and that was compounded by the fact quarterback Donovan McNabb hasn't recovered from a championship-game loss to the Bucs.

Last season's eight division champions are a combined 19-26 so far this season. The 12 playoff teams from 2002 collectively are 30-38 after the Atlanta Falcons (wild-card team) were blown out by the St. Louis Rams last night, 36-0.

If the 2003 playoffs started today, there would be only three holdover teams in the 12 spots - the Indianapolis Colts, Tampa Bay and Green Bay. That's a 75 percent turnover.

A quick review of the division shakedown:

AFC North

Last year's champ: Pittsburgh.

This year's leader: Ravens.

Synopsis: Unless the Steelers and Tommy Maddox get a better grip on the passing game, they will not make the playoff field. The new, hungry Ravens can run but can't pass, and that could open the door for the Cleveland Browns.

AFC East

Last year's champ: New York Jets.

This year's leader: Miami.

Synopsis: Key free-agent defections, suspect management and an injury to quarterback Chad Pennington weakened the Jets. The Dolphins or resilient New England Patriots, who meet on Sunday, both have a chance to go far.

AFC South

Last year's champ: Tennessee.

This year's leader: Indianapolis.

Synopsis: It is likely the Titans, with Steve McNair, and the Colts, with Peyton Manning, have the two best quarterbacks - in that order - in the game today. It'd be a good argument. Both these teams are playoff worthy and Super Bowl capable.

AFC West

Last year's champ: Oakland.

This year's leader: Kansas City.

Synopsis: The Raiders have lost it on both sides of the ball. They'll get a prime-time inspection Monday against the Chiefs, and that should about do it. The Chiefs show the critical elements to dominate this year - multiple offensive weapons, big-play defense and electric special teams. But they've still got to hold off a good Denver Broncos team in the division.

NFC North

Last year's champ: Green Bay.

This year's leader: Minnesota.

Synopsis: The Packers have made some unwise personnel decisions the past few years, and it has come back to bite them, especially on defense. The Vikings have a three-game homestand this month against Denver, the New York Giants and the Packers that could validate their 5-0 start.

NFC East

Last year's champ: Philadelphia.

This year's leader: Dallas.

Synopsis: The Eagles hit the crisis mode in Week 6 when their six-game winning streak against the Cowboys came to a screeching halt. Some people are even calling for the benching of McNabb, who performed miserably even before he hurt his right thumb. Are the Cowboys for real? They may not have to be to win this division.

NFC South

Last year's champ: Tampa Bay.

This year's leader: Carolina.

Synopsis: The Bucs are finding out what it's like to wear the crown and the bull's-eye. Injuries are mounting, but Jon Gruden won't use that as an excuse. The Panthers have masked their flaws well so far. They will need more offense to beat out the Bucs, though.

NFC West

Last year's champ: San Francisco.

This year's leader: Seattle.

Synopsis: The 49ers are on the rocks with a new coach (Dennis Erickson), a battered quarterback (Jeff Garcia) and a major distraction (Terrell Owens). That's enough for the Seahawks to slip past in Mike Holmgren's comeback season.

Best and worst

Highlights and lowlights from Week 6:

Best setup: Al Saunders, Chiefs. Kansas City's offensive coordinator called nine straight Priest Holmes runs on the first overtime possession. Then he went to the air on the first play of the next possession for a game-winning, 51-yard touchdown pass to Eddie Kennison when the Packers brought their safety up to play the run.

Worst coaching decision: Jack Del Rio, Jaguars. Whatever possessed Del Rio to bring an ax into the locker room, let alone encourage his players to swing it? It cost him Pro Bowl punter Chris Hanson for the season.

Second-worst coaching decision: Andy Reid, Eagles. Did he really think the Cowboys would forget he opened a game with an onside kick three years ago, even if it was against another coach?

Best use of excess energy: LaVar Arrington, Redskins. Forget the blockers. Arrington dived over them to tackle the Bucs' Michael Pittman at the goal line.

Worst show of ego: Chris McAlister, Ravens. The word is taunting. McAlister ought to learn it, along with a little humility.

Best offensive playmaker: Derrick Mason, Titans. He averaged nearly 30 yards per reception (six for 177), with touchdowns of 21, 46 and 50 yards.

Best defensive playmaker: Jerome Woods, Chiefs. The veteran safety had a 79-yard interception return for a touchdown in the Chiefs' fourth-quarter comeback and forced a fumble in overtime to set up the win.

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