American Football: Division-by-division guide to the season

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The Independent Online
AFC EAST

After their woeful display in the Super Bowl we might have expected some blood-letting from the Buffalo Bills. Instead everyone is apparently focused on another winning season. Still the most talented team in the AFC, never mind the AFC East, the Bills will continue to rack up points, but need a healthy Bruce Smith, who returns from more knee surgery, if the defense is to be good enough to take them to a third successive Super Bowl. The Miami Dolphins disappointed last year but appear to have got the better of a running back trade with Denver, exchanging Sammy Smith for Bobby Humphrey. If Humphrey performs, the Marino-orchestrated offense looks formidable and needs only a reasonable defense to reach the play-offs. One of the more persistent rumours is that the New York Jets are about to take off. It is said that the head coach Bruce Coslet has transformed attitudes and that the team has the aggression, discipline and self-belief to succeed. Much depends on second-year quarterback Browning Nagle, but they look destined for another season on the runway. Also threatening a comeback are the New England Patriots. Head coach Dick MacPherson has rebuilt well and the team have considerable offensive potential. Not enough all round, though, to reach the play-offs. The Indianapolis Colts were last year's Dolts, easily the worst team in the league. New head coach Ted Marchibroda will need at least a couple of years to make them competitive.

Prediction: Buffalo, Miami, New England, New York Jets, Indianapolis

AFC CENTRAL

New head coaches at Cincinnati and Pittsburgh mean the entire division has changed leadership in the last couple of years. Bill Cowher replaced the legendary Chuck Knoll at Pittsburgh but inherits a team notably short of legendary talent. Cowher has lost patience with the enigmatic Bubby Brister and Neil O'Donnell is likely to start as quarterback. An instant fix to the team in general is unlikely. The same can be said of Cincinnati where Sam Wyche was one of the more unlucky of the nine head coaches to lose their jobs at the end of last season. Wyche had assembled an accomplished if unpredictable team which finally achieved consistency last year - they were invariably awful. Wyche's replacement, David Shula, is the son of Miami's Don and his judgement is already in question over the trading of veteran running back James Brooks. Brooks decamped to the Cleveland Browns, who were invariably awful two years ago, but made considerable strides in 1991 under Bill Belichick. He is a graduate of the Bill Parcells school of coaching and his team can be expected to continue to make progress with the no-frills approach. The Browns could win this division, but only if the Houston Oilers (winners of the title for the first time last year) let them. Much depends on how the Oilers cope with the loss of a small squadron of wide receivers to Plan B. Warren Moon's arm, and the continued development of an intimidating physical defense, will be the keys.

Prediction: Cleveland, Houston, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh

AFC WEST

Denver bounced back from an indifferent 1990 to take this division last year - an indication of the resourcefulness of head coach Dan Reeves. His defense looks stronger than any of the three that went to Super Bowls in the late Eighties and with quarterback John Elway in his prime another big season beckons. The only cloud is personal differences between Elway and Reeves. Kansas City have appeared on the verge of a Super Bowl for a couple of seasons now, their mixture of solid defense and unstoppable running should be the stuff of champions. They haven't made it. The good news is that supsect quarterback Steve DeBerg has gone, the bad that his replacement, Seattle's Dave Krieg, is not much better. The Los Angeles Raiders, that refuge for troubled souls and wayward careers, have a new patient. Running back Eric Dickerson is about as troubled and wayward as they come. He is also hugely gifted. Art Shell's resurrection showed signs of stuttering last year and the Raiders need Scott Davis and Greg Townsend (both holding out for better contracts) back on defense to make an impact this year. Tom Flores, once of the Raiders and now the new man in charge at Seattle, will have a tough time improving their recent moderate record. The same is true at San Diego where Dan Henning's replacement Bobby Ross was immediately acquainted with the realities of NFL life when his starting quarterback, the promising John Friesz, was injured in an exhibition game and is out for the season.

Prediction: Denver, Kansas City, LA Raiders, Seattle, San Diego

NFL EAST

A difficult year crystal ball wise, but one image appears clearer than most: Super Bowl winners belonging to this division. The last two have, and this year the NFC East is tougher than ever. The Super Bowl holders, the Washington Redskins, look daunting again: they are old, but look for second-year running back Ricky Ervins to shine from the start and rookie wide receiver Desmond Howard to make an impact later on. Head coach Joe Gibbs is the best in the league. Last year Philadelphia's defense finally fulfilled its potential, needing only a half-decent offense to make the Super Bowl a realistic goal. Without Randall Cunningham the offense wasn't even quarter-decent. Cunningham's return made the Eagles early favourites this time. Then Jerome Brown, the emotional leader of the defense, was killed in a car accident. How they cope with that, and use Herschel Walker, will determine their season. Doubts persist. Jimmy Johnson, head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, has contructed a marvellous offense, that will trouble everybody. The defense was weaker last year but a good draft and the signing of linebacker Charles Haley from San Francisco should bring it up to scratch. Good enough to win it all. The New York Giants, now rely too much on veterans to make the big plays and will be unable to match the NFC East's big three. In such company the Phoenix Cardinals inevitably feel overawed. Might do well in any other division but will be making up the numbers again.

Prediction: Dallas, Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Phoenix

NFC CENTRAL

The Detroit Lions were the surprise package of '91 and Barry Sanders's stupendous running was the most memorable sight. The return of quarterback Rodney Peete and a number of defensive personnel should improve them and they are good enough to win a weak division again. Their principal opposition is likely to come from the Chicago Bears for whom winning the NFC Central used to be an annual assumption. Not any more. The famed defense has aged and the offense lacks leadership. Mike Ditka's fearsome influence will ensure a lot of bad sides are beaten but no sign yet of them returning to their former pre-eminence. Wade Wilson, Herschel Walker, Keith Millard, Joey Browner. These are some of the big names who will not be appearing for the Minnesota Vikings this year. New head coach Denny Green opted for a wholesale clear-out when replacing Jerry Burns. It leaves the Vikings (who were bad enough last year) well down on talent and experience, but might just inject the change of attitude needed. The Vikings had a very good pre-season. Sam Wyche, late of Cincinnati, is the new head coach at Tampa Bay where seasons of failure mean he finds stacks of high draft picks and not a lot else. Wyche has the ability to make things happen, but not this year. The other Bay team, Green Bay, also have a new governor, Mike Holmgren, the former offensive co-ordinator of the 49ers. He may soon be hankering for the good old days in San Francisco.

Prediction: Detroit, Chicago, Minnesota, Tampa Bay, Green Bay

NFC WEST

The San Francisco 49ers missed the play-offs for the first time in nearly a decade last season and a repetition would be treated as a catastrophe. The offense needs to find a running back, but the defense (overshadowed in the golden days of Bill Walsh) has steadily improved under George Seifert, and should provide the foundation for a good campaign. The Atlanta Falcons turned a few heads a year ago, and not just to listen to Jerry Glanville's post-game quotes. Glanville is disarmingly brash, but shrewd as well, and has imposed his confident personality on what even he admits is a moderate team. They will suffer if cornerback Deion Sanders sticks with baseball though, and should have signed one of the many running backs available in the close season. The New Orleans Saints began last year impeccably, at one point matching the Redskins win for win. From 9-1 their season deteriorated and they were dispatched by the Falcons in the play-offs. A solid defense in which the linebacking remains peerless should ensure a reasonable season, but the suspicion remains that Jim Mora's instincts (not so much conservative as neo-fascist in play-calling terms) may be a limiting factor. For Chuck Knox the move from Seattle to the Los Angeles Rams in the off-season was a return home. He coached the Rams between 1973 and 1977. His lack of real success with the Seahawks suggests he is not the man to ignite a gifted Rams side, but they do appear to have drafted well.

Prediction: San Francisco, Atlanta, New Orleans, LA Rams

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