American Football: Rivals quake as San Francisco turn defense into attack: Are Dallas really cowboys? Can Buddy Ryan raise Arizona? Matt Tench on the new season starting tomorrow

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The Independent Online
JERRY RICE is in a good mood for the time of year. Normally, with a new NFL season approaching, the peerless wide receiver of the San Francisco 49ers is muttering darkly about contracts (how he'd like another one), quarterbacks (where is Joe Montana?) and careers (how much longer has his got?) This year he is talking Super Bowls.

Rice's contentment reflects a growing notion as the sport prepares to kick off tomorrow: that the 49ers are once again the best team in the league.

Of course, they have been one of the best for more than a decade now, winning the Super Bowl four times in 12 years, most recently in 1990. A still formidable offense has seen them into the NFC Championship game in the last two seasons, only to be ambushed by the Dallas Cowboys on each occasion.

Sensing that another visit to the sport's showpiece depended on shoring up a moderate defense, the 49ers used the new free agency laws to go shopping. What they brought back was enough to gladden the heart of the most sceptical 49er fan, and daunt every offensive coordinator in their division.

To start with, there was Ken Norton, the Cowboys' own middle linebacker, a marvellously consistent player who displays much of the heart and fighting qualities of his father and namesake, the former world heavyweight boxing champion. The only doubt concerns a long-term arm injury. Then there was Richard Dent, whose rampaging bursts from the defensive line made him a key member of the Chicago defense for more than a decade. Though 33, Dent appears to retain his hunger. Likewise Gary Plummer, a linebacker signed from San Diego, and a year older than Dent.

But perhaps the most significant news came just a month ago when Rickey Jackson, 36, a cornerstone of the great New Orleans defense, rejected the Saints' offer of dollars 500,000 ( pounds 325,000) for this season's work. Disgusted by his team's attitude, Jackson promptly signed with the 49ers for dollars 162,000, the league minimum. 'Money wasn't the issue,' Jackson said. 'I have enough money for the rest of my life. I just wanted to get with a team capable of getting to the Super Bowl.'

Jackson, we can assume, will play particularly hard against his old team and the combination of these four - plus cornerback Toi Cook, who joined last week - make the 49er defense formidable, and potentially awesome.

The marvellous offense remains intact - Tom Rathman's departure aside - and can be relied upon to rack up the points with its usual abandon. Rice, the greatest receiver of his and perhaps any other generation, seems at least reconciled - enthusiastic even - about Steve Young being his quarterback, which is very decent of him considering that Young is arguably the best play-caller in the league, Montana included.

Had Jimmy Johnson remained as head coach, the case for Dallas becoming the first team to win three Super Bowls in a row would have been overwhelming. Johnson's departure after a messy if ultimately amicable divorce from the team's owner, Jerry Jones, changes all that.

In his stead, Jones hired Barry Switzer, last heard of five years ago when he left the job of head coach to Oklamoma amid a stream of allegations about breaking college football rules. Switzer, the son of a Mississippi riverboat gambler, represents the biggest punt of Jones' life. The Cowboys will surely sail into the play-offs but may struggle to overcome the 49ers again.

Elsewhere in the NFC, many have traded aggressively to try and close the gap on the 49ers and Cowboys. Few have done so convincingly. Three and maybe four of the teams in the Central will have new starting quarterbacks, with Minnesota likely to reap the biggest dividend from the ageing but still brilliant Warren Moon. By contrast, Detroit appear to have paid well over the odds for Scott Mitchell.

The NFC East, once the powerhouse division, is in some disarray. Washington and Philadelphia are rebuilding, the Giants had an awful off-season, making Buddy Ryan's Cardinals plausible play-off contenders.

The AFC champions, Buffalo, have lost a number of good players but not the marquee names of Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith and Cornelius Bennett. After failing in the last four Super Bowls, their latest battlecry, 'Let's make it five in '95', strikes a note of alarm across the nation.

The resilient Bills' main opposition may come from their own division. Miami welcome Dan Marino back from nearly a year out with injury, the veteran quarterback knowing that time is running out for him to win the Super Bowl ring his talent deserves. They are probably as talented as the Bills, but need to instil some of the cussedness of their divisional rivals.

That quality is likely to be displayed in abundance by New England, where a Bill Parcells team is taking shape. It is tempting to

describe them as the season's surprise package except that there won't be much surprise in seeing a Parcells team in the play-offs. Elsewhere in the AFC it is difficult to see many dramatic changes.

For all the talented individuals in the AFC, the feeling remains that the best teams still reside in the NFC. One person who has staked a lot on that calculation is Rupert Murdoch. His Fox network paid dollars 1.6bn over four years for the NFC television rights in the expectation that it will again provide the stronger sides and more watchable matches. For this year, at least, his investment appears safe.

Like many others, the sport's highest-paid performer will be hoping to make his widely admired talents count for a new employer. At dollars 8m-a-season they had better. And like Dent, Moon and Jackson they suggest that age is no bar to success. John Madden, the commentator in whom Fox have placed all their faith and most of their bucks, is 58.

----------------------------------------------------------------- PREDICTIONS ----------------------------------------------------------------- AFC East: Miami, Buffalo, New England, Indianapolis, NY Jets AFC Central: Pittsburgh, Houston, Cleveland, Cincinnati AFC West: Kansas City, LA Raiders, San Diego, Denver, Seattle NFC East: Dallas, Arizona, NY Giants, Washington, Philadelphia NFC Central: Minnesota, Green Bay, Detroit, Chicago, Tampa Bay NFC West: San Francisco, Atlanta, New Orleans, LA Rams AFC Championship game: Miami to beat Buffalo NFC Championship game: San Francisco to beat Dallas Super Bowl: San Francisco to beat Miami -----------------------------------------------------------------