Absolute parity is almost here as the NFL opens the 2001 season.
The last four teams to play in the Super Bowl were .500 or worse the previous season. Go back to Atlanta three years ago, and it's five of six. So about half the league can go into this season with at least some hope of reaching the title game.
If the rule is to hold, do we disqualify the defending champions Ravens, the NFC champion Giants and every other team that made the playoffs last season? That also would keep the Saints, who won their first playoff game ever, from achieving their goal of staying home for the Super Bowl, which will be played Jan. 27 in the Superdome.
It's hard to find any team this year that was bad last season and has the potential to improve that much; 1-15 San Diego is the closest and is not a title contender. Still, in an era where everyone is thin because of salary cap constraints, the team with the best shot might be the team with the fewest major injuries.
The season will start with replacement officials working games in place of the locked-out regulars, who on Thursday rejected the NFL's lastest contract offer. Many players don't seem to care after replacements worked the final week of preseason without any major mistakes..
''I'm worried about the guys in the blue shirts, not the black-and-white ones,'' said quarterback Jay Fiedler of Miami, who will face Tennessee in one of the opening week's top games.
The AFC favorites are the Ravens, Titans and Broncos. If they don't go all the way, it could be Miami or Oakland. And it's hard to envision someone in the depths of the conference getting there -- Seattle, 6-10 last season, might be a sleeper pick, but enters the season with injuries on defense.
In the NFC, the weaker conference on paper, look to the Rams and Bucs, although both have question marks. The Giants are good but thin, one of many teams that had to release veteran backups to stay under the cap.
Look also to Dallas, 5-11 last year. The Cowboys could go winless with Jerry Jones' project, rookie QB Quincy Carter, trying to run the option in the NFL.
This will be the last season under the current six-division format. With Houston returning next year as an expansion franchise, there will be eight four-team divisions.
Sunday's top games are St. Louis at Philadelphia, and Miami at Tennessee at night. The Monday night game features the Giants at the Broncos in the opening of Denver's new stadium, the correctly named, commercially and politically, Invesco Field at Mile High.
In other games Sunday, Chicago is at Baltimore; Detroit at Green Bay; Tampa Bay at Dallas; Indianapolis at the New York Jets; Oakland at Kansas City; New Orleans at Buffalo; New England at Cincinnati; Seattle at Cleveland; Carolina at Minnesota; Atlanta at San Francisco; and Washington at San Diego.
Arizona is off.
St. Louis (10-6) at Philadelphia (11-5)
The Rams will have seven new defensive starters on the newly repaired turf of the Vet after allowing an NFL-high 471 points last season?
''We've been prepared for this ever since the season ended,'' says cornerback Dexter McCleon, one of the few holdovers. ''We want to be able to take over certain games and not let it all be on the offense's shoulders.''
The Eagles, who should challenge the Giants in an otherwise moribund NFC East, must give more help to Donovan McNabb, who accounted for 75 percent of the offense last season. Running back Duce Staley is back from a broken foot to carry the running load and there are three new receivers: rookie Freddie Mitchell, free agent James Thrash, and Todd Pinkston, who saw little action as a rookie last season.
Miami (11-5) at Tennessee (13-3)
For the last three seasons, the Dolphins have won their first playoff game and lost their second -- by a combined score of 10-127. The defense, minus Trace Armstrong, remains solid. Lamar Smith is back for the running game, and Jay Fiedler should be better with faster receivers, including rookie Chris Chambers.
The Titans might have as good a defense as the Ravens, whom they beat for the AFC Central title last season, but lost to at home in the playoffs. The acquisition of Kevin Carter, who underachieved in St. Louis last year while pouting about his contract, allows Jevon Kearse to switch to the right side and sets up a potentially devastating pass rush.
New York Giants (12-4) at Denver (10-6) (Monday night)
Everyone seems to like the Broncos. Brian Griese appears fully recovered from shoulder surgery and they have three top-flight running backs. Terrell Davis, who has the seniority, probably will start. But the defense is still suspect; retreads Leon Lett and Chester McGlockton are hardly the answer.
Giants coach Jim Fassel, concerned about the emotion of the stadium opening, said when the schedule was released this would be his team's toughest game.
The Giants' front four is one of the NFL's best, the rest of the defense remains solid and Kerry Collins can throw when he's not pressured (see last year's NFC title game). Wide receiver Joe Jurevicius has had an excellent camp.
Chicago (5-11) at Baltimore (12-4)
The Super Bowl champions had only three exhibition games because their opener was canceled by the turf fiasco in Philadelphia. This might as well be their fourth.
The Baltimore offense is not what is was supposed to be with the loss of running back Jamal Lewis for the season and right tackle Leon Searcy for half of it. Veterans Terry Allen and Erik Williams were brought in and, with Elvis Grbac at QB, the Ravens will throw more.
Unless the Bears are a huge surprise, Dick Jauron is probably gone as coach. Jerry Angelo, the first general manager they've had since 1985, when they won their only Super Bowl, is using this season to evaluate everyone.
Tampa Bay (10-6) at Dallas (5-11)
The Bucs are supposed to be better because they have a proven QB in Brad Johnson and one of the NFL's best overall defenses.
Quincy Carter, Jerry Jones' anointed quarterback, was successful running the option in friendlies, although All-Pro linebacker Derrick Brooks is not one to run options against. Jones still thinks his team will go 10-6. More like 0-16, although in their awful years the Cowboys usually beat Washington once.
Indianapolis (10-6) at N.Y. Jets (9-7)
Two AFC East contenders.
The Jets have been happier with Herman Edwards as coach than Al Groh. But happy doesn't always translate into success, especially since a shoulder injury to Jason Ferguson created a hole in the middle of the defensive line that Edgerrin James can burst through.
The Colts had defensive problems last year and didn't do much to fix them other than bring in big bodies Christian Peter and Mike Wells. Shootout?
Carolina (5-11) at Minnesota (11-5)
Chris Weinke gets his first NFL start in his home state. He might do OK -- there's no indication the Minnesota defense exposed so badly by the Giants last January has been upgraded.
The Minnesota offense is another story. Even without Korey Stringer, who died of heatstroke in training camp, and the retired Robert Smith, Daunte Culpepper, Randy Moss and Cris Carter remain. And rookie Michael Bennett has done well as Smith's replacement.
Pittsburgh (9-7) at Jacksonville (7-9)
The Steelers won four of their last five in 2000 and Jacksonville seems on the decline.
So Tom Coughlin, looking for an edge, is dressing his team in white, forcing Pittsburgh to wear black in the Florida heat.
''It was nice of them to do that,'' says Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher.
Detroit (9-7) at Green Bay (9-7)
A test for Charlie Batch, who has newly acquired Ty Detmer looking over his shoulder as he tries to learn the West Coast offense. Detmer already knows it and Batch appears on a short leash with the new regime of Matt Millen and Marty Mornhinweg.
Brett Favre is healthy and Antonio Freeman should be back from his concussion for the Packers, who haven't lost at home to the Lions since 1991, nine regular-season victories and one in the playoffs.
Oakland (12-4) at Kansas City (7-9)
Dick Vermeil steps into one of the NFL's heated rivalries in his first game as Chiefs coach. Jerry Rice does the same in his first regular-season NFL game with a team other than San Francisco.
Also of note: Rich Gannon, who backed up Elvis Grbac with the Chiefs, LOVES to beat the team that didn't think he was good enough.
Washington (8-8) at San Diego (1-15)
The Chargers should be the NFL's most improved team. They've added Doug Flutie, LaDanian Tomlinson and Marcellus Wiley among others to a cast that lost six games last season by three points or less. Wiley is out for 3-to-4 weeks with a foot injury.
San Diego's offensive coordinator is Norv Turner, the former Washington coach fired by Dan Snyder with three games left last season. Marty Schottenheimer, who is rebuilding in his first season, should know San Diego from all his years in Kansas City.
New Orleans (10-6) at Buffalo (8-8)
The Saints' have a legitimate shot at reaching their goal of staying home for the Super Bowl. But Aaron Brooks must reprise what he did last season when he stepped in for Jeff Blake -- young QBs are sometimes exposed the second time around.
Buffalo is rebuilding. Tom Donahoe and Gregg Williams have purged veterans, most recently safety Henry Jones. Give them a year or two; the Bills haven't really crashed since their Super Bowl days.
Atlanta (4-12) at San Francisco (6-10)
Interesting running backs.
Jamal Anderson, who tore up his knee two seasons ago, seemed back in form in the preseason. Garrison Hearst, who hasn't played since he badly broke his ankle in 1998, will be the 49ers' starting running back.
Sidelight: Dan Reeves has been suggesting he might use Michael Vick, the No. 1 pick in the draft, in certain situations. But if Chris Chandler goes down, Doug Johnson is the real No. 2 quarterback.
Seattle (6-10) at Cleveland (3-13)
Butch Davis, who has cleaned house in Cleveland, has a team that might not be more talented than last season's, but will work hard. Defensive end Courtney Brown, Cleveland's best player last season, is out for a while with a knee injury.
Matt Hasselbeck will be making his first official NFL start at quarterback for Seattle. Tim Couch, however, could have more openings, because the Seahawks will be without starting cornerbacks, Shawn Springs and Willie Williams.
New England (5-11) at Cincinnati (4-12)
Is there any reason to believe either of these teams will be better this season?
The Bengals are the only team not to have signed their first draft choice, a normal occurrence, and the Patriots still have no running game or protection for Drew Bledsoe.
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