After finishing 13-3 last season, the Kansas City Chiefs are thinking Super Bowl.
The Denver Broncos always think Super Bowl, even though they've made the playoffs just twice in the five years since John Elway retired and haven't won a postseason game.
So while it may be premature to think of their meeting in Denver on Sunday night as an AFC championship game preview, it could be critical in the AFC West, where the Chiefs and Broncos figure to battle for the title.
''It's almost like winning two games,'' says Denver quarterback Jake Plummer.
Both teams went into the offseason needing to upgrade defenses that led to their early elimination from the playoffs. The Broncos were knocked out 41-10 in Indianapolis, then the Chiefs lost to the Colts 38-31 the next week in a game in which they failed to force even one punt.
They approached improvement in different ways.
The Broncos brought in a bunch of defenders, none more important than Champ Bailey, one of the NFL's top shutdown cornerbacks. He was obtained in a rare player-for-player deal for Clinton Portis, one of the league's top running backs.
Kansas City has few new bodies on defense. But it did bring back Gunther Cunningham, its former head coach and the defensive coordinator during Marty Schottenheimer's years with the Chiefs. He installed a totally different style than the one used by Greg Robinson, last year's coordinator.
''They're attacking now,'' says tight end Tony Gonzalez, one of Kansas City's many offensive weapons. ''They're rallying to the football. I think this is the year to do it, and I'm talking Super Bowl. This playoff stuff, we expect that.''
They'd better start with the AFC West.
This game might have a lot to do with deciding it.
Green Bay (10-6) at Carolina (11-5)
Despite its near win in the Super Bowl, Carolina has been written off in many preseason previews. In part that was because some people thought they were a fluke, in part because of personnel losses, especially on the offensive line.
''Nobody is scared of us,'' says verbose defensive tackle Brentson Buckner. ''That's just the way it is. It's on us to prove we should be taken seriously every year and I don't see why we can't do that.''
Cincinnati (8-8) at New York Jets (6-10)
Carson Palmer, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 draft, makes his first NFL start for the Bengals after never getting on the field as a rookie. Behind him is Jon Kitna, a major part of Cincinnati's revival last year and the NFL Comeback Player of the Year.
Chad Pennington was out with a broken left hand and wrist at this time last season, and started only nine games all year, a good reason the Jets were losers. Curtis Martin, at 31, had an excellent preseason and with a normal season's performance could be fifth on the career rushing list.
Dallas (10-6) at Minnesota (9-7)
The Vikings started 6-0 last season, then finished out of the playoffs, losing the last game to Arizona in the final seconds. They start this season thin at running back with Michael Bennett out with a sprained right knee.
Bill Parcells thinks these Cowboys are better than last year's surprise playoff entry. Maybe. But after cutting Quincy Carter, they have only unproven Tony Romo and Drew Henson behind 40-year-old Vinny Testaverde at quarterback. Eddie George, the new running back, has averaged just 3.3 yards a carry over the last three seasons.
Baltimore (10-6) at Cleveland (5-11)
If Kyle Boller improves under the tutelage of Jim Fassel, the Ravens are a legitimate contender. Ray Lewis is the most dominant player in the game. Deion Sanders will probably play for the Ravens, although his contribution is likely to be minimal.
The Browns already are in some disarray. Jeff Garcia, the new quarterback, already has described the offense as ''chaotic.'' A chaotic offense against Lewis and the Baltimore defense is not the best way to start a season.
New York Giants (4-12) at Philadelphia (12-4)
The Eagles have more problems than their fans think, not the least of them a very fragile running back situation. Still, Donovan McNabb, Terrell Owens, Brian Dawkins and Jevon Kearse aren't a bad foundation.
The Giants are still introducing themselves to each other and to Tom Coughlin's systems. By the time they get it, Eli Manning will probably be the quarterback instead of Kurt Warner, who starts this game. Will Warner last behind a shaky offensive line?
Tennessee (12-4) at Miami (10-6)
The fear of Hurricane Ivan hitting the Miami area forced this game to be moved to Saturday.
A win here could do a lot for the Dolphins, for whom nothing has gone right since the end of last season. Lamar Gordon is the latest running back, acquired from St. Louis in a trade this week to help fill the shoes of retired Ricky Williams.
The Titans have a new running back, too. Second-year-man Chris Brown replaces Eddie George, released after failing to agree on a contract restructuring. Brown, a third-round pick last year, typifies the players the Titans find to remain near the top he averaged 5.3 yards a carry in the playoffs last year.
Detroit (5-11) at Chicago (7-9)
This may be the Lions' best shot at ending their NFL record 24-game road losing streak. The Bears are still learning new coach Lovie Smith's systems and star LB Brian Urlacher missed the entire preseason with a pulled hamstring.
Interesting matchup of two young QBs learning on the job: the Lions' Joey Harrington and Chicago's Rex Grossman.
Seattle (10-6) at New Orleans (8-8)
The Seahawks have become a trendy choice to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
But this isn't an easy opener, especially because they were 2-6 on the road last season. The Saints are a lot healthier this year than last and they could challenge in the NFC South if Aaron Brooks is consistent at quarterback.
Tampa Bay (7-9) at Washington (5-11)
There's more interest in the D.C. area in Joe Gibbs' return and the debuts of Clinton Portis, Mark Brunell and the new Redskins than there seems to be in the election. Hopes are probably unrealistic in his first term in Washington, Gibbs didn't win a Super Bowl until his second season.
The Bucs are now officially Oakland East, a team run by ex-Raiders Bruce Allen and Jon Gruden, with nine of its 11 offensive starters over 30. But if they're out of the race late, it wouldn't be a shock if impressive 24-year-old Chris Simms takes over at quarterback for Brad Johnson.
Atlanta (5-11) at San Francisco (7-9)
Georgians hope a healthy Michael Vick can reverse last season's record just by his presence. Not much can help the 49ers, who have lost Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens and go with Tim Rattay at quarterback.
A return for Jim Mora, the new Atlanta coach who was the 49ers' defensive coordinator for the past five years.
Oakland (4-12) at Pittsburgh (6-10)
Two teams with proud histories coming off dismal seasons, although the cover of the Raiders' media guide still expounds: ''the team of the decades'' and ''commitment to excellence.'' Commitment to veteran quarterbacks, maybe: Rich Gannon and Kerry Collins have 252 NFL starts between them.
The Steelers' most illustrious veteran, Jerome Bettis, will start the season behind Duce Staley at running back. If Bettis plays enough, he can pass Tony Dorsett, 387 yards away, for fifth place on the career rushing list and is in range (927 yards) of No. 4 Eric Dickerson.
Arizona (4-12) at St. Louis (12-4)
The Rams no longer have a QB controversy to worry about with Kurt Warner gone and 38-year-old Chris Chandler the backup to Marc Bulger.
Dennis Green thinks his new team has a QB in Josh McCown. But it is hurting elsewhere, especially with wide receiver Anquan Boldin, last year's offensive rookie of the year, out with a knee injury.
Jacksonville (5-11) at Buffalo (6-10)
Byron Leftwich was impressive enough last season as a rookie quarterback that the Jaguars are thinking playoffs. That may be a stretch. But they need to keep Fred Taylor healthy for the second straight year and get a big season from rookie wide receiver Reggie Williams.
This will be Mike Mularkey's first game as the Bills' coach. They're another team counting on a rookie wide receiver, Lee Evans, taken 13th overall, four picks after Williams.
San Diego (4-12) at Houston (5-11)
Despite the similarity in records, two examples of the wrong way and the right way to build a team.
Houston, in its third year, has a young offensive core led by quarterback David Carr, running back Domanick Davis and wide receiver Andre Johnson, although the line and the defense need some work. Still, Charley Casserly and Dom Capers promised to build slowly and carefully and this team has a future.
The Chargers don't, although they have LaDainian Tomlinson, arguably the NFL's best all-around back.
Note: The Texans are unbeaten as a franchise in opening games.
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