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After a quarter of the season, parity reigning as usual in the NFL

Posted: Tuesday, October 01, 2002

The St. Louis Rams, thought to be above and beyond everyone else when the season began, are 0-4. The San Diego Chargers, who lost their last nine games a year ago, are 4-0.

A quarter of the way into the NFL season, parity is still the rule.

Eight games have gone into overtime, equaling the start-of-the-season record set in 1983. And Buffalo has broken a record with three overtime games in its first four weeks.

There's also a sign of what can happen with the new eight-division alignment: The only unbeaten teams are in the AFC West -- San Diego (4-0) and Oakland (3-0). Another division team, Denver (3-1), lost for the first time after three wins, beaten 34-23 in Baltimore on Monday night.

That's another indication that realignment is going to put some mediocre teams in the playoffs and leave some good ones out. Every team plays just six of its 16 games within the division, and teams from weak divisions are getting spanked outside it.

Some surprises and disappointments:

SURPRISES

1. San Diego (4-0). The first three wins can be explained: Cincinnati and Houston are awful and Arizona is mediocre. But Sunday's 21-14 win over New England was legit -- LaDainian Tomlinson ran for 217 yards a week after Priest Holmes had exposed the Patriots' run defense -- a concern for the defending Super Bowl champions. New England was practically being conceded another Super Bowl trip after two imposing wins to start the season. It turns out the New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers weren't what they were supposed to be. Maybe Washington's Daniel Snyder wishes he'd have kept Marty Schottenheimer.

2. Carolina (3-1). What a difference a coaching change makes -- the fiery John Fox over the laid-back George Seifert. Yes, the Panthers lost 17-14 in Green Bay because the newly signed Shayne Graham shanked a 24-yard field goal that could have tied it. It was still an impressive effort and the Panthers already have tripled their win total from last year.

3. Oakland (3-0). Some people thought the Raiders would miss coach Jon Gruden, now with Tampa Bay. Some thought they were too old. Neither is the case.

4. Buffalo (2-2). The Bills are overtime kings -- 2-1 in games over 60 minutes. They are already just one win short of last year's total almost entirely due to the arrival of Drew Bledsoe. He threw for 328 yards on Sunday, including a 26-yard TD pass to Travis Henry just 1:58 into OT. The former New England QB has now passed for 1,345 yards, by far the most in the league, and he's on pace for more than 5,400 yards, far beyond Dan Marino's single-season record of 5,084, set in 1984.

4. New Orleans (3-1). Yes, the Saints lost in Detroit. But after losing their final four games last season, allowing 40 points a game, they beat three contenders to start the season -- Tampa Bay, Green Bay and Chicago. ''I don't like to lose,'' quarterback Aaron Brooks said, ''but if you look at the first quarter, we were 3-1. At that rate, we'll win 12 games and make the playoffs.''

5. Jacksonville (2-1). This is what can happen when RB Fred Taylor stays healthy. Subject to change -- the Jaguars have started 2-1 the past three seasons and finished 14-2, 7-9, 6-10.

DISAPPOINTMENTS

1. St. Louis (0-4). Kurt Warner's injury (a broken pinky on his throwing hand in the 13-10 loss to Dallas) could have been predicted once the Rams lost Orlando Pace, their best offensive lineman. The Rams are at San Francisco and home to Oakland the next two weeks. With Jamie Martin at quarterback, the preseason favorites could be looking at 0-6 and perhaps more, since Warner won't be back for 8-to-10 weeks.

2. New York Jets (1-3). The Jets were supposed to be up there with New England and Miami in the NFC East. Instead, they've been outscored 102-13 by New England, Miami and Jacksonville, and Chad Pennington has replaced Vinny Testaverde at QB. In hindsight, the Jets' opening day win in overtime (against Buffalo, of course) was a fluke -- Chad Morton's two kickoff returns for touchdowns were the reason New York won.

3. Pittsburgh (1-2). The secondary was picked on the first two games, and the offense did nothing until Bill Cowher inserted Tommy Maddox in place of Kordell Stewart at quarterback against the Browns. Maddox rallied the Steelers to tie the game and win in overtime. These guys were 13-3 last year and entered the season as the favorite in the AFC -- and yet they needed an XFL refugee to rescue them.

4. Tennessee (1-3). The Titans looked ready to rebound after a 7-9 season, due primarily to injuries. Instead, they're worse -- the special teams allowed two punt returns for touchdowns in the 52-25 loss to Oakland. Eddie George is averaging just 2.7 yards a carry.

5. Minnesota (0-4). A lot of people thought the Vikings would become a major contender after going 5-11 a year ago. They forgot that they had to reshuffle their offensive line for the second straight year; their defense has nine new starters, most of them inadequate. In the past two years, they've lost the core of their offense -- Robert Smith, Cris Carter and the late Korey Stringer.

Sunday night's 48-23 embarrassment in Seattle may have been the final straw. Randy Moss, who was charged last week with a misdemeanor for pushing a traffic officer down a street, dropped three potential TDs. The Vikings couldn't overcome a 45-point first half by the Seahawks, who had scored a total of 36 points in the first three games.



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