Until this week, the Jacksonville Jaguars and St. Louis Rams both seemed to be hurtling toward the Super Bowl.
It's clear now, though, that the Rams really need more defense and the Jaguars more offense.
These are two promising teams, but neither is a complete team yet, and Sunday's games proved that again:
On a day when the 7-2 Rams rolled up the score, 35-10, the players they beat, the Carolina Panthers, controlled the ball for up to eight minutes at a time and kept the Ram air force off the field for much of the second half.
That could have been, for St. Louis, a disastrous half.
With more touchdown punch, the 3-6 Panthers would have overcome their two game-turning mistakes, which gave the Rams two cheap touchdowns on an interception return and fumble return.
The NFL's only once-beaten team, 8-1 Jacksonville, played not to lose to 3-6 Baltimore, and made good, sort of, 6-3.
In his understanding of what it takes to win pro football championships, Jacksonville Coach Tom Coughlin appears to have a solid grasp of everything but the one thing that might beat him in the end: pass offense.
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Rams Match Up Well With Jags
Although the playoffs will be a more difficult test than the regular season for the Rams, they have the kind of team that might trouble Jacksonville on Super Bowl day if both clubs get there.
In particular, the St. Louis players match up effectively against Jacksonville's.
The strength of the Rams is their offense, which, with quarterback Kurt Warner throwing to the men in the NFL's most helpful five-receiver group, figures to score some against even a great defense like Tom Coughlin's.
The weakness of the Rams, their defense, won't bother them so much if it's the Jaguars on the other side.
The Jaguars have the passer, Mark Brunell, but not yet the offensive know- how.
Their strength is that for years, Coughlin has been cleverly putting the Jaguar team together.
The Rams, by contrast, came up overnight from nothingness.
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Can Warner Extemporize on Fast Break?
Sports fans watching Warner throw touchdown passes for St. Louis again Sunday--two of them this time--have trouble believing that he's a virtual NFL rookie.
All that stands between him and Rookie of the Year is the time he spent on the Ram bench last season, when, as St. Louis sank to 4-12, he had the best seat in the house.
Still, he still has a few things to learn.
For one example, Warner is not yet at his best when a play breaks down-- when his problem is rooted in the kind of offense the Rams have.
As directed by offensive coordinator Mike Martz, it's a fast-break offense, the NFL's fastest.
The Rams win by getting their receivers out fast and getting the ball to them fast.
But when the receivers aren't instantly open, Warner, standing around in the pocket, seems lost, often taking a blind-side sack.
Great passers haven't been bothered that way.
Joe Montana used to do two other things: move and look.
And for Montana, more often than not, there was a payoff.
The films and tapes that might help Warner the most show Montana or Steve Young extemporizing on San Francisco's broken plays.
For both 49er quarterbacks, in close games, that was the difference.
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Ram Fast Break Fastest Ever
The fast break is a disruptive weapon, and, when the the St. Louis offensive team works it properly, it disrupts both the defense and offense of all opponents.
The Rams were down 7-0, and seemingly struggling in the first quarter Sunday, when their running back, Marshall Faulk, was suddenly wide open on a pass play that gained 52 yards.
Just then, if you reached for a second cup of coffee, you might have missed the next play, when wide receiver Isaac Bruce suddenly appeared in the end zone to catch Warner's 22-yard touchdown pass.
Thereafter, the Carolina offense, which had whisked 80 yards to its only touchdown from the opening kickoff, was never quite the same.
Warner, meanwhile, covered immense distances on the Rams' three touchdown drives, going 70, 80, and 78 yards and doing it in a hurry each time, suggesting once more that no prior Ram quarterback has ever moved so far so fast.
His is a candidate for fastest-working team the league has ever seen.
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Czar Holmgren 'Uses' Galloway
In Seattle, the Seahawks' new coach, Mike Holmgren, is a candidate for the league's most powerful person since Vince Lombardi.
Having been assigned total control of the franchise by the club's new owners, Holmgren obviously decided, in his first move as CEO, to make an example of Joey Galloway, the wide receiver who wanted more money than Holmgren would pay and held out until last week in an unsuccessful effort to get it.
Clearly, the Seattle coach saw the holdout as an opportunity to teach the other Seahawks a useful lesson.
Galloway, whose catches beat Denver Sunday night in his first game back, 20-17, is the club's best player, and if Holmgren wouldn't give a salary raise to his best player, what hope did any other Seahawk have, this year or any year, in a salary argument with the coach?
From now on, Holmgren was saying, in effect, "I'll decide what each of you is worth, and give you each two decisions: Take it or leave it."
The money saved will help the Seahawks pay Holmgren his $4 million a year, the NFL's largest salary.
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What's an NFL Contract Worth?
In NFL labor relations, one question is this: Does a player under contract have a moral obligation to keep playing--or is he justified in holding out for more money?
Definitely, he has that moral obligation, in the opinion of the many sports fans who have been criticizing Galloway all season for his greedy reach.
A player's signature is his bond, the fans and many media spokesmen say.
But it isn't quite that simple.
Until a player is eligible for free agency, he is on a one-way street in the NFL with any team that signs him to a contract.
The player is bound by that contract, but not the team, which can fire him anytime.
Although most NBA contracts are guaranteed, almost no NFL contracts are.
The thing to remember about NFL economics is that the money is there.
Someone is going to get it.
In Galloway's case, for instance, if it doesn't go to Galloway, it goes to Paul Allen, the billionaire who owns most of the team.
Or to Holmgren.
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Spotty Record for Holmgren's Holdouts
It might be worth remembering that Holmgren's economic policies--which save the company money on the backs of its best players--don't always succeed.
Several years ago after Green Bay, then coached by Holmgren, won the Super Bowl, Packer All-Pro running back Dorsey Levens sought a raise during a long holdout.
When Levens, like Galloway, eventually came back, Holmgren called his number repeatedly in that first game--as if he had bulked up throughout the entire exhibition season.
Not surprisingly, Levens was shortly injured, and, lacking a sufficient running game, Holmgren that time lost the Super Bowl.
Fears that something similar will happen to Galloway aren't shared by Galloway, who says he has been working out religiously.
That has been received as excellent news in Seattle, where, as you saw in the Denver game Sunday night, he is the final piece they need to challenge Jacksonville for the AFL title.
One of football's finest coaches since Lombardi, Holmgren has fitted out the Seahawks with almost everything else, including an underrated quarterback, Jon Kitna, who has the talent and moxie to beat the Jaguars or any other 1999 team.
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Can Defense Win the 2000 Title?
Miami Coach Jimmy Johnson's campaign to win the Super Bowl with a fast, tough defensive team and not much more--regardless of whether one Damon Huard or Dan Marino is in charge of the offense--ran into trouble Sunday in Buffalo, where, as the Bills won, 23-3, the Dolphins made only 60 yards running and 41 passing.
Two other NFL defensive powers of many years duration, Kansas City and Pittsburgh, also lost that day, and Jacksonville only won by the slimmest margin of the year, two field goals to one.
Jacksonville, of course, is more than a defensive team.
It has the talent to play offense too.
If the bottom-line question is whether big games can be won these days on defense, one answer is that it's impossible to come up with a winning 11-man defense on every play.
On any NFL afternoon, you aren't going to play perfect defensive football more than 80% of the time, although, if you do that somehow, you can still get blown out of the stadium on the other 20% of the plays.
When, by contrast, a good offensive team plays perfect football 80% of the time, it wins going away.
In his Dallas days long ago, Johnson did just that.
Soccer Players Told to Win NFL Games
The new Chicago quarterback, Jim Miller, played well enough to beat the Minnesota Vikings Sunday but was betrayed by his placekicker.
After Miller had thrown the ball for 422 yards to earn a 24-24 tie in overtime, the Bear specialist, Chris Boniol, blew the 41-yard game-deciding kick.
It was one of 13 missed NFL field goals that day, most of the misses following expert offensive moves that ultimately went for naught all over the country.
Today's NFL kickers are each of them specialists who never play a down as offensive or defensive starters or backups.
Instead, they're mostly former soccer players who have been imported to take charge of what are frequently the NFL's most important and most widely discussed plays.
In other words, NFL teams use football players to work the ball down the field, then in an attempt to win they bring in soccer players.
That makes about as much sense as using a cricket player to pinch hit in major league baseball with the score tied and the bases loaded.
In the NFL, starting-team blockers or tacklers once doubled as kickers, and there are many ways to do that now, and insist on it.
The principle is this: If the NFL required every team to use football players as kickers, better you should lose with one of your own than a soccer player.
Selected Short Subjects:
In this trying season for the Denver Broncos, Terrell Davis' replacement, rookie running back, Orlandis Gary, continues to hold up his end, outgaining, most recently, Seattle's Ricky Watters. In his first six games as the Bronco starter, Gary has also outgained Davis in Terrell's first six Denver starts in 1995.
Turnovers-are-overrated department: The 5-4 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who may yet win the NFC Central, lost six fumbles and an interception Sunday and still won the game, overpowering an AFC defensive power, Kansas City, 17-10.
When the plural of sports news medium seems to be media, why do football players and others talk about condominiums instead of condominia?
It's hard to understand what's happened to young Adrian Murrell at Arizona, where in other times he ranked with the NFL's elite running backs. It also surprised some people when Murrell's handpicked replacement, Michael Pittman, a second-year pro from Fresno State, was instrumental in running down Detroit's proud defensive team Sunday. On pass plays, Pittman produced 44 yards against the Lions, and on running plays he added 133 on 23 carries.