6 — Denver Broncos
7 — Baltimore Ravens
The leadership combination of Ozzie Newsome, the club's general manager, and Coach Brian Billick keeps the Ravens in contention. If their problem can be stated numerically, it's this: Although Billick has been able to keep 82% of Newsome's draft choices, Baltimore quarterback Kyle Boller has completed only 52% of his NFL passes. In other words, the way they draft, the Ravens should be nearing the top of the mountain whereas they're still in the valley. One result is that the Ravens continue to play run-of-the-mill, run-the-ball, defense-the-run football. That will get them in the playoffs but not to the last big game, for, assuming their goal is the Super Bowl, Jamal Lewis won't run them that far. The Ravens' strength is that they have strength in all departments. Their offensive line was built, however, for the running game, and their defense was also wired for runs. In a passing league, how far can the running Ravens get?
8 — Indianapolis Colts
If the NFL enforces downfield illegal-hands and holding penalties this year, as advertised, and as it should, the people who will benefit the most are Colt quarterback Peyton Manning and his troop of little receivers — notably Marvin Harrison, who has been a tower of strength for this team even though he goes no more than 6 feet, 175 pounds. The two or three other gifted Colt receivers about his size could be (and were) manhandled as well last year — and held to far fewer completions than they really earned — by defensive backs who lack the skills to cover them legally. All this is crucial to the Colts, for Manning is a great downfield passer when a target is in the clear and he has time to unload. In those circumstances, he is unsurpassed. Even so, Manning tends to be regularly less effective against good players and good teams. That is largely because his coaches don't observe the five commandments of offensive football as outlined in the next (Tennessee) section. Though the Colts are built for pass-play offense, they always want to run the ball — sending Edgerrin James into 8-3 defenses repeatedly on first down. What's worse, the weak Colt defense appears to be even weaker this season, although Coach Tony Dungy is a defensive expert.
9 — Tennessee Titans
With Steve McNair at quarterback, this could be a Super Bowl team if the Titans learn to integrate runs and passes in accordance with the five commandments of Hall of Famers Bill Walsh and Johnny Unitas, who recommended:
(1) Take what the defense gives you;
(2) Remember that first down is the best passing down because, on that down, defensive teams must line up against the possibility of a run and a pass both;
(3) Therefore, pass more than you run on first down, a lot more, but keep the defense off-balance with occasional first-down runs;
(4) Note that, on first down against a typical NFL defense, you can as a rule call your whole repertoire of pass plays: bombs, slants, screens, 18-yard turn-ins, quick passes to tight ends and backs, and all the rest;
(5) Unless your offense is much better than the opponent's defense, don't ever pound the ball on first down — that is, never pound it against an eight-man front when the defense is going to line up only three players in the secondary.
10 (tie) — Seattle Seahawks
On paper, these Seahawks appear to be the best of Mike Holmgren's six Seattle editions — the first five of which have been, in the aggregate, somewhat disappointing to a Seahawk public that expected more of a head coach who on his past-performance chart can point to, among other things, a Super Bowl victory (when he led the Packers). The two reasons for Seattle optimism this season are Matt Hasselbeck and Ray Rhodes. A productive quarterback, Hasselbeck played Pro Bowl football last year and should be even more confident and aggressive this time. A nonesuch defensive coach, Rhodes should get even more out of his side now that his system and style are better understood on the Seattle team. Finally, Holmgren is a pass-play exponent who plays Bill Walsh football as well as any disciple ever has. In other years, there were times when the Seahawks seemed about this good but faltered. It's up to Holmgren to prove that the problem isn't chronic.
10 (tie) — St. Louis Rams
A new defensive coordinator, Coach Mike Martz's friend Larry Marmie, inherits last year's players, meaning this is the least physical good defensive team in the league. A high-scoring offense is thus mandatory. And the Rams still employ many matchless pass-offense players — a quarterback who can throw it everywhere, Marc Bulger, and receivers who can go get it anywhere, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Marshall Faulk, among others. The problem is that on first down and other running downs, Martz wants to run the ball now with Faulk and first-round draft choice Steven Jackson. Last year when the Rams were playing that kind of run-first football, Bulger was forced so often into third-and-long and other unfavorable passing situations that he threw 25 interceptions. In earlier years when the Rams were a Super Bowl contender, they played pass-first football. As a passing team, following Walsh-Unitas principles, they were and can again be a big winner (see the Tennessee Titan section above).
American Conference, by Division