9. St. Louis Rams: The league offers no better example than the Rams of a team that could march into and possibly through the playoffs if the play-caller, Coach Mike Martz, understood New England's play-calling system. The Rams defer to no opponent in offensive talent (quarterback Marc Bulger, receivers Isaac Bruce and Tory Holt, left tackle Orlando Pace) and play design. Martz loses by calling the right plays at the wrong time.
Parity Rules Most Division Races
THE DISTINGUISHING THING about the teams in the NFL majority is how evenly matched they are as the season starts. They won't all finish .500, but 29 of the 32 look as if they might. Accordingly, the critics who aren't fans of any one of these 29 don't foresee many big games this season. But to home-town fans everywhere, when they're in a close division race, there are big games every week. And that's the way they like it.
The American Conference lineup:
AFC West: Could be the closest division race of the eight. If there's no way to pick a winner — San Diego, Kansas City, Denver or Oakland — it's even harder to pick the cellar team. The three most interesting of this fall's Western entrants are Denver and Kansas City (because of the unconventional ways they've rebuilt their defenses) and Oakland, where Randy Moss could make a major difference. But San Diego returns as champion.
AFC South: Although Indianapolis figures as a runaway winner, the three others in this field — Jacksonville, Houston and Tennessee — seem dead-even. The new kid on the block is Norm Chow, the new Tennessee offensive coordinator, who has both the personnel and the know-how to put the Titans back in the Super Bowl race.
AFC North: This could come down to a struggle of young quarterbacks, Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger vs. Cincinnati's Carson Palmer, for the title. If as a longshot Palmer is the pick, one reason is that he has the more modern coach, Marvin Lewis. A year ago, Pittsburgh Coach Bill Cowher held back Roethslisberger. The Baltimore-Cleveland question is whether the Browns can beat Baltimore out of third place if the Ravens don't improve their quarterbacking.
AFC East: Few problems here for New England. But in this division it could be close for second between the New York Jets and Buffalo. In fact, if Jet quarterback Chad Pennington has an injury-free season, he could even press New England. The new Miami coaches must prove they understand pass offense.
National Conference listings:
NFC West: Has the appearance of a three-way tie for first — involving Arizona, St. Louis and Seattle — with San Francisco improving but last. St. Louis has the most talent, with Seattle next. But in Arizona, Coach Dennis Green seems to be doing splendid things.
NFC South: Another potential three-way tie for first matching Carolina, Atlanta and New Orleans — with Tampa Bay improving but last. The top three are all running teams, meaning that Atlanta won't have to lean on Michael Vick's arm and also meaning that Carolina is losing its best chance to win big with passer Jake Delhomme. If these were passing teams, Delhomme would easily trample Vick, who has everything but NFL passing skills. The question at New Orleans, the NFL's most notorious underachiever, is whether the Saints will ever learn to capitalize on the abilities of one of the league's great passers, Aaron Brooks.
NFC North: Detroit has the players but not the coaching to dominate the division. With more help from his leaders, whose play-calling is strangely old-fashioned considering their background, Joey Harrington is enough quarterback. The Lion receivers, from 6-foot-3 Charles Rogers and 6-2 Roy Williams to 6-5 rookie Mike Williams, have the potential to shake up the league. If Detroit's coaches played Bill Walsh football or Bill Belichick football, the race would be over already for the three teams on the next tier, Green Bay, Chicago and Minnesota. The sleeper is Chicago.
NFC East: Has the look of a division with a runaway winner, Philadelphia, and a three-way tie for second among the New York Giants, Washington and Dallas, none of whom impress.