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OPEN SEASON

It’s the excitement, the anticipation, the thrill of hearing Reggie White tell it like it is before checking into a Green Bay dive in the dead of winter, waiting for the next arrest report on Lawrence Phillips, watching Barry Sanders block for Scott Mitchell with the game on the line, and the pulsating prospect of having either Heath Shuler, Danny Wuerffel, Jake Delhomme or Billy Joe Hobert play quarterback for New Orleans Coach Mike Ditka.

It’s a new year of pro football, with a burning resolve once again to accentuate only the positive, reporting today that the Dallas Cowboys’ rookies and veterans have opened training camp, the first full squad to do so, because crummy teams need more time to prepare.

With a new commitment to boost the NFL, there will be no more smart-aleck remarks about Oakland owner Al Davis--let CBS broadcaster Marcus Allen interview him. And this solemn promise so long as “The Magic Hour” remains on TV: no more gratuitous cheap shots about that numskull coaching the San Diego Chargers.

The aim here, of course, always has been for the high ground and a consistency of convictions that prompts this season’s Super Bowl prediction: On Jan. 31 in Miami, in a classic confrontation marked by a colossal clash of coaching greats, the Kansas City Chiefs will stun the San Francisco 49ers, 20-17.

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Humility prevents any mention of last summer’s prediction that Denver would shock the world and defeat Green Bay in the Super Bowl, because after all it’s merely part of the job knowing so much.

It has been tough, though, all these years faithfully supporting the Chiefs and 49ers, while so many others prefer to dwell on the negative. There will be some doubters pointing to the Chiefs’ reluctance to acquire a starting running back, an obvious void at left tackle and the pickup of Baltimore’s Derrick Alexander as a shaky complement to wide receiver Andre Rison.

But you must give Kansas City a lot of credit for convincing so many players year after year to play in the sticks.

There are always people tearing down the 49ers, and while difficult to understand, someone will again point to a powder-puff schedule that fails to ready San Francisco for the playoffs, suggesting furthermore that the front office upheaval surrounding the contested ownership of the team will be a distraction too large to overcome. Maybe the 49ers do appear shallow along the offensive line, Jerry Rice is coming off a pair of knee injuries, Dana Stubblefield left for Washington and a stubborn Steve Young is insisting on running again, making him vulnerable to a season-ending concussion.

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But, hello, the 49ers have Steve Mariucci.

The Chiefs have Marty Schottenheimer.

And does it really get any better than that?

Motivated by the media last year, Mariucci won more playoff games in his first year as a head coach--one--than the Saints’ franchise in its 30-year history. And without any help from George Seifert or Bill Walsh, he won 13 regular-season games, and went 8-0 against the titanic likes of the Falcons, Saints, Rams and Panthers.

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Similar results in the NFC West Division this year should provide the foundation for another run at the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Washington will chug home ahead of Dallas in the East with half a dozen losses, and Green Bay, Minnesota, Detroit and Tampa Bay will beat up on one another in the Central, the toughest division in football, thereby taking away their chances of posting the best overall record in the NFC.

Jacksonville and Pittsburgh will have a match race for the AFC Central title, while also being pestered by an improving team in Tennessee. The Patriots have no significant challenge in the East, but without running back Curtis Martin they might be unable to pull away and secure the home-field advantage.

A tough AFC West, marked by Seattle’s improvement, could make it difficult for the winner of the Kansas City-Denver duel to win enough games to gain the home-field edge at season’s end, but isn’t it time for everything to just fall in place for Schottenheimer?

He has the best defense in the league made tougher by the addition of Raider defensive lineman Chester McGlockton, and while he’ll try to get by with Donnell Bennett at running back, he has an offensive philosophy that has produced big-time results in the running game while coaching in Cleveland and Kansas City despite having no featured back.

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Schottenheimer, ah, an expert of sorts in big games, has won 64% of the regular-season games he has coached the last 13 seasons, making him No. 1 among all active coaches with at least 100 games of service. Twice in the last three years his teams have won 13 games during the regular season, and that was with Steve Bono, Elvis Grbac and Rich Gannon for the most part at quarterback.

The Chiefs haven’t lost to an NFC team since 1995, but it doesn’t matter unless Schottenheimer records such a victory in the Super Bowl; yet he can’t even get there.

Now that John Elway has found vindication, there is no more sympathetic figure in football than Schottenheimer, loser of The Drive, The Fumble and 11 of 16 career playoff games, including three AFC championship games.

But this time he ends the season with a Gatorade shower . . . unless form really does hold true, and the guy gags big time.

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If so, then the Super Bowl could go to:

San Francisco--if cornerback Antonio Langham, newly arrived from Baltimore, and pass rusher Gabe Wilkins, from Green Bay, bolster a defense that allowed an average of more than 27 points a game in its last six outings.

Green Bay--if it can fight off Tampa Bay, get immediate help from rookie defensive tackle Vonnie Holliday for an ineffective Reggie White and continue to be the No. 1 scoring unit in the league.

Jacksonville--if quarterback Mark Brunell can stay fit, rookie running back Fred Taylor can replace Natrone Means and the defense, with the addition of former Buffalo pass rusher Bryce Paup, can improve its No. 23 ranking.

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Denver--if running back Terrell Davis remains sound, and the Broncos can stay strong with the defections of guard Brian Habib and linebacker Allen Aldridge while riding out the distraction of Elway’s final tour around the league.

Pittsburgh--if quarterback Kordell Stewart gains more consistency and the continuing free agency losses over the years, the most recent being wide receiver Yancey Thigpen, don’t finally take their toll.

Tampa Bay--if quarterback Trent Dilfer, now surrounded by some of the best talent in the league, can finally play to win rather than trying not to lose.

Minnesota--if quarterback Brad Johnson recovers fully from an injured neck to lead one of the league’s most potent offenses, while trying to get by without the corners to stop the opposition.

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Detroit--if Barry Sanders touches the ball and Scott Mitchell does not, while also overcoming the losses of linebacker Reggie Brown to injury, center Kevin Glover to Seattle and safety Van Malone to Arizona.

New England--if rookie running back Robert Edwards can emulate the departed Curtis Martin and quarterback Drew Bledsoe can finally establish himself as a premier quarterback.

Washington--if Gus Frerotte can play well enough to win a weak NFC East Division, allowing the acquisitions of run-stuffers Dan Wilkinson from Cincinnati and Dana Stubblefield from San Francisco to take over in the playoffs.

Dallas--if Jimmy Johnson takes over again as head coach, persuading Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin that they are young again.

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Miami--if the Dolphins win the AFC East, getting a happy and effective Dan Marino in Johnson’s run-oriented attack.

As for the rest, forget it.

New York Jets--Neil O’Donnell is Otto Graham in comparison to Glenn Foley.

Buffalo--What’s wrong with this picture now that surfer Rob Johnson has taken over at quarterback?

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Indianapolis--Combination of Jim Mora and Peyton Manning suggests lots of patience is in order.

Tennessee--Home games at Vanderbilt, Eddie George and Steve McNair, but is that enough?

Cincinnati--Last year the Bengals upstaged Jeff Blake with Boomer Esiason; Now it’s O’Donnell.

Baltimore--New stadium, new quarterback in Jim Harbaugh, and same old results.

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Oakland--Al Davis will not interfere with new coach Jon Gruden. Honest.

Seattle--Ricky Watters heads up talented cast of underachievers.

San Diego--June Jones has been hired to keep Kevin Gilbride away from Ryan Leaf.

Arizona--Potential for Tampa Bay-like story if offensive line doesn’t get Jake Plummer hurt.

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New York Giants--Danny Kanell completes the New York quinella of uninspiring starting quarterbacks.

Philadelphia--Tight-fisted owner doesn’t spend the money to give Ray Rhodes chance to win.

Chicago--Worst team in football in toughest division. And rookie running back Curtis Enis is such a nice guy.

Atlanta--Acquisition of Tony Martin gives Falcons chance to beat Saints and Rams, at least.

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Carolina--Panthers need a more dependable quarterback than Kerry Collins, instead trade for defensive tackle in Sean Gilbert.

New Orleans--Worst offense in the league is now placed in the hands of Billy Joe Hobert.

St. Louis--Georgia, how’s that honeymoon in St. Louis? Time running out on quarterback Tony Banks, Rams.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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Key NFL dates

Today-July 26: Vikings the last team to open training camp, providing receiver Randy Moss more time to get in trouble.

July 31: Barry Who? The Chan Gailey Era begins with Dallas hosting the season’s first exhibition game against Seattle.

Sept. 6: Regular season opens with Oakland losing at Kansas City in Sunday night nationally televised game.

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Oct. 4: Peyton Manning versus Ryan Leaf if all goes well--otherwise it’s Kelly Holcomb against Craig Whelihan.

Nov. 1: San Francisco travels to Green Bay to gain revenge for three consecutive playoff losses.

Dec. 20: Baltimore at Chicago: Sub-zero temperatures, less than a shopping week until Christmas, dog game of the year.

Dec. 27: A retiring John Elway plays final regular-season game in Mile High Stadium against Seattle.

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Dec. 28: Final Monday night game of the year could decide AFC Central title with Pittsburgh at Jacksonville.

Jan. 17: AFC championship game in Kansas City with the Chiefs jolting the Jacksonville Jaguars.

NFC championship game in San Francisco with the 49ers going deep to J.J. Stokes to edge Minnesota.

Jan. 31: Super Bowl XXXIII in Miami with the Chiefs beating the 49ers and Elvis running off with MVP trophy.

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