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Final Four of 1998 Losing At a Rapid Pace in 1999

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Denver Broncos, Atlanta Falcons and Minnesota Vikings lost a total of five games last year. They’ve already equaled that after Week 2 of the NFL season.

The Broncos and Falcons, who played in the Super Bowl, both are 0-2 after going 14-2 in 1998. Minnesota, the only NFL team to go 15-1 and not make the Super Bowl, is 1-1.

Throw in the New York Jets, who’ve thrown away their first two games, and the final four from ’98 is a collective 1-7. And the only victory came when the Vikings beat the Falcons.

“What we need to do is put our rings away, put them in the safe and just go out and play,” linebacker Glenn Cadrez said of the two-time defending champion Broncos. “What we did in the past is what we did in the past.”

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What they did in the past came with John Elway at quarterback. Elway’s retirement seems to have torn out the soul of the team.

It didn’t help when coach Mike Shanahan benched Bubby Brister as Elway’s replacement late in the preseason for second-year quarterback Brian Griese. Brister never was told he was playing for his starting position--his poor work on exhibition games made him vulnerable--and Shanahan’s move annoyed some veterans.

As Griese stumbled in the first two games, defenses for Miami and Kansas City stacked the line. Terrell Davis, not only the prime threat, but perhaps the only offensive weapon in Denver, was held to 140 yards rushing.

To compound Denver’s woes, linebacker John Mobley wrecked his knee and is out for the year. The Broncos appear to be reeling.

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“Do you lose a little confidence when you are 0-2?” Shanahan said. “When you don’t lose a little confidence is when something is wrong with you. There’s nothing like winning football games to help our confidence.”

So far, only the Vikings would know that of the ’98 final four. But their record-setting offense of a year ago has disappeared, along with coordinator Brian Billick, who now is the head coach in Baltimore. The Vikings scored 17 points in each of their two games; they averaged more than 34 points last year.

“This is the NFL,” Randy Moss said. “Running game, passing game, anything can be stopped.”

But Moss and the Vikings were unstoppable throughout last season. And even with a new coordinator, the already beleaguered Ray Sherman, calling plays, the players are the same: ’98 rookie of the year Moss, Cris Carter and Jake Reed at receiver; Robert Smith and Leroy Hoard at running back; Randall Cunningham at quarterback; and a solid offensive line.

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“Last year, I think I got the ball off quicker, and I think I’m going to have to get back to dropping back and letting go a little quicker because that’s our style of offense,” Cunningham said. “Last year I would drop, and as soon as I would make a fake, I would come out of my fake and let the ball go. And it was a lot of built-in stuff that I’ve got to get back in the groove of doing.

“It’s not because or our line, but it’s just that I’ve got to get into my rhythm.”

The Falcons might not find that rhythm again. The surprise of the NFL season last year, they are back to their more accustomed ways--Atlanta never has had consecutive winning seasons.

All-Pro running back Jamal Anderson is gone for the year with a non-contact knee injury. Quarterback Chris Chandler, the other indispensable member of the offense, has a bad hamstring.

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The Falcons have bad karma.

“We have nowhere to go but up,” backup QB Tony Graziani said. “We’re playing so bad right now, it’s not even funny.”

Nothing is funny with the Jets. They’ve combined the shoddy play of the Broncos with the injury woes of the Falcons, and doubled it.

New York doesn’t have quarterback Vinny Testaverde and running back-kick returner Leon Johnson for the rest of the year. Gone until mid-October, at least, is receiver Wayne Chrebet. Nose tackle Jason Ferguson, a rising force on the Jets defense, has knee and ankle problems. Tight end Eric Green is bothered by a disc injury in his neck. Cornerback Otis Smith (collarbone) might be back in two weeks.

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The fortitude and resourcefulness the team displayed in ’98 is gone. So is much of the emotion that helped carry the Jets to their first division crown in the NFL. All of that seemed to disintegrate when Testaverde ruptured his Achilles’ tendon in the second quarter of the opener.

“Everybody knows we miss Vinny,” safety Victor Green said. “That’s a big hole in our hearts. But he’s not here anymore and we’ve got Rick [Mirer] to take us where we want to go. We have to find other ways to get it done.”

So far, none of last year’s title games participants have found the answer.


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