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Smart Money At the midpoint of the NFL season, it's clear the teams that spent their free-agent dollars wisely are way ahead of the game

Nov. 09, 1998
Nov. 09, 1998

Table of Contents
Nov. 9, 1998

Miscellany
  • 7 Days 78
    Compiled by Cameron Morfit and Jeff Pearlman

    While you were transfixed by the NFL, NHL, PGA, and NASCAR, you probably missed some of the weird and wondrous things that go on each week in the world of sports. Here are a few items from wire services and local papers that might have slipped under your radar.

Smart Money At the midpoint of the NFL season, it's clear the teams that spent their free-agent dollars wisely are way ahead of the game

In a hotel lobby at the NFL Annual Meeting in Orlando last
March, Miami Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson was taken aside by his
right-hand man, director of football operations Bob Ackles. The
negotiations between several clubs and free-agent defensive
tackle Sean Gilbert were heating up, and Ackles was delivering
some bad news about Gilbert, whose services Johnson coveted. The
player's price tag had gone up another $1 million a year, and
Ackles needed to know if the Dolphins would stay in the game or
fold. "Jimmy," Ackles told his boss, "they're talking seven
years, $45 million. Maybe $10 million up front."

This is an article from the Nov. 9, 1998 issue Original Layout

Johnson blanched. "Well, wish him good luck," he said. "We're
out." Those might have been the seven smartest words Johnson
ever uttered.

The Carolina Panthers outlasted all other bidders and gave
Gilbert the richest contract for a defensive player in NFL
history, a seven-year, $45.4 million deal. The total dollars and
$10 million signing bonus were nearly identical to what the
Green Bay Packers had given three-time league MVP Brett Favre
nine months earlier, and the Panthers had to send the Washington
Redskins first-round draft choices in '99 and 2000 as
compensation for signing Gilbert, the Redskins' franchise
player. That's a lot to give up for a guy who sat out the '97
season because of a contract dispute.

While Gilbert gets $10.7 million this season in bonus and
salary, the 11 starters on the Dolphins defense, which has
allowed the fewest points in the league, are playing for a
collective salary-cap figure of $10.9 million. Now, at the
season's midpoint, Miami is locked in a four-team scramble atop
the tough AFC East with a 5-3 record; Carolina is trolling the
bottom of the weak-sister NFC West at 1-7, having won for the
first time on Sunday.

If the season's first half has taught us anything--other than
that the Denver Broncos' Super Bowl win last January was no
fluke, or that Buffalo Bills quarterback Doug Flutie is
certainly not Doug Flukie--it's that the fool's gold of free
agency is crippling teams like never before. Among the clubs
driven to distraction by the new $17.6 billion network
television contracts signed early this year, Carolina and the
Washington Redskins ran amok through the free-agent market and
have two wins between them to show for their investments.

Carolina bought Gilbert and cornerback Doug Evans, and
Washington signed defensive tackles Dana Stubblefield and Dan
Wilkinson. Total cost: $128 million. Evans has been burned more
often than dry California woodlands, and Gilbert, Stubblefield
and Wilkinson have combined for six sacks and 72 solo tackles.
With the exception of the hard-driving John Randle, who re-upped
with the Minnesota Vikings and has keyed the defense in the
team's surprising 7-1 start, none of the free-agent defensive
linemen who broke the $5 million-a-year barrier--including
Chester McGlockton, who after signing with the Kansas City
Chiefs missed the first six games with a back injury, and Eric
Swann, who re-signed with the Arizona Cardinals--have been
remotely worth the expense. Meanwhile, in addition to Miami,
which also courted McGlockton and Randle, the Jacksonville
Jaguars shopped for high-priced defensive line help, thought
better of paying the going rate and still lead the AFC Central
at 6-2.

"I think what this free-agent crop proves is that free agency's
really a crapshoot," Johnson said last Thursday. "I never liked
free agency, and after this year I hate it." That night he
defended his former assistant, embattled Redskins coach Norv
Turner. "Dana Stubblefield's got his money, his $8 million
[signing bonus], right?" Johnson said. "Fair or unfair, Norv
sooner or later could be out of a job. You give Norv those 15
sacks, like Stubblefield had last year [with the San Francisco
49ers], and he keeps his job. Why is it never the player's fault?

"Coaching is harder than ever. Free agency's the reason. Years
ago, players would say, 'I'll run through a brick wall for you.'
Then it became, 'Tell me why I have to run through the brick
wall.' Today it's, 'I've got enough money in the bank, so I'm
not running through a brick wall for anybody.'"

Eight games do not a new career make, but Gilbert, who was moved
from tackle (the position he played most of his first five years
in the league) to right end in the Panthers' zone-blitz scheme,
has two sacks and nine quarterback pressures, and opponents have
rarely felt the need to double-team him. "We single-blocked him,
and he didn't do much to us," says one assistant coach who has
faced Gilbert this year. "He was nothing special."

Gilbert blamed his poor production on the fact that he's playing
end in a 3-4 alignment, and his argument has some merit. An end
in the 3-4 sets up plays for the outside linebackers. But it's a
weak excuse to say an end can't be a playmaker, because other
3-4 ends have been impact players. The New York Giants' Leonard
Marshall set up plays for outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor but
still was a double-digit sack man in three of his 10 seasons.

"I'm trying to do what my coaches ask me to do," says Gilbert.
"If I walk off the field and haven't saved anything, I'm
satisfied. When you're one in 53 guys, there's only so much you
can do. If you do what you're supposed to do and the other 10
guys on defense don't, it doesn't help."

Carolina coach Dom Capers, who pushed hard to sign Gilbert,
insists he's not unhappy with his defensive end. "I'd do it
again," Capers says. "The scrutiny and the expectations go off
the scale when you pay a guy that money, and we're still working
to get the kind of production we want out of him. But I'm happy
we have Sean Gilbert."

Redskins general manager Charley Casserly feels the same way
about Stubblefield and Wilkinson. "Would I do it again? Yes,"
Casserly says. "Wilkinson has played well. The other guy
[Stubblefield] hasn't had the impact I thought he'd have. I
thought we'd have seen more big plays out of him. He's playing
on the line of scrimmage, occupying blockers instead of rushing
upfield. The coaches have told him they want him upfield more.
He says he's still learning the defense, and he's reluctant to
go upfield."

In Washington's 38-16 loss to Denver on Sept. 27, Stubblefield
was able to pressure Broncos quarterback Bubby Brister just
twice. And neither Stubblefield nor Wilkinson got within five
yards of Brister on a play in which he took a seven-step drop
and hopped on the balls of his feet three times before throwing
a 41-yard completion to wideout Ed McCaffrey. As for the tandem
tackles' effectiveness against the run, the Redskins entered
Sunday's game giving up 4.6 yards per rush, more than they did
in '96 and '97, when they ranked 30th and 28th, respectively, in
rushing defense. (Without Stubblefield in the lineup on
Sunday--he injured his right knee in a fall at his home on Oct.
25 and will be out for two to four weeks--Washington surrendered
4.2 yards per attempt in a 21-14 win over the Giants.)

"I thought I played pretty well my first five games, but I could
have been better the next two," says Wilkinson. "My shoulder's
been bruised. I was playing 80 plays a game, and that's a lot of
wear and tear." He said he healed a little during Washington's
bye week and felt better in Sunday's game. And what a game he
played. One tackle, no sacks.

"Money has nothing to do with it," Wilkinson says. "This is
about the game. You try to be successful and have some good
times."

Money is being well-spent in some places. Minnesota, for
instance, doled out $29.5 million in signing bonuses to keep six
of its own players, and the Vikings streaked to a 7-0 start
before losing to the Tampa Bay Bucs on Sunday. "The advantage to
signing your own," says Minnesota coach Dennis Green, "is that
you obviously know your players better than you know someone
else's." Denver has mostly avoided the biggest pitfalls of free
agency by signing running back Terrell Davis and wideout Rod
Smith to long-term deals before they were eligible to hit the
market. Otherwise, the Broncos have picked up mostly solid
starters, nothing flashy. They started nine free-agent imports
in win number eight on Sunday, a 33-26 victory over the
Cincinnati Bengals.

"There have been free agents I haven't signed because I thought
job security would kill them," Denver coach and team architect
Mike Shanahan says. "The most important things I look for after
I determine whether a guy can play is character and whether
he'll put the team first. I could pay John Elway or Terrell
Davis 10 bucks or $15 million, and they'd be the same guys."

The New Orleans Saints, who had the league's fourth-ranked
defense in '97, have done well in keeping good players and
keeping them hungry. Last summer, after a handful of defensive
linemen around the league struck it rich, New Orleans defensive
end Joe Johnson held out for 45 days, stuck on a five-year, $27
million demand. Finally, Saints president Bill Kuharich and
salary-cap consultant Terry O'Neil added a couple of unique
provisions to their offer. The sides settled on a five-year, $22
million deal that included an $8 million signing bonus, but
Johnson gets a $1 million bonus in every season he has nine or
more sacks, and he can void the last year of the contract and
become a free agent if he meets any of the following incentives:
a Pro Bowl selection, 32 sacks or 42 big plays (sacks, forced
fumbles, fumble recoveries, touchdowns) over the next four
years. "It's insurance for them," says Johnson, who has four
sacks in '98. "I understand that. Some guys get the big money
and their play diminishes."

Linebacker Robert Jones was a 1996 signing-bonus baby ($3
million) of the St. Louis Rams after earning three Super Bowl
rings with the Dallas Cowboys. "I'm not doubting Gilbert's
effort, or Stubblefield's," says Jones, now a starter in Miami.
"But I know sometimes a guy gets all that money and thinks, I
got my payday--is there anything else to achieve? I noticed it
with the Rams."

Jones played two undistinguished seasons in St. Louis, finishing
with one sack and one interception before being waived by the
club in June. His termination notice said: "Did not meet
performance standards." Jones was crushed. "I was ashamed to
show it to my wife," he recalls. "I used it to motivate me."
Jimmy Johnson says Jones, with 48 tackles and a bargain-basement
$376,000 salary, is playing as well as anyone on Miami's defense.

Perhaps the disappointing multimillionaires will play at a level
more commensurate with their contracts in the second half of the
season, though for Washington and Carolina it's too late. Other
big spenders have been on a seesaw. While the Jaguars should
easily make it to the playoffs, their imported linebacker, Bryce
Paup, hasn't cured what ails their pass rush (11 sacks), and
ineffective pass rushing teams don't advance deep into January.
The Cardinals, with Swann and rookie defensive end Andre
Wadsworth gobbling up $17.9 million in bonus money alone, look
like the Steelers of the '70s one week and the Redskins of today
the next. Nine of the 11 defensive starters on the Seattle
Seahawks are earning more than a million a year, including
linebackers Chad Brown and Darrin Smith, who signed as free
agents after the '96 and '97 seasons, respectively. But the
Seahawks aren't having the breakthrough season that was expected
of them, and road dates with contenders Oakland, Dallas and
Denver await.

As the season's second half dawns, it's hard to see any team
beating Denver. Despite the absence of Pro Bowl left tackle Gary
Zimmerman (retired) and Elway's being sidelined by injuries for
2 1/2 games, the Broncos still look better than they did when
they stunned Green Bay in the Super Bowl last January. Shanahan
sits atop the football world, but as an interview in a
Cincinnati hotel suite wound down last Saturday night, he had a
question of his own, "What do you think of Flutie?"

How apt in this season of megamillionaire free-agent flops that
it's the ultimate blue-light special who has electrified a team,
a city and a league. At 5'10", Flutie couldn't cut it in his
first NFL go-round a decade ago, so he went to the wide fields
of the Canadian Football League and won six league MVP awards.
Last winter the Buffalo Bills signed him to be a backup for
$285,000, including a $50,000 signing bonus, and then a rib
injury to starting quarterback Rob Johnson thrust Flutie into
the lineup a month ago. Including Sunday's 30-24
come-from-behind victory over the Dolphins, all he has done is
turn an aging 0-3 team into a 5-3 contender. He scored on a
fourth-down bootleg with 13 seconds left to beat Jacksonville
17-16. He burned high-priced corner Evans with two scoring
strikes in a 30-14 win over Carolina. He threw three touchdown
passes against Miami. His Flutie Flakes cereal, a sugar-coated
type of corn flake that hit the shelves last month, is so
popular in Buffalo that grocery stores had to begin rationing
the product.

Recently a Bills front-office employee parked in a loading zone
at the Buffalo airport while meeting a plane, and when he
returned to the car, a policeman was writing him a ticket. The
anguished employee tried to talk his way out of it. No dice, the
cop said. Then the officer saw a Bills parking pass on the
dashboard, hesitated and said, "Tell you what. Get me a couple
of boxes of Flutie Flakes, and we'll forget the whole thing."

That's a short commentary on the NFL in 1998: For all the money
spent in the off-season, the 39th-highest-paid player on the
Bills has paid off in more ways than four of the league's most
expensive free agents combined.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER COVER Peter King's NFL Halftime Report --Breakout Players --Good Deals, Bad Deals --Midseason All-Pros --Playoff Predictions Buffalo's Amazing Doug FlutieCOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY WALTER IOOSS JR. Earning his keep The Vikings' re-signing of John Randle has been a key to the team's 7-1 first half.COLOR PHOTO: PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY STRUGGLING Gilbert (opposite, left) has had trouble beating his man straight up, while Stubblefield isn't getting into the backfield. [Sean Gilbert in game against New Orleans Saints player]COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS [See caption above--Dana Stubblefield in game against Denver Broncos player]COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS PRODUCTIVE Edwards, the 18th pick in the draft, has proved to be a durable back, and he has scored eight touchdowns to boot. [Robert Edwards running with football in game]COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO BARGAINS The Dolphins' young defenders don't make much by NFL standards, and they're stingy about giving up points too. [Jerry Wilson, Brock Marion, Sam Madison and Jason Taylor tackling player in game]COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER A GOOD GRASP Now in his 12th season, Testaverde says there's nothing a defense throws at him that he can't handle. [Vinny Testaverde in game]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER EARLY IMPACT With six sacks, including one in the Packers' win over the 49ers on Sunday, Holliday has plenty to crow about. [Vonnie Holliday celebrating]COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS INSTANT REPLAY? Neil Smith (left) and the Broncos give every indication they're ready for a return trip to the Super Bowl. [Neil Smith tackling Trent Green]

What's the Big Deal?

Much has been made of the money spent to acquire defensive-line
help during the off-season, but here's how three other
eye-opening personnel moves have played out.

1. Transaction: Patriots' restricted free-agent running back
Curtis Martin signs a six-year, $36 million contract with the
Jets, who compensate New England with first- and third-round
draft choices in '98. (Pats take running back Robert Edwards and
fullback Chris Floyd, respectively, with those picks.) Result:
Martin leads Edwards in rushing yards, 618-580, but the rookie
has proved to be the better runner between the tackles and $4.85
million cheaper per year. Winner: Patriots

2. Transaction: The Chargers trade return man-wideout Eric
Metcalf, linebacker Patrick Sapp, '98 first-round (defensive end
Andre Wadsworth) and second-round (cornerback Corey Chavous)
picks and a first-round pick in '99 to the Cardinals for the
second pick in the '98 draft--which turns out to be quarterback
Ryan Leaf. Result: Only Wadsworth, with four sacks, has had an
impact, and Leaf has struggled. Winner: Too early to call

3. Transaction: The Jaguars trade quarterback Rob Johnson to the
Bills for first-round (running back Fred Taylor) and
fourth-round (running back Tavian Banks) picks in '98. Buffalo
signs Johnson to a five-year, $25 million extension. Result:
Injuries have slowed all three players, but Taylor, who is
averaging 5.2 yards per rush on 95 carries, has looked great at
times. People forget how well Johnson (92.8 passer rating)
played before two concussions and a rib injury put him on the
shelf. Now he's lost in the hoopla surrounding his charismatic
replacement, Doug Flutie. Winner: Bills

Midseason All-Pros

There were some notable breakthroughs on the seventh annual SI
Midseason All-Pro team, chosen last week in a poll of 24 NFL pro
personnel directors and scouts. The Seahawks' Michael Sinclair
beat out Reggie White and Bruce Smith for a defensive end spot;
the Broncos' Howard Griffith edged a crowded field at fullback;
the Patriots' Ty Law outplayed the Chiefs' Dale Carter and the
Cardinals' Aeneas Williams to get the nod at one of the
cornerbacks; and the Vikings' Dennis Green, who seemed to be a
lame duck until he signed a three-year contract extension in
September, lapped the field for coach of the year. (Number of
votes in parentheses.)

OFFENSE
WR Antonio Freeman, Packers (9)
WR Carl Pickens, Bengals (9)
T Tony Boselli, Jaguars (21)
T Jonathan Ogden, Ravens (9)
G Randall McDaniel, Vikings (9)
G Will Shields, Chiefs (7)
C Dermontti Dawson, Steelers (16)
TE Shannon Sharpe, Broncos (14 1/2)
QB Steve Young, 49ers (16 1/2)
RB Terrell Davis, Broncos (19)
FB Howard Griffith, Broncos (5)

DEFENSE
DE Michael Strahan, Giants (11)
DE Michael Sinclair, Seahawks (10)
DT John Randle, Vikings (14 1/2)
DT Bryant Young, 49ers (14)
OLB Junior Seau, Chargers (8)
OLB Kevin Greene, Panthers (6)
MLB Levon Kirkland, Steelers (9)
CB Deion Sanders, Cowboys (20 1/2)
CB Ty Law, Patriots (8)
FS Merton Hanks, 49ers (5)
SS Darren Woodson, Cowboys (5)

SPECIAL TEAMS
P Craig Hentrich, Oilers (5)
K Jason Elam, Broncos (13)
KR Roell Preston, Packers (17 1/2)
PR Jermaine Lewis, Ravens (22)

HONORS
MVP Terrell Davis, Broncos (18 1/2)
Coach Dennis Green, Vikings (11)
Comeback Player Randall Cunningham, Vikings quarterback (10)
Offensive rookie Randy Moss, Vikings wideout (21)
Defensive rookie Charles Woodson, Raiders cornerback (11)

Five Pivotal Games

The rest of the season is set up just the way the NFL likes it:
More than half the games left on the schedule have playoff
implications. Here are a handful of critical matchups.

Nov. 16: BRONCOS AT CHIEFS About 10 months after knocking Kansas
City out of the playoffs and propelling themselves to the Super
Bowl, the Broncos return to Arrowhead for a Monday-nighter and
the first of two meetings between the teams in 21 days. The
Chiefs figure to be playing for their playoff lives against a
Denver team that should be looking to go 10-0.

Nov. 26: PACKERS AT VIKINGS In the wake of Minnesota's loss to
the Bucs on Sunday, the top seed in the NFC playoffs could be
riding on the outcome of this game. The Vikings, who have
already beaten the Packers in Green Bay, have won five of the
last six meetings between the teams at the Metrodome.

Dec. 21: BRONCOS AT DOLPHINS Through a scheduling quirk John
Elway plays in Miami for the first time in his 16-year career
and against Dan Marino for only the second. On a cold September
1985 afternoon at Mile High, Marino threw three touchdown passes
while Elway threw none in a 30-26 Miami win. The Dolphins handed
the Bears their only loss in '85. They could be looking to do
the same against Denver in this Monday night game.

Dec. 27: PATRIOTS AT JETS As if the Pats' coming into the
Meadowlands to face former boss Bill Parcells wasn't enough,
this AFC East game figures to have playoff implications for both
teams.

Dec. 28: STEELERS AT JAGUARS The seeding for the AFC playoffs
comes down to this Monday-nighter, the final game of the season.
Want a favorite? The road team has never won in this series.

QBs: Old Is Beautiful

One day in January 1997, Randall Cunningham got a call at his
company in Las Vegas, which installs marble and granite
counters, from someone in NFL Properties, the league's marketing
arm. The guy wanted to know if Cunningham, the former Eagles
quarterback who, at 33, had said he was through with football,
would be interested in playing later that month in an AFC-NFC
game during Super Bowl week--an Old-Timers' Game.

"Yup," Cunningham recalled proudly last week. "NFL Throwbacks
Bowl II. Is that awesome or what? Archie Manning and I were the
NFC quarterbacks. Ted Hendricks was coming on the pass rush. I
threw to Drew Pearson. It seems kind of prophetic to me now, as
strange as that sounds. It's like somebody wanted me to be
playing football."

In the NFL this season, a lot of people want geezers playing
quarterback for them. Ten of the top 13 rated quarterbacks are
32 or older, including league leader Cunningham, 35, who has a
114.3 rating for the Vikings. He's followed by the Bills'
36-year-old Doug Flutie, at 102.7; the Jets' Vinny Testaverde,
who turns 35 on Nov. 13, at 101.6; the Bengals' 32-year-old Neil
O'Donnell (32) at 100.7; and the 49ers' 37-year-old Steve Young,
at 100.5. The Broncos' 38-year-old John Elway ranks sixth, at
98.9, but that rating isn't even the best on the Broncos. That
honor belongs to 36-year-old Bubby Brister, who has a 111.3
rating built largely while Elway was sidelined for 2 1/2 games
because of back and hamstring injuries.

In fact, when the aggregate passer rating in starts this season
for quarterbacks who will be at least 35 by the end of the
season is compared with the combined rating for the under-35
crowd, it is quite a mismatch favoring the codgers:

Comp. Pct. TD Int. Rating Starters' W-L
Under 35 56.1 219 209 74.4 83-105
35+older 59.5 101 34 94.7 36-14

With increasingly quick defenses throwing more and more complex
looks at the quarterback, there's a lot to be said for
experience. Listen to former Giants quarterback Phil Simms, who
had second thoughts about retirement after being released by the
Giants before the 1994 season. "The unfortunate part of not
coming back," said Simms, who was 38 at the time, "is that I
feel like there's nothing any defense can throw at me that would
screw me up. I feel more confident playing the game than I ever
have."

After appearing in six games with Minnesota last year,
Cunningham stepped in this year for injured starter Brad Johnson
during a Sept. 13 win over the Rams and hasn't looked back. He
seems to be a totally changed man from the ego-driven
quarterback who never met the expectation in Philadelphia that
he would lead the Eagles to the Super Bowl. He credits a renewed
faith in God for the change.

"Placid," is how Vikings offensive coordinator Brian Billick
describes him. "I have a different Randall Cunningham than the
Randall of his Philadelphia days. People wouldn't believe how
truly calm, serene and at ease with himself he is. He only cares
about one thing--doing what's best for the team."

The successful older quarterbacks have one thing in common:
They're not trying to be the hero. "I just let our system work
for me," says Flutie, who has thrown 10 touchdown passes and
only three interceptions.

Testaverde, who was run out of Baltimore in June, has settled in
nicely with the Jets. "It's like when you look back at your
childhood and say to yourself, I wish I knew then what I know
today. I'd be a better person," says Testaverde, who after a
28-3 win over the Falcons on Oct. 25 could say for the first
time in his 12 years in the league that he had thrown more
touchdown passes in his career (186) than interceptions (184).
"It's the same thing when you become an older quarterback. You
make better decisions. I step to the line now, and I'm not
intimidated by anything. I'm just more comfortable."

Young Blood

Here are 10 players--none of whom is named Peyton or Ryan--who
have risen to prominence in the first half of the season.

1. TY LAW, Patriots cornerback Tied for the league lead in
interceptions, with five, he talks a good game, then goes out
and backs it up. Early in 1995, his rookie season, Law began
badgering then coach Bill Parcells, saying, "Let me take the
other team's receiver out of the game. Stick me on him, Coach."
Parcells never did use him that way regularly, but successor
Pete Carroll has, and Law, playing a clinging and physical
corner, hasn't been beaten on a touchdown pass in eight games
this year. "I'm long overdue for the Pro Bowl," says the
24-year-old. Who could argue?

2. RANDY MOSS, Vikings wideout A new emphasis on the deep
passing game is the biggest reason that Minnesota is one game up
on Green Bay in the NFC Central, and Moss is right in the middle
of it. He is averaging 19.1 yards per catch, has scored six
touchdowns and is on pace to become the first rookie to rack up
1,200 receiving yards and 12 touchdown catches in a season.

3. VONNIE HOLLIDAY, Packers defensive end G reen Bay traded up 10
spots in the '98 draft, to 19th, for the opportunity to select
this 6'5", 300-pound North Carolina product. Now we know why.
With six sacks and 37 tackles in the first half of the season,
Holliday has already developed into a great bookend opposite
Reggie White.

4. SAM MADISON, Dolphins cornerback "A shut-'em-down corner,"
Miami coach Jimmy Johnson says of the 1997 second-round draft
pick from Louisville. Madison and rookie reserve Patrick Surtain
could be the league's best cornerback tandem by 2000.

5. CHARLIE BATCH, Lions quarterback What makes this rookie such
a surprise is not just his precocious play (57.5% completion
rate) at a time when Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf have struggled
mightily. It's also his commanding presence in the huddle.

6. TONY PARRISH, Bears free safety Rookie second-round pick has
been a starter and punishing hitter from Day One.

7. CHARLES WOODSON, Raiders cornerback The league's best rookie
corner since Deion entered the league in '89.

8. JERMAINE LEWIS, Ravens wideout-return man This third-year
player is an explosion waiting to happen on every kick or catch.

9. TAKEO SPIKES, Bengals linebacker Rookie reminds foes of a
young Mike Singletary.

10. BRAD MAYNARD, Giants punter Second-year player has hang time
to die for and is a great coffin-corner kicker.

The Crystal Ball

For the first time in a generation, the AFC is not just the
better conference but clearly the dominant one. In each of four
consecutive seasons, from 1977 through '80, the AFC enjoyed at
least a 10-win advantage over the NFC in head-to-head meetings.
In no year since has the NFC taken such a pounding--until this
fall. The AFC enjoys a 19-9 lead in interconference play and
should maintain that advantage the rest of the way as it shoots
for a second consecutive Super Bowl win. Here's our projected
playoff lineup, in order of playoff seedings, with final records.

AFC

1. Broncos (14-2) Even without cornerstone tackle Gary Zimmerman
(retired) and with suspect backup Bubby Brister getting
significant time at quarterback, Denver has played better than
it did during last year's title run.

2. Jaguars (11-5) There's a brutal schedule left--two games
against the Steelers, a road game against the Vikings and a home
date with the Bucs--and, even worse, a huge mental block: The
road to the Super Bowl goes through Denver.

3. Jets (10-6). With the best division and conference record of
the four teams that sit atop the AFC East, New York is in the
best shape heading into the second half.

4. Patriots (10-6) The only AFC team with a diverse-enough
offense and a potentially stifling defense to have a prayer of
winning at Mile High.

5. Dolphins (10-6) For Miami to have any success in January,
rookie running back John Avery has to bust loose a few times and
show he can carry the team to victory.

6. Raiders (10-6) Oakland beats the Steelers in a tiebreaker for
the last AFC wild-card spot, setting up a Heidi Bowl rematch
with the Jets at the windswept Meadowlands.

NFC

1. Vikings (13-3) Two-headed quarterback Randall Cunningham-Brad
Johnson makes Minnesota slump-proof.

2. 49ers (12-4) It's an offensive team for the ages, but
shortcomings at cornerback could hamper San Francisco's title
drive.

3. Cowboys (9-7) Being the best in the league's worst division
is nothing to brag about.

4. Packers (11-5). The next three games--all on the road--are
against '97 playoff teams. If Green Bay slips any farther, it
will need three playoff wins away from Lambeau to make a third
straight trip to the Super Bowl.

5. Falcons (10-6) For a coach who's already a Hall of Fame
candidate, Dan Reeves may be doing his best coaching job.

6. Buccaneers (9-7) Considering the strides Tampa Bay made last
season, sneaking into the playoffs as a sixth seed would rank as
a major disappointment.

Wild-card playoffs: Jets over Raiders; Patriots over Dolphins;
Cowboys over Buccaneers; Packers over Falcons

Divisional playoffs: Broncos over Patriots; Jaguars over Jets;
Packers over Vikings; 49ers over Cowboys

Championship games: Broncos over Jaguars; Packers over 49ers

Super Bowl XXXIII: Broncos over Packers.