Free-For-All Which teams don't have a shot at reaching the playoffs? Not many in this wacky season when Sunday's losers need remember they're only a week from turning things around

November 19, 2001

Deep bitterness ate at the Cleveland Browns as their charter
lifted off for the return trip from Chicago on Nov. 4. It's hard
to imagine anything in the NFL more devastating than blowing a
two-touchdown lead in the final minute of regulation play and
then losing on a tipped interception returned for a touchdown in
overtime, which the Browns had done against the Bears. On the
plane the players stared ahead in disbelief until free safety
Percy Ellsworth realized that this was no time to be depressed.
Not in this league. Not in this season. "Pittsburgh lost today,
right?" Ellsworth asked cornerback Corey Fuller.

"Right," said Fuller.

"You know what that means?" Ellsworth said. "It means we're
playing the Steelers, in our house, for first place in the
division next Sunday. We've got the Bus coming to town with
first place on the line!"

Pigs fly in the NFL these days. The lesson to be learned from the
first half of the 2001 season is that you're never out of the
playoff race, even when it looks as if you have no business being
in it. The three-year-old Browns--a combined 5-27 in their first
two years back in the league as an expansion franchise--did play
for a piece of the AFC Central lead on Sunday. Their neighbors in
recent misery, the Cincinnati Bengals, were also in the thick of
the division race as they headed south to face the Jacksonville
Jaguars. Wins by the Browns and the Bengals would have left
Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and the reigning Super Bowl
champion Baltimore Ravens knotted at 5-3 by sundown on Sunday. It
didn't happen. Pittsburgh, with Jerome (the Bus) Bettis churning
for 163 yards, and Jacksonville prevailed, leaving the 6-2
Steelers alone at the top. However, that didn't prevent the
formerly downtrodden Browns and Bengals, not to mention the Bears
and the New England Patriots and others of their ilk, from
shouting the NFL's battle cry of 2001: Wait till Next Week!

"Realistically, a player can go to training camp today knowing
that if his team gets things going in the right way, it can make
a run at the title," says Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi.
"Coaches have always given their players that 'on any given
Sunday' b.s., but you can't tell me that the Steelers of the
1970s or the 49ers of the '80s believed that. Now the talent is
spread so evenly."

Here's how unpredictable this season has been. In Week 6
underdogs won 11 of 13 games. The Washington Redskins lost their
first three games by a combined 96 points, dropped their next two
by a total of 32 and won their next three by a combined 30
points. The Kansas City Chiefs, who had the NFL's second-best
home record in the '90s (63-17), are 0-4 at Arrowhead Stadium in
2001. The teams that finished last in the three AFC divisions
last year (New England, Cleveland and the San Diego Chargers) are
14-12, though it must be noted they've benefited from the softer
schedule that's the reward for a last-place finish, as have the
6-2 Bears.

More stunning developments. The Buffalo Bills unceremoniously
released Doug Flutie after last season; he signed with the
Chargers and started the season looking like an MVP candidate.
The Steelers' Kordell Stewart is maturing into a reliable and
efficient passer. Somebody named Tom Brady (page 52) is playing
in place of the highest-paid quarterback in the league, injured
Drew Bledsoe, and has won five of his seven starts to keep New
England on the heels of the AFC East leaders. The Ravens, who 10
months ago had the best defense in the history of mankind
(remember?), surrendered 24 points to the offensively challenged
Browns on Oct. 21 and lost by 10.

It is in Cleveland that we will start this tale of turnover in
the NFL.

BROWNS Cleveland's new coach, Butch Davis, walked into his first
team meeting last March and told the Browns that he expected to
win right away, that nothing less than winning would be
acceptable. Last week, though, as he sat in his office, he knew
he had more holes to fill than he'd realized back then. The
Browns' inability to put away Chicago could be blamed on a
putrid running game--Cleveland averages a league-low 3.1 yards a
carry--and wideouts who haven't consistently separated from
cornerbacks. "This season is about winning," Davis said, "but
because I walked in without knowing a lot of these players, it's
also about revealing the holes that need to be fixed." Two or
three drive-blocking offensive linemen and a game-breaking
wideout are the most glaring needs.

So why did the Browns break out of the gate 3-1, and why do they
remain in the thick of the playoff race? For starters, the
players bought into Davis's power-of-positive-thinking approach
and unselfish ways. "Instead of having to massage egos and
convince players our system is right," Davis says, "we've spent
all our time on football."

Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians has returned quarterback Tim
Couch, the first pick in the 1999 draft who struggled his first
two seasons, to his Kentucky roots by installing a short passing
game similar to the one that made Couch a college sensation. This
year Couch is a 57% passer with only five interceptions, and even
without much of a running game, he's moving the chains. Cleveland
has scored at least 20 points in five of its first eight games.
The defense, devoid of stars except for end Courtney Brown, has
permitted nine touchdowns in eight games by relying on speed and
aggressiveness. "We don't play the prettiest football, but Butch
has put his stamp on us," Ellsworth says. "We hit people in the
mouth pretty good." Good enough to wake the echoes in a city that
lives for its Browns.

STEELERS The current Steelers chafe at being compared to the
hallowed Pittsburgh teams of the 1970s, but the similarities are
hard to overlook. Jerome Bettis, healthy and frisky again after
being bothered for two years by bad knees, is on pace for a
Franco Harris-like 1,400-yard season. The new Steel Curtain
defense, infused with the ferocious play of rookie inside
linebacker Kendrell Bell, leads the league in fewest points and
yards allowed and is No. 1 in sacks. It has surrendered 11.3
points per game; by comparison, the unit that keyed Pittsburgh's
four Super Bowl wins gave up an average of 13.5 points a game in
the title seasons.

Those are the primary reasons that the Steelers, 22-26 and no
playoff games over the last three years, should be playing in the
postseason. A trip that new offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey
took to Stewart's house in Atlanta last winter was awfully
important, too. "He knew what I'd been through," says Stewart,
whom Pittsburgh fans reviled after three bad years. "He asked,
'How are you doing as a person? What do you expect out of this
offense?' That's respect." Mularkey told Stewart he planned to
make him the running and passing weapon he had been early in his
career.

To watch tape of Stewart's performance against Baltimore on Nov.
4, a game in which he completed 60% of his passes for 236 yards
with no interceptions, was to see a stunning transformation.
Gone are the happy feet and jerky head movements that
characterized his two seasons under Mularkey's predecessor,
Kevin Gilbride. Stewart is confident in the pocket, standing his
ground under pressure, as he did before releasing a pass in the
face of a second-quarter blitz by safety Carnell Lake. His
accuracy on a fade touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress and on a
19-yard sideline throw to Hines Ward was pinpoint. "A year ago
at this time, I hated coming to work," Stewart says. "Now I'm
totally at peace. I love this offense. I trust everything about
it."

Under Gilbride each receiver had as many as five options once the
ball was snapped, based largely on reading the positioning of the
defenders. Extraordinary athletic ability--in Stewart and in
wideouts Burress and Troy Edwards, who were also struggling under
that system--was being wasted. "Now the receivers have two
options," Mularkey says. "There isn't a lot of thinking."

In the off-season Mularkey told the offensive players that he
would run an "exotic smash-mouth" scheme. He has kept his word.
Bettis is averaging 20.5 carries a game, but he also has thrown a
touchdown pass; Ward has runs out of the shotgun for nine and 36
yards; and Mularkey designs running plays for Stewart each week,
incorporating play-action fakes into some of them. "When you're
confident, you play well," Stewart says. "I've got more
confidence than I've had since back in the Slash days." Beware
the new Men of Steel.

BEARS Recall Chicago's 1999 draft, and you'll think of what a
failure the 12th overall pick, quarterback Cade McNown, turned
out to be. However, 2 1/2 years later it's looking as if the Bears
did more good than harm in that draft. When coach Dick Jauron
looked at the team he'd inherited from Dave Wannstedt that
January, he saw a plodding defense that he knew couldn't win. So
Jauron, a former defensive back, and personnel chief Mark Hatley
(who has since left the organization in part for what ownership
perceived was bad drafting) traded down three times on draft day
to stockpile eight selections in rounds 3 through 5. The Bears
wanted speed, and they got it in linebackers Warrick Holdman and
Rosevelt Colvin, who came in round 4, and cornerback Jerry
Azumah, selected in the next round. Last year middle linebacker
Brian Urlacher (first round) and free safety Mike Brown (second
round) were added to the mix.

"Now we're pretty fast," says Jauron, a master of understatement.
When your starting linebackers all run the 40 in less than 4.5
seconds, that's more than pretty fast. Holdman, Urlacher and
Colvin aren't yet in the same league as the unit of Wilbur
Marshall, Mike Singletary and Otis Wilson in the mid-1980s, but
none of the current crop has turned 26 yet, either. "They're all
still learning how to play," says Jauron. "The one thing that's
so encouraging is their feel for the game."

It was fashionable to call the Bears lucky after they erased 15-
and 14-point leads in the final five minutes of games against the
San Francisco 49ers and the Browns, and then won both games on
bobbled or tipped interceptions returned for touchdowns in
overtime. This team, though, is much like its Yale-educated
coach: methodical and dedicated to working on weaknesses until
they become strengths. What was a running back, James Allen,
doing trailing a Hail Mary pass on the final play of regulation
against Cleveland? The right thing, obviously, because the Browns
were looking to cover wide receivers, not running backs, in the
end zone, and Allen made a diving grab of the tipped ball. "Smart
players are usually in the right position," says Jauron. These
days Chicago has a bunch of them.

49ERS Understand that the biggest reason San Francisco is an NFC
West contender--a year before even its front office thought it
possible--is quarterback Jeff Garcia. The Niners brought him in
to replace departed backup Ty Detmer before the 1999 season. All
he's done since inheriting the starting job, after Steve Young
went down with a career-ending concussion early that year, is
throw for more yards and more touchdowns than Young or Joe
Montana did in the first 35 starts of their careers. A
31-year-old who, save for a receding hairline, looks as if he's
a year removed from being your paperboy, Garcia has kept San
Francisco's bloodline of high-powered quarterbacks alive.

Still, the Niners would be foundering without a rebuilt defense
that starts six players in their first or second pro seasons.
"You can't simulate the game on defense by watching," says Ahmed
Plummer, who has formed a solid cornerback tandem with fellow
2000 draftee Jason Webster. "What was great about coming here was
that we were going to play right away. We have grown on the job."

So much so that opponents are completing only 57% of their
passes, which is five percentage points better than Baltimore's
defense is doing this year. "That's a shocking stat," says
general manager Terry Donahue. "We were destitute on defense a
couple of years ago. We had to get young, fast and healthy, which
means you play kids instead of guys near the end." That formula
has worked. The Niners have the NFL's 18th-ranked defense, up
from 29th a year ago.

As coach Steve Mariucci picked over fruit and cheese in his hotel
suite last Saturday night, he counted his blessings. The salary
cap is $67 million, but when you take away all the charges from
the big contracts of the past, the 49ers are a modest $47 million
payroll team. "We're beginning our ascent," he said. "We're over
the crash and burn, and we're building a team again."

The problem with predicting a Super Bowl winner is that even the
best teams have their flaws. The St. Louis Rams, devoid of the
power running game needed to bleed the clock, lost 34-31 to the
New Orleans Saints on Oct. 28. They ran the ball on only 24% of
their plays, a recipe for disaster against a ball-hawking
secondary. Kurt Warner was intercepted four times, and New
Orleans wiped out a 24-6 lead because St. Louis could do nothing
to shift the momentum. The Oakland Raiders, susceptible to long
drives because their pass defense is only the league's 17th
best, were pounded in a 34-27 loss to the Seattle Seahawks on
Sunday night. The lowest-scoring team in the AFC West, Seattle
scored on drives of 53, 79, 76, 61, 88 and 25 yards, and Shaun
Alexander had the fourth-highest rushing day (266 yards) in
league history.

Maybe Mariucci has the best grasp of the situation. Last
Saturday, on the eve of the Niners' knock-down, drag-out 28-27
victory over the Saints, he told his players that the season is
like a 16-round prize fight. "Men, you've just got to win a
majority of the rounds," he said. "If you get knocked down in
Round 4, Round 5, who cares? Get back up. You're still alive."

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER The power running of Jerome Bettis is one reason the Steelers are an unexpected power. [T of C] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER STEEL HURTIN' Linebacker Kendrell Bell wraps up Browns running back James Jackson during the Steelers' 15-12 overtime win last week. COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO PRIDE OF CHICAGO Holdman (53), a fourth-round draft pick in 1999, is part of a superfast Bears linebacking corps that streaks all over the field. COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS INSIDE STORY The Rams will likely need Marshall Faulk, one of the NFL's most versatile players, to run for tough yards late in games. COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER GANGING UP Safety Zack Bronson is one of the few experienced players on a San Francisco defense that is learning on the fly.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK BREAKING OUT The Chargers' Tomlinson, the fifth selection in the 2001 draft, leads the league's rookies in rushing with 726 yards.

Super Scooper
In what's sure to start arguments in taverns across America, we
ranked the 20 teams we think have the best chance to make it to
the Super Bowl in New Orleans.

REMAINING
TEAM W-L OPPONENTS' W-L
SKINNY

Head of the Class

1. RAMS 7-1 32-34
Must dust off power running game to
ensure late leads don't disappear

2. RAIDERS 6-2 33-37
Have to keep Rich Gannon healthy,
and front seven has to get tougher

Next in Line

3. STEELERS 6-2 29-37
Just like old times: new Steel Curtain
allowing 11.3 points per game

4. PACKERS 6-2 28-37
Now that Brett Favre's done playing Bucs,
maybe he can dominate again

5. RAVENS 6-3 28-28
With Jamal Lewis out, Elvis Grbac must
start earning his money

6. DOLPHINS 6-2 32-35
Rookie wideout Chris Chambers gives
ho-hum passing game shot in arm

7. EAGLES 5-3 30-37
Donovan McNabb needs to play like
franchise quarterback he was on Sunday

8. BEARS 6-2 23-41
Current six-game stretch against NFC
Central foes will be telling

9. 49ERS 6-2 30-35
League's second-youngest starting defense
will have to grow up on job

10. JETS 6-3 32-25
Wideout Santana Moss possibly debuts this
week to help run-heavy offense

11. PATRIOTS 5-4 29-29
Assistant coach dies, wideout acts up,
quarterback goes down....What survivors!

12. SAINTS 4-4 34-32
Toughest games at home, but only 4-7 at
Superdome under Jim Haslett

Teams in Trouble

13. GIANTS 5-4 28-28
Need to get running game and Kerry Collins
back to form they showed late last year

14. BRONCOS 5-4 27-30
Gave up 15.8 points in first four games,
average of 27 in last five. What gives?

15. CHARGERS 5-4 29-28
With two games left against Raiders,
find out if they're for real

16. COLTS 4-4 44-23
December schedule has games at
Baltimore, Miami and St. Louis. Yikes!

Hanging Around

17. REDSKINS 3-5 31-34
Don't laugh; with running game
reestablished, 6-2 finish possible

18. BROWNS 4-4 36-30
Must win now; end with games at Green
Bay, Tennessee and Pittsburgh

19. BUCS 4-4 38-27
Schedule doesn't get easier: close with
Bears, Saints, Ravens, Eagles

20. SEAHAWKS 4-4 27-43
What quarterback problems? Shaun
Alexander can carry the load

Mid Pro Quo

Two players on track to break NFL records were the only unanimous
selections to SI's annual Midseason All-Pro Team, picked last
week by a panel of eight pro personnel scouts. If Broncos wideout
Rod Smith, with 72 receptions through nine games, sustains his
pace, he'll eclipse Herman Moore's six-year-old record of 123
catches in a season. Giants defensive end Michael Strahan, on the
best tear of his career with 15 sacks, could shatter the record
of 22 set by Mark Gastineau in 1984. One surprise: rookie inside
linebacker Kendrell Bell, who has had a smashing half-season for
the Steelers.

Offense

WR ROD SMITH, Broncos
WR TERRELL OWENS, 49ers
TE TONY GONZALEZ, Chiefs
T JONATHAN OGDEN, Ravens
T LINCOLN KENNEDY, Raiders
G LARRY ALLEN, Cowboys
G ALAN FANECA, Steelers
C KEVIN MAWAE, Jets
QB BRETT FAVRE, Packers
RB CURTIS MARTIN, Jets
FB JON RITCHIE, Raiders

Defense

E MICHAEL STRAHAN, Giants
E MICHAEL MCCRARY, Ravens
T LA'ROI GLOVER, Saints
T DARYL GARDENER, Dolphins
LB BRIAN URLACHER, Bears
LB JOEY PORTER, Steelers
LB KENDRELL BELL, Steelers
CB CHARLES WOODSON, Raiders
CB CHRIS MCALISTER, Ravens
FS MIKE BROWN, Bears
SS RODNEY HARRISON, Chargers

Specialists

K JOHN CARNEY, Saints
P SHANE LECHLER, Raiders
K Ret. RONNEY JENKINS, Chargers
P Ret. BRIAN MITCHELL, Eagles

Awards

MVP: BRETT FAVRE, Packers
Offensive Rookie: LADAINIAN TOMLINSON, Chargers
Defensive Rookie: KENDRELL BELL, Steelers
Coach: DICK JAURON, Bears
Executive: MARK HATLEY, Packers

The lesson to be learned from the first half of the season is
that you're never out of the playoff race

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)