From the Sidelines

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 30, 1998

MICHAEL KIRAL / L’Observateur / November 30, 1998

Once upon a time in the NFL, there was a saying that on any given Sunday, any team could beat another.

That saying is still true today for the most part except for different reasons.

A look at the NFL standings shows that there are two dominant teams (Denver and Minnesota), a couple of good teams (Atlanta, San Francisco, Green Bay, Dallas and Jacksonville) and a lot of mediocre teams. Thenthere the bad teams like Carolina, Philadelphia, Washington, Cincinnati and Indianapolis, which will be battling only for draft position over the final five weeks.

So far, there have been a few surprises in the league. The biggest isprobably Atlanta, which many predicted would finish in the bottom half of the NFC West. Yet, the Falcons lead the division heading into the finalstretch.

Many expected the Vikings to be good but few could have predicted that they would be 11-1. Oakland and Buffalo are other surprising teams stillin the hunt for the playoffs. So is the hometown team, the Saints, whichhave already exceeded many forecasters’ predictions for the year.

But there have been far more disappointments than surprises. Washington,after solidifying its defense with free agents pickups Dana Stubblefield and Dan Wilkin-son, were supposed to challenge for the NFC East crown but is tied for the league’s worst record at 2-9. Washington’s maincontender was thought to be New York, the division winners last year, but the Giants are in the middle of the pack this year with a 4-7 record.

Green Bay and Tampa Bay were expected to battle it out for the NFC Central title but both have struggled. The Packers have been hurt in theirquest for a third-straight Super Bowl berth by its lack of a rushing attack due to the loss of Dorsey Levens with an injury. Brett Favre has beenforced to throw more often and is making more poor decisions this season.

Tampa Bay, a favorite for the Super Bowl this year, has taken a step back because of an inefficient offense and injuries on defense.

Even San Francisco is having an off year, although it is still in the hunt for the division title. Injuries, free agent defections, front office problemsand age are finally starting to take a toll on the 49ers.

Carolina, which just two seasons ago played in the NFC Championship Game, has taken a dive, releasing its franchise quarterback and falling to 2-9.

In the AFC, Kansas City went 13-3 last year and was supposed to be the conference’s representative in the Super Bowl. But the Chiefs have notwon in six weeks, have switched quarterbacks and had an embarrassing performance on Monday night against the Broncos two weeks ago.

Pittsburgh has struggled to a 7-5 record and New England, another Super Bowl pretender has dropped to 6-5.

What all the mediocrity in the league amounts to is that heading into the final five weeks of the season, a number of teams are still alive for playoff berths.

As of right now, Atlanta, Minnesota and Dallas would be the division champions in the NFC with Green Bay, San Francisco and Arizona the wild cards. New Orleans, Detroit and New York are the best bets to challengethe Cardinals for the final spot.

In the AFC, Denver, Jacksonville and Buffalo would be in as the divisional champions with Oakland, Pittsburgh, Tennessee, Miami and New York battling for wildcards.

Football fans can only hope that the level of play picks up when the playoffs open. Right now, it appears they will only be a warm up for theBroncos and Vikings before they tangle in the Super Bowl.

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