| ||Tuesday, September 7|
Special to ESPN.com
|Welcome to the NFC, land of tall receivers and short dynasties.
Ever since the 49ers, the longest-running success story in NFL history, began a slow descent after their league championship in 1994, the NFC has seen its dynasties grow shorter and shorter.
It began with the Cowboys. They won three NFL championships in four years -- a short run by traditional NFL standards -- and joined the 49ers in gradually fading from the title picture after 1995.
Then came the Packers, whose reign atop the NFL fell one Super Bowl loss short of two seasons.
Finally, in walked the Vikings, who had the shortest dynasty in the history of professional sports. It lasted less than a year.
Despite coach Dennis Green's history of playoff failures, the Vikings' flameout at the hands of the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game was the biggest surprise of the 1998 season. Before that, Minnesota appeared to be the best team to come along since the 1985 Bears. The Vikings became just the third team ever to go 15-1 in a season and had the highest-scoring offense in NFL history.
They're back looking for redemption this season and will be the popular choice to unseat the two-time champion Broncos. But if recent history is any indication, the Vikings had better win the title now because their Super Bowl window of opportunity is closing fast.
In the suddenly volatile NFC, the fortunes of the contenders are rising and falling at an unprecedented rate. Take last year, for instance. In the six years prior to 1998, the 49ers, Cowboys and Packers had earned 11 of the 12 available spots in the NFC Championship Game. In 1998, they were shut out by the Vikings and Falcons.
Obviously, being on top one season no longer guarantees that a team will be on top the next. And nowhere is that more true than in the once mighty NFC, which continues to lose ground to the AFC.
Since the NFC is getting worse, not better, the traditional methods of gauging a team's strength no longer apply. When looking at the NFC playoff contenders, judge them not on what they have, but what they don't have. Or what they no longer have.
With the exception of the Buccaneers, none of the potential NFC playoff teams will be as good as they were last season. All suffered critical losses that will make them more susceptible to the capricious nature of football in the 1990s.
In trying to pick out who will rule in the unstable NFC, simply ask the question: Who lost the least?
Minnesota lost four starters from a defense that was barely hanging on last season, including two linemen and its best cover cornerback, Corey Fuller. Because the Vikings have spent so lavishly to keep their offense intact and then elected not to get any defensive help via the draft, the defensive replacements all have to come from within. Unless the Vikings know something everyone else doesn't, they'll be hard-pressed to go 15-1 this year.
After their improbable run to the Super Bowl last year, the Falcons managed to compensate for two losses on defense -- former No. 1 pick Keith Brooking for Cornelius Bennett, free agent Marty Carter for William White -- but failed to adequately replace wide receiver Tony Martin on offense.
Martin teamed with Terance Mathis to form the best deep combination in the NFL last season, then was dumped by the Falcons because of his legal problems, a move that turned out to be premature when Martin was acquitted. Without Martin, the Falcons' delicate offensive balance could be seriously disrupted.
The Packers will be a contender as long as they have Brett Favre at quarterback, but how can a team overcome the loss of coach Mike Holmgren, defensive end Reggie White and wide receiver Robert Brooks in one year?
Green Bay imported a slew of rookie cornerbacks to alleviate its biggest weakness from last season, an inability to cover Minnesota's Randy Moss, but at this point the Pack is like the little Dutch boy at the dike: Every time they plug one hole, they spring two more.
The 49ers keep losing parts and don't have the cap room to replace them.
Their defense, which dropped from first in the league in 1997 to 23rd last year, will be without end Chris Doleman, who took his 15 sacks and went home.
The offense, which led the NFL in rushing last year, will miss Garrison Hearst, who rushed for 1,570 yards but won't play this year due to a broken ankle. The replacements for Doleman (golden oldie Charles Haley) and Hearst (troubled Lawrence Phillips) don't inspire much longer-term confidence.
Like the 49ers, the Cowboys are a victim of too much fiddling with the salary cap over the years. The offense fizzled down the stretch last season, but it is the losses on defense that most concern the Cowboys. Tackle Leon Lett, their best lineman, is suspended indefinitely after another positive drug test, and the cornerbacks, long the heart of the defense, are iffy at best.
Deion Sanders' return from toe surgery is undetermined, and Kevin Smith could miss up to half the season with a back problem. Coordinator Dave Campo is a master at using smoke and mirrors, but he's running out of both.
Arizona's future looked bright after its first playoff win since 1947 and the emergence of quarterback Jake Plummer, but the tight-fisted Cardinals managed to screw it up. Offensive tackle Lomas Brown and linebacker Jamir Miller were lost in free agency, fullback Larry Centers was cut and wide receiver Rob Moore and defensive tackle Mark Smith remain unsigned.
Since no one knows when defensive tackle Eric Swann will return from knee surgery, the Cardinals could struggle against a beefed-up schedule that includes nine playoff teams.
Even if Kent Graham or Kerry Collins comes through at quarterback for the Giants, the defense, dominant in 1997, fell off last season and could sink even lower this year. Cornerback Jason Sehorn, who missed last season after knee surgery, has been hampered by hamstring woes and his return is uncertain. End Chad Bratzke, the quiet hero of the defense, left via free agency. The defense won't be up to past standards, which will put a lot of pressure on two quarterbacks with a lot to prove.
Washington is without a dozen starters from last season, but most of the losses were by choice. The Redskins kept the players they really wanted, although putting that many pieces together quickly will be a problem for under-the-gun coach Norv Turner. And putting injury-prone quarterback Brad Johnson behind an offensive line that gave up an NFC-high 61 sacks sounds more like a cruel joke than a game plan for making the playoffs.
The only team in the conference that didn't lose a significant player was the Buccaneers. Unfortunately, that means Trent Dilfer is still their quarterback. But the Buccanneers imported two quarterbacks -- veteran Eric Zeier and rookie Shaun King -- to push Dilfer for the first time and the move seems to have worked. If Dilfer and an emerging set of wide receivers can crank up the passing game, the Buccaneers could be the most improved team in the NFC.
There is also a group of teams that had hoped to take the step up and be playoff contenders this season, but they were hit even harder by unexpected losses than the upper-echelon teams.
The Lions' losing ways drove halfback Barry Sanders into early retirement, an unfortunate circumstance that will probably drive coach Bobby Ross into forced retirement after the season. Unless Sanders has a change of heart when he has to return $7.3 million of his signing bonus to the Lions, has-been Greg Hill and never-was Ron Rivers aren't likely to run the Lions into the playoffs.
Saints coach Mike Ditka thought an improved defense and the addition of Ricky Williams, college football's all-time leading rusher, would be a winning formula. Then end Joe Johnson, the team's only Pro Bowl defensive player, blew up his knee and will miss the season. And when Williams sprained his ankle and missed much of the preseason, it pointed out the fragility of Ditka's plan.
The Rams spent tons of money trying to upgrade their offense, signing quarterback Trent Green, trading for halfback Marshall Faulk and drafting wide receiver Torry Holt. Instead of getting instant offense, however, coach Dick Vermeil got instant playoff elimination when Green blew out a knee in an exhibition game. The Rams' playoff hopes now depend on former Arena League quarterback Kurt Warner.
As for the remaining NFC teams -- the Bears, Eagles and Panthers -- their refrain is a familiar one: Wait 'til next century.
AFC: A Furious Chase