Tuesday, October 7, 2003
Cream rising to top in competitive NFL
Vikings, K.C. lead pack of hopefuls
By Dave Goldberg
The Associated Press
If the playoffs began now, Kansas City and Minnesota would probably be the favorites to reach the Super Bowl.
But three-quarters of the season remain and nearly three-quarters of the 32 teams have legitimate reasons to think they can make it to the postseason.
As for the Chiefs and Vikings ...
Other than the Packers in the opener, the Vikings haven't played anyone of note, and the Chiefs might be the only team to be unbeaten after five games because they have a return specialist who scores weekly.
"It's kind of bringing me back to my high school days when I was so confident and so natural that I was able to do things that I did today," Dante Hall said after beating Denver on Sunday with a 93-yard punt return, his fourth return TD in as many games.
This isn't high school. This is the NFL, where no returner is supposed to dominate the way Hall does, especially in an era of collectively bargained parity.
So figure that the next 11 teams on Kansas City's schedule will decide it's better to squib kickoffs and punt out of bounds than let Hall beat them.
But going out of the way to stop one man can work against you.
Against the Dolphins on Sunday, the Giants concentrated so hard on stopping Ricky Williams (39 yards in 22 carries) that James McKnight turned the game by taking a handoff from Williams and scoring on a 68-yard reverse.
A look at contenders and pretenders:
THE TOP FOUR: Kansas City, Minnesota, Denver, Tampa Bay.
The Chiefs could lose next week in Green Bay simply on the law of averages and because the Packers are tough at Lambeau.
Hall has to be the league's early MVP. The Broncos outgained the Chiefs 469-261 from scrimmage Sunday, demonstrating how important special teams can be.
The Vikings have won two straight with quarterback Gus Frerotte subbing for the injured Daunte Culpepper. They have a bye this weekend, then run through a much tougher stretch - the Broncos, Giants and Packers.
But when the schedule is favorable, a great season is always possible. All three of those games are at the Metrodome, one of the toughest venues for visitors.
Denver will still take the Chiefs to the wire in the AFC West - the Broncos almost won in Arrowhead, a very difficult place to play.
And the Bucs are defending champs until proven otherwise.
"If anything, we're more hungry because we still don't feel we're respected," said Derrick Brooks, last season's defensive player of the year.
SECOND TIER: Carolina, Miami, Indianapolis.
"Stephen Davis is the best thing that has ever happened to this football team," Carolina safety Mike Minter says. "Never before have we had a running back who could just grind the game out for us. It's a pleasure watching him seal it for us from the sidelines."
It's hard to put the Panthers (4-0) in the top tier with Jake Delhomme at quarterback. But Delhomme's job is to avoid mistakes with a team that excels on defense and has a runner like Davis, who gained 159 yards on 30 carries Sunday against the Saints.
Miami was outplayed by the Giants for most of its 23-10 win, but grabbed four turnovers. With New England banged up, the Dolphins are the class of the AFC East.
Indianapolis is legitimate as long as Peyton Manning stays healthy and coach Tony Dungy's defense can hold opponents to 20 points or fewer.
PLAYOFF CONTENDERS: Most are still in the chase, while San Diego, Jacksonville, Chicago, Detroit, Arizona, the Jets, Houston, Cincinnati and probably Atlanta, New Orleans and, yes, the Raiders, are out.
Two divisions - the NFC East and AFC North - are so bunched that only the winner is likely to make the playoffs.
Coach Bill Parcells' surprise Cowboys (3-1) lead the NFC East, but two of the wins are over the Cardinals and Jets. Dallas gets a major test next week - the Eagles at home. If the Cowboys win, they might contend to the end with Philadelphia, the Giants and Redskins.
In the AFC North, favored Pittsburgh has lost 30-13 and 33-13 at home to Tennessee and Cleveland the last two weeks. The Steelers have no running game and Tommy Maddox is playing like he did when he was cut by the Broncos, Giants and Falcons and needed the XFL to resurrect his career.
So Baltimore leads the division at 2-2 with the Steelers and Browns at 2-3.
The Ravens can win if the defense stays solid and Jamal Lewis continues at his startling running pace.
Cleveland's defense has been better, but there is a potential quarterback controversy. What happens if Tim Couch is playing as well as he did Sunday night when Kelly Holcomb gets healthy?
Best bet: Coach Butch Davis declares Holcomb still "questionable" until Couch has two bad games in a row.
Dave Goldberg covers the NFL for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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