JUDGE: Realigning the odds on the NFL season

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Clark Judge

The NFL ends its summer vacation when the Houston call roll Saturday morning. And while the start of training camp in mid-July is nothing new, the start of this season is. First, there are the . They're club No. 32, and if you have a hard time remembering where they fit in or which teams go where, the NFL is here to help. The league is divided into eight divisions of four teams each, with geographical proximity the prevailing theme. It's called realignment, and it makes a whole lot of sense. Trust me, Arizona is a better fit for the NFC West than the NFC East, and Atlanta and New Orleans belong in the NFC South, not the NFC West. The big difference now is that there aren't three wild-card entries per conference; there are two. And there are four division winners instead of three. OK, that's nothing major. But who's likely to profit from the new format and who will suffer? And where's the balance of power now that there are two more divisions? Glad you asked. Just keep reading.

Toughest division

You make the call. I lean toward the NFC West, where St. Louis and San Francisco are two of the best teams anywhere, but how do you overlook an AFC East where starts for Buffalo and Miami gives the ball to ? Answer: You don't. St. Louis still is the class of the NFC, but San Francisco narrowed the gap with its off-season moves — particularly the acquisitions of Pro Bowl guard and safety and the choice of first-round draft pick Mike Rumph. The might not win the division, but they're no worse than a wild-card entry. No, I'm not sure they can overcome and , either, but history is on their side: The NFC West hasn't had a repeat winner since 1995. Seattle fought the switch from the AFC West to the NFC West, and it's easy to understand why: The are solid but no better than third here. In the AFC East, Buffalo is the fourth-place club ... though not by much. Bledsoe makes the better, as does an improved offensive line. But their problem is what's above them, and I'm not talking about Canada. I'm talking about the , and . Any of the three could win this division, though there are a couple of things you'd like to know about New York: like how much does have to give now that he's about to turn 39 and what can offer after last year's crippling injury? Williams is the best back in Miami since Larry Csonka, and that — plus the ' defense — makes them a Super Bowl contender. But beware the Belichick Factor in New England; it can't be underestimated. Just ask Mike Martz.

Weakest division

The South might rise again, but it won't be in the AFC. When the NFL talked about joining Indianapolis, Tennessee and Jacksonville, it labeled it a "super division" — and you would, too, if you were a student of recent history. Tennessee was in Super Bowl XXXIV and had the best record in football a year later; Indianapolis made the playoffs 1999-2000; Jacksonville made the playoffs from 1996-99, twice reaching the AFC championship game.
NFL's new look
Still confused about how the NFL will look when the 2002 season kicks off? That's OK. Here's the created by the recent realignment.
But none had a winning season last year; worse, they were a combined 19-29. Now, add Houston — the NFL's first expansion team since 1999 — and these four horsemen are outlined only against a cold, gray division. Maybe that will change if , and stay off injury reports. All I know is that Tennessee was one of the league's great disappointments last year, yet its 7-9 record is best in this group. So is Jacksonville's 22nd ranking in team defense. And when's the last time won a game of consequence?

Team hurt most by realignment

The Seattle could have made a move for the top of the AFC West this year, only the AFC West left town. Now, the are in the NFC West, where they're the third-best team in a four-team division, and that won't be easy for coach Mike Holmgren to swallow. When you consider there are only two wild-card entries per conference that makes the playoffs ... yep, damn near impossible. That's too bad, because the are on the right track, rebounding to 9-7 last season and making the tough — and right — call to turn the ball over to quarterback . Seattle was 31st in total defense in 2000; 20th last year and should be better again this fall. But the are facing Mission: Impossible. They have to figure out how to outscore St. Louis and San Francisco. Good luck. Coincidentally, the fourth member of the NFC West — Arizona — gets runner-up votes here. Dave McGinnis has the club believing it can win, with the improved Cards one quarter from an 8-8 finish a year ago. They could have contended for second in the NFC East; now, they'll be hard-pressed to escape banishment to the basement in their new home.

Team helped most by realignment

Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay didn't object when asked to switch divisions, and now it's apparent why: His are in far, far better shape now than they were a year ago. In the AFC East they had to contend with Miami, New England, Buffalo and the New York , and they're no better than third in that group. In the AFC South, they might be the team to beat. You heard me. Let's see, we have Tennessee, Jacksonville, Houston. The last time we had a threesome this unappetizing they called it Halloween 4, Halloween 5, and Halloween: The Curse of . Any idea which of these clubs didn't flounder last year? If you answered, "Houston," go to the head of the class. The didn't lose more than they won, nor did they hemorrhage talented veterans. Which brings us back to the . I like Indianapolis' chances of returning to the top primarily because I like what Tony Dungy does on defense, which is where the were murdered last year, and I don't like the competition around him — two clubs shredded by the salary cap and the third a start-up operation. I also like what Manning's about to see, and I bet he does, too: Jacksonville ranked 22nd against the pass last year, Tennessee was 31st and Houston has yet to suit up.

Easiest race to call

The AFC Central belongs to Pittsburgh, mostly because the are the best team in the AFC, period. They were a year ago, too, then blew the conference championship when suddenly started playing ... well, like . That's not to knock Cleveland. The are ready to make the next move to the playoffs, but they're not in Pittsburgh's class. The gap is the size of Lake Erie, with Pittsburgh likely to clinch the division by mid-December. The are deep, they're talented and they should be improved over last year when nobody but St. Louis had a better regular-season record. Plus, this time the have a safety net for Stewart, and I'm not talking about a healthy . , come on down.

Toughest race to call

A winning record might be all it takes to walk off with the NFC South. There's not a dominant team in here, and, yes, I know Tampa Bay hired Jon Gruden. But the Bucs can't make up their mind who to start at quarterback: or . Here's a suggestion: Wait for the baseball strike, then sign Randy Johnson. New Orleans lost a ton of talent in the off-season and thinks is an improvement over . I don't see it. What I do see is a better Atlanta club making life miserable for others, confounding opponents with 's impersonations of Steve Young and making a run for the top. Yeah, I know it's far-fetched, but that's how jumbled this landscape is. We're talking about Atlanta without a laugh track and a scenario where Vicks might have the jump on Johnson and Johnson. Senior writer Clark Judge can be reached at his e-mail address,
Tagged: Falcons, Bills, Browns, Cowboys, Titans, Colts, Rams, Dolphins, Patriots, Saints, Jets, 49ers, Seahawks, Buccaneers, Jaguars, Steelers, Texans, Michael Vick, Sam Cowart, Tony Parrish, Charlie Batch, Edgerrin James, Peyton Manning, Marshall Faulk, Kurt Warner, Drew Bledsoe, Deuce McAllister, Ricky Williams, Ron Stone, Jerome Bettis, Kordell Stewart, Fred Taylor

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