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THE 1996 NFL

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Steve Young and Jerry Rice alone make the 49ers a team to reckon with. The Packers' Brett Favre is one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the league. The Eagles and Bears have strong young coaches in Ray Rhodes and Dave Wannstedt. But when the dust clears, expect those bad boys, the Dallas Cowboys, to be sitting on top of the world again.


San Francisco 49ers

Last season: 11-5, advanced to NFC semifinals.

This season: 11-5, advance to NFC final.

KEY QUESTIONS: How long will it take for Bill Walsh to emerge after beginning the season as a behind-the-scenes assistant to offensive coordinator Marc Trestman? Will the defensive line suffer from the loss of end Rickey Jackson, who retired after last season?

PLAYERS ON THE SPOT: Wide receiver J.J. Stokes--Big things are expected from the former UCLA standout, who replaces retired John Taylor. Cornerbacks Marquez Pope and Tyronne Drakeford--With Eric Davis now playing for Carolina, they need to prove that they can cover and shut down receivers in big games.

ACHILLES' HEEL: A running game that strikes fear in the hearts of no one but the 49ers, with Derek Loville and Tommy Vardell as starters. The Johnny Johnson gamble was a bust, but the 49ers hope by season's end to start a backfield of Terry Kirby, who was acquired from Miami two weeks ago, and William Floyd, who sat out all of last season because of a knee injury.


Atlanta Falcons

Last season: 9-7, advanced to NFC first round.

This season: 9-7, advance to NFC first round.

KEY QUESTIONS: Will Jeff George finally shake his reputation as a quarterback who can't win big games? After giving up a league-record 4,541 yards passing last season, can the defense stop opponents' air attacks?

PLAYERS ON THE SPOT: Free safety Patrick Bates--Needs to reach potential after sitting out last season because of a dispute with the Raiders; Defensive tackles Shane Dronett and Dan Owens--Free-agent pickups expected to give the Falcons a pass rush.

ACHILLES' HEEL: An offensive line that has to be able to open holes for running backs Craig "Ironhead" Heyward and Jamal Anderson, and give George enough time to complete passes to receivers Eric Metcalf, Terance Mathis and Bert Emanuel.


Carolina Panthers

Last season: 7-9.

This season: 8-8.

KEY QUESTIONS: Was last season's expansion-franchise record a fluke? Is second-year pro Kerry Collins the next great NFL quarterback? Can the defense top last season's 36 sacks and 37 take-away totals?

PLAYERS ON THE SPOT: Running back Tim Biakabutuka--Rookie from Michigan signed late but will have to carry the running game. Offensive tackle Greg Skrepenak--Never lived up to his billing with the Raiders but signed as a free agent during the off-season. Cornerback Eric Davis--Will team with second-year sensation Tyrone Poole to form one of the best cornerback tandems in the league.

ACHILLES' HEEL: An offense that turned the ball over more than all but two teams in the league and relies too much on kicker John Kasay, who had 26 field goals last season, compared to the Panthers' 26 touchdowns on offense.


St. Louis Rams

Last season: 7-9.

This season: 6-10.

KEY QUESTIONS: Can defensive end Leslie O'Neal, a free agent from San Diego, give the defense some toughness? Will Steve Walsh start at quarterback the entire season or will rookie Tony Banks take over?

PLAYERS ON THE SPOT: Running back Lawrence Phillips--Rookie from Nebraska whose off-field problems overshadowed his solid play during the exhibition season. Linebacker Robert Jones--Earned three Super Bowl rings with Dallas and now takes over in the middle of a suspect defense.

ACHILLES' HEEL: A defense that had 14 take-aways last September but gave up 17 touchdowns over the last seven games. Has to gamble to cover up a weak pass rush.


New Orleans Saints

Last season: 7-9.

This season: 6-10.

KEY QUESTIONS: Why did the defense change to a 4-3 alignment last season after so many successful years with the 3-4? Can running back Mario Bates become the first Saint to have consecutive 1,000-yard seasons this decade?

PLAYERS ON THE SPOT: Quarterback Jim Everett--He will have to carry a team that is bound to give up a lot of points on defense. Wide receiver Torrance Small--A solid third receiver last season, he will have to step up and replace Quinn Early, who signed with Buffalo.

ACHILLES' HEEL: A defensive line that can rush the quarterback with the likes of Wayne Martin and Renaldo Turnbull, but has problems against the run.


Green Bay Packers

Last season: 11-5, advanced to NFC final.

This season: 11-5, advance to NFC semifinals.

KEY QUESTIONS: Can Brett Favre have another MVP-type season without turning to painkillers? Will defensive tackle Santana Dotson free defensive end Reggie White more? Do the Packers need home-field advantage in the playoffs to reach the Super Bowl?

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