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COMMENTARY : Green Bay and Denver Are Cream of the Crop : Week 1: Packers and Broncos, if they can avoid major injuries, have the best run-pass balance.

September 12, 1999|BOB OATES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The NFL's 80th season will begin this weekend with more passing and less attention to the running game--if the exhibition games were a reliable precursor.

In particular, the better teams were throwing more often and more effectively.

And the widespread ground-game obsession of not so long ago is still abating after dulling up many of the first 25 Super Bowls.

For the last seven years, the trophy has only been won by great passing teams with gifted quarterbacks--from Troy Aikman and Steve Young to Brett Favre and John Elway--and you can be sure, the end of the trend is not yet.

As usual, the winners will also run the ball productively this year.

The key in football is a joint run-pass threat.

But the make-or-break element is passing.

Assuming an injury-free year all around, Super Bowl XXXIV will go to one of the most dedicated of the passing teams--I'd say Denver, over Green Bay.

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Easy does it: Of the top seven teams, the New York Jets have the softest schedule.

So there are two reasons to rate the Jets a contender:

1--Their coach, Bill Parcells, is telling people that this will be his last NFL year, for which he has loaded up with a group of highly motivated, aging veterans who have enough left for maybe this one season.

2--The Jets are scheduled against none of the NFC's big four--Minnesota, Green Bay, San Francisco and Atlanta--and they get consensus Super Bowl pick Jacksonville at the Meadowlands.

On Oct. 3 at Denver, the Jets will play the two-time champions in the game of the year.

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NFC wars: Among the various Super Bowl contenders this season, there is a major difference:

The AFC's three leaders, Denver, Jacksonville and the Jets, play in different divisions.

The NFC's four leaders are crammed into two divisions, Minnesota and Green Bay in the Central, and San Francisco and Atlanta in the West.

Thus it will be home-and-home war for the NFC's four top teams, unlike the top three in the AFC--where intra-division strife will on occasion be serious but not as intense as, for example, Minnesota versus Green Bay.

This, moreover, is a season in which life in the AFC will be harder on Denver and Jacksonville than on the Jets.

Jacksonville must play four other Super Bowl contenders--San Francisco and Atlanta, both NFC powers, as well as the AFC's Broncos and Jets.

Denver must play three, Green Bay, Minnesota and the Jets.

It isn't overall schedule strength that bothers NFL players, it's competing against the league's elite teams.

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Two favorites: The chalk line this year is headed by Jacksonville over Minnesota--the teams attracting the most title-game smart money--and it seems certain that both will reach the playoffs.

The pressure, however, is different there, where few things mean more than playoff experience.

And the best two teams with recent bundles of that kind of experience are Denver and Green Bay.

At Denver, there are three good passers--Brian Griese, Bubby Brister, and perhaps best of all Chris Miller if he can conquer his tendinitis--suggesting that the long season should be long enough to regain what the Broncos had with John Elway.

They still have everything else, starting with Terrell Davis.

In the NFC Central, Minnesota seems more spectacular but Green Bay more solid.

Driven by the NFL's most prized quarterback, Favre, the Packers missed out last year only because they lost their run-pass threat when running back Dorsey Levens was injured.

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The only teams with Super Bowl chances these days are those combining a steady passer with an effective runner in an integrated offense.

Although the indispensable is great passing, that isn't enough.

On almost every play, it is also necessary to threaten with a running back--as Coach Jimmy Johnson did in his Dallas days when, with offensive coordinator Norval Turner calling the signals, the Cowboys integrated Troy Aikman with Emmitt Smith.

At Miami, however, Johnson, obsessed with old-fashioned running, has tended to spare Dan Marino's arm until too late and then use it on nearly every down.

That isn't a winning formula.

With his strong defense, Johnson will be a factor this year, but he can only contend if he finds a way to get his offense called with co-threats, the way he did it in Dallas.

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Winners and wild cards by divisions:

NFC West: San Francisco, Atlanta.

NFC Central: Green Bay, Minnesota.

NFC East: New York Giants, Dallas.

AFC West: Denver, Seattle.

AFC Central: Jacksonville, Pittsburgh.

AFC East: New York Jets, Miami.

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Not personal: Tell me again why Tiger Woods and David Duval were being selfish when they asked for a bit of Ryder Cup income.

And tell me why they had to promise any of it to charity.

The whole rhubarb reminds me of the days when pro football players seeking just wages were accused of disloyalty to their cities and fans.

In the NFL, the players' fight to get a fair share of earnings went on for years. Surprisingly, at this late date, golfers are apparently face to face with the same fight.

So Ryder Capt. Ben Crenshaw is "personally" disappointed in Woods and Duval.

Tough.

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