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SPORTS EXTRA / NFL 2000 | AFC PREVIEW

Three Good Reasons Why Colts Are Favorites

August 26, 2000|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The St. Louis Rams took the prize, going from 4-12 to Super Bowl champions.

But if you go by the book, the turnaround team of 1999 was the Indianapolis Colts.

Their fabulous flip--from 3-13 to 13-3--was the biggest regular-season reversal in NFL history.

Brace yourself, because they should only get better for a long time to come.

Peyton Manning, in his third season at 24, is among the NFL's elite: Only Kurt Warner, Steve Beuerlein and Jeff George had better passer ratings than his 90.7.

Edgerrin James, 22, led the NFL with 1,553 yards rushing and 369 carries.

Marvin Harrison--a ripe old 28 this month--was second in receiving with 115 catches, one fewer than NFL leader Jimmy Smith of Jacksonville.

And it's not only the triplets: Indianapolis has 21 of 22 starters back from the team that lost to Tennessee by three points in the AFC divisional playoffs--and linebacker Rob Morris, their first-round pick from Brigham Young, is being readied to step into the only hole.

Perhaps the only reason to squirm is Manning's inexperienced backup, Kelly Holcomb. Even though Manning is savvy about getting rid of the ball and hasn't been hurt yet, quarterback injuries seem to come around to every team eventually.

The Colts' array of talent is plenty to win the AFC East, and enough to make Tennessee--so famously a yard short in the Super Bowl--take second-billing in the conference.

The Titans--favorites over Jacksonville in the AFC Central--are bent on another shot at a Super Bowl title. They will focus not on Jan. 28, but Week 1.

"We face the same things as the Rams--from the time the game was over, all we heard is, 'How are you going to get back to Tampa?' " Titan Coach Jeff Fisher said. "If you allow your club for a minute to think about how to get Tampa, you're cheating yourself."

Give the Oakland Raiders the nod in the AFC West.

With the addition of kicker Sebastian Janikowski--a bold but savvy first-round pick--the elements are there for the first playoff appearance since the Raiders left Los Angeles.

Jacksonville will obsess about Tennessee after going 0-for-3 against the Titans, but the Jaguars should make the playoffs as a wild-card team even if they can't repeat as division champions.

Buffalo is deep enough to withstand its veteran free-agent losses and reach the postseason.

Count Baltimore in the hunt for the final wild-card spot, with Seattle and possibly resurgent Denver or New England in the mix.

Watch out for a wild ride in San Diego--even if Ryan Leaf's rebound is for real, he'll keep people on edge week-to-week.

And down in Miami, the Dan Marino jerseys will be around a long time. Count on the Damon Huard-Jay Fiedler debate going on for a while.

*

PREDICTIONS

EAST

1. Indianapolis

2. Buffalo

3. New England

4. New York Jets

5. Miami

CENTRAL

1. Tennessee

2. Jacksonville

3. Baltimore

4. Pittsburgh

5. Cincinnati

6. Cleveland

WEST

1. Oakland

2. Denver

3. Seattle

4. San Diego

5. Kansas City

PLAYOFFS

Indianapolis

Tennessee

Oakland

Jacksonville

Buffalo

Baltimore

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