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SPORTS WEEKEND | AROUND THE AFC

WEST / First Leaf, Now Manning

September 08, 2000|HOUSTON MITCHELL

The Raiders are in the unique position of facing the Nos. 1 and 2 draft picks of the 1998 season on back-to-back weekends.

Ryan Leaf, the No. 2 pick by the Chargers, wasn't much of a threat to the Raider defense in Oakland's 9-6 win last Sunday. He has played them twice and has thrown three interceptions against them each time.

Sunday in Indianapolis, they get to test the Colts' No. 1 pick, Peyton Manning, for the first time.

Leaf has had the reputation of being a head case. Manning's reputation is that of a heady player.

"The guy is smart," Raider receiver Tim Brown said. "He's passionate about what he does. He wants to be the very, very best at his position. Ever."

The Broncos won't roll out the carpet for Dan Reeves on Sunday in his first trip to Mile High Stadium since he was fired after the 1992 season.

Reeves, now the Falcon coach, says his return will be emotional, just not quite as much had it come sooner.

"I mean, eight years is a long time," said Reeves, who was 110-73-1 in Denver from 1981-92, with five first-place finishes and three Super Bowl appearances.

If the Chiefs don't play well against Tennessee, Coach Gunther Cunningham could find himself on the hot seat. The Chiefs have lost seven consecutive games dating to December. Fortunately, four of those losses were exhibition games. They were booed by their own fans Sunday.

After the Chargers' loss at Oakland, Leaf questioned the coaching staff for failing to adjust its play calling when the Raiders failed to come with all-out blitzes on third-down passing situations.

"They've got to let me do what I can do, you know?" Leaf said. "Put those five wides out there and play football."

It sounds strange that a quarterback coming off a four-turnover, no-touchdown game would ask the coaches to spread the field and trust his judgment, especially when his career totals include 23 turnovers and only two touchdown passes.

Seattle Coach Mike Holmgren analyzed the consequences and decided to stick with Jon Kitna as his quarterback. Kitna's four-interception first half in the Seahawks' 23-0 loss at Miami put his job in jeopardy. Now he gets to face the Rams. Look for Brock Huard to be the starting quarterback in Week 3.

CENTRAL / Road Goes to Jacksonville Even as the Ravens continue what they see as an inevitable climb toward the top of the division, they know there's one main hurdle.

"Until we beat the Jacksonville Jaguars, we cannot say we're at the next level," Coach Brian Billick said. "Jacksonville is considered one of the top teams in the AFC. They believe in themselves, and we have to break through that in order to be considered a champion ourselves."

The Ravens, 0-8 against Jacksonville, get their chance Sunday.

Coming off an open date, Cincinnati quarterback Akili Smith wants to prove that he's every bit as strong as the other stellar quarterbacks drafted in 1999.

Smith saw a chart of the quarterbacks drafted in '99 that put up good numbers in Week 1--Daunte Culpepper (Vikings), Donovan McNabb (Eagles), Cade McNown (Bears), Tim Couch (Browns) and Shaun King (Buccaneers)--and couldn't help but think: Just wait till it's my turn.

"It definitely gets you fired up," said Smith, drafted with the No. 3 pick in the '99 draft, the third quarterback taken after Couch and McNabb.

"To see McNabb go into Dallas and pull out a big victory and Culpepper rush for three touchdowns. McNown lost, but he had big yardage. That definitely gets you fired up."

Normally, teams prefer to have their week off fall around midseason, but after the Pittsburgh Steelers were overwhelmed by the Baltimore Ravens in their opener, 16-0, they gladly accepted this weekend off.

As safety Lee Flowers said, "Thank God for the bye week."

EAST / Not So Special Teams Heading into Sunday's game against Green Bay, the Bills rank 29th in kickoff coverage, which is eight spots below their 1999 ranking.

Such a performance wasn't what Coach Wade Phillips had in mind when he fired special teams coach Bruce DeHaven and hired long-time friend Ronnie Jones, who was out of the NFL and had never been a full-time special teams coach.

This Sunday, the Bills don't get a break. The Packers' Allen Rossum ranks fourth in NFC kickoff returns with a 25.7 average.

The Dolphin defense ranked No. 5 in the NFL last season, and all signs point toward the unit being even better in 2000. The Dolphins will begin Sunday's game against Minnesota ranked first in the NFL in total defense (143 yards) and passing defense (72 yards).

"We feel we can throw the timing off by pressing these guys and not backing down from them," Dolphin cornerback Jerry Wilson said of the Vikings. "Our philosophy is to make them work for everything that they get."

Monday night features the first matchup between Jet Coach Al Groh and Patriot Coach Bill Belichick, the long-time assistants under former Patriot/Jet coach Bill Parcells. Groh and Belichick are downplaying their emotions, but no one is fooled.

After all, Belichick abruptly resigned as Jet coach Jan. 4 after one day on the job as Parcells' successor. That led to all kinds of legal machinations, which ultimately resulted in Groh becoming the Jet coach, Belichick taking over in New England and the Jets receiving a first-round draft pick as compensation.

"All anybody wants to talk about right now is the other stuff," Groh said. "But I'm talking to my team about football."

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