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The Times' Rankings

September 02, 2002|Sam Farmer

1 PITTSBURGH--If quarterback Kordell Stewart can maintain his Pro Bowl pace and running back Jerome Bettis stays sound--he says his injured groin has mended--the Steelers could be Super Bowl-bound. Special teams problems persist, even though Coach Bill Cowher has hired a new assistant to run the show.

2 NEW ENGLAND--The biggest test for quarterback Tom Brady will be how he handles the success of last season. He has yet to miss a workout in two years and, because of his dedication, received a prime parking spot at training camp. That's a very good sign.

3 CLEVELAND--Tim Couch made major strides in 2001 and could emerge as one of the league's elite quarterbacks, provided he gets some help from an offensive line that has been inconsistent. The addition of rookie running back William Green could take some heat off him.

4 DENVER--Mike Shanahan slid from genius to just another guy last season when his offense sputtered and wheezed to a No. 22 ranking. But Shannon Sharpe is back, as is an uninjured Ed McCaffrey, and they, along with Rod Smith, will give quarterback Brian Griese lots of options. With Terrell Davis gone, rookie running back Clinton Portis needs to learn how to hang onto the ball.

5 MIAMI--For the first time in 25 years, the Dolphins have a running back, Ricky Williams, who scares a defense. Now, they need to establish a consistent passing game that will open things up for Williams. Second-year receiver Chris Chambers is in line for a big year.

6 BUFFALO--The Bills have flipped over quarterback Drew Bledsoe, but the Patriots must have known something before letting him go to a division rival. What Bledsoe could really use is an every-down running back. Tackle Mike Williams, the No. 4 pick, could be one of the stars of this draft.

7 OAKLAND--The aging Raiders are running out of time. They won't get many more good years out of Tim Brown, Jerry Rice, Rich Gannon, Bill Romanowski, Lincoln Kennedy, Trace Armstrong, et al. It remains to be seen if Bill Callahan has the attention of this team the way Jon Gruden did. Callahan's a nice guy, but that rarely gets the job done.

8 INDIANAPOLIS--No doubt Tony Dungy will fix the Colt defense, but this team's success hinges on quarterback Peyton Manning and running back Edgerrin James returning to form. Manning threw 23 interceptions last season, and James is coming off a knee injury that forced him to miss last season's final 12 games.

9 NEW YORK JETS--Quarterback Vinny Testaverde is talented and capable of inspiring those around him, but he's on the downslope of his career. Running back Curtis Martin is coming off his best season, and he's among the league's elite. Can Herman Edwards pull together a defense that features three new starters in the secondary?

10 TENNESSEE--The Titans had far too many penalties last season--enough to suggest that Coach Jeff Fisher had lost control of the team--and injured running back Eddie George was tentative and all too catchable. Fisher is a good coach--the Titans have won 61.3% of their games in the last five years--and quarterback Steve McNair looked great for long stretches last season.

11 CINCINNATI--Running back Corey Dillon looks more complete every year, and he has the best stiff-arm in the business. The Bengals don't have much else going for them, though. Jon Kitna and Gus Frerotte are not the types of quarterbacks who keep defensive coordinators up nights.

12 SAN DIEGO--The Chargers made the right move, handing the quarterback job to Drew Brees, but the transition will take time. Marty Schottenheimer has the respect/fear of his players, and that's a good start.

13 KANSAS CITY--Quarterback Trent Green led the league last season with 24 interceptions and the Chiefs haven't done much to improve at receiver. Johnnie Morton is a proven No. 2 receiver; now he's the top target.

14 JACKSONVILLE--Losing receiver Keenan McCardell should hurt the Jaguars, who desperately need quarterback Mark Brunell and running back Fred Taylor to stay injury free--and both are injury-prone. The offensive line surrendered a franchise-record 63 sacks last season

15 BALTIMORE--Neither Chris Redman nor Jeff Blake inspires much confidence at quarterback, and there's no quality backup to running back Jamal Lewis in case his surgically repaired knee gives way. The Raven defensive line, once huge with Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa, is suddenly small and movable.

16 HOUSTON--There is Super Bowl-type enthusiasm surrounding this team, and No. 1 pick David Carr is a top-shelf celebrity in his new hometown, but the Texans will be hard pressed to win more than five games this season.

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