Last week I created a grisly airplane mishap, scattering 49er and Cowboy body parts all over Missouri, just to manufacture an excuse to discuss any other teams as possible NFC champions. Such is the shallowness of the vaunted National Football Conference. No such journalistic trickery is needed to discuss the AFC, which features many contenders but no champion.
Don't fault Miami for not trying. Owner and Blockbuster Entertainment maven Wayne Huizenga spent $13 million on flashy free agents. This is supposed to be the way to do it these days in the who's-on-first NFL; problem is, it doesn't always work. Those names sound good, but will they play good? On paper, the Fish improved every aspect of the team, particularly at wide receiver, causing therapist bills to mount among AFC defensive coordinators, already basket cases from years of dealing with #13, the implacable Dan Marino - he's a quarterback, girls. As always, with no running game, the offense displays an unhealthy co-dependence on Danny Boy. And, as always, the defense, though improved, is the soft underbelly. The Fins are the real thing... maybe. The recurring nightmare of the conference, the Buffalo Bills, still feature the basic nucleus which lost four Super Bowls. It's old but still a nucleus, which is more than the Detroit Lions have. Bills slipped to 7-9 last season. They'll improve on that and may make the playoffs; that's about it. Or Kelly will stay healthy, defense will come back from the dead, then who knows? Two years ago, the New England Patriots were a textbook case on how not to run a professional sports franchise. They finished the season 5-11, exceeding expectations. Then they hired Bill Parcells. Don't let anyone tell you professional athletes won't respond to good coaching. Last year, they were 10-6. This year, many predict a January date in Tempe. Parcells, who exudes a tough-guy NFC demeanor, became an AFC kitten, letting his fledgling young QB/god throw the ball a record-breaking 691 times. If Phil Simms even thought of throwing the ball 600 times in New York, Parcells would have gnawed off his eyelids. Parcells, however, is a realist. The Pats' simply can't run the ball, finishing a docile second-to-last in the league. My feeling is, the Pats' are a year away but that's what we said about Dallas three years ago.
Over in the Central, two teams from the birthplace of pro football have talk radio pundits agog. Jeff Ward, at KVET, seems to have the Ohio thing down cold. Cleveland, he posits, can't lose because they're "unbeatable at home in December," some nonsense about cold winds and stuff, though he does allow for the possible inefficiencies of QB Vinny Testaverde. Pittsburgh's okay, but he has a real thing about Steeler signal caller Neil O'Donnell. He hates him. The facts, Ward, are these: Mike Ditka used to crow every September about "Bear weather," as in "we'll see how tough those girls are come December." Thing was, every December the girls would come to dreaded, cold Soldier Field and de-snot the big, tough Bears. Ward forgets that two years ago he and his UT golf buddies could have gone up to Cleveland and beaten the Browns - everybody else did. As far as O'Donnell goes, the facts say the O-man is not so bad. He threw the fewest interceptions in the league last year. This is supposed to be good. In his last three playoff games, he threw six TD's and zero INT's. This is good, too. The Steelers, in pointed contrast to their AFC brethren, can run the ball, also good. They play excellent defense, a fine thing. Both teams get to play six games against Houston, Cincinnati, and Jacksonville: very good. Did Pittsburgh shoot its wad last year? Can Pepper Johnson and Carl Banks really still be playing in the middle of Cleveland's defense? In the AFC, this is considered a strength. Questions, questions... it's what makes the AFC fun.
Like Lucy, Desi, Fred, and Ethel, our transcontinental journey through professional football finally ends at the terminus of the American Dream: the Golden State. Many experts think returning to Oakland will, somehow, make the Raiders better, as if Sonny Barger and his Hell's Angels will stop the Bronco bus on the Bay Bridge and wrench whip John Elway within an inch of his life. More importantly, Oakland has finally shit-canned its only-good-pass-is-a-50-yard-pass philosophy. Hostetler's a good QB, the receivers are first-rate, and the defense has some talent. Raiders are also blessed with an easy out-of-conference schedule, so maybe and maybe not. Last year's AFC champs, San Diego, won so many games due to good luck, I predict an 8-8 year on general principle. John Elway, at 35, is not too old to win a Super Bowl but he won't see 36 if the Bronco offensive line doesn't do a better job of protecting him; 46 sacks hurts! Denver was as active as Miami in the off-season, so with lots of luck...??
There you have it: Miami, Oakland, Denver, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, San Diego, Buffalo, New England. Each could end up playing for a title, any could be 7-9; Ambivalence and contradiction, the plot line of my life. It's both the beauty and the ugly blemish of the AFC; lots of good teams, none great. I go with Miami. n