| ||Tuesday, September 7|
Special to ESPN.com
|The balance of power clearly has shifted to the AFC. You can put the Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Jets, Miami Dolphins and Denver Broncos together and then flip a coin to determine the Super Bowl champion.
The Broncos, without John Elway, are probably the most talented and experienced team, but no NFL club has won three Super Bowl titles in a row, and with the change at quarterback, I think a threepeat is unlikely to happen this season.
Miami has the best defense of the four teams. The Jaguars' Fred Taylor might be the best running back in the NFL this year. Plus, Jacksonville has made a huge commitment to the defense and is as explosive as any team in the NFL. I still like Bill Parcells' Jets in a dogfight with Miami for the AFC East title.
But the following is my Super Bowl choice, plus nine other predictions of what to look out for in '99:
1. Dan Marino will finally win a Super Bowl.
Jimmy Johnson has a history of winning championships in his fourth year. He has everything in place, but the running backs have to remain healthy, as does receiver Tony Martin. If those things happen, the Dolphins are as tough as any team in the NFL. I think it would be a great story. I like Marino's chances. It will depend on the health of the receivers and Collins.
2. Some young quarterbacks will emerge.
Steve McNair falls into the same category as Manning. There's Dan Marino, Drew Bledsoe, Steve Young and Brett Favre in the upper tier of quarterbacks. Then there's everyone else below them. But the next generation of good young quarterbacks, like Manning and McNair, will take the next jump. I put Manning, though, at the forefront.
3. Trent Dilfer might be this year's Doug Flutie.
Some say he's overrated and the Buccaneers can't go any place with Dilfer. From what I've seen on film, he continues to improve and mature. The big key for the Bucs last year was they couldn't keep their receivers healthy. If players like Warrick Dunn, Bert Emanuel and Reidel Anthony stay healthy, I expect Dilfer to do some great things.
4. The Seahawks and Titans will be surprise teams.
I like Seatttle, which missed the playoffs last year by one game on the Vinny Testaverde blown TD call. I don't think Mike Holmgren's team has all the parts yet to contend, but I think they can be second-best team in the AFC West. The Seahawks will present some teams problems.
I think another team that's ready to move forward is Tennessee. The Titans' hopes depend greatly on Steve McNair and the health of their receivers. But both Seattle and Tennessee should be in the playoffs this year.
4. The Chiefs will be the most disappointing team.
Now, tight end Tony Gonzalez has sustained a knee injury that could have him out a while. The offensive line is a problem, and rookie John Tait, who ended his lengthy holdout, will be worthless this year.
They should have trouble in a somewhat tough AFC West. The Chiefs could easily go 6-10, and we're not used to seeing that out of Kansas City.
5. Dick Vermeil is the coach on the hottest seat.
Jeff Fisher is also on the hot seat in Tennessee. After three 8-8 seasons, it's time to step up. The Titans have the new stadium, so it's important for the team to endear itself to the Tennessee fans.
Pete Carroll is another hot-seat coach, not only because the Patriots haven't done particularly well, but I hear there's some grumbling in the locker room. The release of Willie Clay didn't go over well. The players have to believe in what the coach is telling them. If they don't believe, it's really difficult. Carroll needs to win, but it will be tough with the injuries at running back and linebacker.
6. Tony Martin will be the best offseason addition.
What is it that the Dolphins lacked? They lacked a big-time runner who can gain 1,300 yards. And they needed some speed down the field. They might have the former in Cecil Collins, but Martin will give Miami the latter in terms of speed on the outside.
7. Scott Mitchell will be the worst offseason addition.
I also think the Saints overpaid for guard Wally Williams (five years, $18.5 million). Another overpaid player, in terms of his production, is defensive end Chad Bratzke, who signed with the Colts (six years, $30 million). Indianapolis needed help, and Bratzke is an upgrade, but not at that pricetag. He's a journeyman who will play every down, but I think he got a lot of his 12½ sacks by virtue of playing on the same line as Michael Strahan and others. He won't have the same caliber of players around him in Indianapolis.
8. Champ Bailey will be the biggest impact rookie.
I'd choose Bailey over Collins because of Collins' background -- he might not see 16 games. The safe bet is Bailey.
9. Fred Taylor will be the NFL's MVP.
His durability is a question mark because he didn't play 16 games last year, but he'll touch the ball a lot this year. The Jaguars are so balanced with the pass, and they have such a good offensive line that Taylor won't run against many nine- or 10-man fronts. So he'll have a chance to bust some big runs, even in passing situations on draw plays. It would be good for the game to have Taylor have an MVP-type year.
10. Instant replay will be good, just not perfect.
Unfortunately, the new replay system doesn't fix or kill all your ills, but I think to a certain extent it will provide a safety net so a team doesn't get robbed from its rightful place in the playoffs, like the Seahawks a year ago. I think the officials will continue to work out the kinks. The officials aren't even sure what the rules are, and they keep tweaking them a bit. But I like the fact that the replay system doesn't interrupt the flow of the game as it did in the past.
Here are the two adaptations I would recommend: Make teams redo a play if it's a bad call involving a touchdown, even if the extra point has already been kicked, and teach the crews to not blow their whistles so quickly. Let the play work out so you can go back and correct the wrong without there being an inadvertent whistle stopping the play, like the Jerry Rice fumble in the playoffs last year.
Former NFL quarterback Mark Malone is the host of NFL2Night on ESPN2.
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