This year, the spotlight rests squarely on Terrell Davis, who last season joined Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders and O.J. Simpson as the only NFL players to rush for at least 2,000 yards in a season.
If he wasn't already the Broncos' linchpin, the reigning NFL most valuable player definitely has that mantle now that quarterback John Elway has retired. And this season, Davis not only will be attempting to lead the Broncos to an unprecedented third consecutive Super Bowl title, he is positioned to establish himself as the most prolific fifth-year running back in NFL history.
The former sixth-round draft pick's four-season totals of 6,413 yards rushing and 56 rushing touchdowns are third and first, respectively, in league annals. He needs 1,844 yards to surpass Dickerson for most yards rushing in a player's first five seasons, and 16 rushing touchdowns to break Emmitt Smith's mark for the most in a player's first five seasons.
If Davis breaks Dickerson's record, he will join Sanders, Dickerson and Walter Payton as the only players to have at least four 1,500-yard rushing seasons (Sanders had five).
Such goals are hardly unreachable, since Davis's numbers appreciate like stock in America Online. He has improved upon his previous season's totals in rushing attempts, yards, rushing touchdowns and 100-yard games every season of his career.
The on-again, off-again life of instant-replay reviews of officials' calls is on again.
In the new system, coaches are given two challenges per game, to be used prior to the final two minutes of each half. If a challenge does not result in the reversal of a call, the challenging team will lose a timeout. Teams must have at least one timeout to make a challenge.
After the two-minute warnings and throughout overtime periods, a replay official will initiate all reviews. The replay official can review as many plays as necessary, and no timeouts will be charged.
All reviews will be conducted by the referee on a field monitor. Referees are directed to change a call upon review only if the replay gives, in the NFL's words, "indisputable visual evidence" contradicting the initial call. Reviews will last a maximum of 90 seconds from when the referee puts on head phones connecting him to the replay booth.
The Browns are Back
The new Cleveland Browns have the same uniforms as their predecessors. They have the same club records (as far as the NFL is concerned, the Baltimore Ravens' team record begins with the 1996 season). They even have the same stadium site.
Of course, the new Cleveland Browns Stadium is no Mistake by the Lake. The 72,000-seat facility features two, 94-by-27-foot scoreboards that are the largest in any NFL stadium. And Muni-cipal Stadium's notoriously cramped, dank locker rooms are no match for the new stadium's -- 11,000 square feet for the Browns, 5,500 square feet for the visitors. Even the Dawg Pound has been treated to a spacious new home, with 10,000 seats in its own section.
Vikings at Falcons, Sunday: The season hits the ground running with this rematch of last season's NFC championship game. In that contest, the Vikings watched a 15-1 regular season, in which they set the NFL record for scoring, go up in smoke.
Broncos' first four home games: With wins in these games, the Broncos set the record for the longest home winning streak in NFL history -- 28 games. However, they must run a gantlet of four powerful and historically motivated teams. Denver opens Sunday against the Dolphins, whose 1971 through '74 teams set the current record for home dominance. It is a matchup of QB Brian Griese against his father Bob's former team. On Oct. 3 the revenge-minded Jets come in for a rematch of last season's AFC championship. Up next, on Oct. 17, are the Packers, whose 25-game home winning streak from 1995 to 1998 is the second-longest ever. And finally, on Oct. 31, it's the Vikings, the team that broke Green Bay's streak last October.
Vikings at Packers, Sept. 26; Packers at Vikings, Dec. 20: Shouldn't these dates be reversed, so that the teams play indoors in September and outdoors in December? Anyway, last season the Vikings recorded their first sweep of the Packers since 1993.
Browns at Ravens, Sept. 26; Ravens at Browns, Nov. 7: The series Art Modell must be dreading.
49ers at Vikings, Oct. 24: Fans of the passing game, rejoice! The 49ers' Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens and J.J. Stokes match up with Cris Carter, Randy Moss and Jake Reed.
Seahawks at Packers, Nov. 1: Mike Holmgren returns to Green Bay.
Jets vs. Giants, Dec. 5: The Giants are the home team. Really.
Bears at Chargers, Nov. 21: Erik Kramer is the Chargers' backup behind Jim Harbaugh, but should he start this game, watch out. Kramer, Chicago's all-time passing leader, was dumped in the offseason to make room for No. 1 draft pick and quarterback-of-the-future, Cade McNown.
NFL vs. Y2K, Jan. 1: As a precaution against Y2K problems, the NFL has suggested that teams playing road games the weekend of Jan. 2 plan to travel on Dec. 31 rather than Jan. 1, when they normally would travel.
In a new rule designed to prevent tampering with game balls to benefit place kickers or punters, 12 of the 36 footballs used for each NFL game will be earmarked specifically for kickers. The balls, stamped with a small "K" below the brand name, will be shipped to each home team's stadium separately from other game balls and will be opened and rubbed down by officials two hours before kickoff.
Previously, all 36 game balls were sent together to the home team two days before a game.
Quarterbacks were then allowed to test the balls by informally throwing them around. Reportedly, however, kickers and punters softened balls and increased distance and accuracy by, among other things, microwaving them or heating them in a dryer.
Some situations in which replay can be used:
When a play is governed by the sideline, end line or goal line.
When it is unclear if a pass or interception was made.
To determine if a passer was across the line of scrimmage.
To find out if a runner was down by defensive contact.
To determine forward progress in relation to a first down.
This will be the seventh season in which a team -- in this case, the Denver Broncos -- has had the chance to win a third consecutive Super Bowl. So far none has.
Dallas CowboysChamps in 1992, '93
1994 result: 12-4, won NFC East, lost NFC title game to 49ers, 38-28
San Francisco 49ersChamps in 1988, '89
1990 result: 14-2, won NFC West, lost NFC title game to Giants, 15-13
Pittsburgh Steelers Champs in 1978, '79
1980 result: 9-7, 3rd in AFC Central
Pittsburgh Steelers Champs in 1974, '75
1976 result: 10-4, won AFC Central, lost AFC title game to Raiders, 24-7
Miami Dolphins Champs in 1972, '73
1974 result: 11-3, won AFC East; lost first-round playoff to Raiders, 28-26
Green Bay Packers Champs in 1966, '67
1968 result: 6-7-1, 3rd in NFL Centra