Atlanta Falcons

1998 result: 14-2, won division (beat 49ers in NFC semifinals, Vikings in NFC title game, lost to Broncos in Super Bowl).

Coach: Dan Reeves, 21-11 in two seasons with Falcons (162-117-1 in 18 seasons overall).

Key acquisitions: S Marty Carter (Bears), WR Chris Calloway (Giants), QB Danny Kanell (Giants), G Greg Bishop (Giants), DE Patrick Kerney (first-round draft pick, Virginia).

Key losses: LB Cornelius Bennett (Colts), WR Tony Martin (Dolphins), WR Todd Kinchen (Panthers).

Outlook: The Falcons want to prove that last season wasn't just a matter of luck, but their window for success is quickly closing. Atlanta has one of the oldest rosters in the league (its 22 starters average 27.5 years old) and eight starters on offense could be unrestricted free agents next year. QB Chris Chandler suffered with a sore right hamstring for much of this preseason. The Falcons are 19-5 when he plays a full game, 3-7 when he doesn't. The Falcons were 21st last season in passing yards allowed, but they were second against the run and first by far in turnover differential (plus-20).

Schedule

September

12 Minnesota, 4:15

20 at Dallas, 9

26 at St.Louis, 1

October

3 Baltimore, 1

10 at New Orleans, 1

17 St. Louis, 1

25 at Pittsburgh, 9

31 Carolina, 1

November

7 Jacksonville, 1

14 Open date

21 at Tampa Bay, 1

28 at Carolina, 8:20

December

5 New Orleans, 1

12 at San Fran., 4:15

19 at Tennessee, 1

26 Arizona, 1

January

3 San Francisco, 9

Carolina Panthers

1998 result: 4-12, fourth in division.

Coach: George Seifert, first season as Panthers coach (98-30 in eight seasons overall).

Key acquisitions: QB Jeff Lewis (Broncos), G Nate Newton (Cowboys), DE Antonio Edwards (Falcons), WR Patrick Jeffers (Cowboys).

Key losses: T Blake Brockermeyer (Bears), WR Raghib Ismail (Cowboys), DE Shawn King (Colts).

Outlook: Seifert steps out of retirement and into a tough situation. Last season, QB Kerry Collins had problems off the field, LB Kevin Greene attacked assistant coach Kevin Steele on the sideline, DE Sean Gilbert produced only six sacks and Coach Dom Capers was fired. Seifert has been a Super Bowl success, but he hasn't had so little to work with before. He will usher in the West Coast offense with 34-year-old Steve Beuerlein at quarterback and Lewis backing him up. Beuerlein is accurate but slow, and Lewis has five games of experience in three NFL seasons. Seifert also will institute a 4-3 defense, but will be working without much talent, since owner Jerry Richardson spent so much money in 1998 on Gilbert and CB Doug Evans, who was injured for most of last season.

Schedule

September

12 at New Orleans, 1

19 Jacksonville, 1

26 Cincinnati, 1

October

3 at Washington, 4:05

10 Open date

17 at San Fran., 4:15

24 Detroit, 1

31 at Atlanta, 1

November

7 Philadelphia, 1

14 at St. Louis, 1

21 at Cleveland, 1

28 Atlanta, 8:20

December

5 St. Louis, 1

12 at Green Bay, 1

18 San Francisco, 4:15

26 at Pittsburgh, 1

January

2 New Orleans, 1

New Orleans Saints

1998 result: 6-10, third in division.

Coach: Mike Ditka, 12-20 in two seasons with Saints (118-82 in 13 seasons overall).

Key acquisitions: RB Ricky Williams (first-round draft pick, Texas), WR Eddie Kennison (Rams), G Wally Williams (Ravens), CB Ashley Ambrose (Bengals), P Tommy Barnhardt (Bucs).

Key losses: QB Kerry Collins (Giants), WR Sean Dawkins (Seahawks), S Chad Cota (Colts).

Outlook: Ditka, seeking to improve the league's 30th-ranked rushing offense, spent all his 1999 draft picks and first- and third-round picks in 2000 to draft Ricky Williams. Williams's contract is loaded with performance incentives rather than guaranteed money, meaning he will have to play very well to get paid what usually would be market value. It remains to be seen how Williams's preseason ankle injury will affect him. Adding Wally Williams to an improving offensive line should help Ricky Williams, and Kennison is a nice target at wide receiver. But while the Saints improved their offense, the defense, which gave up 354 yards per game last season, was virtually untouched in the offseason. Pro Bowl DE Joe Johnson (seven sacks last year) suffered a ruptured patella tendon in preseason and is out for the year.

Schedule

September

12 Carolina, 1

19 at San Fran., 4:05

26 Open date

October

3 at Chicago, 1

10 Atlanta, 1

17 Tennessee, 1

24 at N.Y. Giants, 1

31 Cleveland, 1

November

7 Tampa Bay, 4:05

14 San Francisco, 1

21 at Jacksonville, 8:20

28 at St. Louis, 1

December

5 at Atlanta, 1

12 St. Louis, 1

19 at Baltimore, 1

24 Dallas, 3:05

January

2 at Carolina, 1

St. Louis Rams

1998 result: 4-12, fourth in division.

Coach: Dick Vermeil, 9-23 in two seasons with Rams (63-70 in nine seasons overall).

Key acquisitions: RB Marshall Faulk (Colts), LB Todd Collins (Patriots), G Adam Timmerman (Packers), SS Devin Bush (Falcons), WR Torry Holt (first-round pick, N.C. State), CB Dre Bly (second-round pick, North Carolina), QB Paul Justin (Raiders).

Key losses: QB Trent Green (acquired from Redskins; out for year with injury), QB Tony Banks (Ravens), QB Steve Bono (Panthers), WR Eddie Kennison (Saints), LB Roman Phifer (Jets), G Zach Wiegert (Jaguars), LB Eric Hill (Chargers), DE Mike Jones (Titans), CB Ryan McNeil (Browns), RB Greg Hill (traded to Lions).

Outlook: Things were once looking up for the Rams. They signed Green. They traded for Faulk, who almost gained 1,000 yards both rushing and receiving. And they drafted Holt to pair with Pro Bowler Isaac Bruce. But then Green suffered a season-ending knee injury in the third preseason game, leaving Kurt Warner (11 career passes) and Justin to run the show. The Rams spent so much money on offensive improvement that they had no cash left to re-sign defensive starters Phifer, Eric Hill, Jones and McNeil, leaving holes all over the defense.

Schedule

September

12 Baltimore, 1

19 Open date

26 Atlanta, 1

October

3 at Cincinnati, 1

10 San Francisco, 1

17 at Atlanta, 1

24 Cleveland, 1

31 at Tennessee, 1

November

7 at Detroit, 1

14 Carolina, 1

21 at San Fran., 4:15

28 New Orleans, 1

December

5 at Carolina, 1

12 at New Orleans, 1

19 N.Y. Giants, 1

26 Chicago, 1

January

2 at Philadelphia, 1

San Francisco 49ers

1998 result: 12-4, second in division (defeated Packers in wild-card playoffs, lost to Falcons in conference semifinals).

Coach: Steve Mariucci, 25-7 in two seasons with the 49ers.

Key acquisitions: RB Lawrence Phillips (out of football), RB Charlie Garner (Eagles), QB Jeff Garcia (Canadian Football League), FB Tommy Vardell (Lions), RB Travis Jervey (Packers), DE Marvin Washington (Broncos), CB Mark McMillian (Chiefs).

Key losses: RB Garrison Hearst (ankle injury); G Kevin Gogan (Dolphins); QB Ty Detmer, TE Irv Smith, DE Roy Barker, FB Marc Edwards (all traded to Browns); DE Chris Doleman (retired); RB Terry Kirby (Browns); CB Marquez Pope (Browns); T Kirk Scrafford (retired).

Outlook: The 49ers led the NFL in total offense, but they are getting old. QB Steve Young will be 38 in October and WR Jerry Rice, 36, is now the third option behind J.J. Stokes and Terrell Owens. With former club president Carmen Policy taking his salary-cap wizardry, as well as GM Dwight Clark, to the Browns, the 49ers had to dump six starters. The biggest question is at running back, without Hearst. Phillips and Garner won't get any help from an offensive line that lost starters Gogan and Scrafford on the right side, which also could be a problem for Young, who was sacked 48 times last season.

Schedule

September

12 at Jacksonville, 4:15

19 New Orleans, 4:05

27 at Arizona, 9

October

3 Tennessee, 4:15

10 at St. Louis, 1

17 Carolina, 4:15

24 at Minnesota, 1

31 Open date

November

7 Pittsburgh, 4:15

14 at New Orleans, 1

21 St. Louis, 4:15

29 Green Bay, 9

December

5 at Cincinnati, 1

12 Atlanta, 4:15

18 at Carolina, 4:15

26 Washington, 8:20

January

3 at Atlanta, 9