It's becoming clearer by the minute this season there is no clear favorite to make the Super Bowl from either conference.
Last year's conference champions, the Broncos and Falcons, are winless. The Jets, a 1998 AFC semifinalist, are 1-3 and must get back in the race with backup quarterback Rick Mirer.
And the Vikings, the other NFC semifinalist, have been sputtering on offense, with wide receiver Randy Moss muttering before last week's game about not seeing enough passes under the system installed by new offensive coordinator Ray Sherman. When Moss mutters, Sherman apparently listens.
In the Vikings' first three games, quarterback Randall Cunningham threw to Moss 17 times for nine receptions. Teams often employed a safety 15 to 18 yards from the line of scrimmage and dared the Vikings to go deep. In this past Sunday's 21-14 victory over the Buccaneers, Sherman had Moss work underneath that kind of coverage, and he was thrown to seven times, with four catches for 120 yards and touchdowns of 61 and 27 yards in the first quarter.
There are several mirages out there at the moment. The Patriots are 4-0, but they have won three games by four points or fewer and only one of the teams they have beaten, the vastly improved Colts, has a winning record.
The Rams (3-0) have outscored their opponents by a combined 100-27, though none of their foes--the Ravens, Falcons and Bengals--has a winning record. The Rams have a major game at home Sunday against the 49ers, who may regain starting quarterback Steve Young (concussion) if he passes neurological tests scheduled this week.
The AFC's best team right now probably is the Jaguars, despite a loss to Tennessee two weeks ago and reports that starting quarterback Mark Brunell is starting to chafe a bit under autocratic Coach Tom Coughlin.
In the NFC, the Vikings (2-2) still may be the best team, though the Packers will challenge for the NFC Central crown. Dallas (3-0) has been impressive, and with Deion Sanders back and defensive tackle Leon Lett returning from a league suspension at midseason, it also will make a serious run to go deep into the playoffs.
Turf Taking a Hit
The Giants and Jets finally have agreed it's time to install grass at Giants Stadium. NFL Players Association assistant executive director Doug Allen says that within 10 years, artificial turf will vanish from most NFL stadiums.
The league and the NFLPA have conducted countless studies over the years to determine if artificial turf leads to more injuries than playing on grass. But ask any player which surface he prefers, and the answer almost always is grass.
"We've been as strident as we can be without making it an issue we'd strike over," Allen said. "There is an economic issue in some places, but clearly our players don't like to play on it. The technology has improved so much over the last five years so that you can do a lot more with grass and make it function for football and other events."
Patriots Top Spenders
According to numbers obtained last week by the NFLPA, the Patriots lead the league in actual spending for player salaries and bonuses this year at $75.2 million, a figure that includes signing bonuses that are prorated over the length of a player's contract.
The Redskins are 28th among the teams in spending, at $49 million, well under the 1999 cap of $57.3 million, with the Cardinals the lowest-salaried team at $46.7 million.
The Patriots are ranked No. 1 largely because of a $14.2 million signing bonus to cornerback Ty Law. The expansion Browns rank No. 2, at $73.3 million, the Packers No. 3 at $73.1 million, the Cowboys No. 4 at $72.8 million and the Giants No. 5 at $71.8 million.
Sitting in the stands is not what it used to be. Nashville seventh-grader Derek Dickerson ended up with the ball Browns rookie quarterback Tim Couch used to throw his first career touchdown pass two weeks ago against Tennessee. Couch spiked the ball so hard, it bounced into Dickerson's lap.
A Browns official offered Dickerson a miniature football and a Browns hat, and a fan sitting nearby said he'd give him $200 for the ball. But Dickerson says he'd like to keep the ball, even though his father, Tim Dickerson, would like him to give it back. "I can see his side," Tim Dickerson said. "Because every little kid dreams of catching the ball in the stands. He's really excited about it."
Meantime, standing in the stands also is not what it used to be, either.
In Tampa, Buccaneers season ticket holder Richard Schweitzer was arrested at the Bucs' Aug. 28 preseason game and charged with disorderly conduct for standing in his seat in the last row of Raymond Jones Stadium.
The Tampa Bay Stadium Authority has a policy that fans must sit, the better to provide other ticket holders a better view and allow security and medical personnel to see section signs they use as a guide in emergencies. According to TBSA director of operations Mickey Farrell, Schweitzer was charged not because he was standing, but because he resisted being ejected.
The Falcons have no plans to discipline cornerback Ray Buchanan for body-slamming Ravens wide receiver Patrick Johnson after Johnson taunted him following a touchdown catch in Baltimore's 19-13 victory this past Sunday.
The league likely will fine Buchanan, and Johnson has been fined $2,500 for excessive taunting. Said Buchanan: "If I can ever get back to [Johnson], I'll apologize. I think we both would probably think twice about what we did. That's not what the NFL is about."
The Bucs won't decide until Friday whether defensive tackle Warren Sapp will play against the Packers. He sat out this past Sunday with a broken hand. . . . The Chiefs could be without three starting offensive linemen this week against the Patriots. Center Tim Grunhard (hamstring) and left tackle Glen Parker (elbow) had to leave this past Sunday's loss to San Diego and left guard Dave Szott is recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery. . . .
Carolina Coach George Seifert is now leaning toward starting, and perhaps finishing with, running back Tshimanga Biakabutuka when the Panthers return from a bye in two weeks against the 49ers. Seifert was criticized for benching Biakabutuka in the second quarter as part of a planned rotation with Fred Lane against the Redskins after he gained 123 yards and scored three touchdowns in the first 15 minutes. . . .
Rams quarterback Kurt Warner is the first player in 50 years to throw three touchdown passes in each of his first three starts.
CAPTION: After complaining he wasn't seeing enough passes in Vikings' new system, Randy Moss (84) had touchdown catches of 61, 27 yards in first quarter of Minnesota's win Sunday.