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FOX: Follow the signs to '04 surprises


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Follow the signs to '04 surprises

The only predictable thing about the modern NFL is the unpredictability of the standings. Only four playoff teams from 2002 qualified for the postseason in '03, the lowest carryover since the postseason field expanded to 12 in 1990.

That gives hope to the 20 teams that didn't make the playoffs last season. That also makes it increasingly strenuous to forecast the next season.

Prognostication isn't an exact science, but there are sure signs that can help identify the underachieving or up-and-coming teams that have the best shot of turning things around and jumping into the playoffs:

1. FIRST-CLASS COACHING: Start by looking for coaches who consistently have been to the playoffs. If the coach has a Super Bowl ring, the case for improvement is even stronger.

Mike Holmgren, Mike Shanahan, Dick Vermeil, Brian Billick and Bill Belichick, who had won six of the past seven Super Bowls before last season, led teams that didn't make the playoffs in 2002 into the postseason last year. Bill Parcells, a two-time Super Bowl winner, put the Cowboys back in the party after they went 5-11 in each of the three seasons before his arrival.

Of the other six playoff teams, just one -- the Panthers -- was coached by someone (John Fox) who never had been to the postseason.

What it means for '04: Jon Gruden and Joe Gibbs, the two other active coaches who have won Super Bowls, can't be counted out as they attempt to make the Buccaneers and Redskins forget disappointing seasons.

2. READY FOR PRIME TIME: Though great coaching can overcome shortcomings in talent, it doesn't hurt to have blossoming offensive weapons. Holmgren's Seahawks, for instance, wouldn't have made the playoffs last season if Matt Hasselbeck hadn't developed into a star.

What it means for '04: The Lions and Texans have surrounded third-year quarterbacks Joey Harrington and David Carr with good support at running back and wide receiver. The Bengals and Jaguars have high expectations for second-year quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Byron Leftwich.

3. IMPACT DEFENSIVE ROOKIES: Drafting prominent offensive skill players might grab more headlines, but rookies on defense often provide more immediate results -- even in specialized roles -- because they can rely on instincts and athleticism. Defensive backs Terence Newman (Cowboys), Ricky Manning (Panthers), Marcus Trufant and Ken Hamlin (Seahawks) and Eugene Wilson and Asante Samuel (Patriots) all were key contributors on playoff teams last season, as was Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who had 12 sacks in situational duty.

What it means for '04: Watch out for cornerback Dunta Robinson (Texans), linebacker Jonathan Vilma (Jets), safety Sean Taylor (Redskins) and ends Will Smith (Saints) and Kenechi Udeze (Vikings). All will be filling major holes on their teams.

4. STABILITY IN THE POCKET: After the Panthers used an ineffective mix of Rodney Peete, Randy Fasani and Chris Weinke in '02, a big reason for the team's success last season was the leadership and solid play of Jake Delhomme at quarterback. The Rams replaced Kurt Warner after Week 1 last year, then won 12 of their final 15 games with Marc Bulger starting.

Eliminating controversy and doubt at the most important position can bring a team together.

What it means for '04: Having Michael Vick and Chad Pennington healthy for a full year should completely change the complexion of the Falcons and Jets. The Browns turning to Jeff Garcia and the Bills working to accommodate their offense to Drew Bledsoe's skills are two other positive developments.

5. HOW DID THEY FINISH? You can't tell much by what a team did in the first half of a previous season, but how it played down the stretch usually is a hint of things to come. Take the Seahawks, who used a 3-0 finish in '02 as a springboard for '03.

What it means for '04: The Saints and Dolphins, who have reputations for fading late, actually enter this season with momentum. New Orleans went 7-4 after a 1-4 start, and Miami won five of its final seven games. Another positive for the Dolphins: They have no division road games after November 1.

6. STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE: This is the NFL's built-in mechanism for parity. While the Chiefs, Panthers and Cowboys took advantage of the schedule to go from worst to berths last season, the Buccaneers, 49ers, Raiders, Steelers and Jets couldn't maintain their division-winning status.

What it means for '04: The most dangerous teams from the bottom of the standings who could shoot up are the Falcons, Jaguars, Lions and Jets.


After plugging all of these elements into the matrix, there are two clear front-runners as surprise teams for 2004: In the AFC, it's the Jaguars, who have the extra motivation that the Super Bowl will be played on their home field. In the NFC, it's the Redskins, thanks to Gibbs, Taylor and Clinton Portis.

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