Pack of New Coaches, Old Picks Mark NFL Start

The National Football League sported a new look as it kicked off its 78th season Sunday.

Powered by their quarterback Drew Bledsoe, the New England Patriots routed the San Diego Chargers 41-7, and Troy Aikman engineered a 37-7 victory by the Dallas Cowboys over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Meanwhile, the New York Jets outperformed expectations in a 41-3 victory over the Seattle Seahawks.

The regular season is a game old and 15 to go. Fall hasn't arrived, and winter is a long way away. Yet, prognosticators are already making their picks for Super Bowl XXXII on Jan. 25 in San Diego. A majority of football followers - those well-informed enough to know that Tshimanga Biakabutuka plays for the Carolina Panthers - have already made their pick: the defending champion Green Bay Packers.

Joe Theismann and a majority of his well-versed colleagues on ESPN's SportsZone believe the Packers will win. So does the Pro Football Weekly. Or, check your local newspaper. It could well have picked Green Bay.

Still a tough season looms. The quest of the 49ers and the Cowboys for an unprecedented sixth Super Bowl crown have not been written off. But the 49ers, Cowboys, and Packers all play in the National Football Conference, and only one of them can go to the championship game.

From the other half of the league, the most frequently mentioned teams are the Denver Broncos and the Patriots. Yet, during the last 13 seasons, no American Football Conference team has won a Super Bowl. And the chances of breaking the streak are considered slim. Analyzing team prospects is easy this season because most of the 30 franchises have basically retained the same players. This year, only 85 unrestricted free agents signed with new teams, half the 171 who moved in the peak year of 1995. Green Bay has 19 of the 22 players who were starters in last year's Super Bowl.

Team outlooks can change quickly, however. During preseason, the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Carolina Panthers were considered credible contenders. But now prognosticators are hedging, since both teams lost their quarterbacks to injuries.

What's new in the NFL?

After 37 years, the Houston Oilers have moved. They are now in Memphis and will move to their new Nashville home in two seasons after a new stadium is completed.

Ten teams have new head coaches, the largest shuffle at the top in 19 years. Among the notables: Bill Parcells has left the AFC champion Patriots for the New York Jets. He's been replaced by Pete Carroll, a former Jets coach. Dick Vermeil is back after 15 years of self-imposed exile to coach the St. Louis Rams. Mike Ditka, who took the Chicago Bears to a Super Bowl victory in 1986, has returned to the top job with the New Orleans Saints.

Billionaire Paul Allen, who co-founded the Microsoft Corp. with Bill Gates, now owns the Seattle Seahawks. And the flamboyant Deion Sanders has embraced religion and says he hopes be an evangelist.

Also, about those touchdown celebrations - the glide, the slide, the whirl, and the twirl: The NFL told the showboaters in more certain terms than ever to cut down on the grandstanding or face the music.

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