No clear-cut Super Bowl favorites as NFL launches 1988 season

To put the Super Bowl in perspective, it is a kind of hazy dream that only two National Football League franchises can share in Miami next Jan. 22. Theoretically, all 28 teams start even as the 16-week regular season gets under way with a full slate of games this coming weekend. But in reality, of course, you can narrow down the list of bona fide contenders quite a bit more than this.

Among the leading candidates to make that Miami trip are the defending champion Washington Redskins and the Denver Broncos, who have reached the big game twice in a row, only to lose both times. Other possibilities include perennial powers San Francisco, Cleveland, and Chicago, plus two newcomers to the top echelon, Indianapolis and New Orleans. If you like dark horses, you have the option of saddling up either the New York Giants or the Seattle Seahawks.

Trying to guess who will actually make it is a different story, for with so many personnel changes having taken place during the off-season, this is a tough year for anyone to pick two clear-cut favorites.

The outlook for each division in the National Football Conference (NFC) and the American Football Conference (AFC): NFC East

Even though there aren't yet any Hungarian violinists playing tearfully in the background, Washington coach Joe Gibbs has done an excellent job of convincing people that the Redskins are not a dominant football team. The fact is, though, that the defending champions may well still be the best team in football.

The Giants, who won it all a year earlier, lost all chance last season via an 0-5 start. Such a disastrous beginning isn't likely to occur again, though, and remember they still have a top quarterback in Phil Simms plus a barbed-wire defense.

This is Buddy Ryan's third year in Philadelphia, and the former architect of Chicago's defense may have an outstanding team if the running game improves.

Dallas should have a potent offense built around running back Herschel Walker. For the Cowboys to really go anywhere, though, the team's young defense needs to mature in a hurry.

The Phoenix (formerly St. Louis) Cardinals plan to continue rebuilding, only this time in front of sellout crowds. NFC Central

Last year Chicago won its fourth division title in a row. Whether Jim McMahon or Mike Tomczak is the quarterback, the Bears should be able to do it again. With Walter Payton retired, Neal Anderson moves from fullback to running back.

Minnesota coach Jerry Burns has purposely put a lot of pressure on himself and his team by saying, ``We have the ability to win our division. The problem is to make sure we play to our potential every week.'' Despite his optimism, the Vikings are probably still a year away.

Tampa Bay remains in a state of transition, which is another way of saying that nobody quite knows how to rate this team. ``I believe in young people and that you can be successful with them,'' said coach Ray Perkins. Actually, the key for the Bucs is how soon quarterback Vinny Testaverde learns to read NFL defenses.

For the first time since 1983, the Detroit Lions got off cat food in 1987, and actually won a game in December. Quarterback Chuck Long, who put some pretty fair numbers on the scoreboard, looks ready to do it again. The defense, however, remains a question mark.

Once again the Green Bay Packers should be taken lightly. New coach Lindy Infante, an assistant with Cleveland last year, will need patience to install his new offensive and defensive systems. NFC West

The San Francisco 49ers made one major mistake last year: They allowed Seattle to upset them in the playoffs. Basically, though, this is the same team that won 13 regular-season games and led the NFL in points scored, yards gained, and fewest yards given up.

After 21 years of trying to back the car out of the garage without scraping a fender, New Orleans finally became a big winner (12-3) in 1987 under coach Jim Mora. Jim's current analysis: ``We may be a better team than we were last season and not win as many games.''

Until this year, the Los Angeles Rams have been very casual about exercising their air rights. But now coach John Robinson says he is going to give the ball to quarterback Jim Everett and let him throw it. Some people, however, think Everett's first interception will turn Robinson into an infantry captain again.

The Atlanta Falcons, who lost 12 of 15 games last season, are still looking for something called progress. Explained coach Marion Campbell: ``We cannot hide from the reality of our situation.'' They can't seem to do much about it, either. AFC East

Once Indianapolis got running back Eric Dickerson from the Rams in the middle of last season, the Colts became an especially tough team to defend. With their improved offense to complement an already fine defense, the look like a team that will continue to move up.

Even with a suspect running game, the New England Patriots have to be given a chance in this division. ``I think we have the physical talent to get us there,'' says coach Raymond Berry. ``What concerns me is that in the past we've sometimes misplaced our consistency.''

Miami's Don Shula, who has the most victories among active NFL coaches, says his team must improve dramatically on defense to make the playoffs. Offensively, with Dan Marino at quarterback, the Dolphins are about the closest thing the league has to a machine.

The Buffalo Bills are still paying their dues for being a young team, and may be hard pressed to stay out of the cellar by the New York Jets, who are also making major repairs. AFC Central

The Cleveland Browns, who borrowed their defense from the Bears, are after a fourth consecutive division title, practically a given if quarterback Bernie Kosar plays well. The chief opposition is expected to come from the Houston Oilers, who picked up some support as a future NFL power when they upset Seattle in last year's playoffs.

``In pro football,'' explained Pittsburgh coach Chuck Noll, ``you win by being more physical than your opponents.'' You also win by having a first-rate passing attack, which the Steelers don't seem to have at the moment.

Cincinnati, which finished last in this division a year ago, looks like an also-ran again. AFC West

The Denver Broncos, who made it to the last two Super Bowls and then fell on their saddles, have a new dimension this year in former Dallas running back Tony Dorsett. Will Dorsett help? Does Mrs. Fields sell cookies?

The Seattle Seahwaks are a fine football team that seems to be in the wrong division at the wrong time. If the defense continues to improve, however, 10 or even 12 victories do not seem out of the question.

Last year San Diego rebuilt its defense, with some positive results. This year the Chargers have a new offensive coordinator in Jerry Rhome, who spent his last five years as the Redskins' quarterback coach. With Dan Fouts retired, Rhome is spending most of his time tutoring former Pittsburgh quarterback Mark Malone.

The Los Angeles Raiders have a new coach in Mike Shanahan (formerly a Denver assistant) and all of their old quarterback problems. People can't understand why owner Al Davis, who has always had one of the keenest minds in the game, is so reluctant to trade for an established passer.

No team except Atlanta gave up more points last year than Kansas City. Despite the presence of three new assistants, whose experience totals 49 years, it is hard to see many sunny afternoons ahead for coach Frank Gansz.

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