- The Washington Times - Friday, November 2, 2001

St. Louis and Indianapolis in 1999. New Orleans and (almost) Philadelphia in 2000. Cleveland, Chicago and (almost) San Diego now. NFL teams have been skyrocketing from worst to first in their divisions in recent years.
That phenomenon has played a huge part in the league's parity. Only one of the last 18 division champions (Jacksonville in the 1999 AFC Central) has repeated its title while 24 teams have reached postseason and 16 have won a playoff game since 1997.
But this season could well be the last for the last-to-first craze. With the move to eight four-team divisions in 2002, every team in a division will play 14 common opponents. No more making a great leap forward on the strength of a fifth-place schedule.
For example, the four members of the NFC East Dallas, the Giants, Philadelphia and Washington will play every team in the NFC West and AFC South in 2002, in addition to their six home-and-away contests against each other. That leaves just two games based on how each team finished the previous year, unlike the current eight such matchups.

Trivia time How many teams went from last to first from 1983 to 1997? (Answer below).

Jagged edge It was just 21 months ago that Jacksonville and Tennessee met in the AFC Championship game. Each team had finished at least .500 for four straight years. But Jacksonville tumbled to 7-9 last year and now Tennessee, which led the NFL with a 13-3 record in 2000, has fallen on hard times. Monday night's embarrassing 34-7 trouncing by Pittsburgh dropped the Titans to 2-4 and into the AFC Central cellar alongside the Jaguars, who have lost four in a row heading into Sunday's visit to Nashville.
Both teams can blame injuries the Titans have been using four first-year starters in the secondary while Jaguars All-Pro tackle Tony Boselli is out for the year and running back Fred Taylor is hurt yet again. But there's more amiss than poor health.
Tennessee's previously ultra-reliable runner Eddie George is averaging an ugly 2.6 yards per carry and is so banged up that he might have to sit out the first game of his six-year career this week. Steve McNair is at the bottom of the AFC quarterback ratings, and pass rusher supreme Jevon Kearse and Kevin Carter have combined for just five sacks.
Tom Coughlin is the only coach the Jaguars have had, but it seems like his Sgt. Fury act has finally stopped working after seven years. After beating the visiting Titans on Sept. 23 to go 2-0, Jacksonville was stunned by Cleveland at home, lost at Seattle and, after a bye, fell to previously winless Buffalo at home. The four players who have made the offense work for seven years Boselli, quarterback Mark Brunell and receivers Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell all will be 30 or older next season and the salary cap might make it impossible for all of them to be retained. Brunell, who often has been at odds with Coughlin, was almost traded to Detroit last spring and those rumors have resurfaced.
Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher is much more popular with his players than Coughlin and this is his first down year, so his job is safe. However, Fisher's task is no easier the rest of the way. Tennessee plays host to Baltimore, Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Cleveland and visits the Browns, Oakland and Minnesota. Jacksonville travels to Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Minnesota and Chicago while welcoming Baltimore and Green Bay. If the Titans don't improve, Fisher will start 2002 on the hot seat.

Makes Me Wanna Cry It looks like Miami receiver O.J. McDuffie's career is over. McDuffie is eligible to come off the physically unable to perform list anytime in the next four weeks, but coach Dave Wannstedt said the Dolphins are in no hurry to activate McDuffie, who hasn't been able to play effectively since suffering a severe left big toe injury against New England on Nov. 21, 1999. McDuffie had 393 catches in six-plus seasons before the injury, but just 22 in the nearly two years since.
"It hasn't gotten better in two years," said McDuffie, who now refuses to take painkillers because he believes they made the initial injury worse. "What's going to make me think it's going to get any better?"
Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino once called McDuffie the toughest player with whom he had played.

Trivia answer Seven. The 1987 Colts, the 1988 and 1990 Bengals, the 1991 Broncos, the 1992 Chargers, the 1993 Lions and the 1997 Giants.


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