The Associated Press
NEW YORK Ä The draft is over, most of the top free agents are signed. So look ahead at the 1995 season, put San Francisco back at the top and then look down ...
For if the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys were the NFL's two dominant teams in 1994, now there is one, the 49ers. Yes, they lost Ricky Watters and may not re-sign Deion Sanders, but they'll muddle through.
So respected are the 49ers that the questions about J.J. Stokes (''too slow,'' ''banged up'') ended when they took advantage of Cleveland's confusion after losing Kyle Brady to the Jets to move up and take the UCLA wide receiver.
''Those 49ers sure know their receivers,'' was the reaction.
Dallas, meanwhile, has lost Mark Stepnoski and Alvin Harper; doesn't know what it will get from Erik Williams and had what looked like its second straight confused draft (a backup for Emmitt Smith is fine, but how about some offensive linemen for the aging Nate Newton and Mark Tuinei?) Wasn't Jerry Jones just a little tempted to call Jimmy Johnson a couple of times during the weekend?
So here is a quick look at the NFL now.
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Is there anyone to challenge the 49ers?
Sure, if Steve Young and Jerry Rice go down. Marquez Pope is there as insurance for Deion and they'll plug in someone at running back, maybe even Derrick Moore, who was Barry Sanders' stand-in at Detroit.
But Dallas has lost enough to make its fourth straight NFC East title a bit of a question.
The challenger could be the Giants.
New York has quietly added good players (Herschel Walker, Mike Croel, Vencie Glenn, Tyrone Wheatley) and a relaxed and experienced Dave Brown plus second-year-man Thomas Lewis could be a passing threat. They're not about to challenge the Niners, but the organization knows what it's doing and Dan Reeves is the East's best coach ... by far.
Ray Rhodes is putting together his own new team in Philadelphia; Norv Turner is doing the same in Washington, and who knows what Buddy Ryan is doing in Arizona.
The Central looks like the same morass it was last season, when Minnesota finished 10-6 and three others made the playoffs at 9-7. The Vikings still need a consistent, injury-free runner to take the pressure off Warren Moon and his receivers.
Look for the Packers to drop; the Bucs, with the tainted but talented Warren Sapp, to rise (they'll finally lose less than 10 for the first time in a dozen years), and the Lions and Bears to be just about what they were last season.
Who can challenge the 49ers in the West?
The Rams, with fan support in St. Louis, might be a little better if Chris Miller stays healthy, but the Saints and Falcons will probably stay around the .500 mark. When the 49ers finally lose a division they've won 10 of the last 12 seasons, it probably will be Carolina that beats them.
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Who will lose the Super Bowl to the 49ers?
Make Pittsburgh, New England and Miami the early favorites.
Pittsburgh, 32-16 in the regular season since Bill Cowher took over, probably learned a lesson by losing the AFC title game to San Diego. As in, ''keep your mouths shut and play.'' Neil O'Donnell is good enough given the running game and defense. Given Eric Green's attitude, his loss to Miami may have been addition by subtraction.
Don Shula keeps pushing for that last Super Bowl before Dan Marino goes and he lets Jimmy Johnson take over. Maybe he can make Green show up every Sunday and if he doesn't, there's rookie Pete Mitchell, who has 1-10th of Green's natural ability, to make the tough catches.
Bill Parcells will growl at anyone who says ''Super Bowl'' about the Pats and snarl ''you guys are all Communists, stirring up trouble.'' But he has Drew Bledsoe, drafted three defensive backs for his shaky secondary and hopes that Dave Meggett will make his team more explosive.
As for the rest ...
Buffalo's beefed up its defense, but age is catching up with Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed, and has already caught up with Darryl Talley, who's off to Atlanta's old-age home ...
Cleveland's probably still in shock from losing Brady in the draft ...
The Chargers are in shock from the first five minutes of the Super Bowl ...
The Raiders have turned ''Commitment to Excellence'' into ''Commitment to Turmoil...''
The Broncos, with John Elway aging, keep tinkering, first with offense, now with defense ...
Well, we know where Joe Montana went ... back to San Francisco to watch the 49ers win again.
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