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'FEARED OPPONENTS' HAVE BEEN ERASED FROM TODAY'S NFL VOCABULARY

Todd Collins, the Bills' young quarterback, was discussing the New England Patriots the other day and allowed as how he respected them, but he wasn't in awe of them despite his own team being a nine-point underdog this afternoon.

"In the NFL," said Collins, "I don't think there are any great teams."

I'll endorse that opinion and so will a lot of NFL people. The NFL today is a collection of many .500-level teams, a small amount of cream teams on top and a handful of cadavers on the bottom.

Terms like "fearsome opponent" and "Running a gauntlet of tough foes" are passe.

Consider the teams which finished in the NFL's Final Four in last season's playoffs, plus some others around that level of play:

New England -- The Patriots' four victories were scored over two bottom-feeders, Indianapolis and Chicago; San Diego, a member of the .500 club; and the Jets, by the margin of a missed gimme field goal.

They still have Drew Bledsoe at quarterback, Curtis Martin at quarterback and a lot more talent. But Pete Carroll as the head coach of a team nine months removed from the Super Bowl is a tough sell.

The Pats looked overmatched in Denver Monday night in a game that figured to be much closer. There is a feeling around the NFL that maybe Bledsoe did need Bill Parcells nagging him in order to play at his best.

Today New England deserves to be favored, but few around the league would be surprised if the Bills scored an upset. The disparity in talent is far from a chasm.

Green Bay -- Hold on a second before everyone in America jumps into the stands at Lambeau Field. The Packers are a different team than the one which pounded the Pats in the last Super Bowl.

For one thing with fullback Edgar Bennett hurt their running game is a sometime thing. Dorsey Levens looks like Barry Sanders one week and Col. Sanders the next. They have a major problem at left tackle and their center, Frank Winters, is hurt.

Early in some games Reggie White throws offensive tackles around like they were dirty shirts. Yet late in some games he's almost docile. "He's lost not one step but two," says Matt Millen, the truth-teller on Fox TV and CBS radio. It figures. Reggie will be 37 in December.

Then there was all that frolicking and loss of focus during the off-season. Brett Favre, who went to dry out after admitting a drinking problem last year, suddenly announced, "It's OK. I can drink now."

Oh? I always thought that was a day-to-day, hour-to-hour thing. People I know who haven't had a drink in many years still refer to themselves as "recovering alcoholics."

Carolina -- Already a semi-disaster and not just because quarterback Kerry Collins, suddenly a controversial figure, has been benched.

The Panthers made a conscious decision to build their first editions with veteran players. In their second NFL season last year they were the oldest team in the league.

Now age has become a big-time factor. They are about to bench venerable inside linebacker Sam Mills and nose tackle Greg Kagen. The slam-bang season of pass-rushing linebacker Kevin Greene turned out to be a pit stop since he signed with San Francisco.

Carolina just hopes to survive now.

Jacksonville -- The Jaguars didn't even move out of the patsy class until late last season when they began a move that still has momentum. Over that stretch they are 10-1, even using three different starting quarterbacks at the start of this season.

Nevertheless, doubters remain. The doubts will start eroding if the Jags can push aside Cincinnati today and then get by a three-game stretch which begins with a home game against Philadelphia followed by visits to Dallas and Pittsburgh.

Denver -- Clearly the class of the league. Running back Terrell Davis may have reached the superstar stage and they have what most NFL teams are missing: an offensive line of high caliber.

The big question, maybe the only question about Denver, is whether 37-year-old quarterback John Elway can hold up for his 15th NFL season. The Broncos' three road games in December will be the gauge.

Dallas -- Oyyy! They have the worst red-zone record in the NFL, which means they get to point-blank range and misfire. The Cowboys bring to mind something my high school baseball coach once told me: "You couldn't hit a bull in the butt with a bass fiddle."

Then there are those elderly fat gentlemen in the offensive line. Last week Eric Williams couldn't huff and puff his way downfield in time to give Dallas a chance to kick the winning field goal.

San Francisco -- The NFL being what it is today, one of the better teams may not see more than one formidable opponent over a two-month period. Doubt it? Check the 49ers' schedule. They're doing it right now.

They opened by losing to Tampa Bay but after beating four bozo teams they get to play three more before they face Dallas in a home game Nov. 2. Their first eight games include two each against Atlanta, New Orleans and St. Louis. It's better than stealing.

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