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ALL-FELSER TEAM RISES ABOVE THE PARITY PACK

OK, the NFL is a lagoon of mediocrity and there are still 17 teams at .500 or below. But there is always individual cream that rises to the top.

This is the 1997 All-Felser team:

Offense

Quarterback -- Brett Favre, Green Bay. The best last year and the best again. In a season in which quarterbacks sputtered out, chugged along, spent large amounts of time in the repair shop and, in some cases, didn't show up with a battery included, Favre stood alone.

Running backs -- Terrell Davis, Denver, and Jerome Bettis, Pittsburgh. Davis is the man who kept the Broncos atop the AFC, probably longer than they deserved to be there. John Elway does not have top-quality wide receivers, and the Broncos are deficient in stopping tough running teams, so Davis' feats were a twin contribution. His own running was a weapon and the Broncos' ability to control the ball because of it rested their defense. Bettis' power running did a similar favor for the Steelers, with inexperienced Kordell Stewart at quarterback. Some of Bettis' most important yardage came in crucial situations.

Wide receivers -- Tim Brown, Oakland, and Cris Carter, Minnesota. The Raiders haven't had as dismal a season in 35 years, the one before Al Davis became head coach. Yet Brown performed as if the Black and Silver were back in a playoff fight. Carter is uniformly superb. He helped smooth Brad Johnson's transition from wanna-be quarterback to multimillionaire starter.

Tight end -- Shannon Sharpe, Denver. The lack of outside receivers puts the onus on Sharpe as Elway's main collaborator in the passing game. He came through nobly. OK, he's really part tight end, part wide receiver. If you want the whole package, insert Ben Coates of New England.

Tackles -- Tony Boselli, Jacksonville, and Todd Steussie, Minnesota. Left tackle is the most important position on the offensive line and both play the left side. Boselli makes even the best pass rushers vanish. Check Bruce Smith's statistics against him. Steussie has been among the elite tackles for the last couple of seasons and in '97 he turned it up a notch to market himself as a free agent.

Guards -- Larry Allen, Dallas, and Bruce Matthews, Tennessee. There are some NFL people who think Allen is the best offensive lineman in the league. He was one of the few rays of sun in the Boys' dismal season. Next year he plays left tackle full time. Offensive linemen usually last longer than players at other positions, but what Matthews did in his 15th season at age 36 is against the rules of geriatrics.

Center -- Dermontti Dawson, Pittsburgh. Dawson is approaching the point where Miami's Dwight Stephenson was when he was the king of NFL centers in the '80s.

Kicker -- Morten Andersen, Atlanta. The Falcons wouldn't have surged at the end without him.

Punt returner -- Jermaine Lewis, Baltimore. Part of the Ravens' promising future.

Kickoff Returner -- Tamarick Vanover, Kansas City. The Chiefs needed every offensive edge they could get and he provided his share.

Defense

Ends -- Bruce Smith, Buffalo, and Mike Strahan, Giants. In the first two thirds of the season, Bruce took no prisoners. He was stymied a few times in the last third, but no defensive end in the NFL was better. Strahan arrived as a legitimate star a year ago and was a force on a defense that won the NFC East for New York.

Tackles -- Ted Washington, Buffalo, and Dana Stubblefield, San Francisco. Washington was the Bills' MVP on a strong defensive unit and Stubblefield was immense after his partner, Bryant Young, was hurt.

Outside linebackers -- Jessie Armstead, Giants, and Chris Slade, New England. Armstead was the complete player and big-play artist for the year's surprise team. Slade bounced back from a sub-par season to carry more than his share of the load, particularly when Willie McGinest was hurt.

Inside/middle linebacker -- Levon Kirkland, Pittsburgh. He's a 290-pounder who not only punishes the run but drops back nimbly into pass coverage. People finally woke up and put him in the Pro Bowl, but as long ago as 1995 he was the true MVP in the Super Bowl.

Cornerbacks -- Aeneas Williams, Arizona, and Dale Carter, Kansas City. Williams is the undisputed king of NFL corners now. Carter still carries the stigma of his reckless early years but he's become more disciplined.

Safeties -- Merton Hanks, San Francisco, and Carnell Lake, Pittsburgh. Hanks looks as if his head is going to fall off that goose neck, but when the ball is in the air he acts as if he owns it. If the Steelers needed Lake at cornerback he played there, if needed at safety, he did his usual superb job. He also made the play of the year, streaking upfield on a never-give-up pursuit to knock the ball from the hands of Cincinnati wide receiver Carl Pickens as he was about to step into the end zone for a touchdown. The play probably won the AFC Central for Pittsburgh.

Punter -- Bryan Barker, Jacksonville. A big part of the Jaguars' valuable special teams.

Special teams -- Larry Whigham, New England. He seemed to do something positive on every play.

Most valuable -- Terrell Davis, Denver running back.

Defensive player of the year -- Carnell Lake, Pittsburgh safety.

Coach of the year -- Marty Schottenheimer, Kansas City.

Offensive rookie of the year -- Warrick Dunn, Tampa Bay.

Defensive rookie of the year -- Peter Boulware, Baltimore linebacker.

Executive of the year -- George Young, Giants.

Assistant coach of the year -- Gunther Cunningham, Kansas City defensive coordinator.

FELSER'S TOP 10
(Last week's rank in parentheses. NR: Not ranked)
1. GREEN BAY (1) . . . In Super form.

2. KANSAS CITY (2) . . . Home field vital.

3. SAN FRANCISCO (3) . . . Rice loss damaging.

4. PITTSBURGH (4) . . . Kordell saved bacon.

5. GIANTS (10) . . . Came up big again.

6. JACKSONVILLE (8) . . . Shaky win over Bills.

7. NEW ENGLAND (7) . . . What's Bledsoe thinking?

8. DENVER (5) . . . Dead without Davis.

9. DETROIT (NR) . . . Deserve playoffs.

10. TAMPA BAY (6) . . . Must play above room temperature.

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