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MAGNIFICENT SEVEN STARTS TO EMERGE FROM NFL PACK

Free agency has been ravaging rosters for six seasons, salary caps have handcuffed the ambitious teams and most of the quarterbacks from the Grand Harvest of the '80s have grown old. Are there any top-shelf teams left in the NFL any longer?

As they say in the grand jury room, it depends upon what you mean by top-shelf.

There is no team two deep at most positions, as the Bills, Cowboys, 49ers and Dolphins once were. There are about five offensive lines that approach the level of excellence. A third of the league's quarterbacks are strangers to the public. Players like Will Wolford and Bryce Paup are on their third teams via free agency.

Pittsburgh is still in shock after being shut out by Miami, 21-0. It was lucky to beat Baltimore and luckier still to overcome the hapless Bears.

The Steelers have been dented deeply each season by free agency, but through superb drafting they have managed to field a good team, up to now. Now there are some injuries to go with the free-agency losses. Their former offensive coordinator, Chan Gailey, became head coach of the Cowboys. His successor, Ray Sherman, hasn't distinguished himself. Quarterback Kordell Stewart, who needed to improve, has regressed.

The Steelers may come back later in the season, but right now they are not a good team.

Considering what's happened to pro football in the '90s and in NFL games during the first three weeks, there seem to be seven actual good teams, three "maybes" and one "who knows?"

The seven goodies are all teams that made the playoffs last year. Since the defending Super Bowl champion won at Oakland last Sunday with Bubby Brister playing quarterback it's obvious the Denver Broncos still have more than a little something left.

Free agency gouged Green Bay, too, costing the Packers four starters. Dorsey Levens, the formidable running back, is out for a long time due to injury, and some veterans are showing their age. But the Pack still has quarterback Brett Favre, best player in the game.

It took overtime for San Francisco to outlast the Jets in their home opener, so there is some question about the 49ers, who not only lost free agents but then lost their most important free-agent signee, Packer defensive end Gabe Wilkins, who suffered an offseason knee injury. Still, the Niners don't have serious opposition until November. If Steve Young and Jerry Rice stay healthy they could finish somewhere around 13-3 and have the home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs.

Put down Kansas City, Jacksonville, New England and Minnesota as the other-top-of-the-shelf teams in 1998. KC needs quarterback Elvis Grbac, receivers Andre Rison and Derrick Alexander and defensive tackle Chester McGlockton to come back from injuries to stay there.

New England's young defensive stars are maturing and they got a big game from rookie running back Robert Edwards against Tennessee. The Pats need him to play well to compensate for the free-agency loss of Curtis Martin. Jacksonville lost two big-time pass rushers, Jeff Lageman for the year and Tony Brackens until the Oct. 12 Monday night game against Miami. The Jaguars have been using Paup, the former Bill, more as a run-stopper but now they'll have to send him after enemy quarterbacks.

Except for their shaky secondary, the Vikings possess that Super Bowl look. What might fix their problem is to acquire a fierce pass rusher by the trade deadline. I wonder how Bruce Smith would look in purple?

Besides the Steelers, include Miami and Tampa Bay in the "maybe category." The Dolphins are 3-0, but the first two victories, over Indianapolis and Buffalo, were skin-of-the-teeth stuff. What brings them respect is the way that young defense flew after Rob Johnson two weeks ago and then came back to shut out Pittsburgh. Even though Tampa Bay lost its first two games, they were to Minnesota and Green Bay. The Bucs' good young defense should get them to December, at least.

The "who knows?" team is Seattle, which flogged Philadelphia, Arizona and Washington. We'll know more about the Seahawks soon. In their next three games they play Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Denver.

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