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SMITH OR SANDERS: WHO'S NO. 3 RUNNING BACK?

This is a good week to argue over the best all-time running backs in the NFL because Emmitt Smith probably will pass Barry Sanders on the career rushing list.

Smith needs 68 yards against San Diego to move into second place behind Walter Payton.

Smith belongs ahead of Sanders on the all-time list.

Their statistics are comparable.

Smith has 15,206 rushing yards, a 4.3-yards-per-carry average, 88.4 yards per game, 70 100-yard games, one 200-yard game, eight Pro Bowls and four rushing titles.

Sanders had 15,269 rushing yards, a 5.0 yards-per-carry average, 99.7 yards per game, 76 100-yard games, four 200-yard games, 10 Pro Bowls and four rushing titles.

But as great as Sanders was, it says here Smith has been more valuable because he gets tougher yards and has fewer negative plays. There never was anyone quite like Sanders at creating breakaway runs and faking tacklers out of their jockstraps. Sanders also, however, got stopped for a little more than 1,000 yards in losses in his career. Tackles for losses accounted for about 14 percent of his carries. Smith is better in short yardage and on the key downs that win games.

It says here the list of all-time backs goes: Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Smith, Sanders, O.J. Simpson, Marcus Allen. Flip a coin between Thurman Thomas and Tony Dorsett as Nos. 7 and 8. (Thurman stands fifth all-time in combined rushing-and-receiving yards among running backs behind Payton, Sanders, Smith and Allen.)

Here are some opinions gathered this past week from NFL personalities on the subject of Smith vs. Sanders:

Tampa Bay's Warren Sapp: "Emmitt is the greatest runner the world has ever known. He'll prove that after his career is over and he's got the record. Barry did some great things but for a consistent, downhill, comin' at you -- it's Emmitt all day long."

Retired coach Jimmy Johnson: "If I'm a fan and I want to watch a player, I'd like to watch Barry. But if I'm a coach and want to win championships, I'd take Emmitt."

The Jets' Curtis Martin: "Barry was the ultimate back. His ability to change directions and make big plays was beyond Emmitt or anyone else. He's the best by far. He's a running back's running back. He had all the moves the rest of us only dream about."

Retired Green Bay great Reggie White: "There's no guy I ever feared physically. But there was one guy since I've been playing that I was afraid of because he could beat us at any moment. That was Barry."

In shadow of disaster

During practice last week, many of the Giants players were unable to look east toward the area where the World Trade Center towers stood. There is a foul smell at the scene, and depending on which the way the wind blows, you can get a whiff at Giants Stadium.

"It really blows your mind," tackle Lomas Brown said. "I had to wash my eyes out with water four times during practice. It's scary just thinking about it. Any time I hear a plane now, I'm always looking up. This is going to change things forever. You almost feel violated."

Former skycap upset

Packers linebacker K.D. Williams couldn't help feeling empathy for the airport skycaps who were eliminated last week because of stricter government regulations on air travel. Williams worked for two years as a skycap at Tampa International Airport.

"It's sad," Williams said. "Those guys got to eat. Now they've got to find out what they're going to do with themselves. They should give some of them security jobs."

Fish fly out of gate

Picking the Dolphins to win in September is as close to a sure thing as fans will get in the NFL. Since 1991, Miami has an NFL-best 27-9 (.750) record. Kansas City is second at 29-13 (.690). Miami has won 18 of 19 home games in September dating to 1990. Their only loss was in 1993. They have a 14-game September winning streak at home dating to 1994. They own a 28-6-1 record in home openers, including a seven-game winning streak and 10 of 11, dating to 1994. The Bills are 25-12 in September since '91.

AFC Central edge

If the NFL cuts out two wild cards in each conference, the big beneficiaries in the AFC will be Baltimore and Tennessee. Because the AFC Central is such a weak division, the Ravens and Titans are almost guaranteed of seven or eight wins in the Central. That gives them a huge leg up on the wild-card spot. So the AFC East and West teams probably would have to win the division to make the playoffs.

Of the 44 teams that were seeded fifth and sixth in the playoffs over the last 11 years, 32 lost their opening game by an average of 12.4 points. Just two of the final two seeds (Indianapolis in '95, Jacksonville in '96) reached a conference championship game, and none of the last two seeds made the Super Bowl. When the Bills made the Super Bowl as a wild card in '92, they were the fourth seed. Denver ('97), Tennessee ('99) and Baltimore ('00) also made the Super Bowl as No.4 seeds.

Good opener for JB

Nearly every offseason move that General Manager John Butler made played a role in the Char gers' 30-3 win over Washington in the teams' opener. Tim Dwight, acquired by trade, returned a punt 84 yards. Cornerbacks Ryan McNeil and Alex Molden each had first-half interceptions; last year's cornerbacks had four total for the season. Kicker Wade Ri chey, who struggled in preseason, hit from 21, 48 and 32 yards. Rookie LaDainian Tomlinson rushed for 113 yards.

Thurman on the Hall

Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed are eligible for Hall of Fame induction in 2006, along with four other strong candidates -- Troy Aikman, Reggie White, Deion Sanders and Warren Moon. Thomas acknowledged to the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel that he might not be a first-ballot selection.

"When all those guys had retired, they had won a Super Bowl," said Thomas, referring to Aikman, White and Sanders. "I haven't. That makes it pretty tough to get in. But I've always thought that it doesn't matter whether I make it on the first time. Just as long as I make it and can say my speech and they say, 'Thurman Thomas made it as a Buffalo Bill.'"

Onside kicks

Seattle owner Paul Allen was among those showing their generosity last week in the form of ticket giveaways. Ticket sales for the Seahawks' home opener against Philadelphia today were brutal. They still had 17,000 unsold. Allen gave them all to the Seattle area's firefighters, law-enforcement officers, emergency workers and military personnel.

Rivalry Department: If you're an NFL scout, you are allowed to sit in the press box for a game if your team is playing one of the teams on the field any time during the next two weeks. It's pretty common practice in the league, from what I gather, that if the team you're scouting for isn't on the schedule in the upcoming two weeks, you're not going to be allowed a seat in the box. So it was no great surprise that San Diego Assistant General Manager A.J. Smith, the former Bills personnel executive, was denied a request for a press box seat to scout the Bills' opener against New Orleans.

Florida State had a league-high 40 players on NFL rosters on opening weekend after leading all colleges with 38 last year. Notre Dame was second this year with 36 players, followed by Michigan with 34 and Miami (Fla.) with 33. Florida and Texas A&M tied for fifth with 32.

There are 290 players weighing at least 300 pounds on active rosters. There were 83 300-pounders in 1991, according to the NFL Record & Fact Book.

Niners QB Jeff Garcia plays better on the road than at home. In 12 road starts, he is 272 of 445 for 3,700 yards, 27 TDs, 11 interceptions and a rating of 101.5. . . . The Titans, who play at Jacksonville, have the NFL's best road record since 1996. They are 24-16 (.600). The Broncos and Vikings are tied for second at 23-17 (.575).

The Cowboys are inducting Bob Hayes into their Ring of Honor today. Hayes is one of only six players who averaged 20 yards a catch for their career.
e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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