Could somebody tell this division that the '80s are over? Jerry Rice? Steve DeBerg? Dick Vermeil? Mike Ditka? The San Francisco 49ers dominated that decade and will do more of the same in 1998, winning its 11th division title in the last 13 years. But thanks to the Carolina Panthers (which had nothing to do with the '80s) it won't be as easy as it used to be.
San Francisco defensive lineman Dana Stubblefield took his 15 sacks in 1997 to Washington via free agency and the offensive line is far removed from 49ers' teams of old. Speaking of old: Steve Young, 36, doesn't have to rely on Terrell, J.J. and the rest of the Good Times cast as receivers anymore, because all-everything wide receiver Jerry Rice, 35, will be his number one target again.
The Carolina Panthers will trot out an impressive defense, starring free agent Sean Gilbert who hopes to prove that he's worth Carolina's 1st round pick in 1999 and 2000. Quarterback Kerry Collins can't help but improve on last year's league-worst 21 interceptions in 1998 with more experienced skill players around him.
Year two of the Dick Vermeil regime could get the St. Louis Rams to .500, but the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints look like they will be facing off against each other in the Ricky Williams Bowl on Dec. 13.