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YEP, AN NFC TEAM WILL DON THE NFL CROWN AGAIN

Some things change in the NFL, like new teams in Carolina and Jacksonville, old teams in St. Louis and Oakland, no teams in Los Angeles, and Joe Montana in the broadcast booth.

Some things don't, like the balance of power. San Francisco and Dallas are at the top and 28 others are seeking desperately to approach their standard.And there's the expectation that the NFC again will prevail in the Super Bowl, which it has won the past 11 seasons. Unless, of course, key Cowboys or 49ers get hurt - a likelihood in a season in which the two top draft picks, Ki-Jana Carter and Tony Boselli, already have ripped up their knees.

So the 1995 season begins, in some ways a throwback to 1976, when Tampa Bay and Seattle were the last expansion teams. There were franchises then in St. Louis and Oakland, too.

"You can say there's change, or you can say we've simply put teams back in cities that lost them," says commissioner Paul Tagliabue, putting a happy face on what his predecessor, Pete Rozelle, once predicted would be "franchise free agency."

This year the league adds teams in Florida and North Carolina for a Sun Belt tilt.

But more importantly, for the first time in 50 years, it is without a team in Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest media market. The Rams defected to St. Louis and the Raiders went back to Oakland.

Tagliabue promises one or two teams in Los Angeles by 1998 at the latest. Franchises in Cincinnati, Cleveland and Seattle point at the gaping hole in Southern California and demand that their current cities build them new stadiums in order to stay put. Yet another team, the Houston Oilers, is flirting with Nashville.

It's all part of what's become a money game - everyone wants more luxury boxes, even a rich team like the Giants, who are installing more big bucks suites. Others are going the way of St. Louis, Carolina and the Raiders by selling Permanent Seat Licenses, which make fans pay just for the right to buy seats.

No apologies are being made - the NFL has always been a league with millions of fans who have never been to a game.

"The average fan rarely sees a game in person," says Tagliabue when he's asked if the new policies are pricing out everyone but the corporate types. "It's been that way for 40 years."

Meanwhile, because of expansion and franchise movement, the 1995 season begins with a league heavily tilted to the East.

The NFC "West" consists of two teams near the Atlantic Ocean (Carolina and Atlanta); two on the Mississippi (St. Louis, a mile west of the river and New Orleans, a mile east of the river); and one on the Pacific Ocean (San Francisco).

That imbalance will be addressed in the off-season in hopes of getting a more geographically correct NFL.

What can't be addressed without changing the way the game is played is the dismaying number of injuries even before the season has started.

Start with rookies.

Carter, the Penn State running back whom Cincinnati took with the first pick in the draft, is gone for the season with a knee injury.

Boselli, the left tackle who was supposed to be Jacksonville's building block, missed all of training camp and will probably miss a quarter of the season with a torn kneecap.

The injury plague hit almost everyone - from champions like San Francisco, which lost fullback William Floyd for the first part of the season with a broken foot, to Tampa Bay, which lost wide receiver Alvin Harper, whom it signed from Dallas in hopes of averting its 13th consecutive season of double-digit losses.

It demonstrates how a team's fortunes often depend on a tendon or tiny bone in an era where the salary cap, $36.8 million this season, makes depth an impossibility. Even on the 49ers and Cowboys, the dropoff from starter to substitute is a chasm.

"We cannot afford very many dumb moves or stupid mistakes," says Carmen Policy, the president of the 49ers.

"The tolerance level is measured in centimeters," he said. "Because if we don't do at least a good job of drafting every year and if we don't make the right decisions in terms of contracts then we could wind up in a lot of trouble under the cap."

That's become obvious in the tug-of-war over Deion Sanders.

The 49ers want Sanders back, but Jones, the Cowboys' owner, insists he'll sign him. Miami and Denver are also in the chase.

In fact, the Dolphins have made themselves an AFC favorite by trying to do what the 49ers did last season - grab up hole-pluggers like Sanders. In their case, they're doing it as a last chance for Dan Marino and Don Shula to win a Super Bowl.

So they've signed Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders from the old Washington "Posse"; Eric Green, Pittsburgh's troubled tight end; and most recently Steve Emtman, the one-time No. 1 overall draft pick whose knee problems led to his release by Indianapolis.

Miami should win the AFC East, with New England still building; Buffalo falling and Indianapolis moving up - but not enough. Forget the Jets.

Pittsburgh and Cleveland, however, are real challengers, particularly since they have passes to the playoffs in an AFC Central that also includes pathetic Houston, star-crossed Cincinnati and expansion Jacksonville.

The West has Oakland and Denver at the top, defending AFC champion San Diego challenging, Kansas City fading as Montana joins NBC behind the microphone, and Seattle beset by what seems like one misfortune after another.

In the NFC, Dallas should win the East, challenged by the Giants if they can get healthy, or Arizona, if Buddy Ryan can find an offense. Philadelphia is retooling and Washington continues to rebuild.

The Central put four teams in the playoffs last year, Minnesota at 10-6, and Detroit, Green Bay and Chicago at 9-7. Look for more of the same with Tampa Bay again bringing up the rear.

In the West, it's all San Francisco. New Orleans and Atlanta could make playoff runs. Moving the Rams to St. Louis doesn't make them good, and Carolina's an expansion team.

And after the dust clears: San Francisco and Pittsburgh will probably end up in the Super Bowl, where the Steelers should have been last year.

Make it San Francisco 12, Pittsburgh 6. That's for 12 straight NFC wins and six Super Bowls for the 49ers.