Rising and falling

The 49ers' 2004 schedule is filled with teams on the way up and teams on the way down.

OPPONENTS ON THE RISE

ATLANTA: New head coach, new offensive coordinator, Michael Vick at quarterback, and lots of young talent. Oh, and that new head coach and new offensive coordinator both coached for the 49ers last year.

NEW YORK JETS: Injuries ruined the Jets last year, but they figure to be a lot closer to their playoff form of 2001-2002 this time around.

SEATTLE: The fashionable pick to win the NFC West this season and go deep in the playoffs.

ARIZONA: They still might hover at the lower end of the league, but the Cardinals have added new coach Dennis Green and significant young talent and appear headed in the right direction.

WASHINGTON: With coach Joe Gibbs back in charge, and Clinton Portis and Mark Brunell in the backfield, the underachieving Redskins should be much improved over their 5-11 finish of last season.

OPPONENTS ON THE WAY DOWN

ST. LOUIS: The Rams took back the NFC West crown from the Niners last year, but they did little to improve themselves since then and have had a lousy offseason that could set them up for a fall in 2004.

NEW ORLEANS: The Saints still have some formidable offensive weapons, but they blew playoff opportunities each of the past two seasons and now appear on shaky ground as far as remaining at that caliber.

CHICAGO: The Bears rebounded from their blowout loss to the Niners in last year's season opener to finish with the same 7-9 record as San Francisco. But, despite the addition of new coach Lovie Smith, this still is a team lacking punch that is not far from disarray.

MIAMI: The Dolphins haven't had a losing season since 1988 and still feature some formidable talent, particularly on defense. But their quarterback situation is unsettled, and coach Dave Wannstedt rests squarely on the hot seat after Miami missed out on the playoffs each of the past two seasons despite going 19-13 over that span.


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