[NFL] Pancakes In the Age of Enlightenment- Maybe Death Will Stop Your Yammering

LEADING OFF

So what’s your most treasured Jerry Rice Seahawk memory??

Well, this is it. Today is the day so many of us have been waiting for, the day when our souls take leave of our bodies for 5 months, and we slavishly worship at the altar of Paul Tagliabue from now until Valentine’s Day. I speak of course, of the opening of the NFL season. Both I, and my cadre of NFL Wags have been poring over the data and thoroughly analyzed each matchup, just because we are so gay for you, the reader. Without further fanfare, we begin with a preview of tonight’s season opening game.

OAKLAND RAIDERS at NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Thursday Night, 9 PM Eastern ABC, Patriots 7 ½ point favorites

WEEK 1 GAMEPLAN
The soft underbelly of the New England defense is their secondary. Enter the Raiders. They will try to unleash their vertical passing game, having strong armed QB Kerry Collins attack the New England DB’s, with Randy Moss and Jerry Porter being his very dangerous targets. I’m going to draw a parallel here between the Raiders, and a team that has a similar offensive style, the Cincinnati Bengals. In Week 14 last season, the Bengals rolled up 478 yards of total offense in Foxboro against these same Patriots, losing a tight 35-28 game. It is not hype to think that the Patriots defense is vulnerable against an offense like Oakland’s.

Patriot corners Asante Samuel and Tyrone Poole cannot cover Moss or Porter one on one. That means that you will see a lot of zone coverage, with safety Rodney Harrison offering help to Samuel and Poole. This will leave an area between the linebackers and the secondary open for business, and will create a lot of opportunities for guys like Ronald Curry and Alvis Whitted to make some catches.

The Patriots will try to mask their coverages by dropping linebackers into this area, but that means that those linebackers drafted into pass coverage duty will be unavailable for run support. The Patriots D line of Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, and Ty Warren are going to be asked to do a lot of the dirty work in stopping the run. Those three are a good group to rely on, but they are going to be working overtime to hold RB Lamont Jordan in check, since the rest of the defense will have to focus so heavily on stopping the passing game.

The trick for the Raiders will be to get that offense on the field, and their inability to do so is why they will lose this game. The Raiders front 4 is old and creaky, and it is almost a certainty that Corey Dillon is going to batter DT’s Warren Sapp and Ted Washington all night long. If the Raiders key up against the run, Tom Brady will eviscerate them. The Raiders were 30th in the league against the pass last year. The Raiders will be able to outgun a few teams this year, but the Patriots are not one of those teams.

The Winner- New England 33-24

THE WAGS SAY
“Everybody is licking themselves to the Raiders this year, but 6-10, you heard it here first. This is how Moss’s Sunday mornings will go for this season. Hmm hmm…this is him okay…hmm hmm…”Wasn’t I supposed to do something today around noon (the sound of bubbles)…ahhh it was probably nothing.”

Dillon Will Run Wild Against the Raiders

LONG TERM FORECAST
If the Patriots win their third consecutive Super Bowl title, it will be the greatest achievement by a pro sports franchise that I’ve seen in my lifetime. The NFL takes great pains to ensure something like that does not happen, so for the Patriots to break through and do it, would be next to impossible. New England will have another strong season, but there’s a long list of teams that on paper are more solid than they are. I have to go with the odds and say they won’t win a third consecutive Lombardi Trophy. Their schedule is absolute murder this year too. It will be difficult for them to go 10-6, but they will find a way to do it.

Oakland has ½ of a very good team. They also have ½ of a very bad team. The offense is going to be great, but the defense is absolutely dismal. I think they will be able to get a win against each of their division foes this year, but will also get a loss against each of them. They look like the quintessential 8-8 team.

DENVER BRONCOS at MIAMI DOLPHINS
1 PM Eastern, CBS, Broncos 4 ½ point favorites

WEEK 1 GAMEPLAN
Denver’s bread and butter is their running game, which is predicated upon its quick offensive linemen executing an intricate zone blocking scheme. You might see the Broncos try and lean a little more heavily on the passing game to beat Miami.

The reason for this is twofold. First, the strength of the Dolphins defense is their defensive line. Jason Taylor, Vonnie Holliday, Keith Traylor, and Kevin Carter are skillful run stoppers, and Taylor and Carter in particular have the speed needed to contain the Broncos’ running game. The Miami secondary is weak though, and hence it will be the most likely point of attack for Denver. CB Sam Madison is not the shutdown corner he once was, and leaves a big cushion to avoid getting burnt. Rookie Travis Daniels starts on the opposite corner. Miami will no doubt be focusing on stopping the run, as anyone who plays Denver should be. They will have a problem once Denver takes to the air, and their only hope of stopping the passing game will be to put pressure on Jake Plummer and force him to make inaccurate throws, which he has a predisposition towards doing anyway. The Broncos offense will find themselves a little frustrated in this game.

The Dolphins can forget about throwing the ball deep. With Champ Bailey at one corner, Lenny Walls at the other, and John Lynch manning the safety position, many good QBs, let alone Gus Frerotte, will have trouble penetrating the Broncos pass defense. The Miami running game is also suspect with Ronnie Brown, who missed most of training camp, sharing carries with career backup Sammy Morris. This means that the Dolphins will have to use a quick passing game and move the ball with high percentage passes to TE Randy McMichael and possession receiver Marty Booker.

If Gus Frerotte is your QB, you have to be able to run the ball to win the game. Maybe later in the season Ronnie Brown will be the back that can do that for Miami, and maybe Ricky Williams will be able to help too. Right now though, the Dolphins running game is sorely lacking, and it will cost them a game that they might have been able to win if it were later in the season.

The Winner- Denver 17-13

THE WAGS SAY
“It was nice to see Wannstedt against Notre Dame, running his hands through his hair last week just like the old days. I miss that guy. “

LONG TERM FORECAST
Denver just treads water every year. This year is no different. They’re not significantly better or worse than they’ve been in recent years. They’ve got a tough schedule outside their own division though, with visits to Jacksonville, the Giants, Dallas, and Buffalo. They’ll be lucky to split those games. They also have New England, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and the Jets coming into Mile High. With that schedule, I think you are looking at an 8-8 year for Denver at best.

I think Miami is headed in the right direction. They are building the team around defense and a strong running game, and if you do it right that is a great philosophy. They won’t put it together this year, and they’ve got a long way to go before they can think about challenging for the playoffs again. Nothing sets a franchise back more than having Dave Wannstedt be in control of it for a prolonged period of time. Still, they will be a much better team than their 4-12 record this season will indicate.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS AT CAROLINA PANTHERS
1 PM Eastern, FOX, Panthers 7 point favorites

WEEK 1 GAMEPLAN
The Saints offense can give a lot of teams problems with its balanced attack. Unfortunately for the Saints, the Panthers are not one of those teams. Carolina’s front four of Mike Rucker, Kris Jenkins, Brentson Buckner, and Julius Peppers is arguably the best in the league. The Saints are going to have to be creative in order to find a way to get Deuce McAllister the ball without having him run into that line.

Aaron Brooks is a mistake-prone quarterback, and he will be under pressure all day long. You can count on the Panthers pass rush leading to a a couple of Saints turnovers, something the Saints cannot afford in this game.

On the other side of the ball, things don’t look any more promising for the Saints. The Saints defense is very weak against the run, and not much better against the pass. Expect the Panthers to control the line of scrimmage, with Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster getting a lot of carries. This will open up the downfield passing game for Jake Delhomme, who should be able to play catch with Steve Smith, Keary Colbert, and Rod Gardner whenever he wants to in this game.

The Winner- Carolina 30-16

THE WAGS SAY
“The Panthers Defense will be all over Brooks like a hurricane on a housing project. Too early for those jokes?”

LONG TERM FORECAST

The Saints are in an unprecedented situation. Their home stadium and pretty much their entire home city has been destroyed, and football is justifiably very secondary in their minds right now. They have the offensive firepower to outgun a lot of teams, but the defense will be manhandled all year long, and its hard to win games that way. Plus, its impossible to predict how they will react to the situation they’ve been placed in. Let’s call it a 7-9 season for the Saints.

Carolina is a popular selection to return to the Super Bowl this year after being ravaged by injuries in 2004. Philadelphia and Atlanta will probably have something to say about that though. If the defense tightens up against the run this season, the Panthers are going to be very tough to beat. They have too many question marks in their own running game to say they are the class of the NFC though. I’ve got the Panthers at 11-5, one game behind Atlanta in the NFC South.

CHICAGO BEARS at WASHINGTON REDSKINS
1 PM Eastern, FOX, Redskins 6 point favorites

WEEK 1 GAMEPLAN
One has to wonder how the Redskins can be favored by six points in this game, when just scoring six points is a significant challenge for them. Combine that with a bad Bear offense led by a rookie 4th round draft choice at quarterback, and you’ve got the makings of an ugly, ugly game.

Defending the run is the strong suit of the Redskins. This means that unless rookie Bears QB Kyle Orton can move the ball effectively through the air, the Bears have no chance. They will have to show early that the passing game has to be respected. If they can’t do that, it’s going to be a very long afternoon. Unless the Bears show they can make the Redskins pay for it, they will blitz Orton relentlessly, and will force mistakes that will sink the Bears hopes of a win.

The Bears best chance of success is to turn this game into a field position battle. To do that, they will have to shut down Clinton Portis and the Redskins running game. The Bears defensive line is stocked with pass rushers, but stopping the run may prove difficult. The Redskins large offensive line will try to bully the Bears’ quick defensive linemen. Unless the Bears can hold Portis to under 100 yards, they do not have a chance to win this game. In last year’s meeting, Portis ran for 171 yards on 36 carries against the Bears. So I’m gonna say that’s a negatory for the Bears on the stopping Portis.

The Winner- Washington 20-10

THE WAGS SAY
“This is the first win in a huge season for the Bears. They will practically have nothing to worry about this year. Everything has gone so smooth, you couldn’t have written a Hollywood script about a more aptly managed and planned for season.”

LONG TERM FORECAST
Most Bears fans are also Cubs fans, and because of this, baseless hope springs eternal. The Bears have a fast defense that can make big plays, but teams that can run the ball effectively will be able to handle them. The Bears ranked 25th in the NFL against the run last year, so my guess is there are a lot of teams that will be able to do that. I’ll generously peg the Bears at 6-10 this year.

While the Bears fancy themselves a team with a top shelf defense, the Redskins really are that team. They also have Clinton Portis at running back, who on his worst day is better than anyone the Bears have. The Redskins schedule, which includes visits to KC, Denver, and St. Louis won’t do them any favors though. They too, will limp home with a 6-10 mark.

A 4th round rookie opening the season at QB? Hey, good luck with that.

CINCINNATI BENGALS at CLEVELAND BROWNS
1 PM Eastern, CBS, Bengals 3 ½ point favorites

WEEK 1 GAMEPLAN
Against the Bengals, new head coach Romeo Crennel is going to unleash every wrinkle in the defensive bag of tricks he brings from New England. The Browns will try and pressure Carson Palmer so that he will not have time to hit WR’s Chad Johnson and TJ Houshmandzadeh downfield. The Bengals did a good job of protecting Palmer last season, ranking 7th best in the NFL in sacks allowed. If they can keep Palmer clean in this game, he should be have a lot of opportunities to make some big plays.

Crennel faces the tough task of having to hold the Bengals’ running game in check, with the team ranked last in the NFL in run defense in 2004 to work with. Putting more than 7 men in the box is a risk against the Bengals, and puts pressure on the secondary to handle single coverage against the Bengal receivers. The Browns’ secondary is not up to that challenge, so it will be up to the front seven to penetrate into the backfield to pressure Palmer, and stop the run. That probably is too much to ask of a unit that is adequate at best. The Bengals will probably try to run Rudi Johnson until the Browns have to bring help, then open up the passing game.

The Browns will try to stay in the game as long as possible with a conservative offensive game plan. They will run William Green and Reuben Droughns a lot, and incorporate high percentage underneath passes to the tight ends and to WR Dennis Northcutt. There is sure to be a lot of congestion in the areas the Browns are trying to attack though, and the Browns will almost certainly fall behind and be forced out of their conservative gameplan.

The Winner- Cincinnati 27, Cleveland 13


Will TJ Take It to the Houshmandzadeh?

THE WAGS SAY
“I’m down with the Brown.”

LONG TERM FORECAST
Under new head coach Romeo Crennel, the Browns looked like a team that is on the right track during the preseason. Will it carry over to the regular season? Well, the win/loss record probably won’t, but they will continue to be a better team than they were during last year’s debacle. Not much better though, they’ll go 4-12.

The Bengals have an absolutely brutal schedule this year, and it’s unfortunate because I think they are a good team. Of course, they play Pittsburgh and Baltimore twice as division foes. They also have road games at Jacksonville, Tennessee, and Kansas City, which will all be difficult. They get no relief at home either, with tough games against Minnesota, Green Bay, Indianapolis, and Buffalo looming. The Bengals are a good, but not good enough to win more than they lose against this schedule. I’ve got them at 7-9.

HOUSTON TEXANS at BUFFALO BILLS
1 PM Easter, CBS, Bills 5 point favorites

WEEK 1 GAMEPLAN
Look for Houston to try and spread the field to open up running room for RB Domanick Davis. The Texans have to be able to create space on the field, leaving them room to break a big play. If they try to go toe to toe with the Bills defense, which ranked 2nd overall in the NFL last year, they will lose. However, if they can connect on a couple of high risk, high reward plays, they may generate enough points to beat a team starting a virtual rookie at QB.

Speaking of opening up the offense, the Bills are looking to do the same thing. Last year, they had a hard time stretching out the field, which allowed teams to load up the box against the running game. This year, JP Losman’s arm strength and mobility gives them more of the field with which to work with. Much like the Bills themselves though, Houston has corners in Dunta Robinson and Philip Buchanon who it will be tough to stretch the field on. This means the Bills will have to be able to batter the Texans with Willis McGahee in order to win the game.

Both teams are going to try to stretch the defense, but the strength of both secondaries means this game is going to be won by the team that can best limit the mistakes it makes on offense. These are two very similar teams. The Bills though, are just a shade better in all facets of the game than the Texans are. The final trump card is the Bills linebacking corps of Takeo Spikes, London Fletcher, and James Posey. They will be able to shoot the gaps and keep Davis in check, while forcing Carr to make mistakes. This should be a very tight game, but I have to give the Bills the edge.

The Winner- Buffalo 20-17

THE WAGS SAY
“Sorry dudes, Bills suck more this year than last. Loserman sucks and their defense is worse than last year. Bills finish season with 2-125 record.”

LONG TERM FORECAST
Fans of the Texans have had enough of the labor pains, and now want to see the baby. Carolina and Jacksonville both found themselves in their respective conference championship games their second season in the league. Cleveland made the playoffs in its 4th season back from the grave. This is season 4 for Houston, and anything short of a postseason appearance will mean people like QB David Carr and coach Dom Capers will have to be held accountable. They haven’t given any indication that they are ready to break through to the next level, and after this year’s 7-9 campaign it may be back to square one.

Running Out of Time?

Buffalo has reason to be optimistic. Their defense is top notch, and they have a coach in Mike Mullarkey that can make their offense good. He made Tommy Maddox look like an All Pro QB when he was offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh, so it’s not outside of the realm of sanity to think he can do something close to that with JP Losman this year. They are teetering on the brink of either being 9-7 or 10-6 this year. It is Losman who will determine which of those records they achieve, and whether or not they make the playoffs.

NEW YORK JETS at KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
1 PM Eastern CBS, Chiefs 3 point favorites

WEEK 1 GAMEPLAN
The Chiefs ranked last in the NFL in pass defense last season, so any team playing them should make it part of their plan of attack to go after that weakness. Kansas City took great pains to upgrade the defense over the offseason, most notably adding LB Kendrell Bell and CB Patrick Surtain, but 2 players don’t make a bad defense good, at best they can turn a 32nd ranked pass defense to a 20th ranked pass defense or somewhere in that neighborhood. The Jets will keep the Chiefs off balance, mixing runs by Curtis Martin and Derrick Blaylock, with surgical strikes downfield to Lavaerneus Coles and Justin McCareins. The Jets should be able to control the clock with their running game, and keep the dangerous KC offense off the field.

As much as they’ve tried to upgrade the defense, the best defense in this game for the Chiefs will be a good offense. The Chiefs will try and limit the exposure of their defense by controlling the clock with Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson. That’s easier planned than done though, the Jets ranked 5th in the league in run defense last season. They may be catching the Jet defense at a good time though. DE John Abraham is coming off a lengthy holdout, and DT James Reed must prove he can be effective as a starter after being a rotation guy last year. The Chiefs will test that defensive line, and if it isn’t up to the challenge KC will roll up some big rushing totals. The Jets also do not have an answer for TE Tony Gonzalez, who will mainly be the responsibility of strong safety Oliver Celestin, who was a reserve last season.

The result of this game depends on who can run the ball more effectively and control the clock. The Jets need to keep the Chiefs offense off the field, and the Chiefs need to keep their own defense off the field. The game could come down to a field goal, and the Jets hold a distinct advantage there. Mike Nugent has shown he was worth the draft pick spent on him, while Chiefs kicker Lawrence Tynes barely escaped the ax after a shaky preseason.

This is a playoff game for the Chiefs. After last year’s losing season, if they come out on opening day, at home, and dump all over themselves, it will severely damage their season. They need this game more than the Jets do, and they’re at home. So I’ve gotta go with the Chiefs.

The Winner- Chiefs 33-27 in OT

Tynes Could Be the Difference, For Better or Worse

THE WAGS SAY
“Both these teams suck and neither will make the playoffs. In fact, f it, I take it all back. Everybody sucks and no team will make the playoffs this year. Every single team will go 4-12 and they’ll just decide that they all suck equally and therefore will all piss in a huge Gatorade cooler and dump it all over themselves. “

LONG TERM FORECAST
The Jets are a team that is solid year in and year out, and 2005 will be no different. They have an unfavorable schedule this year, with trips to Atlanta, Carolina, Baltimore, and Denver. All those teams are safe bets to be tough to beat at home. Throw in that they play in what may be the strongest division in the NFL top to bottom, and that adds up to a 9-7 season. Their meeting on New Years Day at the Meadowlands against the Bills will determine which of those teams will make the playoffs.

It’s pretty much consensus that the Chiefs will rebound after a disappointing 2004 and steamroll to a playoff berth in 2005. You can’t really be sure of that though. They will struggle defensively all season, but they will be in the mix for a wildcard with a 9-7 record.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS at JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS
1 PM Eastern, FOX, Jaguars -3 point favorites

WEEK 1 GAMEPLAN
You will probably know by halftime who is going to win this game. The Jaguars want to be able to stay in their gameplan, which means running the ball and controlling the clock. In order to do that, they will need to have a healthy and effective Fred Taylor. Fragile Fred has been handled with care all preseason, and most likely is in no condition to give the Jaguars the 25-30 carries they will need from him to win this game. If the Jaguars can’t run the ball the way they want to, they’ll be forced to rely on an unproven passing game. Success or failure this week for Jacksonville rides on the balky knees of Taylor.

Seattle meanwhile, knows it will get production out of its running back, Shawn Alexander. The Jaguars tackles, Marcus Stroud and John Henderson, will present a challenge for Alexander. But the Seahawks offensive line is one of the best in the game, particularly on the left side with LT Walter Jones and LG Steve Hutchinson. Alexander will not put up eye popping numbers in this game, but he’ll get his yards. The Packers run a similar offense to the one Seattle runs, (Mike Holmgren, duh), and Ahman Green had 94 yards on 17 carries when Green Bay met Jacksonville last year.

With a healthy Fred Taylor, I would say Jacksonville wins this game. He’s not healthy, at least not from what we’ve seen so far. Because of that, Byron Leftwich will have to win this game with his arm, and he’s just not good enough to do that at this point. Seattle is 6-0 in its last six September games, they are fast starters, and they’ll start this year with a win.

The Winner- Seahawks 23-13

THE WAGS SAY
“At my draft, I picked Leftwich as my backup QB and he had the same bye week as my starter Tom Brady. I’m crapsuh.”

LONG TERM FORECAST
Seattle is one of the most inconsistent teams in the league. The reason is a good offense eats their defense alive, and the team just seems to lack that certain something, let’s call it balls. They’ll go 8-8, then go in a different direction in 2006.

Jacksonville made a huge mistake by not closing the deal to bring Travis Henry in as insurance for Fred Taylor. The Jaguars entire system is predicated on having a strong running game. If they do have that, they are in the same ballpark as teams like the Ravens, and maybe even Atlanta. If they don’t have that, they are a team with no offense and a good defense, and the Bears and Redskins are as far as you need to look to see where that gets you. Their schedule isn’t helping them this year. Aside from Seattle, the Jags have the Colts twice, Denver, and Baltimore. They also have to go on the road to face the Jets, Rams, and Steelers. They failed to upgrade their offense in the offseason, and they will pay the price with a 6-10 season.

TAMPA BAY BUCS at MINNESOTA VIKINGS
1 Eastern FOX, Vikings 6 point favorites

WEEK 1 GAMEPLAN
Tampa is known for playing the Cover 2 defense, so much so that it’s called the “Tampa 2”. Minnesota went up against another team that runs the Cover 2 almost exclusively last season, the Indianapolis Colts. In this game, the Vikings were unable to throw the ball downfield, and had to take what the defense was giving them underneath. Daunte Culpepper was 16 of 19, but for only 169 yards. In order to open up the passing game, the Vikings are going to have to pull the safeties in to defend the run, and out of zone coverage. With the unimpressive Michael Bennett and Mewelde Moore at running back, and center Matt Birk out for the season, it’s far from a slam dunk that they’ll be able to do that. If they can’t it’s going to be a frustrating dink and dunk kind of day for Culpepper.

The Bucs will try and play ball control on offense, but that’s not going to be an easy proposition. These ain’t your big brother’s Vikings on defense. Pat Williams and Kevin Williams give Minnesota perhaps the best tackle combination in the league, and Tampa running back Cadillac Williams could get a rude welcome to the NFL. If the Bucs can’t get the running game going, that means more Daunte Culpepper, and that means a loss for Tampa.

The Vikings will win this game thanks to a big assist from, surprise, their defense.

The Winner- Minnesota 27, Tampa Bay 17

THE WAGS SAY
“One thing some people didnt know is that even though that one tall guy that was real good left, there is another dude; I can’t remember his name but I think it Antonio Davidson; that’s just as good if not better. So the NFC Central is going to have a hard time against the Vikings this year. Especially the Buccaneers, who people forget about.”

LONG TERM FORECAST
Now that Chucky has remade the Bucs in his own image, it’s hard to discern what exactly they are. They aren’t the old Tony Dungy smash in the noggin Bucs, that’s for sure. The defense is a shadow of what it was, even if it is still pretty good. The offense has been remade into a facsimile of what Gruden had in Oakland, and is actually pretty decent now. But the team doesn’t do anything particularly well anymore. They’re just kind of OK at everything. They’ll go 7-9.

In my opinion, no team did more to upgrade themselves this offseason, in the right areas, than the Vikings did. Their defense has been transformed from a weakness to a strength, on paper. The irony is that they may, for the first time in recent memory, run into trouble on offense. The running game looks suspect and it remains to be seen what the impact of a full season without Randy Moss will have on Culpepper. They could potentially take the golden sombrero on their road schedule outside of the NFC North. They travel to Cincinnati, Atlanta, Carolina, Baltimore, and to Jersey to take on the Giants. They could lose all 5 of those games. Knowing that, it’s imperative upon the Vikings to dominate against their own division, which is going to be weak this year. They’ve lost in Chicago 4 years in a row. They need to not do that this year. It’ll be the difference between 10-6 and 9-7. Either way, they will win the NFC North this year.

TENNESSEE TITANS at PITTSBURGH STEELERS
1 Eastern CBS, Steelers 7 point favorites

WEEK 1 GAMEPLAN
The Titans are going to attack the vulnerable spot of the Pittsburgh defense, the secondary. New offensive coordinator Norm Chow will follow his usual M.O. of stretching out the defense to set up the run. In order for this strategy to work, the Titans will have to keep QB Steve McNair well protected. The Steelers know that they will not be able to sit back and let the secondary try and cover the receivers. They are going to have to force the issue with blitzes. If they can pressure McNair, he won’t have time to get the ball downfield. One counter to this that the Titans will use is to attack the flats and look-in zones vacated by blitzing linebackers. Expect them to utilize Travis Henry and Chris Brown as receivers out of the backfield.

Whether the Steelers can carry over their 2004 success to week 1 of the 2005 season is going to depend entirely on their offensive line. Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis are both out for this contest, so that means Willie Parker and Verron Haynes will be entrusted with the ball when the Steelers run. Teams like the Broncos can run the ball effectively even if a shopping cart is carrying the ball. Are the Steelers one of those teams? They’ll have to be to win this game. The Titans are going to load up the box and dare Ben Roethlisberger to throw the ball. The Steelers are just going to have to go toe to toe with the Titans, and blow them off the line. This will force them to bring help in the form of safeties and blitzing linebackers, and open up opportunities for the play action pass.

The Steelers showed last year that they are very good at what they do, and that is run the football better than any other team. They are vulnerable in this game, because they are relying on 3rd and 4th string running backs. I think they will still do their thing well enough to win this game, but it’s not going to be easy.

The Winner- Steelers 24-21

THE WAGS SAY
“Bill Cowher’s pregame routine: sucking on numerous lemons.”

LONG TERM FORECAST
There isn’t anyone who thinks the Steelers can approach the 15-1 season they had last year. They caught lightning in a bottle in 2004, and their 15-1 season was more 98 Vikings than 85 Bears or 84 Niners. They will still be a very tough team this season, but they will have to dominate at home in order to return to the playoffs. The road schedule outside the AFC North is very unforgiving, with visits to San Diego, Green Bay, Indianapolis, and Minnesota on the docket. They will forge their way to a 9-7 season.

Tennessee is going to be an interesting team this year. They are going to have a very exciting offense, and Jeff Fisher has yet to coach a team with a bad defense. Whether they can be in the playoff hunt is going to depend on whether they can assert themselves over Jacksonville and Houston in the AFC North, and beat those teams in their meetings. Right now I can’t say that they will do any better than split against those teams though, so that would leave them at 7-9.

ARIZONA CARDINALS at NEW YORK GIANTS
4:15 PM Eastern FOX, Giants 2 ½ point favorites

WEEK 1 GAMEPLAN
Dennis Green has slowly built an offense like the one he had in Minnesota, featuring a fleet of good receivers and a QB who can get them the ball downfield. That won’t be easy to do against the Giants. CB’s Will Allen and Will Peterson are capable of shutting down their man without help, and Warner will be pressured all day by Michael Strahan and the Giants front seven. The weakness of the Giants defense is their inability to stop the run. Last season, they ranked 28th in run defense. The Cardinals running game is unproven though, and the Giants have significantly upgraded their linebacking corps, which should shore up an area that was weak last year.
Arizona ranked 27th in the NFL in run defense last year, and that means that the Giants can do what they love to do on offense, give the ball to Tiki Barber and let him do the rest. The Cardinals can make the bird on their helmet as angry and psychotic looking as they want, but if they can’t stop the run they are not going to beat the Giants. Couple that with the fact that the Cards were 1-7 on the road last year, and it is clear the Giants should win this game pretty easily.

The Winner- Giants 27-13


Tiki Should Torch the Cards

THE WAGS SAY
“If you get a chance, read Norman Chad’s article from Monday’s Sun Times. He picks the Cards as the Team of Destiny for the 2nd year in a row. That dude is funny. Pay the man, Shirley!”

GREEN BAY PACKERS at DETROIT LIONS
4:15 PM Eastern FOX, Lions 3 point favorites

WEEK 1 GAMEPLAN
Now I know the preseason doesn’t count for much, but last I saw the Lions on my televisiola, they were getting booed off their home field at halftime down like 30-0 to the Rams on Monday Night Football. You’d be hard pressed to find a team whose prospects for the upcoming season flatlined more than the Lions’.

Last year, the Packers came into Ford Field with a 1-4 record, and there was weeping and gnashing of the teeth. The Packers calmly throttled the Lions 38-10, and were on their way to another NFC North title. In this game, the Packers should be able to spread the field, and have Brett Favre pick apart the Lions defense. They can then mix in runs from Ahman Green, keeping the defense off balance. From there, the Lions are dead.

The Lions will try to control the tempo of the game by running the ball with Kevin Jones. It is imperative that they do this successfully, and stick to this game plan. Let’s face it, if a shoot out develops between Brett Favre and Joey Harrington, who is your money on? In the team’s last meeting, Jones rushed for 156 yards on 33 carries. Harrington was 5 of 22 for 47 yards in that same game though. The Lions just need too many question marks to turn into exclamation points to win this game.

The Winner- Packers 30-20

THE WAGS SAY
” I’m going out on a limb on this one. The team that is in the playoffs every year with the star quarterback is gonna beat the overrated young team who’s star receiver will break his collarbone in the first quarter and quarterback will throw 1 touchdown and 5 interceptions and still do not have an adequate defense but somehow has convinced the world that they are good just because they drafted the guy who sat out for an entire college season instead of getting more experience & winning a championship. I’m on the limb.”

LONG TERM FORECAST
The annual Packer Death Watch is on again. Every year there are prophecies of doom for this team, and every year they make the playoffs. You’d think they’d learn by now. Green Bay still has one of the best offenses in the game and that’s gotta count for something. They’ll go 9-7 and battle the Vikings for the NFC North title just like every year.

As for the Lions, yeah they have 4 exciting young position players, but last I checked you only play with one ball. The quarterback is the guy that touches that ball on every play, and the Lions quarterback is not good. There are also holes in the secondary that teams like Green Bay and Minnesota will exploit. If this isn’t a 7-9 team, I don’t know what is.

DALLAS COWBOYS at SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
3:15 PM Eastern FOX, Chargers 4 ½ point favorites

WEEK 1 GAMEPLAN
This is going to be a difficult game for the Chargers, because they will be without TE Antonio Gates, who is serving a suspension slapped on him by team for his prolonged holdout. The Cowboys have overhauled their defense this offseason, and their new 3-4 scheme looked fast and dangerous in the preseason. The absence of Gates could make things more difficult for LaDanian Tomlinson. The Cowboys safeties won’t have an All Pro tight end to worry about, and that will free them up to concentrate on LT. Brees is going to have to utilize his wideouts in order to relieve the pressure on Tomlinson, and that is something they did not have to do a lot last year.

The Cowboys have made it clear that they are going to lean heavily on RB Julius Jones this year. Being a running team is great, and Jones is a good one, but the Chargers had the 3rd best run defense in the league last year. Jones is going to have to make his way past Chargers DT Jamal Williams, one of the best at his position, and that’s a hard thing to do. That leaves it up to Drew Bledsoe to beat the Chargers through the air. How’s that been working out for the Bills the last few years?

Look for this game to be a bit of a taffy pull, defensive struggle, snoozefest, whatever you want to call it. Afternoon games from California always put me to sleep anyway. Seriously, watching those Raiders games from the LA Coliseum was with Don Criqui on play by play was like drinking a Soma milkshake.

The Winner- San Diego 20-10

THE WAGS SAY

“See, you want to hope for Drew Brees to be good, because that somehow could mean Kyle Orton is good. Who plays for the Bears. I’m sorry I have to explain so much to you guys.”

LONG TERM FORECAST
I like what Dallas has done with their defense, and I like how they’ve reinvented themselves as a running team. In order to make the playoffs though, they are going to have to run the table against the Giants and Redskins. If they split those games, which is the safe assumption, they’ll go 7-9.

San Diego is for real, and why wouldn’t they be. Marty Schottenheimer has had success everywhere he’s been, and would have in Washington too if Dan Snyder hadn’t pressed the panic button and brought in the old ballcoach to suck the old ballbag. The defense is solid, and LaDanian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates perfectly complement one another, creating a chess match for defensive coordinators where they don’t know where to put their safeties. I’ve got the Bolts at 11-5 and repeating as AFC West Champs.

ST. LOUIS RAMS at SAN FRANCISCO 49ers
3:15 PM Eastern FOX, Rams 5 point favorites

WEEK 1 GAMEPLAN
One reason why the Rams are so dangerous this season, is that they have 4 wideouts who can absolutely kill you. Everyone knows about Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, but how are the Niners going to find enough defensive backs to react when they spread the field and go 4 wide with Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald? The answer is, they can’t. The Rams will spread the field, creating room for all 4 of their receivers to make plays, and giving Stephen Jackson room to run. When the teams met at Monster Park last year, the Rams rolled up 174 yards on the ground. The Niners haven’t done much to upgrade the defense outside of hiring coach Mike Nolan, so expect more of the same on Sunday.

The Rams ranked 29th in the NFL in run defense last year, and the Niners want to keep the Rams’ offense off the field, so the 49ers will run the ball with Kevan Barlow and try to eat up minutes. But against a quick strike team like the Rams, the Niners will inevitably fall behind. They want to stick to running the ball, but chances are they will need to open up the passing game at some point. That’s when the Rams start running through the turnstiles posing as the San Francisco offensive line, and teeing off on Tim Rattay.

The Winner- Rams 30-17

THE WAGS SAY
“The Rams’ quarterback, Matt Burger, will systematically pick apart the swiss cheese offense of the Niners.”

LONG TERM FORECAST
IP Sports Radio will tell you everything I think about the Rams. I think they’ll surprise a lot of people this year en route to an 11-5 record and an NFC West title.

Geez, where do you start rebuilding the Niners? I can’t say I know. But I do know it’s not with using the first overall pick in the draft to take a waifish QB who threw 60 times a game against teams that don’t play any defense. Then in the same breath say you want to be a running team, when you had 3 of the next 4 guys taken who were running backs, and you’ve got nobody that rushed for over 1000 yards last year. As my old Italian grandpa would say, I no understand. They’ll be hard pressed to go 2-14.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS at BALTIMORE RAVENS
Sunday Night, 8:30 PM Eastern ESPN, Colts 3 point favorites

WEEK 1 GAMEPLAN

When these teams met in Indy last year, the Ravens won in every statistical category, but lost the game 20-10. The main reason for this? How about going 4 for 17 on 3rd down conversions, and 2 interceptions that were returned for a combined 103 yards. The quarterback, of course, is the player most responsible for these things.

I’ll let one of the Wags sum up the bane of the Ravens’ existence: “I’m Brian Billick. I’m an offensive guru. I’m a genius. I would have love with myself if it was possible. I will stick with the same crappy QB for the rest of my coaching career because I couldn’t have possibly made a mistake in drafting him. “

How can I put things any better than that? The Ravens will have to get a huge game out of RB Jamal Lewis, and probably Chester Taylor too, to stay in the game. Even that doesn’t guarantee anything though, as Lewis had 130 yards on 20 carries in last year’s meeting, and all it got the Ravens was a 10 point loss.

The Ravens have been working on a form of the old Bears 46 defense, which incorporates an 8 man front and a lot of blitzing. Something tells me Peyton Manning’s the wrong guy to do that against. If Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan is hell bent on using this against the Colts, the results won’t be pretty.

The Colts identity is their offense. The Ravens identity is their defense. The Colts are at the top of their game offensively. The Ravens defense is in a slow, steady decline. I’ll take the team that is at the height of its powers.

The Winner- Colts 20-13


“Hey I’m Kyle Boller. I schtupped Tara Reid. And I suck at football. Howya doin?”

LONG TERM FORECAST
Well, this is the year everyone expects the Colts to break through and win a Super Bowl. A lot of that is going to depend on whether they can get home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Their division is weak, and the schedule includes home games against Cleveland and Arizona, along with a trip to San Francisco, so I think they’ll go 13-3, and get their home field advantage. The Super Bowl? Too hard to say now without knowing who they will play in the playoffs, but it’s a possibility.

The Ravens are adrift in a sea of their own arrogance. Cincinnati has passed them talentwise, and they are probably only the 3rd best team in the AFC North now. At this point, they are really just a shade better than teams like the Bears and the Redskins, all relics of a philosophy that says you can win with half a team, which may have been true in 2000 but isn’t anymore. This puts them at 7-9.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES at ATLANTA FALCONS
Monday Night, 9 PM Eastern ABC, Eagles 1 ½ point favorites

WEEK 1 GAMEPLAN
The stars have seemingly been aligned against the Eagles for the last 8 months, and the schedule makers are in on the action too. The Eagles offense, which has had a tumultuous training camp to say the least, is going to have its work cut out for them against one of the NFL’s best defenses.

Watch for the Eagles to try and attack the perimeter of the field, directing plays away from star LB’s Keith Brooking and Ed Hartwell. You’re going to see Andy Reid try and get RB Brian Westbrook the ball in the open field, on outside runs and swing passes. This, the Eagles hope, will open up the downfield passing game for Terrell Owens. The Falcons are weak at corner, and will have to double team Owens to keep him in check. If the Eagles can control the tempo of the game by attacking the areas between the hashmarks and the sidelines, the Falcons will have to divert attention away from TO, and that’s gonna be a bad thing for them. In last year’s NFC Championship game, Westbrook had 135 all purpose yards, and the Eagles were able to use this to open up the deep ball for WR Greg Lewis. Expect a similar plan of attack on Monday.

The Eagles defense is one that could create a lot of problems for Falcons QB Michael Vick. No team brings a more complex array of fronts and blitzes, and Vick’s forte is his athleticism, not his ability to dissect defenses. The Eagles are going to do everything they can to confuse Vick. Unproven and/or bad wideouts Michael Jenkins and Dez White won’t be much of a help against the top flight Eagle secondary. Vick’s main recourse when unable to throw the ball is to tuck and run, but Eagle ends Javon Kearse and ND Kalu are as fast as defensive ends get, and Vick will have a hard time escaping to the outside.

Atlanta’s best chance to win the game is to run the ball effectively with Warrick Dunn and TJ Duckett. If that begins to happen though, the Eagles will load up the box, and then it will be up to Vick to beat the Eagles with his arm. Can Vick pick apart a secondary that includes elite safeties Brian Dawkins and Michael Lewis? Unless he’s improved greatly from his past performance, the answer is probably no. Vick was 11 of 24 for 136 yards and an interception in the NFC Championship game against Philly last year.

The Winner- Eagles 20-16

THE WAGS SAY
“My life expectancy is exactly as long as it is until the Falcons first Sunday night game. I will either kill myself or commit triple homicide after listening to Fat Paul Mcguire and those f’s on Sunday smooching Vick’s thingy. ”

LONG TERM FORECAST-
This isn’t a good matchup for the Falcons. But make no mistake, they’re a very good team. They run the ball effectively and play good defense, and Vick is a boogieman that frightens defensive coordinators into making bad gameplans. The Falcons are the class of their division, and I see them finishing the year 12-4 and winning the NFC South.

I was very impressed by the way the Eagles handled all the controversy swirling around them this offseason. Donovan McNabb is the best quarterback in the NFC, and Westbrook and TO complement each other perfectly, creating a gameplanning nightmare for the opposition. The defense loves to blitz, and the strong secondary makes those blitzes very effective because they can all handle man coverage. I’ve got the Eagles at 13-3, winning the NFC East in a walk.

PIMPS UP HOS DOWN

Patrick Nguyen rules!

Steve Price covering hockey? What’s next, a talking banana?

Matthew Michael has a well written piece on the New Orleans disaster.

Tierney posts his column at the same time I do every week, and drafted all the same fantasy players as I did. We are two hearts, living in just one mind.

That’s it for this week! Next week we’ll survey the damage from Week 1 and look ahead to week 2. See ya then.