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Carolina never finer

Oct 1, 2002 8:59 AM

   Carolina and St. Louis have been the major surprises, good and bad, through three weeks of the NFL season.

   The Panthers were unbeaten both SU/ATS, while the defending NFC champion Rams began 0-3 in both departments. Carolina was a dog twice. The Rams were favored in all three games.

   There have been other more subtle surprises. The Green Bay defense was outstanding last season, helping the Pack to the division title. But after three games, Green Bay’s defense looked like a Division 1-AA team, allowing 33.3 points per game. The weak ”˜D’ was the biggest contributor to an 0-3 ATS start.

   It has not been a surprise to see the Buffalo Bills passing offense improve dramatically from a year ago. The Bills added QB Drew Bledsoe and rookie WR Josh Reed to star pass catchers Eric Moulds and Peerless Price.

   Buffalo went 3-0 OVER the total the first three games. But it’s been more difficult to explain the demise of the Rams offense. St. Louis averaged 31 points per game last season, but was at 17 ppg after its 0-3 start.

   These surprises make following football enjoyable and challenging, because as September turns to October it’s important to separate the “phonies” from the “contenders.”

   Are the Rams destined for a losing season? This happened to the Giants last year. New York was the defending NFC champion, but went 7-9 SU and 6-9-1 ATS.

   Are the Panthers headed for a run like the 1999 Rams or the 2001 Patriots?  Probably not.

   Like a bad racehorse, there are always pro and college football teams that get off to fast starts. They proceed to fold like a cheap tent, as was the case with San Diego and Cincinnati last year.

   The Chargers had a new coach in 2001, a new QB in Doug Flutie and a positive new attitude. It looked good at the start as the Chargers went 3-0 SU/ATS.

   The contenders turned to pretenders in a hurry, however, as San Diego went on a 2-11 SU run in losing its last nine games. The Chargers went 1-10-2 ATS to end the 2001 season.

   The Bengals started last season 2-0 both SU and ATS with impressive wins over the defending Super Bowl titlist Ravens (21-10) and the eventual world champion Patriots (23-17). Cincinnati went 4-10 SU to end the season, including a 4-8 ATS run.

   New England had a terrible start last year, going 1-3 both SU and ATS. Few people the first week of October would have predicted the Patriots to go on a 13-2 SU run (12-2-1 ATS) and win the Super Bowl.

   Last season the Philadelphia Eagles were the best team in the NFL to bet with a 13-5-1 ATS record. The Eagles were talented enough to go to the NFC championship game against the Rams.

   But the Eagles were 2-2 SU to start the year, despite playing three of their first four games at home. Even worse, Philly lost 21-20 at home to Arizona as a 14-point dog.

   Over the long haul, talent lifted the Eagles where they should have been. The same way inferior talent lowered the Chargers and Bengals. The shift often begins to take shape during the first two weeks of October.

   It will be interesting to watch the fast-starting teams such as Carolina, Denver, New Orleans, Miami, and teams off to poor starts (St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Seattle and Detroit.)

   Things don’t always end up the way they start out and it’s important for handicappers to understand the reasons behind a team’s start.

   The Rams and Lions started 0-3, but will they end the season with similar records? That is less likely. Notice that the Rams played a very tough schedule (at Denver, Giants, at Tampa Bay).

   Two of those games were on natural grass. The Rams “Greatest Show on Turf” the last few years has not been the same on natural grass (6-11 ATS).

   That’s certainly been a contributing factor, along with the fact that coach Mike Martz chose not to play many of his starters in a winless preseason.

   There is an enormous gap between the player/coaching talent-level of the Rams and Lions. Barring key injuries, these teams are more likely to go in different directions the rest of the season.

   There’s an old saying in basketball regarding the importance of a good sixth man off the bench: “It ain’t the five that start, it’s the five that finish.”

   The first racehorse out of the gate doesn’t mean anything if it’s nowhere near the finish line.

            So don’t get fooled by the early-season phonies who may have the appearance of being playoff contenders. Look for spots where talented or well-coached teams may start to put it all togethe