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NFL ready to rumble

Sep 7, 2004 4:07 AM

They’re Baaaaaaaaaack!

The NFL begins for real this week with New England hosting Indianapolis in a rematch of last season’s AFC Championship game. Thursday night’s kickoff is the beginning of a five-month odyssey that culminates next February with Super Bowl XXXIX.

Forget much of what you might have seen in preseason. Most coaches view exhibition games as glorified scrimmages.

It’s time for our annual predictions of Division winners, Wild Cards and Super Bowl winner. In the AFC we forecast New England, Baltimore, Indianapolis and Oakland as Division winners with the New York Jets and Denver to earn Wild Cards. In the AFC Title game we see Indianapolis defeating Oakland and advancing to the Super Bowl.

In the NFC the call is for Philadelphia, Green Bay, New Orleans and Seattle to win Division titles with Washington and Tampa Bay getting Wild Card berths. We believe Green Bay will deal the Eagles a fourth straight NFC Title game defeat and for the Packers to meet the Colts in Super Bowl XXXIX.

With those bold predictions out of the way, here’s a preview of the opening week action.

Indianapolis (+3½) at New England (44½): The Patriots won a physical game against the Colts in last season’s AFC Title game. That, plus more friendly weather conditions give the Colts a chance to get their revenge at a favorable price. INDIANAPOLIS is the play.

Tennessee (-3) at Miami (38): Both teams have solid defenses and this game shapes up as a game played between the 20’s with the offenses asked simply to not lose games and for the defenses to force favorable field position. UNDER the total is the preference.

Oakland (+4) at Pittsburgh (41): Oakland is in good shape after having made several major upgrades on defense and beginning the season healthy on offense. New coach Norv Turner should have the Raiders using a wide-open offense. Pittsburgh should fun the ball and the offense will be more balanced. OVER the total is the play.

Tampa Bay (+2½) at Washington (38): Tampa Bay begins the season further along in development. The Bucs also begin the season with the better defense. Washington has the better running game with new RB Clinton Portis but the ”˜Skins are still learning the Joe Gibbs system. TAMPA BAY is the preferred play.

Baltimore (-3) at Cleveland (37): Baltimore’s running game feasted on the Browns last season and RB Jamal Lewis could have another record setting game. QB Jeff Garcia makes his debut for the Browns and will face the pressure of Ray Lewis and the Ravens defense. UNDER the total is the preference.

Jacksonville (+3) at Buffalo (35): Jacksonville QB Byron Leftwich did not look sharp in the preseason but that should change. Both teams are solid on defense but the Jags have the much more mature running game with RB Fred Taylor. JACKSONVILLE is the play.

Cincinnati (+4) at New York Jets (41 ½): Cincinnati seeks to continue their improvement under coach Marvin Lewis. The switch from Jon Kitna to Carson Palmer may be questioned. The Jets are a playoff contender with a healthy Chad Pennington. Early edge goes to the Jets. NEW YORK JETS is the preferred play.

Detroit (+3) at Chicago (38½): Detroit is a fashionable pick to be this season’s Carolina. They have the nucleus of a potent offense and a defense that appears improved. Chicago has a weak offense that will put pressure on their already suspect defense. DETROIT is the preference.

Arizona (+10½) at St Louis (46): Arizona is led by a lightly experienced QB. St Louis is expected to contend with Marc Bulger as the starting QB. There is depth at RB and WR. Their aggressive defense plays well on the carpet and should force multiple turnovers. ST. LOUIS is the play.

Seattle (-1½) at New Orleans (45): Some have anointed Seattle as the team to beat in the NFC. New Orleans has plenty of talent but has not lived up to potential in recent seasons. Both offenses have top five running backs are gifted wide receivers. OVER the total is the preferred play.

San Diego (+½) at Houston (44): San Diego has perhaps the league’s best RB, but not much else. There are questions on defense. Houston is poised to show more improvement under coach Dom Capers and QB David Carr continues to develop. UNDER the total is the preference.

New York Giants (+8½) at Philadelphia (41½): The Giants are more talented than they showed last season. But Philadelphia is also improved with the addition of WR Terrell Owens. There are questions about the Eagle defense but they are likely to harass Giants’ starting QB Kurt Warner. PHILADELPHIA is the play.

Dallas (plus 4½) at Minnesota (44): Dallas is breaking in a new QB and RB combo and it might take time for chemistry to develop The Dallas defense will be above average. Dallas coach Bill Parcells is unlikely to allow the Culpepper-Moss to beat him. UNDER the total is the play.

Atlanta (minus 3 ½) at San Francisco (44 ½): This intriguing matchup features a team with little defense: Atlanta: against a team with little offense: San Francisco. ATLANTA is the preference.

Kansas City (+3) at Denver (48½): Considered the top two teams in the AFC West the Chiefs and Broncos have played five straight OVERs. The Chiefs should also have success moving the ball with versatile RB Priest Holmes and talented receivers. OVER the total is the play.

Green Bay (+3) at Carolina (43): Green Bay returns a veteran team. Carolina was an amazing 7-0 in games decided by three points or less during their 11-5 regular season. Here, Packer QB Brett Favre will find away to elude the Panther pressure and make the big play. GREEN BAY is the preferred play.