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The Key Games in The NFL : Game of The Week

SPORTS WEEKEND

August 30, 1996

Dallas (12-4) at Chicago (9-7).

* KICKOFF: Monday, 6 p.m.

* STORY LINE: The Cowboys, the dominant team of the '90s with three Super Bowl victories in the last four years, begin the season in black-and-blue territory with a Texas-size number of questions. How much will Michael Irvin's five-game suspension hurt? Will Jay Novacek play this year? Can Deion Sanders stay injury-free playing both offense and defense? Has free agency finally caught up with the Cowboys? The Bears, 1-5 to date in Monday night games under former Cowboy assistant Dave Wannstedt, have the offense to stay with Dallas, but can a defense that ranked 27th against the pass last season avoid the emotion-deflating big play?

* COWBOY UPDATE: Running back Emmitt Smith and left tackle Mark Tuinei are coming off injuries. The defense has four new starters and the return of Kevin Smith at cornerback after a season-ending Achilles' tendon injury in last year's season opener. Eric Bjornson, a fourth-round pick a year ago, steps in for Novacek if his sore hamstring cooperates.

* BEAR UPDATE: Fumble-prone running back Rashaan Salaam will miss the game because of a hamstring injury. Raymont Harris and Robert Green will fill in.

* EDGE TO DALLAS: The Cowboys have the league's best opening-day winning percentage, and consecutive victories under Coach Barry Switzer--on the road.

* THE LINE: Dallas by 3.

KEY GAMES

New England (6-10) at Miami (9-7).

* KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m.

* STORY LINE: Bill Parcells begins probably his last campaign as Patriot coach and Jimmy Johnson makes his Dolphin debut. The Patriots need a strong effort from Curtis Martin to ease heat on quarterback Drew Bledsoe. Miami quarterback Dan Marino begins life without Don Shula and a quality No. 2 wide receiver.

* PATRIOT UPDATE: Wide receivers Vincent Brisby and Terry Glenn are hobbled, which should allow the Dolphins to stack the line and stop Martin.

* DOLPHIN UPDATE: Running back Karim Abdul-Jabbar and kicker Joe Nedney have been given opportunities for stardom, courtesy of Johnson.

* EDGE TO NEW ENGLAND: The Dolphins lost three quality defensive starters from a team that allowed 78 points in the final two games last year.

* THE LINE: 4 1/2

*

Detroit (10-6) at Minnesota (8-8).

* KICKOFF: Sunday, 10 a.m.

* STORY LINE: It's an important NFC Central collision, with the Lions trying to break tradition with a good start. Quarterback Warren Moon won't be hassled by off-field problems as he was a year ago, which gives the Vikings renewed playoff hopes.

* LION UPDATE: Injuries have destroyed the linebacking corps and a shaky defensive line provides run opportunities for the Vikings.

* VIKING UPDATE: Darryl Talley is questionable because of a sore hamstring and remains critical to Minnesota's success because of the season-ending knee injury to linebacker Ed McDaniel, the team's leading tackler.

* EDGE TO DETROIT: The Vikings had the 28th defense against the pass and the Lions had the NFL's top offense.

* THE LINE: Minnesota by 2.

*

New York Jets (3-13) at Denver (8-8)

* KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m.

* STORY LINE: These are teams feeling pretty good about themselves after disappointing performances a year ago. The Jets paid $24 million in signing bonuses and $70 million in contracts to buy an offense. The Broncos have John Elway, who was asked if he was excited about playing against rookie cornerback Ray Mickens. "I'll let you figure it out," Elway said.

* JET UPDATE: Both starting offensive tackles are injured. Harry Boatswain may have to start at left tackle for the second time in his career if Jumbo Elliott does not recover from a sore groin, and Melvin Hayes will make his first start for David Williams, who has a back injury.

* BRONCO UPDATE: Wide receiver Rod Smith remains sidelined because of a broken collarbone, but will challenge starter Ed McCaffrey upon his return.

* EDGE TO DENVER: The Jets averaged 14.6 points a game last season, whereas the Broncos led the AFC in offense.

* THE LINE: 7 1/2

*

Philadelphia (10-6) at Washington (6-10)

* KICKOFF: Sunday, 10 a.m.

* STORY LINE: Who finishes second to Dallas in the NFC East? The Eagles still think they have a shot at the title after going 7-1 against NFC East foes a year ago, one of those victories over Dallas. The Redskins, who swept the Cowboys a year ago, won three of their last four and have made huge strides on defense, thanks in part to the addition of tackle Sean Gilbert.

* EAGLE UPDATE: Quarterback Rodney Peete has been working as the starter despite a sore knee. Ty Detmer is Peete's backup.

* REDSKIN UPDATE: Wide receiver Michael Westbrook is expected to be replaced in the starting lineup by Leslie Shepherd because of a sore knee.

* EDGE TO PHILADELPHIA: Washington quarterback Gus Frerotte's 4-11 record with 18 touchdowns and 18 interceptions does nothing to establish him as a threat.

* THE LINE: Washington by 1 1/2

*

Seattle (8-8) at San Diego (9-7)

* KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m.

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