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THIS WEEK IN THE NFL

Performance Is No. 1 on Their Agenda

September 10, 2004|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

RATING THE GAMES

**** -- Don't miss a down

*** -- Could be good

** -- Who let the dogs out?

* -- Stupor Bowl

They were first, but will they last?

Six quarterbacks drafted No. 1 overall will start in Week 1 of the NFL season: Buffalo's Drew Bledsoe, Indianapolis' Peyton Manning, Houston's David Carr, Cincinnati's Carson Palmer, Dallas' Vinny Testaverde and Atlanta's Michael Vick.

Bledsoe is determined to regain respectability after struggling through the 2003 season; Testaverde, 40, was thrust into the starting lineup after Quincy Carter was abruptly released, and Palmer, the Heisman Trophy winner from USC, wants to prove to the Bengals that they made the right decision in choosing him over Jon Kitna.

In all, there are eight new starting quarterbacks this season, and seven coaches -- at least three of whom should look familiar: Washington's Joe Gibbs, Arizona's Dennis Green and the New York Giants' Tom Coughlin. Each led his former team to at least the conference championship game.

But, as all those No. 1 picks will attest, it's all about the here and now.

*** Tennessee at Miami, Saturday, 10 a.m. -- This game would have been much better had Miami running back Ricky Williams stayed around and receiver David Boston stayed uninjured. Now, it's looking pretty lopsided, especially with the way Tennessee's Chris Brown has been running over, around and through opposing defenses. Remember, though, the Dolphins traditionally are tough in September.

** Jacksonville at Buffalo, Sunday, 10 a.m. -- With Byron Leftwich, Jimmy Smith and Fred Taylor fueling the offense, the Jaguars are, in some circles, a chic Super Bowl pick. They'll get tested early; Buffalo has defeated the Jaguars three consecutive times. Biggest question about the Bills: Who's the better back, Travis Henry or Willis McGahee?

* Detroit at Chicago, Sunday, 10 a.m. -- Even though he has struggled, Detroit quarterback Joey Harrington has the best sack-per-attempt ratio in NFL history. If the Lions don't start winning, though, club President Matt Millen will be easy to sack. Lovie Smith makes his coaching debut for the Bears and might soon be questioning why he left St. Louis.

*** Baltimore at Cleveland, Sunday, 10 a.m. -- Finally, the owner of the Ravens can show his face in Cleveland. That's because the top man is now Steve Bisciotti, not Art Modell. Deion Sanders returns as a player, but Cleveland probably will be too focused on Jamal Lewis to notice. In two games against the Browns last season, Lewis rushed for a league-record 500 yards.

* San Diego at Houston, Sunday, 10 a.m. -- The Texans are 2-0 in openers and, if they defeat the Chargers, will be the first expansion team to begin its first three seasons with victories. Houston quarterback Carr came on strong last season, and running back Domanick Davis led all rookies with 1,031 yards rushing. The Chargers have running back LaDainian Tomlinson, a potential league most valuable player, but not much more.

*** Seattle at New Orleans, Sunday, 10 a.m. -- If the Seahawks want to take the next step, they need to prove they can win on the road, where they were 2-6 last season. From Sunday to Sunday, the Saints can be very good or very bad. Their most consistent player is Deuce McAllister, who last season strung together nine 100-yard rushing games.

* Cincinnati at New York Jets, Sunday, 10 a.m. -- Palmer makes his debut at quarterback after a strong exhibition season. He might have the best receiver in the league in Chad Johnson. Now the Bengal defense has to start stopping people. Is New York's Chad Pennington as good as he looked two years ago? He has never thrown an interception in the red zone.

** Oakland at Pittsburgh, Sunday, 10 a.m. -- In any other season, this might be the marquee game of the weekend. Now, both teams have fallen on hard times. Last December, when the Steelers posted a 27-7 victory over Oakland at Heinz Field, they didn't allow the Raiders a snap inside the Pittsburgh 20.

** Arizona at St. Louis, Sunday, 10 a.m. -- Green coached Minnesota to the playoffs eight times in 10 seasons. Can he do the same with the Cardinals? He's sure starting the hard way -- against a team whose starting quarterback, Marc Bulger, is 18-4. Ram rookie running back Steven Jackson looked so good this summer, it's only a matter of time before he's splitting time with Marshall Faulk.

*** Tampa Bay at Washington, Sunday, 10 a.m. -- Hall of Fame coach Gibbs makes his triumphant return. But can he revive a franchise run by meddlesome and impatient owner Dan Snyder, who treats it like his personal fantasy-league team? The Buccaneers are trying to win back the surprising number of fans they angered when they dumped safety John Lynch, which was a public-relations disaster.

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