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MNF Sep - 10th

MNF Sep - 10th

NFL Preview - Baltimore (0-0) at Cincinnati (0-0)

(Sports Network) - There will be no regular season grace period preceding one of 2007's most important battles for AFC North supremacy, as the division favorite Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals meet in a Week 1 clash at Paul Brown Stadium on Monday night.

The contest, the first of two Monday night tilts on the Week 1 NFL docket, pits the division's two most recent champions against one another.

The Ravens stormed through the North at 13-3 a season ago, with that performance marking a seven-game improvement over 2005's 6-10 campaign. Brian Billick's club would lose to eventual Super Bowl Champion Indianapolis in the Divisional Playoff round, a defeat that has given Baltimore a collective sense of purpose heading into 2007.

The Bengals, meanwhile, will be trying to improve upon last year's disappointing 8-8 ledger. One season after going 11-5 and winning the North for the first time ever, Marvin Lewis' squad experienced a topsy-turvy campaign that ended with a three-game losing streak to end the year and leave Cincinnati out of the playoff bracket.

The Bengals have finished 8-8 in three of their four seasons under Lewis, and are still seeking the organization's first playoff win since 1990.

SERIES HISTORY

Baltimore leads the all-time series with Cincinnati, 13-9, including a home- and-home split last season. The Ravens earned a 26-20 win when the teams met at M&T Bank Stadium in Week 9, and were 13-7 losers at Paul Brown Stadium in Week 13. Cincinnati has won four of the last five matchups with Baltimore overall, including the last two in the Queen City. Baltimore last won in Cincinnati in 2004.

Billick is 10-6 against the Bengals as a head coach. Cincinnati's Lewis is 5-3 against both Billick and the Ravens, the team for which he served as defensive coordinator from 1996 through 2001.

WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL

The most notable change to the Baltimore offense as 2007 begins comes in the backfield, where former Bills two-time 1,000-yard rusher Willis McGahee (90 rushing yards, 6 TD with the Bills) takes over for the departed Jamal Lewis. McGahee, the No. 23 overall pick in the 2003 Draft was obtained in a trade with Buffalo on March 9th and is expected to boost a running game that ranked just 25th in the league a year ago. Joining McGahee in the backfield will once again be Steve McNair (3050 passing yards, 16 TD, 12 INT), who was solid in 2006 and is expected to take a positive step forward in year two running Baltimore's offense. McNair's main triumvirate of targets - wideouts Derrick Mason (68 receptions, 2 TD) and Mark Clayton (67 receptions, 5 TD) along with tight end Todd Heap (73 receptions, 6 TD) - all return. Up front, the right side of tackle Adam Terry and guard Chris Chester begin their first full season as starters.

McNair will be looking to attack a Cincinnati defense that was tied for last in the league against the pass last season and ranked just 30th overall. There have been significant changes within the linebacking corps, where second-year- man Ahmad Brooks (31 tackles, 1 sack) begins his first season in the middle and Rashad Jeanty (59 tackles) has earned a starting role on the strong side. Up front, second-year man Domata Peko (43 tackles, 2 sacks) takes over at one of the tackle slots, and will try to bolster a front four that features Robert Geathers (42 tackles, 10 sacks) and Justin Smith (81 tackles, 8 sacks) as the club's best pass rushers. The secondary has not changed much from last season, though second-year corner Johnathan Joseph (57 tackles) is in line for a full- time starting role and 2007 first-round Draft choice Leon Hall (Michigan) is expected to assist in a reserve capacity. The Cincinnati defense came within 61 seconds of posting a shutout against the Ravens in last year's 13-7 Bengals victory.

WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL

The strength of the Bengals remains the passing game, which features elite talents in quarterback Carson Palmer (4035 passing yards, 28 TD, 13 INT) and wideouts Chad Johnson (87 receptions, 7 TD) and T.J. Houshmandzadeh (90 receptions, 9 TD). Palmer bounced back from a serious knee injury to eclipse the 4,000-yard passing plateau last season, and was one of four players in the league (Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Jon Kitna) to reach that level. Johnson was named to his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl last season, and Houshmandzadeh went over 1,000 yards for the first time in his career. Former No. 3 receiver Chris Henry will miss the first eight games of the season while serving an NFL suspension. The running game will once again be headed up Rudi Johnson (1309 rushing yards, 12 TD), who has gone over the 1,300-yard mark in three straight campaigns. The Bengal offensive line was banged up throughout the preseason, though left tackle Willie Anderson (foot) and right tackle Levi Jones (knee) are both expected to be in uniform on Monday.

Palmer and company will be facing a Baltimore defense that has a slightly different look to the one it saw last season, as Pro Bowl outside linebacker Adalius Thomas has taken his skills to New England. Fourth-year man Jarret Johnson (22 tackles, 2 sacks) is the new starter on the strong side, and will combine with middle man Ray Lewis (103 tackles, 5 sacks, 2 INT) and weak side backer Bart Scott (103 tackles, 10 sacks, 2 INT) to make up a solid group of linebackers. The pass rush is once again led by ends Terrell Suggs (64 tackles, 10 sacks) and Trevor Pryce (47 tackles, 13 sacks), who were productive throughout last season. The secondary remains among the most feared groups in football, with cornerbacks Chris McAlister (47 tackles, 6 INT) and Samari Rolle (52 tackles, 3 INT) in charge of the receivers and safeties Ed Reed (59 tackles, 5 INT) and Dawan Landry (69 tackles, 5 INT, 3 sacks) lending help over the top. As a team, the Ravens ranked first in the league in total defense and takeaways (48) last season.

FANTASY FOCUS

Fantasy managers who chose Palmer, Chad Johnson, and Houshmandzadeh early in their drafts can't be too pleased to see Baltimore on the Week 1 schedule, since the Bengals offense is unlikely to run at an optimal level against Ray Lewis and company. If you have viable backup alternatives to any of the above, you might want to consider inserting them before lineups are due on Sunday. The Baltimore defense is always a good start because of its ability to force turnovers, but offensive principles McNair, McGahee, Mason, and Clayton are a riskier play. Better bets for Baltimore are Heap, who always contributes a few catches, and kicker Matt Stover, who is automatic from 45 yards and in.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

Most of the Bengals' problems in 2006 concerned a hit-or-miss defense, which was capable of an occasional stifling performance but more often than not was anemic in all phases. Cincinnati sought to address those struggles in the offseason, but did it do enough? Figures like Brooks, Jeanty, Peko, and Hall should help in the long run, but those youngsters aren't likely to do much to frighten McNair, who has a year under his belt in the Baltimore offense and has a better running back setting up behind him in McGahee. The Ravens' defense, meanwhile, is still the Ravens' defense, even without the omnipresent Thomas. Even in a hostile environment, look for Baltimore to keep Cincinnati at arm's length throughout and emerge from the Queen City with a victory.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 24, Bengals 16

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Re: MNF Sep - 10th

NFL Preview - Arizona (0-0) at San Francisco (0-0)

(Sports Network) - On a night in which they will pay tribute to a legendary franchise figure, the San Francisco 49ers kick off a season they hope will bring a return to past glory with Monday's matchup against the division-rival Arizona Cardinals from Monster Park.

With six losing seasons over the last eight years, including four in a row, San Francisco has hardly resembled the perennial power that was built by the late Bill Walsh some two decades ago. However, the progress shown during last year's 7-9 campaign and an offseason influx of a number of prominent veterans has many observers believing the 49ers are ready for a rise back to prominence in head coach Mike Nolan's third season.

San Francisco hit the free agent market hard over the winter, with the biggest catch being coveted cornerback Nate Clements. The former Buffalo Bill is one of five new starters on a revamped defense that's expected to be significantly better than the unit that allowed the most points in the NFL in 2006.

The 49ers also paid attention to the other side of the ball, acquiring top- flight wide receiver Darrell Jackson in a draft-day trade with fellow NFC West member Seattle. The eighth-year pro gives improving quarterback Alex Smith a needed target in the passing game and should also lessen the team's reliance on powerful running back Frank Gore.

Arizona appears to have a reason for optimism as well as its begins its latest rebuilding project under new head coach Ken Whisenhunt, the former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator who now faces the daunting task of reversing the fortunes of a franchise that has made one playoff appearance in the last 24 years. The Cardinals believe they've finally found the quarterback capable of taking them to the next level in second-year triggerman Matt Leinart, who will team with the awesome receiving duo of Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin and running back Edgerrin James to form potentially one of the most dangerous offenses in the league.

But in order to snap a frustrating string of eight consecutive losing seasons, Arizona will need to prove it's significantly upgraded a defense that ranked 29th overall in both yards and points allowed a year ago.

Walsh, who passed away after a lengthy bout with leukemia on July 30, will be enshrined in the 49ers' Ring of Honor during a halftime ceremony. The organization will further recognize the Hall of Fame coach by wearing throwback jerseys from Walsh's period and naming him an honorary team captain for the game.

SERIES HISTORY

San Francisco has a 17-14 lead in its all-time series with the Cardinals, but has dropped four in a row to Arizona. The Cardinals swept the Niners last season, dealing them a 34-27 setback at University of Phoenix Stadium in Week 1 and taking a 26-20 decision by the Bay in Week 16. Prior to 2005, the 49ers had prevailed in eight of the previous nine head-to-head meetings. The Niners won by identical 31-28 marks, both in overtime, in a 2004 home-and-home.

Nolan is 0-4 against the Cardinals as a head coach. Whisenhunt will be meeting both Nolan and San Francisco for the first time as a head man.

WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL

Whisenhunt wants to employ a power-running game that was the trademark of the offenses he directed in Pittsburgh, which should be music to the ears of James (1159 rushing yards, 38 receptions, 6 TD). The ex-Colt's production dipped during his first season in Arizona last year, but that dropoff could be partially attributed to a subpar offensive line that's been modified with three new starters. One of those will be right tackle Levi Brown, the club's first-round choice in last April's draft. The Cardinals ranked 30th of 32 NFL teams in rushing yards in 2006, but expect that number to improve dramatically under Whisenhunt's care.

An upgraded ground attack would also ease the burden on Leinart (2547 passing yards, 11 TD, 12 INT), who was understandably inconsistent after taking over the offense in Week 5 but certainly has a bright future. The confident young quarterback has probably the NFC's best wide receiver tandem at his disposal in the powerfully-built Boldin (83 receptions, 4 TD), who has topped 1,000 yards in three of his four seasons, and the graceful Fitzgerald (69 receptions, 6 TD). The Cardinals also possess a very good third option in former first-round pick Bryant Johnson (40 receptions, 4 TD).

Defending the pass was a major problem for San Francisco last year, as the Niners allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete nearly 64 percent of their throws and surrendered 25 touchdowns through the air. The secondary may have gone from a weakness to a strength, however, with the additions of Clements (70 tackles, 3 INT) and strong safety Michael Lewis (57 tackles, 2 INT), a former Pro Bowl honoree in Philadelphia who fell out of favor because of some coverage lapses last season. Cornerback Walt Harris (60 tackles, 8 INT) earned a trip to Honolulu with a strong 2006 campaign.

San Francisco added another potential playmaker on defense with the selection of promising rookie Patrick Willis, who will man one of the inside linebacker spots, in the first round of the draft. Other newcomers expected to provide immediate help are massive nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin (17 tackles with Baltimore), whose presence the 49ers hope will better last year's No. 19 overall ranking versus the run, and ex-Patriot outside linebacker Tully Banta- Cain (43 tackles, 5 1/2 sacks), an accomplished pass rusher.

WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL

No player played a bigger role in the 49ers' three-game improvement of 2006 than Gore, who led the NFC with 1,695 rushing yards and also displayed good receiving skills with a team-best 61 catches. The 24-year-old did miss the entire preseason after he broke his right hand in late July, an injury that should be of some concern because Gore has a history of fumbling. A stout offensive line led by 11-time Pro Bowler Larry Allen will again pave the way for a ground game that ranked sixth in the league last year.

Smith (2890 passing yards, 16 TD, 16 INT) also stepped up his play last season after looking lost for most of his rookie year, but the 2005 No. 1 overall pick will have to show further progress for the Niners to be a serious postseason threat. The receiving corps should get a big boost from Jackson (63 receptions), a proven performer in the red zone who's coming off a 10- touchdown season in Seattle, and if gifted tight end Vernon Davis (20 receptions, 3 TD) can improve on an injury-plagued first year. The unit also got a needed dose of speed with the offseason signing of veteran Ashley Lelie (28 receptions, 1 TD) from Atlanta.

Arizona will go with more of a 3-4 look on defense this year in hopes of creating a more effective unit against the pass, with Bertrand Berry (23 tackles, 6 sacks) - the Cardinals' best pass rusher - rotating between defensive end and outside linebacker, depending on the formation. The team had hoped to do the same with Chike Okeafor (52 tackles, 8.5 sacks), but the one- time 49er tore his biceps during preseason and had to be placed on injured reserve. Arizona ended last year a respectable 16th overall in rushing yards allowed (118.6 ypg) but yielded over 230 yards per game through the air, the third-worst mark in the league.

Changes were made to the Cardinals' suspect secondary in the offseason, as the club signed Rod Hood (21 tackles, 1 sack) with the plan that the ex-Eagle will solidify one of the corner spots and brought in Terrence Holt (76 tackles, 3 INT for Detroit) to take over at free safety. Arizona has no worries at strong safety, where hard-hitting Adrian Wilson (82 tackles, 5 sacks, 4 INT) is a terrific playmaker and a real force defending the run.

FANTASY FOCUS

Gore's broken hand is not going to keep him from starting Monday's contest, and it shouldn't prevent his owners from starting him in Week 1 either. Although the young bruiser failed to top 100 yards in either of last season's meetings with Arizona, he scored a combined four touchdowns. Jackson is also a solid play against a vulnerable Cardinals' secondary, while Monday's matchup should be a good indication as to whether Davis is indeed primed for a breakout year.

As for the Cardinals, James figures to be a decent option as a second running back or flex player in Week 1, although there's a possibility of him losing goal-line carries to backup Marcel Shipp. Fitzgerald has scored 24 touchdowns over his first three NFL seasons, and that track record of red-zone success makes him a more attractive choice than his counterpart Boldin. Kicker Neil Rackers had four field goals in Arizona's Week 16 win over the Niners last December.

Owners of Leinart and Smith may want to take a wait-and-see approach, since neither quarterback has done enough yet to warrant more than backup fantasy status.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

San Francisco has been a trendy choice as this year's surprise team, and the 49ers will do nothing to dissuade their backers in the opener. An Arizona defense going through a transition phase could have its hands full with a San Francisco attack that contains an up-and-coming quarterback in Smith and some pretty good weapons in Gore, Jackson and Davis. Add in the Niners' improvements on defense and the motivation of avenging last year's two losses to the Cardinals, and there's a good chance the home crowd will be going home happy on what should be an emotional evening.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 31, Cardinals 20

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Re: MNF Sep - 10th

Baltimore at Cincinnati (7:00 PM ET - ESPN)

The opening game of the Monday Night divisional showdown doubleheader pits Baltimore and Cincinnati from the Queen City. The Ravens grabbed the
Bengals' AFC North title away in 2006, and the hosts want it back.


Monday's game will have a big impact on how that race unfolds since the
Ravens' schedule sets up favorably for a big first half run. In which case,
this one probably means more to Cincinnati. Oddsmakers gauge these teams about even, since the opening line had the Bengals as the standard 3-point home favorite. Important to note here is that the favorite in this series is on an 11-3 SU & ATS run, and the straight up winner has converted in 20 of 22 against the number. Other key trends indicate that Cincinnati is 6-0 ATS L2 years in September, and Baltimore has gone under the total in 18 of 24 conference games.

Baltimore opens as the defending AFC North Champions, but the window of
opportunity is closing like the warmth of an earlier sunset in the northern
region of the country. Ever since winning the Super Bowl in 2001, the Ravens have been working towards getting back to the big game under the leadership of head coach Brian Billick. Steve McNair was brought aboard to solve this issue and a 13-3 record was thought to prove Baltimore was ready to make upward move. Instead, a terrible effort against Indianapolis left many wondering can a team with nine starters 30 years or older mount one last charge, before reconstruction is necessary.

Cincinnati has had one winning season in the last four in what seems to be a squad now perpetually ready to move up to elite status. Carson Palmer is
back with two strong knees and has worked diligently to be 100 per cent
while throwing to gifted wide receivers. Chad Johnson is a constant homerun threat and T.J. Houshmanzadah is smoother than a horse with a furlong lead running down the backstretch, with his precise routes and excellent hands.

The defense is an odd collection of players that are old up front and too
young in the back seven to be counted on week after week at this juncture.

StatFox Prediction - Cincinnati by 6

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Re: MNF Sep - 10th

Arizona at San Francisco (10:15 PM ET - ESPN)

Guarded optimism surrounds both the Arizona and San Francisco franchises as the 2007 NFL season commences. With an important Monday night divisional game opening up the schedule, the winner will have much more reason to be pumped up about its chances going forward.

Hope is no strange feeling in the desert, as seemingly every fall the team
is expected to improve. However, this year could be different with QB Matt
Leinart at the controls and new head coach Ken Whisenhunt bringing a more run-oriented, defense first philosophy. In the Bay Area, the expectations are driven by the addition of several key veterans to a youthful team that won seven games a year ago. Comparing key numbers from '06, Arizona was outscored by about 4 PPG and outgained by about 35 YPG, while San Francisco was -7.9 PPG and -42 YPG. Perhaps the optimism is misguided in the latter, meaning the wrong team might be favored here? Still, note that the favorite (SF -3) is on a 6-1 SU & ATS in H2H games played at Monster Park.

The two constants for the Cardinals since they've moved to the desert are losing and changes. Whisenhunt was brought in to coach Arizona with the hopes that he can be the man to corral outstanding talent at the skill positions and build a defense that is at least functional in a division that has teams that can score points. Second year QB Leinart has a good pair of wide outs to throw to in Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. This is the best trio of younger players in the NFC.

Two years ago Niners Mike Nolan inherited arguably the weakest talent pool
of any team in the NFL. Now heading into his third season, Nolan is quoted
as saying, "It will be a disappointment to me if we don't make the playoffs." Running back Frank Gore is the main man as part of a power running game, which has an unheralded yet effective offensive line. Alex Smith is developing into a good quarterback who benefits from the running game. The defense is adding bodies on a regular basis and will try to improve in second season of 3-4 attack-style defense.

Key Trend - Arizona is 18-81 ATS when they lose outright.

The home team is 9-5 ATS over the years and the favorite is 5-2 against the
spread recently. The Cardinals are 2-0 SU and ATS at San Francisco after
failing to win three previous times. A rare national broadcast for these
clubs only heightens excitement with each divisional contest critical.

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