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Thursday, 04 September 2008 18:08
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 From the moment Terrell Owens broke into tears after Dallas' playoff loss to the Giants last January, the Cowboys have been pointing toward 2008 as the season they WILL get back to the Super Bowl after a 12-season absence.
The quest starts this week in Cleveland against an up-and-coming team that most folks think isn't up-and-coming enough to deal with the Cowboys. On the other hand, if you listen to and read the jibber-jabber over the air and on the net, no NFL team is in Dallas' class.
So while even the always enthusiastic Jerry Jones avoids saying ``Super Bowl,'' he goes to pains during an interview on ESPN a while back to claim his team really outplayed eventual champion New York in the 21-17 loss that sent it home without a playoff win for the 12th straight season. Sorry, Jerry, but the score is all that counts.
And when talking about first-round draft choices Felix Jones and Michael Jenkins and the addition of Adam Jones, the former Pacman, the Cowboys owner says: ``All that speaks volumes to what I think we ought to be.''
After a 10-6 season in 2007, a six-game improvement, Cleveland had high hopes for 2008. But it had a poor preseason and this game is the start of a killer schedule.
The Browns also are hurting. QB Derek Anderson and WR Braylon Edwards, their two most important offensive players, returned Monday after being out with a concussion and foot cut, respectively. And return man Joshua Cribbs, the AFC's answer to Devin Hester, will likely miss the opener with a foot injury.
The Cowboys also have injuries. Owens and Patrick Crayton are the only healthy wide receivers. Isaiah Stanback, coming back from a shoulder injury, is likely to be No. 3 for this game.
But they still have the weapons that got them to 13-3 in the regular season: a solid defense, Tony Romo, Marion Barber, the aforementioned T.O. Not to mention the rehabilitated (we hope) Adam Jones and Tank Johnson.
The question is chemistry: Owens, ``Adam, no Pacman'' and Tank could be a volatile mix. And Wade Phillips doesn't have much job security despite last season after Jerry Jones kept Jason Garrett from taking another head coaching job by signing him to a deal that effectively makes him a ``coach in waiting.''.
It will be an interesting season in Dallas.
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The season opened Thursday night with the Giants playing host to Washington in the traditional opener hosted by the Super Bowl winner.
In other games Sunday, Detroit is at Atlanta; Cincinnati at Baltimore; Seattle at Buffalo; the New York Jets at Miami; Kansas City at New England; Tampa Bay at New Orleans; St. Louis at Philadelphia; Houston at Pittsburgh; Jacksonville at Tennessee; Carolina at San Diego; Arizona at San Francisco; and Chicago at Indianapolis
Minnesota is at Green Bay and Denver at Oakland in a Monday night doubleheader.
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New York Jets (4-12) at Miami (1-15)
You wouldn't think a game between teams that were a combined 5-27 in 2007 would be an opening weekend highlight, but this is.
That's because Brett Favre, traded from the Packers to the Jets after his unretirement soap opera, is one quarterback. Chad Pennington, displaced by Favre in New York, will start for Miami. Adding to the intrigue is Bill Parcells pulling the strings in Miami, with Tony Sparano his hand-picked coach.
``I'm used to playing against former teammates. I've never played against a former team,'' says Pennington, who spent his first eight NFL seasons with the Jets.

Chicago (7-9) at Indianapolis (13-3) (Sunday night)
Peyton Manning missed all of camp after having an infected bursa sac removed from behind his left knee. He's expected to make his 161st straight start - every game since he entered the NFL in 1998.
Dwight Freeney, Bob Sanders and Marvin Harrison, other injured Colts stars, also are expected to play in the opening of the team's new stadium. But All-Pro center Jeff Saturday who is out at least six weeks.
The Bears, who lost to the Colts in the 2007 Super Bowl, seem to be in decline. Kyle Orton beat out Rex Grossman at quarterback as Jerry Angelo and Lovie Smith declined to seek new blood. Rookie Matt Forte will carry the load at running back and hope an aging defense is healthy enough to keep Chicago competitive.

Minnesota (8-8) at Green Bay (13-3) (Monday night)
Aaron Rodgers becomes the first Green Bay starting quarterback since 1992 not named Favre. Seventh-round pick Matt Flynn beat out second-rounder Brian Brohm for the No. 2 spot, giving the Packers three QBs who have never started an NFL game, two of them rookies.
The Vikings seem to have everything but a QB. But if Tarvaris Jackson, now in his third year, makes normal progress, Minnesota could be the favorite in the NFC North.

Denver (7-9) at Oakland (4-12) (Monday night)
The Broncos have just one playoff win since John Elway retired a decade ago and are 16-16 the last two seasons. A lot depends on Jay Cutler, who was diagnosed with diabetes last year and hopes that knowing his problem and how to treat it will allow him to come into his own. He will be without his top receiver, Brandon Marshall, suspended for this game.
Since losing the Super Bowl in 2003, the Raiders are a league-worst 19-61 and second-year coach Lane Kiffin barely talks to 79-year-old owner Al Davis, who still calls most of the shots. JaMarcus Russell will be at QB and rookie Darren McFadden will play a lot at RB, giving the Raiders two high-profile youngsters.

Kansas City (4-12) at New England (16-0)
The Patriots are working on a 19-game regular-season winning streak, although it means a lot less because they don't have a title to go with it. Tom Brady says he'll play after sitting out the preseason with a mysterious foot injury - all New England injuries, of course, are mysterious by definition.
The Chiefs appear to have had a nice draft haul and two first-round picks will start: Branden Albert at offensive left tackle and Glenn Dorsey at defensive tackle. But Foxborough is not a good place for a rebuilding team to start.

Tampa Bay (9-7) at New Orleans (7-9)
The Saints get to stay at home after Hurricane Gustav caused minimal damage to the Superdome.
This could be a key NFC South game. New Orleans, bolstered by some defensive additions and tight end Jeremy Shockey, is looking to revert back to 2006, when it made it to the NFC title game. The Bucs, defending division champions, got only one start in preseason from QB Jeff Garcia although Jon Gruden had his usual overstock of quarterbacks waiting in the wings.

Seattle (10-6) at Buffalo (7-9)
Mike Holmgren starts his final year as Seattle's coach with a tough task: a 10 a.m. PDT start against a team that was competitive last season and has playoff hopes. Both quarterbacks go into this game after limited preseason work, Buffalo's Trent Edwards with a bruised thigh and Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck with back problems that limited him to two series in the preseason.
``I mean, ideally, yeah, you'd like to play a little bit more. But the situation is what it is,'' Hasselbeck says. ``I've gone into seasons when I wasn't 100 percent healthy. And if I had to take one or the other, I would take healthy and not as many reps.''

Cincinnati (7-9) at Baltimore (5-11)
The Ravens will start Joe Flacco, their first-round draft choice, at quarterback. But it's by default: Troy Smith came down with infected tonsils and veteran Kyle Boller is on IR with a shoulder injury. ``This is what I wanted all along,'' Flacco said. ``Things happen funny. I've gotten my opportunity, and now it's up to me to go out there and play.''
The Bengals may end up with the same dysfunctional locker room they've had in the past. They re-signed troubled wideout Chris Henry, who will be suspended for four games, and cut veteran leaders Rudi Johnson and Willie Anderson. Chad Johnson is now ``Chad Javon Ocho Cinco,'' an official name change.

Jacksonville (11-5) at Tennessee (10-6)
Two of last season's three AFC South playoff teams.
The Jaguars have legitimate hopes this season of breaking Indianapolis' five-year run of division titles. But they may be without one of their key additions, WR Jerry Porter, who tore a hamstring in preseason and just returned to practice. Backup OT Richard Collier was shot early Tuesday morning outside a Jacksonville apartment building, one of a string of unfortunate off-field happenings for the Jaguars.
Vince Young continues to struggle at quarterback under Mike Heimerdinger, who replaced Norm Chow as Titans offensive coordinator. Young has a bruised hand going into the opener.

Carolina (7-9) at San Diego (11-5)
The Chargers got to the AFC title game last season and have a chance to go farther, one reason pass rusher Shawne Merriman is playing with two torn ligaments in his left knee. Philip Rivers' knee has been repaired after he played hurt in the AFC title game loss to New England.
Carolina QB Jake Delhomme seems fit, but the Panthers will be playing without Steve Smith, their best receiver. He was suspended for two games by coach John Fox after sucker-punching teammate Ken Lucas during a drill in training camp.

Houston (8-8) at Pittsburgh (10-6)
The Texans, born in 2002, finally made it to .500 last season, but still were last in the AFC South, which had three playoff teams. They have a young and solid base with QB Matt Schaub on offense and DE Mario Williams proving he was the right pick over Vince Young and Reggie Bush with the No. 1 pick in the 2006 draft.
The Steelers could get back to basics after drafting RB Rashard Mendenhall to give them inside running. But the key is how a revamped offensive line protects Ben Roethlisberger and blocks for Willie Parker and Mendenhall.

St. Louis (3-13) at Philadelphia (8-8)
Like Houston, the Eagles were a .500 team in a division with three playoff teams. They shored up their secondary with Asante Samuel, relegating Lito Sheppard, a former Pro Bowler, to nickel back. But they are without their best wide receiver, Kevin Curtis, who has a sports hernia.
The Rams suffered last year from offensive line injuries. Steven Jackson, their star running back, finally reported after a holdout and got a new deal, but it looks like another long season.

Arizona (8-8) at San Francisco (5-11)
Last year, the Cardinals had only their third non-losing season since moving to Arizona and have designs on the NFC West. But there's discord. Anquan Boldin wants the kind of money fellow wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald got, the result of a series of mistakes by a mistake-prone front office.
Senior citizen Kurt Warner starts at QB over Matt Leinart, the Cardinals' No. 1 pick in 2006. Journeyman J.T. O'Sullivan starts for the 49ers ahead of Alex Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in 2005. O'Sullivan has played in five games without a start since being drafted by the Saints in 2002, but Mike Martz, the new offensive coordinator, loves him.

Detroit (7-9) at Atlanta (4-12)
Atlanta is putting the Michael Vick/Bobby Petrino disaster of last season behind it with Mike Smith as the coach and Matt Ryan, the third pick in the draft, at QB. The symbol of the new era is an old one: Atlanta re-signed Grady Jackson, the DT cut last year by Petrino in a move to show recalcitrant veterans that he was the boss.
The Lions started 6-2 last year, then lost seven of their last eight. Second-year WR Calvin Johnson looks like he'll be a star, but a young QB is desperately needed to eventually succeed Jon Kitna.
 

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