Don't believe the hype. These are not crucial games, not at this
stage of the year. But it could be a week in which some
off-season questions are answered.

Which of the Tampa Bay-Philadelphia matchups last season should
we believe? The 20-10 Eagles victory in October, when they
knocked Brad Johnson out of the game with a broken rib and wore
down the Bucs defense with Duce Staley's 152 yards on the ground?
Or the NFC title game, in which Tampa Bay's defense overran the
Eagles' offense and got to Donovan McNabb, in his second game
back from a broken ankle?

Both games were in Philly. All the Bucs-Eagles games are in
Philly--O.K., the last three plus this opener on Monday night. I
think that the game will be decided on turnovers, that both
defenses will dominate and that Tampa Bay's, strengthened by the
return of tackle Anthony McFarland, probably will have an edge.
But I also see McNabb, who's been hearing about that championship
game all off-season, making a statement, probably in the fourth
quarter with the game on the line. Add to that the Monday night
hometown madness, and you've got a victory for the Eagles.

Another question: How far along is Kurt Warner? If you think he's
all the way back after, say, the 7-for-7 night he had, throwing
softballs against the vanilla defense the Bucs offered him three
weeks ago, then you might be in for a surprise on Sunday. The big
question is, How can he handle a rush, and the Giants will give
him plenty of heat at the Meadowlands.

He faced them two games into his blue period last year, when no
injury was announced but everyone just knew he wasn't throwing
right. New York won, 26-21, on a big day by Kerry Collins, but
St. Louis had two chances to win it at the end and couldn't pick
up a first down. Marshall Faulk was fully functional that
afternoon, as well. I think Warner will do O.K., not great, but
the Rams will lose to the Giants in a shootout.

Is Oakland too old? Maybe, but not this week. They'll fill the
field with wideouts and fill the air with footballs against a
Tennessee defense that had trouble with its five-and six-DB
packages last season. Top draft pick Andre Woolfolk was supposed
to help take care of that, but he's coming back from a dislocated
big toe, a serious injury for a DB, whose whole game is instant
cuts and pivots. The Raiders scored 93 points against the Titans'
defense in two games last year. I pick Oakland in a mini-upset.

Jets offensive coordinator Paul Hackett says the attack will be
different without Chad Pennington. It'll be tailored to Vinny
Testaverde--short, controlled passing and lots of running against
a Redskins defense that's soft in the front four. All this means
to me is that they'll come out throwing deep on Thursday night. I
just have a feeling they'll be doing what they're not supposed
to. But I always have that feeling when coaches start telling you
what's going to happen. Washington is my pick.

Can New England get its sixth straight win over Buffalo? I don't
think it'll happen this time. The Bills have a new defense, and
the Patriots don't have enough of a running attack to hold those
linebackers in place. Buffalo wins it.

Has Bill Parcells really found his QB? Not yet. I give Atlanta a
squeaky upset over Dallas. Even without James Stewart, Detroit
will have enough offense to get by Arizona. Carolina's defense
upends Jacksonville, and Indianapolis, which has beaten the
Browns two in a row in Cleveland, makes it three straight.
--Paul Zimmerman

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES After losing to the Bucs in the NFC title game, McNabb (5) will get even on Monday night.

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