Dr. Z's Forecast

September 12, 2004

I've said it a million times: Don't use exhibition games as a guide for what's to come. Unless some glaring weakness is exposed or a team gets ravaged by injuries, the preseason is meaningless. Especially for quarterbacks--young ones in particular.

A guy goes 10 of 14 for 90 yards or so, with dink completions against people who will never see a regular-season roster or veterans who couldn't care less. If he adds, say, a four-yard touchdown pass, his ratings go right through the roof. And in the TV booth they'll be talking about his "ability to find the weaknesses" in the vanilla pudding of a defense.

Ryan Leaf ran up a credible 80.3 rating in exhibition games during his rookie year. Then the Chargers started 3--6 while his rating dropped to a league-worst 39.9, and they got him out of there. The organization is still trying to recover.

Cincinnati's Akili Smith, the third pick in the 1999 draft, bombed out his rookie year. There were lots of excuses. But in 2000 he was ready to take over, capping off a fine exhibition season with a 90.4 rating. Ten games into the season the Bengals had two wins, and Smith, his rating an NFL-low 50.1, was benched, his career in Cincinnati essentially finished.

Which leads us to Cincy's Carson Palmer, who didn't take a snap last season but is expected to take all or almost all of them this year. His preseason rating was a gaudy 88.5, but it won't be that high against the Jets on Sunday. Instead of looking at a collection of static two-deep zone defenses he'll face a pack of wildly blitzing first- and second-year pros. And you know Chad Pennington & Co. will score against a defense that ranked 28th last year. If New York gets a few turnovers, it could be a blowout. The Jets are the pick.

Here comes our first upset of the year, as another young QB, Rex Grossman, who started the last three games for the Bears in 2003, gets his baptism at home against Detroit. The Lions come out of the preseason with their defensive guys banged up, as usual, but I have a hunch about this one. Detroit in, yes, an upset.

Elsewhere, I'm sorry to say, it's chalk. The Titans' defense is too much for the punchless Dolphins. The Steelers over the Raiders, but it'll be closer than you think. Joe Gibbs makes a successful return, as his Redskins take the Bucs. The Jaguars at Buffalo offers tempting upset possibilities, but I'm gonna start the season slowly, so I'll stick with the Bills and maybe regret it.

Seattle, our NFC Super Bowl choice, gets the victory in New Orleans. Atlanta hasn't won for the last 12 years in San Francisco, but the Falcons will this time. Baltimorewill make it three in a row at Cleveland. Denver over ... no, wait a minute, here's upset number 2. Kansas City beats the Broncos in Mile High--if the Chiefs' defense can keep the rushing numbers reasonable. And finally the Monday-nighter. Carolina will stop the Packers' running game, force Brett Favre to throw under pressure, and survive some scary moments to come away with the victory. --Paul Zimmerman

SI.COM Dr. Z's Inside the NFL, every week at si.com/football.

COLOR PHOTOANDY LYONS/GETTY IMAGES (PALMER) JUST KIDDING Don't buy the stats put up by young QBs like Palmer.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)