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NFL PICKS

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Matchup The scoop HOlder's pick
Cowboys at Bucs Time: 1 p.m., Ch. 13 Line, O/U: Cowboys by 6, 39 The reshaped Buccaneers finally start their campaign after an action-packed offseason that included firings, hirings and all sorts of coming and going among players. The Bucs have a better chance than conventional wisdom might suggest. They have new schemes on both sides of the ball, so there's little for opponents to use in preparation. For at least this week, the Bucs do have the element of surprise. For example, notice how little you saw of TE Kellen Winslow, left, in the preseason? This could be a decent matchup, but the Bucs have their work cut out for them against a loaded Cowboys team. Cowboys 24, Bucs 20
Dolphins at Falcons Time: 1 p.m., Ch. 10 Line, O/U: Falcons by 4, 43½ These two teams are in identical positions, fresh off surprise seasons but trying to cope with the pressure their success has created. The Dolphins picked up the pieces in '08 and won the weakened AFC East sans Patriots QB Tom Brady. But don't shortchange them. Their defense was much improved, and the offense moved the ball efficiently (345.6 yards per game). But the Wildcat formation that was so effective for Miami last season is now being so widely used around the league that it might not be as productive. Plus, the Falcons' running game figures to be just as potent with Michael Turner, and the quarterback play should be even better with Matt Ryan, left, a year older. Falcons 23, Dolphins 17
Eagles at Panthers Time: 1 p.m. Line, O/U: Eagles by 2½, 43½ Trying not to make the mistake everyone made last season by sleeping on Philadelphia. This is a team that was one win shy of the Super Bowl and is perhaps improved after a good draft and solid offseason moves. Michael Vick won't be a factor yet because he's out until Week 3, per commish Roger Goodell. But QB Donovan McNabb, left, seemed to turn the clock back in the postseason, averaging nearly 300 passing yards in three games and nearly willing his team to another NFC title. Carolina brings its trademark rushing attack and physical defense, but the jury is still out on QB Jake Delhomme. Eagles 23, Panthers 20
Chiefs at Ravens Time: 1 p.m. Line, O/U: Ravens by 13, 36 I'll say this for the Chiefs: They will be better this season, maybe even dramatically better. But considering the depths from which they're emerging (a 2-14 season), they're a long way from the top. Coach Todd Haley and QB Matt Cassel, left, make the offense instantly better, but the defense is still ragged. The Ravens have no such issues on that side of the ball. Their defense remains largely intact, and the offensive line has been shored up with the selection of T Michael Oher in the draft. That'll make second-year QB Joe Flacco even more comfortable in the pocket. Ravens 24, Chiefs 13
Broncos at Bengals Time: 1 p.m. Line, O/U: Bengals by 4, 42½ These clubs appear to be headed in opposite directions. The Broncos are, well, sort of a mess. From the offseason quarterback moves (Jay Cutler was traded to Chicago) to the standoff with WR Brandon Marshall, Denver has much to overcome if it is to challenge San Diego in the AFC West. In Cincinnati, things are more promising than in recent seasons. Of all things, it was the Bengals offense that hamstrung them last season. Now, QB Carson Palmer returns, making WR Chad Ocho Cinco, left, all the more dangerous. Hard to see the Bengals finishing dead last in offense two years in a row. Bengals 26, Broncos 17
Vikings at Browns Time: 1 p.m. Line, O/U: Vikings by 4, 40 It's hard to say whether the Vikings truly will be a Super Bowl contender as some have claimed, but they certainly will be interesting to watch. As if RB Adrian Peterson flattening opponents isn't entertaining enough, now Minnesota has gunslinger Brett Favre, who has come out of retirement. Though Favre did not have a memorable season with the Jets in 2008, the Vikings have more offensive tools at their disposal, especially a stable of backs that's probably the best Favre has ever enjoyed. Keep an eye on former Gators WR Percy Harvin, left, who is capable of a big year for Minnesota. Vikings 27, Browns 18
Jets at Texans Time: 1 p.m. Line, O/U: Texans by 4½, 44 There is no magic formula for the Jets. Rookie QB Mark Sanchez, left, probably won't make them an offensive juggernaut right out of the gate. And although they've installed defense-minded Rex Ryan as head coach, don't expect the D to suddenly look like the '85 Bears. In the long term, however, this club is headed in the right direction. The Texans, meanwhile, are on the other end of the spectrum. They've been building and finally need to succeed. I don't think they'll win the division, but they need to handle business in their winnable games — like this one. Texans 24, Jets 17
Jaguars at Colts Time: 1 p.m. Line, O/U: Colts by 7, 44½ The Jaguars were a 5-win team in 2008, and you can make a case they're no better this season. The offense is limited in its playmaking ability with RB Maurice Jones-Drew, left, the only reliable weapon. The once-stout defense has been crippled by departures and gave up 330 yards per game in 2008. The Colts are in a bit of transition with the retirement of coach Tony Dungy, but the framework he built remains in place, as do QB Peyton Manning and savvy GM Bill Polian. Look for a faster start this season after a slow beginning in '08. Colts 29, Jaguars 14
Lions at Saints Time: 1 p.m. Line, O/U: Saints by 13, 49 Top overall pick QB Matthew Stafford, left, gets his introduction to the NFL in the raucous Superdome. The kid has his work cut out for him with Detroit coming off an 0-16 season, but the presence of playmakers such as WR Calvin Johnson gives him a chance. The defense doesn't have individual studs but will have a tougher attitude with defense-minded coach Jim Schwartz. The Saints have yet to prove they're serious about playing defense, but their electric Drew Brees-led offense should have a field day against a defense that gave up more than 400 yards a game last season. Saints 31, Lions 17
49ers at Cardinals Time: 4:15 p.m. Line, O/U: Cardinals by 6½, 46 The Niners still haven't signed their biggest offseason acquisition: former Texas Tech standout WR Michael Crabtree. RB Frank Gore will provide much of the offense in the meantime, but can he and QB Shaun Hill outpace the Cardinals? Probably not. Veteran QB Kurt Warner returns, coming off a strong season highlighted by a Super Bowl run. This is a good test for Arizona because the 49ers defense is a group to be reckoned with. The Cardinals have added depth in the backfield by drafting RB Chris Wells, left, and say they're committed to the run, but we know what they really like to do. Cardinals 27, 49ers 23
Redskins at Giants Time: 4:15 p.m., Ch. 13 Line, O/U: Giants by 6½, 37½ The Redskins might be an improved team based on a couple of defensive moves alone. They added free agent prize DT Albert Haynesworth, left, and drafted DE Brian Orakpo, who should take their defense to the next level. Problem is, Washington is still a member of the NFC East. Who better to start the season against than the division favorite Giants? It's still unclear who among their receiving corps will come to QB Eli Manning's aid, but the defense is — not surprisingly — loaded. An already feared defensive line now counts newcomers Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard as members. Giants 21, Redskins 17
Rams at Seahawks Time: 4:15 p.m. Line, O/U: Seahawks by 8½, 41 It will not be a one-year endeavor to solve the ills of St. Louis. The Rams picked up talent in the draft (OT Jason Smith and LB James Laurinaitis), but they have so many holes to fill that it will take rookie coach Steve Spagnuolo some time. Meanwhile, the Seahawks have every intention of rebounding from a 4-12 season and contending for the NFC West title. No reason to think they can't, either. QB Matt Hasselbeck has enough left in the tank, RB Julius Jones will get a little help from newcomer Edgerrin James, and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, left, strengthens the receivers. Seahawks 28, Rams 16
Bears at Packers Time: 8:20 p.m., Ch. 8 Line, O/U: Packers by 3½, 46 They're still on Cloud Nine in the Windy City over the acquisition of QB Jay Cutler. Bears fans haven't known what it's like to have a franchise quarterback in quite some time, especially after recent seasons in which Kyle Orton, Brian Griese and Rex Grossman were all starters in Chicago. Problem is, Cutler didn't bring WR Brandon Marshall with him from Denver, and the Bears aren't exactly loaded at the position. Converted CB Devin Hester, left, is the best of the group. The Packers are expected to be better on defense with their new 3-4 scheme, and offense has never been the problem. Packers 24, Bears 20
Monday night
Bills at Patriots Time: 7 p.m., ESPN Line, O/U: Patriots by 11, 47½ The Patriots want to restore order in the AFC East, and that means re-establishing themselves as division champ. The Bills would like to tell you they will have something to say about that, and they might, but they still don't stack up against New England. The Patriots get QB Tom Brady back, and he now has veteran additions WR Joey Galloway, left, and RB Fred Taylor to add to returners WRs Randy Moss and Wes Welker. Tedy Bruschi retired, but don't sell this defense short. It's stocked with several first-round picks, and the Patriots had a typically productive draft on that side of the ball. Patriots 26, Bills 17
Chargers at Raiders Time: 10:15 p.m., ESPN Line, O/U: Chargers by 9½, 43 This is a matchup of the best and worst that the AFC West has to offer. The Raiders have a lot of work left to do on offense and defense, and QB JaMarcus Russell is perhaps their biggest question mark. The Chargers, meanwhile, have one of the best under center in Philip Rivers, left, and he has a chance for a monster season with RB LaDainian Tomlinson and TE Antonio Gates back at 100 percent. One of San Diego's biggest problems has been its infamous slow starts. This matchup should at least ensure the Chargers start on a positive note. Chargers 27, Raiders 14

BY THE NUMBERS

237.2 Average yards per game allowed by the NFL's best defense, the Steelers.

410.7 Average yards per game for the NFL's top offense last year, the Saints.

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