By Times staff writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 3, 2000
Bucs at Patriots
OF NOTE: If the Bucs offense improves, the great defense will have a complement. That was the thinking in the off-season, but now there's a twist: The offense is better, but will the defense be as good without Hardy Nickerson and Brad Culpepper? It better be. Tampa Bay's fledgling offense doesn't want a shootout with the Patriots' Drew Bledsoe. It won't happen because the Bucs defensive line will pressure Bledsoe and the offensive line will open holes for Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott. The Bucs, who capped the '99 regular season 8-1 by forcing 25 turnovers, need to continue the trend. The Patriots committed 25 turnovers in their eight losses last season.
KEY INJURIES: Bucs -- S Dexter Jackson (ankle) is out. G Kevin Dogins (shoulder), QB Eric Zeier (foot) are probable. Patriots -- None.
HOOPER'S PICK: Bucs 17, Patriots 7
OF NOTE: It's a rematch of last season's AFC wild-card game, but Dan Marino won't be there. Jay Fiedler just needs to repeat, "We have a good defense, we have a good defense." It's so good that it can pull out a victory without much help from the offense. The Dolphins' press coverage will frustrate Seattle quarterback Jon Kitna, and the defense should be able to gang up on the Seahawks running back, be it Ricky Watters or Shaun Alexander. Miami has won eight straight season-opening games at home.
KEY INJURIES: Seahawks -- DE John Hilliard (groin), DT Tim Watson (knee) are out. TE Christian Fauria (hamstring) is questionable. Dolphins -- CB Terrance Shaw (knee) is out. RB Autry Denson (ankle) is questionable. WR Bert Emanuel (hamstring) is probable.
HOOPER'S PICK: Dolphins 9, Seahawks 6
OF NOTE: The Jaguars have had plenty of unfortunate breaks, but getting Cleveland in the opener is a fortunate one. Jacksonville needs a game to build confidence. Because Ball State is not available, the Browns will have to do. The revamped offensive line has to hope it can move around Cleveland rookie Courtney Brown and his mates. The Jags defense should thrive. The Browns scored more than 17 points just four times last season.
KEY INJURIES: Jaguars -- T Leon Searcy (leg), WR R. Jay Soward (ankle), RB Fred Taylor (knee), C John Wade (foot) are out. DE Joel Smeenge (calf) is doubtful. P Bryan Barker (ankle) is questionable. Browns -- DB Daylon McCutcheon (rib) is questionable. QB Tim Couch (elbow), WR Kevin Johnson (hamstring) are probable.
HOOPER'S PICK: Jaguars 21, Browns 7
OF NOTE: The Giants are tricky. Kerry Collins has looked good in the preseason, but Kent Graham looked good last preseason. And we know how that turned out. Still, I have a feeling New York is going to put up some points. Much will be made of Ron Dayne's debut, but Tiki Barber is ready to remind fans why he was one of the nation's best at Virginia. Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard are solid, and don't forget Wildwood native Ronald Dixon. The Cards are 2-15 in their past 17 trips to the Meadowlands. Their defense won't be up to the task.
KEY INJURIES: Cardinals -- C Mike Gruttadauria (knee), DE Andre Wadsworth (knee) are out. S Tommy Bennett (knee), LB Johnny Rutledge (knee) are questionable. Giants -- TE Pete Mitchell (knee) is out. DE Jeremiah Parker (neck) is doubtful.
HOOPER'S PICK: Giants 24, Cardinals 17
OF NOTE: Okay, everybody who believes Kent Graham can't deliver against one of the best defenses in the league, raise your hand. Okay, everybody put your hand down. It would be nice if Graham could debut against McNeese State, but in the Ravens he has an opponent that will limit the running game with the help of Ray Lewis and press young receivers Troy Edwards and Plaxico Burress into submission. Baltimore quarterback Tony Banks may not do much, but he won't have to. There's no way Pittsburgh, which has lost six consecutive division games, scores more than 17.
KEY INJURIES: Ravens -- T Kipp Vickers (knee) is out. S Anthony Poindexter (thigh) is questionable. Steelers -- DL Chris Sullivan (back) is out. C Dermontti Dawson (hamstring), G Tom Myslinski (groin) are questionable.
HOOPER'S PICK: Ravens 17, Steelers 3
OF NOTE: One of the big differences for the Redskins last season was the reduction of sacks allowed, 61 to 31. But George Seifert knows he needs pressure on the quarterback, that's why he has put together his Mount Rushmore lineup of Reggie White, Eric Swann, Sean Gilbert and Chuck Smith. The Panthers have to hope the immortals don't play like monuments. The offense may be able to move the ball on the ground with Tim Biakabutuka. Because if the 'Skins defense has a weakness, it's stopping ground-gainers. But with an array of hired guns at fired-up FedEx Field, the Redskins should withstand the challenge.
KEY INJURIES: Panthers -- G James Dexter (triceps), LB Hannibal Navies (knee) are out. Redskins -- C Cory Raymer (knee) is out. RB Skip Hicks (knee) is questionable.
HOOPER'S PICK: Redskins 28, Panthers 20
OF NOTE: For the third consecutive year, and the sixth time in nine seasons, the Vikings have a new starting quarterback. But unlike some of the others, Daunte Culpepper has not thrown a pass in a regular-season game. Culpepper showed signs of brilliance in the preseason, but the Bears defense has the talent to make it hard on him because of free-agent additions. Though the defense looked shaky in the preseason, it will do just enough to confuse Culpepper. Bears quarterback Cade McNown has matured, and with help from the running game, he should be able to ensure a Metrodome win. Chicago is 4-2 in its past six visits.
KEY INJURIES: Bears -- TE Dustin Lyman (shoulder) is questionable. Vikings -- DE Michael Boireau (knee), G Corbin Lacina (knee) are questionable.
HOOPER'S PICK: Bears 24, Vikings 21
OF NOTE: Mix the numbers -- New Orleans has won three straight over Detroit and the visitor is 1-6 at the Superdome -- with the Lions' No. 1 quarterback not starting and you got a batch of trouble instead of Charlie Batch. The Lions are 2-9 when Batch doesn't start, but I have to like their chances because I think James Stewart will be able to run the ball. Plus, even Stoney Case could find success against the suspect Saints secondary.
KEY INJURIES: Lions -- G Stockar McDougle (knee), WR Herman Moore (shoulder) are out. Batch (knee), G Kerlin Blaise (knee), LB Scott Kowalkowski (thumb) are questionable. Saints -- LB Charlie Clemons (calf), S Rob Kelly (fibula), CB Fred Thomas (knee) are out. TE Andrew Glover (knee), WR Keith Poole (patella) are questionable.
HOOPER'S PICK: Lions 14, Saints 10
OF NOTE: The Chiefs were one of the least impressive teams of the preseason with an 0-4 record and averages of 14 points scored and 27.5 points allowed. I think this team is missing its heart because of linebacker Derrick Thomas' off-season death. An emotional tribute to Thomas is scheduled, but the Colts should win. Indy looked good in the preseason, and a couple of Peyton Manning TD passes to Marvin Harrison should take the crowd out of the game. The Chiefs may be vulnerable with young Eric Warfield making his first start at left corner.
KEY INJURIES: Colts -- WR Terrence Wilkins (head) is out. TE Justin Snow (hamstring) is questionable. Chiefs -- TE Jason Dunn (shoulder) is doubtful. RB Dante Hall (back), DT Chester McGlockton (ribs) are questionable.
HOOPER'S PICK: Colts 24, Chiefs 10
OF NOTE: These teams met in the last game of the regular season, and if the 49ers had beaten an Atlanta team without Jamal Anderson, the Bucs (and I) would be going to San Francisco this year. But no, they had to lose, and the Bucs (and I) are going to Atlanta. Whoop-de-do. This time the Niners face an Atlanta team with Anderson. Falcons coach Dan Reeves should know how to exploit a defense loaded with rookies, and if Atlanta gets an early lead, it can hide its woeful defensive end situation.
KEY INJURIES: 49ers -- C Ben Lynch (shoulder) is doubtful. RB Terry Jackson (knee), LB Jeff Ulbrich (shoulder) are questionable. Falcons -- WR Jammi German (ankle), QB Danny Kanell (finger) are out. DE Brady Smith (groin) is doubtful. DE Ed Jasper (leg) is questionable.
HOOPER'S PICK: Falcons 28, 49ers 24
OF NOTE: I think the Eagles could surprise this season, but they would buck all kinds of trends with a win at Texas Stadium. Philadelphia has lost 14 of its past 19 against Dallas, is 1-9 in its past 10 at Irving, Texas, and is 1-22-1 in its past 24 road games. Emmitt Smith didn't play for Dallas in the preseason, and quarterback Troy Aikman has to develop timing with his speedy receivers. Second-year Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb may exploit the beat-up secondary, but only if Duce Staley can get in gear. I think Dat Nguyen and company will slow Staley, and Aikman will pull out a victory late.
KEY INJURIES: Eagles -- WR Na Brown (hand) is out. LB Ike Reese (hamstring) is questionable. Cowboys -- CB Dwayne Goodrich (hamstring), CB Charlie Williams (knee) are out. CB Mario Edwards (hamstring) is questionable.
HOOPER'S PICK: Cowboys 13, Eagles 10
OF NOTE: How much of a difference can Sebastian Janikowski make? Of Jon Gruden's 32 games as Oakland's coach, 21 have been decided by seven points or fewer. The placekicker becomes invaluable in those situations, and this game could be close. San Diego's defense may keep it tight, and if quarterback Ryan Leaf can protect the ball, the finish could be fantastic. The bottom line is Oakland has no business losing to Leaf. Not with Janikowski, and certainly not this season.
KEY INJURIES: Chargers -- CB DeRon Jenkins (foot), WR Reggie Jones (knee), WR Mikhael Ricks (ankle) are questionable. S Rogers Beckett (hip), RB Jermaine Fazande (ankle), WR Nate Jacquet (Achilles'), Leaf (ankle), DE Darren Mickell (shoulder) are probable. Raiders -- LB Eric Barton (hamstring) is questionable.
HOOPER'S PICK: Raiders 20, Chargers 14
OF NOTE: Everyone in Wisconsin -- when not cursing the knucklehead who discounted merchandise for Badgers football players -- is worrying about the Packers defense. Green Bay's first team forced only two punts in the preseason. The Jets win in a romp. Not only has Curtis Martin looked great and Vinny Testaverde returned from injury, the Jets had two weeks to prepare because of a unique preseason bye. You can't discount Brett Favre, especially at Lambeau Field, but his arsenal has been weakened with injuries to running back Dorsey Levens and receiver Corey Bradford.
KEY INJURIES: Jets -- QB Chad Pennington (knee) is questionable. Packers -- Bradford (leg), Levens (knee), LB Brian Williams (knee) are out. RB Ahman Green (knee) is questionable.
HOOPER'S PICK: Jets 27, Packers 24
OF NOTE: The Bills special-teams coach -- the one who replaced the coach who got fired because of the Music City miracle -- will show his players a replay of Tennessee's stunning return last season before the game. That's a mistake. Buffalo will be so wrapped in emotion, it will get overhyped. Tennessee, meanwhile, should be sharp and ready for the challenge of slowing Rob Johnson. Mike Ditka said the Titans are the best team he has seen in the past two years. Tennessee has won three straight against Buffalo, and this will be No. 4. The last time the Bills won a season opener was 1996.
KEY INJURIES: Titans -- S Eric Morris (shoulder) is out. WR Yancey Thigpen (ankle) is questionable. Bills -- G Joe Panos (foot) is out. RB Jonathan Linton (ribs) is questionable. G Ruben Brown (ankle) is probable.
HOOPER'S PICK: Titans 20, Bills 19
KEY INJURIES: Broncos -- LB John Mobley (knee) is questionable. Rams -- DE Sean Moran (knee) is doubtful. RB Trung Canidate (ankle), LB Leonard Little (ankle) are questionable
HOOPER'S PICK: Rams 28, Broncos 24