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Posted: Tuesday September 18, 2001 1:53 PM
Updated: Sunday September 23, 2001 11:35 AM

Sports Illustrated's Don Banks tackles three questions that matter to fans:

 1    Which teams are well positioned to take advantage of 2001's second opening day, and which are not? 

  Ricky Watters Ricky Watters and the Seahawks play four of their next five games at Husky Stadium. Tom Pidgeon/Allsport
While every team will face the challenge of getting back into some kind of regular-season rhythm after the tragic events of last week, the reconfiguration of the NFL schedule is kinder to some than others.

First, on the plus side. With Week 2's games rescheduled for Jan. 6 and 7, these five teams have very favorable first-half schedules in terms of travel: Seattle, Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlanta and Jacksonville.

Even before they had their Week 2 home game against Kansas City wiped out, the Seahawks (1-0) weren't scheduled to leave the Pacific time zone again until their Nov. 4 game at Washington. Seattle plays four of its next five games at home, with a bye thrown into that six-week span. Only a Sept. 30 trip to AFC West rival Oakland will interrupt the homestand. However, the Seahawks have it far from easy, facing four playoff teams plus Jacksonville in that five-game run.

The Eagles, Bears and Falcons all lost their regular-season openers. In addition, Philadelphia and Atlanta were scheduled to hit the road in Week 2, for tough games at Tampa Bay and St. Louis, respectively. Now all three teams face a home-heavy first-half schedule.

After this week's trip to Seattle, the Eagles are either at home or off in five of the next seven weeks. Included in that are winnable home games against Dallas and Arizona, plus a bye week just before their huge Oct. 22 showdown at Giants Stadium -- a game that could determine the success of the Eagles' season.

The Bears and Falcons both play five of their next seven games at home, in addition to a bye week. Chicago opens its home schedule against Minnesota this week, but then has a bye and six consecutive games against non-playoff teams from 2000. The Falcons have the Panthers for their home opener this week, which begins a run of six non-playoff qualifiers and a bye in an eight-week span.

As for the teams that have it tough, the list starts with Tampa Bay (1-0), New Orleans (1-0), and Pittsburgh (0-1), which had Week 3 byes and won't play again until Sept. 30. All three, along with Detroit (0-1), won't open their home schedules until Week 5. The Lions have what must be the latest home-opener in NFL history, an Oct. 8 Monday night date against St. Louis.

Other teams that could see their seasons turn on the scheduling changes include Baltimore, Tennessee and Kansas City. The defending Super Bowl champion Ravens (1-0) play six of their next eight on the road. The Titans (0-1) have four of their next five on the road, plus a bye. The run includes games at Jacksonville and Baltimore, home against tough Tampa Bay, and at Detroit and Pittsburgh.

After a home game this week against the defending NFC champion Giants, the Chiefs (0-1) face five of their next seven games away from Arrowhead, including trips to Washington, Denver, Arizona, San Diego and the Jets.

 2    Which teams face the toughest close to the regular season thanks to the rescheduling of Week 2 games on Jan. 6-7? 

  Rob Johnson Buffalo is one of two teams that will finish with a three-game road trip under the NFL's rearranged schedule. Rick Stewart/Allsport

Two teams will be forced to end their seasons with three-game road trips due to the altered format. Both Buffalo (0-1) and Cleveland (0-1) probably won't be a factor in the playoff races come late season anyway, but the Bills now must finish with trips to Atlanta, the Jets and Miami, and the Browns have road games at Green Bay, Tennessee and Pittsburgh.

Just one team has a three-game homestand to end the season: Carolina (1-0). If the surprising Panthers can hang in the race with eight of their first 13 on the road, their last away game is Dec. 9. Their bye week follows, and then St. Louis, Arizona and New England all come to Charlotte.

The reconfigured schedules of expected playoff contenders like Indianapolis, Philadelphia, and Minnesota could impact the races much more. The Colts had their Week 2 home game against Denver moved to Jan. 6, meaning they'll finish with a tough final stretch against the visiting Jets and Broncos, sandwiched around a trip to St. Louis.

The Eagles in the final three weeks now fly across country to San Francisco, return home for what could be an NFC East-deciding home game against the Giants, and then pack off for their makeup trip to Tampa Bay.

Minnesota (0-1) probably benefited by missing its Week 2 Monday night game at Baltimore. But the Vikings will pay for it later. Minnesota closes with a tough game against visiting Jacksonville, before visiting cold-weather Green Bay on Dec. 30 and Baltimore on Jan. 5 or 6.

 3    What on-field storylines warrant picking up this week as the season re-starts? 

  Charlie Batch Charlie Batch's poor play in the Lions' opener at Green Bay earned him a spot on the bench. Jonathan Daniel/Allsport

As usual, quarterbacking issues dominate. In Detroit, Charlie Batch has been benched in favor of the newly acquired Ty Detmer, late of Cleveland. Batch admittedly strugged with the nuances of the West Coast offense in the Lions' losing opener at Green Bay, but it will be interesting to see if new Detroit head coach Marty Mornhinweg left himself open to charges that he panicked by yanking Batch after just one game.

In Detmer's favor, he should at least recognize the opponents' defensive formations this week. The Lions resume their season in Cleveland.

Two other quarterback situations, both in the NFC East, bear scrutiny. In Washington, Jeff George already has been benched once himself and isn't talking to the media. His honeymoon with new Redskins head coach Marty Schottenheimer lasted for two-plus quarters of the team's disastrous opener at San Diego, and though he has been restored to the starting lineup, he is clearly on a very short string.

In Dallas, rookie Quincy Carter (9-of-19 for 34 yards) set back the state of passing a few decades in the Cowboys' opening-day loss to visiting Tampa Bay. Now nursing an injured throwing hand, Carter may give way to largely untested backup Anthony Wright for Dallas' home game against San Diego this week. Could the Cowboys' quarterbacking actually get worse?

Another NFC East quarterback who's on the hot seat, Arizona's Jake Plummer, will make his much-anticipated 2001 regular-season debut. He and his Cardinals had a first week bye, and haven't played a game of any sort since the close of the preseason.

Carolina rookie quarterback Chris Weinke will get another shot to star in another dome (this time at Atlanta). Weinke led the Panthers to a Week 1 upset at Minnesota, entrenching himself for now as his team's savior. The Vikings play at Chicago and will be trying to avoid their first 0-2 start since 1984, when Les Steckel was the team's head coach.

Lastly, the expected return of the NFL's regular game officials was no doubt hastened this week by the tragedies that befell our nation. Though no one may publicly credit those events with jump-starting the stalled negotiations, clearly the league and the locked out referees knew this was no time to be squabbling over labor issues.

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