The biggest handicapping mistakes I've made have come when I based my opening week picks on what I saw in the preseason. The coaches who leave their first-stringers in just a little longer than the other teams', trying to squeeze out meaningless victories, are usually the guys who get killed once the games are for real. Forget preseason records.
That said, I'm picking the Cowboys to beat the Steelers, who were 4-0 in the preseason, in the showcase game of Week 1. Dallas will have some trouble with Pittsburgh's new defensive packages, which still rely heavily on the zone blitz but now use three-man fronts even in passing situations. But I think the Cowboys are ready to bust loose offensively. Here's a guy to watch: Billy Davis, a third-year man from Pitt who's coming home to play in Three Rivers. He's the best No. 2 wideout the team has had since Alvin Harper, a big improvement over Kevin Williams and that nonsensical experiment with Deion Sanders at wideout last year. Pittsburgh running back Jerome Bettis would figure to pound an undersized and outmanned Dallas front seven, but I think the Cowboys will address their deficiencies by loading up with eight men in the box to stop the run and put Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart to the test. The player formerly known as Slash is no longer the spray passer he was last year. He completed 63.4% of his preseason passes, with no interceptions. The Steelers are still marveling about the short touchdown he threw to Courtney Hawkins against the Eagles, whipping the ball into a very tight spot, plus the perfect touch he put on another shortie for a score in that game, this time to tight end Mark Bruener. But all that is preseason stuff, and now, in the real deal, we'll go with Troy Aikman and experience, at least at this stage of the season. If Stewart decides to scramble, he'll be marked by the Cowboys' swiftest linebacker, the little rookie Dexter Coakley. (Yes, I think Stewart's sprained left knee will be O.K.)
I think the Packers will beat the Bears at Lambeau on Monday night, but not in the blowout everyone's predicting. On paper it should be a rout, but good old-fashioned emotion is at work here.
I pick the Bucs to upset the 49ers in Tampa. Yeah, I know this is a shaky choice, and stop laughing, please. I think the Bucs' rush will get to San Francisco quarterback Steve Young.
Blowout of the day? Rams over the Saints in St. Louis. Sorry, but I don't buy all the Mike Ditka hoopla. Not with the talent he's got to work with.
Michael (KO) Westbrook, the Redskins' slugging wideout, has been fined 50 G's and benched for the start of their game against the Panthers, but who's to say he won't come in the first time Washington's in long yardage? We'll see how he bounces back from that nasty practice-field incident. I pick the home-standing Panthers over the Redskins, even though Carolina is without linebacker Kevin Greene's pass rush. But an upset wouldn't surprise me.
I like the Broncos over the Chiefs at Mile High, but I'm not sure Denver quarterback John Elway's arm is right. Lost in the jubilation over his triumphant return against San Francisco last weekend is the fact that he completed seven passes for only 51 yards, which isn't like him. I could be seeing snakes under the bed here, but Elway without the long ball is like a pickpocket with one arm.