Somewhere out there is a team that's good and knows it's good, even though no one else does. It has been downgraded by the forecasting geniuses, including yours truly, and is licking its chops, waiting for the bell. You'll see.
That team will come through with a season-opening upset, and at the end of the year, when it's in the playoffs, the club will look back on that first game as the one that defined its season. And the football world will say, "How come we didn't see that coming?"
The Buccaneers had a game like that last year, stunning the 49ers in their opener. And the low-rated Giants beat the favored Eagles on their way to the NFC East title. Oh, yes, the upsets in Week 1 are out there, just waiting to happen. The trick is to find them.
So let's begin our first round of forecasts with the surprises. The Oilers over the Bengals in Cincinnati. The Bengals seem to have gotten their act together with Neil O'Donnell running the offense, but Tennessee might be one of the sleepers of '98. I like the Oilers' pounding style against a zone-blitz defense that still has to show that it knows what it's doing.
Look for the Bucs, another road team, to upset the Vikings, who are dazzling people with all their firepower. Tampa Bay is coming off a blah preseason, and Trent Dilfer has struggled, but that just makes me like the Bucs even more. They're loading up for the real thing instead of trying to impress a new owner—as the Vikings were. Besides, Tampa Bay seems to play well at the Metrodome.
I'm leaning toward a third upset, but my heart isn't in it: the Bills over the Chargers. The Chargers averaged 32.3 points a game in the preseason, and this will be a coming-out party for quarterback Ryan Leaf, and the crowd will be loud—well, as loud as Southern Californians can get. Still, I like the Bills, who don't thrill you in any department but have a blue-collar soundness. Call this an emotional pick, which means the brain is on a 30-minute lunch break.
Arizona to upset Dallas is a most enticing proposition, with the Cowboys going through their usual off-field histrionics. And you have to figure Jake Plummer will work his magic against a Dallas defense that can't find a pass rush. But the flip side is that Arizona doesn't have much of an offensive line, and the Cardinals haven't won in Dallas since 1989. So I'll stick with the Cowboys.
Seahawks over the Eagles in Philly. It's not that I'm so wild about the Seahawks, a team some people consider an emerging nation. It's just that the Eagles—with their fine right cornerback, Bobby Taylor, out, and their keynote runner, Charlie Garner, nursing a sprained ankle—will have an even tougher time than people realize. I think Seattle will put a lot of points on the board.
Who says the Patriots can't win in Denver? I remember it like it was yesterday, Pats 20-17, in 1968, behind the magic arm of Mike Taliaferro and the great hands of Jim Whalen and the ferocious pass rush of Larry Eisenhauer and Earthquake Hunt and Houston Antwine. I'm getting excited just thinking about the Monday-night opener. You still like Denver? O.K., I think the Broncos will win too, but it won't be a picnic this time, because their great offensive line, which was the platform of their Super Bowl success, is in disarray. And when aroused, Pete Carroll's defense can put on a spirited show. Bet you even up that Terrell Davis doesn't get his hundred yards.
Finally, here's my blowout of the week: Jaguars over the Bears in Chicago. Nothing I saw in the preseason caused me to come off my pick of Jacksonville as the Super Bowl champ or the Bears as dismal. Curtis Enis, Chicago's top draft pick, showed power and a real burst in the preseason finale against the Jets, but guess who the Jaguars will be loading up to stop?