GAME OF THE WEEK YOU'LL SEE
Minnesota at Atlanta
(4 p.m., WTTG-5, WBFF-45)
Perhaps the best indication of the level of anticipation of this 1998 NFC championship rematch: Atlanta managed to sell out its home opener for the first time since 1993. Vikings PK Gary Anderson holds the current NFL record of 40 consecutive field goal attempts without a miss. That's in the regular season, of course, and doesn't count Anderson's last attempt, a 38-yard miss in overtime of the Falcons' 30-27 postseason upset. Quarterback Randall Cunningham led the NFL with 106.0 rating in '98, the eighth-highest of all-time. But he played his worst half of the season in the second half of the conference championship. Minnesota's team is largely the same as last year's but it remains to be seen if it can live up to WR Randy Moss's expectations, who has told reporters this week that the Vikings are capable of scoring 60 points.
For their part, the Falcons are out to prove that they aren't a one-season wonder. They are rankled by the fact that the Vikings are four-point favorites despite a 11-game winning streak at home. Veteran QB Chris Chandler is coming off his best season -- a 100.9 rating. So is RB Jamal Anderson, who set an NFL record last season with 410 carries while leading the NFC with 1,846 yards rushing. The receiving corps is suspect, as Atlanta starts the season with only four wide receivers, two of whom -- Tim Dwight and Ronnie Harris -- have combined for only 12 career catches.
GAME OF THE WEEK YOU WON'T SEE
San Francisco at Jacksonville
Minnesota's Randy Moss may have garnered all the rookie honors last season, but Jaguars running back Fred Taylor's rookie campaign was just as impressive. Taylor replaced injured starter James Stewart in Jacksonville's third game and ran for a 52-yard touchdown on his first carry. Taylor kept right on running, gaining 1,223 yards for the season even though his inital backup role and injuries of his own limited him to fewer than seven carries in five games. He scored 17 touchdowns last season, tied with Moss for second-most in the NFL and third-most for a rookie in NFL history. This season he's the unquestioned starter and, along with quarterback Mark Brunell, the star of a loaded offense. Jacksonville figures to have a vastly improved defense with former Steeler Carnell Lake at free safety and linebacker Kevin Hardy and strong safety Donovin Darius, both rising stars.
Could this be the year that San Francisco's incredible streak of 16 consecutive 10-win seasons ends? Pro Bowl guard Kevin Gogan left via free agency, fullback Marc Edwards went to Cleveland and defensive end Chris Doleman retired. Running back Garrison Hearst will miss much of the season with a broken ankle, and his replacements, Charlie Garner and Lawrence Phillips, may not be up to the task. But Bryant Young returns after a broken leg last season, and there's always Steve Young and his receivers. Young is the NFL's highest-rated passer ever with a career rating of 97.6, and Pro Football Scoreboard rated last season's production from San Francisco's receiving corps -- Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens and J.J. Stokes -- as the league's third-best ever (a combined 212 receptions for 3,024 yards and 31 touchdowns). The 49ers are the NFL's best road team, going 56-24 away from home since 1989.
Back to the Trenches
Steel Belt bragging rights are at stake after a three-year hiatus as Pittsburgh and Cleveland resurrect one of the NFL's most storied rivalries tonight. Three past and present Browns -- offensive tackle Orlando Brown, defensive tackle Jerry Ball and cornerback Antonio Langham -- will be on hand to offer war stories to incite their teammates.
Rams: Situation Normal . . .
St. Louis owns the league's worst record in the '90s at 45-99. Events in the past week suggest that the franchise is looking to close out the decade with that dubious distinction. The Rams were late in officially notifying the NFL of two waived players, forcing the team to keep those players on the roster for another day and waive two others. They waived defensive tackle Corey Sears and cornerback Clifton Crosby with the plan to re-sign them once the 24-hour claiming period ended. Crosby cleared waivers, but Sears was snapped up by the Arizona Cardinals. The clerical blunder -- Rams personnel notified the league of the cuts on time by e-mail, but were late in doing so by fax as the NFL requires -- adds to a continuing talent drain. Six new players on the Rams' 1999 roster, including Crosby, were undrafted out of college. Overall, their 53-man roster includes 19 undrafted players, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Not Old School
New Baltimore quarterback Scott Mitchell asked for -- and received -- permission to wear Johnny Unitas's No. 19.
QBs' Learning Curves
Will any of the five quarterbacks selected in the first round of this year's draft see playing time today? Here's a rundown:
Despite encouraging performances in the preseason, Cleveland's Tim Couch, the first pick overall, is unlikely to play. Starter Ty Detmer has seven years of NFL experience and 19 starts under his belt, so while he is essentially a caretaker until the rookie is ready, he is an able one.
Eagles Coach Andy Reid has denied rumors that Donovan McNabb, the No. 2 pick overall, will split time with starter Doug Pederson, telling reporters that McNabb will play only if the game is a blowout. Pederson, a former World League quarterback, has played in only eight NFL games and has as many career starts as McNabb -- zero.
Akili Smith, the third pick overall, is currently No. 2 in Cincinnati behind starter Jeff Blake. Smith didn't sign until four days before the Bengals broke training camp and thus attempted just 16 passes in the preseason. This may be his team by the end of the season -- especially if Blake struggles, as he did in '98 -- but for now Smith is too green to expect playing time.
The Bears were so happy with No. 12 pick Cade McNown that they cut the franchise's all-time leading passer, Erik Kramer, two days before training camp opened. McNown is expected to play in a limited role today as a backup and could start soon. After all, the current starter, Shane Matthews, has appeared in all of two NFL games in his career, which is half as many times as he has been cut by the Bears.
Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper, drafted 13th overall, may not play this season, much less today, backing up Randall Cunningham and Jeff George. Culpepper attempted only 12 passes during the preseason.