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Countdown to Kickoff, Week 1

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John Czarnecki

John Czarnecki has been the editorial consultant for "FOX NFL Sunday" since its 1994 inception. This season marks Czarnecki's 32nd year covering the NFL. He is one of 44 selectors to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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NY Giants at Washington, 4:15 p.m.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: After ranking 30th in rushing in Mike Shanahan’s 2010 Washington debut, the Redskins hope to pound the ball with new No. 1 back Tim Hightower running behind an offensive line that’s been revamped to fit the coach’s zone-blocking scheme. Arizona basically gave up on Hightower. With New York losing starting MLB Jonathan Goff on Tuesday, rookie MLB Greg Jones, a sixth-round pick, will be under a heavy spotlight. The Giants kept four rookie linebackers and they may need them to slow down the Redskins’ Hightower and Ryan Torain. In a surprise, Rex Grossman won the starter’s job for the Redskins over John Beck.

Last season, the Giants ran all over the Redskins, but Washington believes they will be better on the offensive line with ex-Giant Barry Cofield and Stephen Bowen, signed from Dallas, at right end. New York still plans to rotate RBs Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs, who ran for 200 yards and four touchdowns on 33 carries at home against the Redskins last December. The Giants dumped several  veteran offensive linemen and new center David Baas must control Cofield.

CZAR’S SCOOP: One potential key to this game will be how the vaunted New York front four does against Washington’s offensive line. Redskins offensive tackles Trent Williams and Jammal Brown should have their hands full with Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul. Tuck has a neck stinger but is expected to play.

The Giants have won nine of the last 10 games in the series. Both of these clubs are chasing the Eagles in the NFC East and there is already rumbling about the fates of both head coaches should their seasons end disastrously. Shanahan, though, is more comfortable this season with his roster. Redskins TE Chris Cooley, who has shed 20 pounds, will be a game-time decision.

The Giants need a great season from QB Eli Manning and WR Hakeem Nicks to keep the team competitive. The Giants are still fuming that agent Ben Dogra didn’t get back to them about possibly improving their salary offer for WR Steve Smith.

Carolina at Arizona, 4:15 p.m.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: This could be a game of contrasting styles. New Arizona QB Kevin Kolb will want to be chucking it downfield to Larry Fitzgerald. Arizona would like to find some mismatches on its three-receiver sets, knowing that the Panthers are short on cornerbacks and may have to play safety Charles Godfrey in the slot occasionally.

Meanwhile the Panthers must sustain a running game with DeAngelo Williams and his cast in order to take a lot of the pressure off rookie QB Cam Newton, who is still learning the pro game. But the Panthers do have a solid offensive line and two decent tight ends in Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey. Besides WR Steve Smith, those two figure to be favorite targets of Newton. Look for the Cardinals defense, under new defensive coordinator Ray Horton, to be more active along the line of scrimmage, especially with Darnell Dockett, hoping to put him on mismatches. Carolina’s running backs will find safety Adrian Wilson down in the box, too.

CZAR’S SCOOP: The Panthers will definitely be looking at bringing in some defensive tackles this week because they currently only have three on their 53-man roster with two rookies starting. It could be a long day if Arizona RB Beanie Wells gets untracked.

After he was released by the Bills, the Panthers quickly signed Geoff Hangartner, who still had family and a condo in Carolina. He will start today at right guard. The Panthers want to test LB Jon Beason’s foot on the field, but the team’s leading tackler the last four seasons sounds like he’s playing.

Minnesota at San Diego, 4:15 p.m.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The last time these two teams played in 2007 Vikings RB Adrian Peterson ran for an NFL-record 296 yards, the bulk of it in the second half. The Chargers have a solid defense, but they are a little weak at inside linebacker, so stopping Peterson will be key. Look for the Chargers to put new safety Bob Sanders down in the box in order to key on Peterson on early downs, plus they need veteran LB Takeo Spikes to help stuff the Minnesota run. Also don't forget, this will be QB Donovan McNabb’s debut with the Vikings and he will be using electric WR Percy Harvin as much as possible.

The Chargers are determined to get off to a great start and QB Philip Rivers has two super targets in TE Antonio Gates and WR Vincent Jackson, plus a two-headed running back situation with Mike Tolbert and Ryan Mathews. Tolbert is the better receiver and Mathews, last year’s No. 1 pick, simply has to protect the football better. The Chargers better keep an eye on Jared Allen, who has had over 11 sacks for four consecutive seasons.

CZAR’S SCOOP: Because he was due $10.7 million this season, Adrian Peterson, unlike Chris Johnson in Tennessee, was in control of his contract extension negotiations. The bottom line is that Peterson will collect $40 million over the next three seasons. By contrast, Johnson will receive $31 million over the next three seasons. The Vikings found out about the new contract on their flight here Saturday afternoon. The Panthers gave DeAngelo Williams $30 million over three years. Peterson is now signed through seven seasons with the Vikings.

The Chargers started 2-5 last season and missed the playoffs, but coach Norv Turner likes his new special teams coach Rich Bisaccia and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky. Shoddy special teams killed the Chargers last season. Of course, they will miss Darren Sproles, who returned a punt for a touchdown for the Saints Thursday night.

With the new 46-man rule, the Vikings will be able to dress three quarterbacks. There is no doubt that they have some wildcat packages for Joe Webb, who replaced an injured Brett Favre last season. At one time, the Vikings were considering using Webb as a receiver. Minnesota’s new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave has simplified the offense, much to the players’ delight.

Seattle at San Francisco, 4:15 p.m.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The 49ers appear to have the edge in this game due to all the injuries for the Seahawks, starting with two of their big offseason acquisitions — WR Sidney Rice and guard Robert Gallery — sitting this game out. The Gallery injury has caused Seattle to reshuffle its offensive line, moving first-round pick James Carpenter to right guard. Seattle has won the NFC West five of the last seven seasons, but the new quarterback is Tarvaris Jackson, not Matt Hasselbeck. Jackson struggled in the preseason and he may focus a lot on ex-Raider TE Zach Miller with John Carlson out for the season.

Rookie K.J. Wright will be Seattle’s middle linebacker and he will be tested by the 49ers’ Frank Gore, who has had two 200-yard rushing games against Seattle. Rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh plans to stick with Alex Smith and plans to use WRs Braylon Edwards and Michael Crabtree, who missed the entire preseason, a lot in this game. Still, TE Vernon Davis will remain Smith’s go-to receiver.

CZAR’S SCOOP: Whether you believe it or not, both head coaches — Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll — said this week that they are friendly (not friends) and they have forgotten the postgame exchange after Harbaugh’s Stanford team put a 55-21 whipping on Carroll’s USC team in 2009. At the handshake, Carroll asked Harbaugh, “What’s your deal?” and Harbaugh repeated the question. Both coaches joked that television will have a bunch of boom mikes around today to pick up their exchanges.

The reports of Cincinnati Bengals QB Carson Palmer working out the past three weeks makes you wonder where he could be headed. Some think Seattle could be Palmer’s landing spot, despite the team picking new QB Jackson as a captain.

Palmer was on the books for $11.5 million this season and that sounds like too much money to simply kiss goodbye. The asking price could be a second-round pick if Bengals owner Mike Brown decides to make a trade rather than sitting on Palmer for the entire season, something he has vowed to do rather than give in to Palmer’s so-called retirement maneuver.

OTHER SUNDAY GAMES

Pittsburgh at Baltimore, 1 p.m.: The Steelers are seeking their ninth consecutive win on opening-week games in this AFC North slugfest. However, this game could be more wide open as Ben Roethlisberger has two big-play weapons in Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace. The Ravens should be more improved in the air with the arrival of WR Lee Evans. The Steelers giving Troy Polamalu a new four-year contract means that now the Steelers can save the franchise tag Wallace next year if they so choose. Both teams are struggling with their offensive lines.

Cincinnati at Cleveland, 1 p.m.: The Bengals have won four of the last five meetings, but the Browns may have the edge today with RB Peyton Hillis and improved play of QB Colt McCoy. In his only game against the Bengals last season, McCoy passed for two touchdowns. Marvin Lewis begins his ninth season with the Bengals, going against rookie head coach Pat Shurmur. The Bengals love their rookie QB Andy Dalton and No. 1 pick A.J. Green, the best receiver in this year’s draft.

Indianapolis at Houston, 1 p.m.: The Kerry Collins era begins for the Colts, who could be minus Peyton Manning until December. Houston has won only twice in 18 games against Indianapolis, but win No. 3 could come today even without injured RB Arian Foster, last season’s rushing champion with 1,616 yards. The Colts have 34 road wins in season openers, the most by any AFC teams. Collins needs 111 passing yards to supplant Joe Montana as No. 10 on the all-time list with 40,552 yards.

Tennessee at Jacksonville, 1 p.m.: They are still talking in Florida about how shabbily former Jaguars QB David Garrard was treated, the team knowing he was going to be released and still having him speak at the team’s kickoff luncheon. GM Gene Smith took responsibility for the club’s action, but it was coach Jack Del Rio who wanted the move after Garrard had three INTs in Monday’s practice. It means that rookie Blaine Gabbert will eventually be the starting quarterback, considering Luke McCown is 1-6 in six NFL seasons. The Titans should have an edge with new QB Matt Hasselbeck and big-play RB Chris Johnson.

Buffalo at Kansas City, 1 p.m.: The Chiefs looked ugly during a 0-4 preseason, one that ended with them losing playmaking tight end Tony Moeaki in the fourth quarter of their final preseason game. To say the least, coach Todd Haley was pretty unconventional with his approach to the preseason as he gave his starters more snaps in the final game than the other three games combined. The Bills are pretty excited about their defense with a healthy OLB Shawne Merriman, plus rookie DE Marcell Dareus, DT Kyle Williams and ex-Packer LB Nick Barnett. It’s been cool in Buffalo, and the muggy conditions could hurt them.

Dallas at NY Jets, 8:20 p.m.: The Cowboys enter this prime-time showcase beat up in the secondary and with three young offensive linemen making their first NFL starts against one the league’s toughest defenses directed by a masterful schemer in Rex Ryan. It could get ugly fast if Cowboys QB Tony Romo doesn’t have any time to throw and find big-play target Dez Bryant. Dallas could also be minus both starting cornerbacks. Terence Newman (groin) is out probably until the Monday night home opener against the Redskins in Week 3 while Mike Jenkins will be a game-time decision. It also looks like rookie RT Tyron Smith won’t play for the Cowboys.

Tagged: Packers, Colts, Saints, Eagles, Michael Vick, Danny Watkins, Ryan Torain, Ravens, Tarvaris Jackson, Falcons, Bills, Bears, Bengals, Browns, Cowboys, Lions, Titans, Chiefs, Rams, Vikings, Giants, Jets, 49ers, Seahawks, Buccaneers, Redskins, Panthers, Jaguars, Cardinals, Steelers, Chargers, Mike Brown, Jason Hanson, Peyton Manning, Tony Gonzalez, John Abraham, Adrian Wilson, Matt Hasselbeck, Steve Smith Sr., Mike Williams, David Garrard, Adrian Peterson, Lance Briggs, Carson Palmer, Antonio Gates, Tony Romo, Larry Fitzgerald, Philip Rivers, Roy Williams, Ben Roethlisberger, Steven Jackson, Jason Babin, Chris Cooley, Eli Manning, Michael Turner, Joselio Hanson, Jammal Brown, Vincent Jackson, Evan Mathis, Alex Smith, Todd Herremans, Vince Young, Jay Cutler, DeAngelo Williams, Ray Edwards, Calvin Johnson, Jon Beason, Greg Olsen, Kevin Kolb, John Beck, Kyle Williams, Mike Jenkins, John Carlson, Matt Forte, DeSean Jackson, Chris Long, Matt Ryan, Peyton Hillis, Tim Hightower, Mike Tolbert, Danny Amendola, Mike Wallace, Michael Crabtree, Antonio Brown, Ryan Mathews, Jason Pierre-Paul, Mike Kafka, Tony Moeaki, Joe Webb, Colt McCoy, Trent Williams, Chris Johnson, Julio Jones, Tyron Smith, Jason Kelce, Gregory Jones, Chris Johnson

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