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Czar's Week 1 countdown

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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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New York’s defense should be improved with the addition of Titans’ LB Keith Bulluck, plus the return of safety Kenny Phillips. New York’s offensive line will be intact for the first time all summer with the return of center Shaun O’Hara (Achilles) The Giants still have a double-edge running tandem with starter Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs. Panthers QB Matt Moore needs for rookie WR Brandon LaFell to take some heat off of Steve Smith, who will be double-covered by the Giants. The Giants are still waiting on CB Aaron Ross (foot) to get healthy.

CZAR’S SCOOP: The Giants’ return game really caught a break with the trade last week with the Vikings for Darius Reynaud, who will return both punts and kickoffs. Carolina has decided to make rookie receivers David Gettis and Armanti Edwards inactive in order to dress three tight ends and focus on special teams.

Remember, the Giants have a rookie punter in Matt Dodge. Panthers coach John Fox is in the final year of his contract, and he doesn’t know what his future will bring. If he doesn’t force owner Jerry Richardson into making him a new offer, Fox will be auditioning his services for prospective employers this season. There is no doubt that Richardson, who has recovered nicely from a heart transplant, has financially downsized the Panthers this season.

The Giants remain in tough shape at tight end with only Kevin Boss healthy. Geoff Schwartz started for injured Carolina RT Jeff Otah. And that’s no big deal because Schwartz played last season against the Giants, too. Defensive lineman Justin Tuck was named a captain for the first time by his Giant teammates.

Atlanta at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m. ET

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Falcons will be looking to beat the Steelers’ blitzing defense with some quick slants to WR Roddy White and TE Tony Gonzalez. Gonzalez needs only one more reception to reach 1,000. Atlanta also believes it must run Michael Turner to keep Pittsburgh honest up front.

The Falcons feel much better about their defense with the addition of RCB Dunta Robinson and rookie OLB Sean Weatherspoon. They believe they have the speed to contain Steelers QB Dennis Dixon, who has the quickness to escape the pocket when his protection breaks down. However, the Steelers want Dixon to focus on his receivers, Hines Ward and Mike Wallace, instead of taking off and running.

Pittsburgh RB Rashard Mendenhall will be used on all three downs this season. If Dixon struggles, coach Mike Tomlin won’t hesitate to play veteran Charlie Batch. The Falcons expect a big season from QB Matt Ryan, who missed two games down the stretch last season because of a turf toe injury.

CZAR’S SCOOP: This could be a breakout season for OLB LaMarr Woodley, who is still looking for a new contract. Byron Leftwich would have started this game for the Steelers until he sprained the MCL in his left knee in the final preseason game. Leftwich is hoping to be able to play in a couple weeks.

The Falcons gave former first-round pick Jamaal Anderson every opportunity to win the starting job at defensive end, but he lost out to Kroy Biermann, a third-year player from Montana. WR Brian Finneran replaces the injured Michael Jenkins in the Falcons’ starting lineup.

Falcons DE John Abraham was a step slow last season because of a severe groin injury that required surgery. Now healthy, Abraham should improve on his 5 1/2 sacks, and the key is to get him away from double-team blocks. Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians compared his tight end Heath Miller to Hall of Famers Mike Ditka and John Mackey this week.

Detroit at Chicago, 1 p.m. ET

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Bears claim they were “vanilla” in their 0-4 preseason, and that fans shouldn’t worry about QB Jay Cutler being sacked ten times, including five times in the first half against the Raiders on Aug. 22. Yes, the Bears have a reshuffled offensive line, one that must deal with a very aggressive Lions’ front four, led by rookie Ndamukong Suh and Kyle Vanden Bosch. The Lions best back-seven player, safety Louis Delmas, isn’t close to being 100 percent because of a groin injury.

Cutler has meshed well with new offensive coordinator Mike Martz, and look for the Bears to attack the deep outside zones, believing they can beat the Detroit cornerbacks Chris Houston and Jonathan Wade with Johnny Knox and Devin Hester. The Lions want to play a more controlled offensive game with Matthew Stafford handing off to rookie RB Jahvid Best, hoping to steer clear of the double coverage around Calvin Johnson. The Lions believe that both tight ends, Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler, can have success against Brian Urlacher.

CZAR’S SCOOP: The Lions have lost 15 straight games in the division and 20 straight road games. In fact, their last road win was in Chicago back in 2007. The Lions have lost 37 of their last 40 games, but they have made significant strides in restocking the roster. Only 15 players remain, including three special teamers, from the final game of the 2008 season, which includes a total of 78 players from the practice squad and injured reserve.

The Bears plan to move Julius Peppers around, but he’ll be matched up against Jeff Backus a lot. Peppers is too quick for the bulky Backus. There is tremendous pressure on coach Lovie Smith to deliver this season, and he keeps pointing out that the Saints went to the Super Bowl last year after having an 8-8 season in 2008. For the Bears to have a great season, DT Tommie Harris must play to his previous Pro Bowl standards, and both Matt Forte and Chester Taylor must have super seasons running and catching.

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Green Bay at Philadelphia, 4:15 p.m. ET

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Packers come into this game relatively healthy, and you can bet that nose tackle B.J. Raji will be attacking Eagles center Jamaal Jackson, who is eight months removed from ACL surgery. Green Bay wants to find out if Jackson can protect new starting quarterback Kevin Kolb. On the flip side, the Eagles will test rookie cornerback Sam Shields, who will play nickel, with Tramon Williams moving into a starter’s role with Al Harris out.

CB Charles Woodson sprained the same right toe that he broke last year in Friday’s practice. The Packers say Woodson will be fine. The Eagles receivers, Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson, like Kolb because he gets the ball out quickly and throws an easier-to-catch deep ball than Donovan McNabb used to. Although DeSean McCoy had a great summer for the Eagles, coach Andy Reid will stick with his pass-first mentality with both tight end Brent Celek and third receiver Jason Avant being prime targets against the Packers’ blitz scheme.

The Eagles will be wearing their throwback uniforms as the club celebrates the 50th anniversary of its last NFL championship team. The Eagles beat the Packers in that game.


CZAR’S SCOOP: If there is any criticism of Packers GM Ted Thompson, it’s that he refuses to make any moves in free agency. He prefers to build his team through the draft, and two of those rookies, SS Morgan Bennett and Shields, will play major roles Sunday. If the Packers lose because either of these young players plays poorly, Thompson could be criticized for not securing veteran help.

The Eagles are shaky along the offensive line and attempted to trade with the Packers for backup guard Jason Spitz. The Packers also failed to get No. 1 pick Brian Bulaga, an offensive lineman, into the starting lineup, even though many believe he is better than LG Daryn Colledge. Bulaga started training camp as Chad Clifton’s backup, and when the team eventually moved him inside to guard after three weeks, Bulago got hurt.

How deep are the Packers? Well, when the team cut its roster to 53, six ex-Packers were signed elsewhere. It should be noted, too, that Michael Vick is back and could be a definite threat to play should Kolb struggle this season. Vick is more than simply a wildcat quarterback. He is also well-liked by his teammates and coaching staff. In fact, he and Kolb are friendly.

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

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Frank Gore had only nine carries in a 20-17 loss here last season, and that won’t happen again. Gore will get at least double that amount as the 49ers will test Seattle’s new defensive line. The 49ers have invested in two first-round offensive linemen, and they plan to run behind LB Mike Iupati as much as possible. The 49ers are so worried about the crowd noise inside Qwest Field that they had crowd noise piped into practice this week.

On the flip side, the Seahawks want to use a controlled passing attack with Matt Hasselbeck while hoping that LT Tyler Polumbus, who is starting for injured Russell Okung, can protect his blindside. RB Justin Forsett will start for the Seahawks ahead of Julius Jones and Leon Washington. The surprise on the Seattle roster is that former Trojan, Mike Williams, who busted out in Detroit, is a starting receiver. New head coach Pete Carroll has been cleaning house with his roster, getting younger and leaner.

CZAR’S SCOOP: Funny how things work out in San Francisco. When Mike Singletary took over for Mike Nolan two seasons ago, one of his first dramatic acts was to bench TE Vernon Davis and banish him to the locker room during a game. Yesterday, the 49ers made Davis the game’s highest-paid tight end, eclipsing the contract given earlier this summer to San Diego’s Antonio Gates, who got $20.4 million in guaranteed money.

Davis signed a five-year deal for $37 million, $23 million of it guaranteed. He did lead all tight ends with 13 touchdowns last season. The 49ers will have only seven offensive linemen active for today’s game. Offensive line coach Alex Gibbs quit the Seahawks earlier in the week, and it could have been over personnel moves such as the addition of Eagles tackle Stacy Andrews.

It looks like 49ers RB Brian Westbrook will have a limited role because of a slow recovery from a hamstring injury. In fact, he may not play at all.

Arizona at St. Louis, 4:15 p.m. ET

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: RB Beanie Wells won’t play for the Cardinals, but that doesn’t mean Arizona will be giving up on its running game. Tim Hightower will get the bulk of the carries. Newly acquired WR Mark Clayton will play a lot for the Rams, who are looking for playmakers to help rookie QB Sam Bradford. Clayton started 76 games with the Ravens before Baltimore traded him less than two weeks ago.

Rams RB Steven Jackson has put on some extra pounds after having back surgery in the offseason, and he feels ready to rumble. There is a lot of enthusiasm in the city for the Rams’ first game based on the solid play of Bradford this summer. The Rams kept two rookie tight ends in Michael Hoomanawanui and Fendi Onobun, and you can expect to see them used in red zone formations.

Derek Anderson, who was a Pro Bowl quarterback for the Browns in 2007, is Arizona’s new starter, and already WR Larry Fitzgerald has complained about a lack of rhythm with his new quarterback. The Cardinals do have plenty of playmakers in Steve Breaston and rookie Stephen Williams.

CZAR’S SCOOP: You have to figure that the Rams may have had an interest in Chargers WR Vince Jackson, but his agents keep asking for a contract comparable to Brandon Marshall and Larry Fitzgerald, and that’s difficult to justify for a player who is one failed drug test away from a one-year suspension. Also, the Chargers want more than just a second-round pick for Jackson, who is currently serving a three-game suspension. One theory is why give up multiple picks for Jackson this year when the Rams or any other team can pursue him in free agency next year without giving away draft picks.

There has been speculation that Minnesota, a team that has 18 potential free agents next year, plans to make a run at Jackson. If Anderson doesn’t work out for the Cardinals, you can bet they will eventually play Max Hall at quarterback. One big reason is that Arizona could owe Anderson $7.5 million in 2011 if he’s the starter. Hall is under contract for $405,000 next year.

Other Sunday Games:

Cincinnati at New England: Apparently satisfied with a new contract, Tom Brady must put up a lot of points in order to compensate for a very young Patriots’ defense. Brady has won 20 consecutive regular-season games at Foxboro and is 54-10 overall there. Brady apparently is fine after being involved in a Thursday morning car accident. The Bengals plan to use man-to-man coverage on New England’s outside receivers, which could lead to a big day for Randy Moss. This could be a telling game for Carson Palmer, who has never looked quite the same after knee and throwing elbow injuries the past two seasons. Terrell Owens needs 49 receiving yards to become the third player to reach 15,000, while Chad Ochocinco needs 48 to reach 10,000 receiving yards.

Indianapolis at Houston: Yes, the Texans have been getting closer every season to the Colts, who still own a 15-1 record against their division foe. Peyton Manning has thrown 37 touchdown passes against the Texans, who need a big day from their young secondary and pass rusher Mario Williams with Brian Cushing serving his four-game suspension. Like Brady, Manning is looking for a new contract. He is unsigned for 2011, and his franchise cap number for next year is $23 million. You have to believe that Manning won’t give Colts owner Jimmy Irsay a discount on the overall numbers, either. The Colts tend to do their big contract signings later in the season or right after the Super Bowl. The league season ends March 3.

Miami at Buffalo: Miami’s secondary, which allowed 234 passing yards a game last season, remains suspect, but can Trent Edwards take advantage? Edwards has thrown more interceptions (four) than touchdowns (one) in his starts against the Dolphins. With Ronnie Brown back and healthy, look for the Dolphins to use their wildcat offense because Brown is an adept passer and ball-handler. No. 1 pick RB C.J. Spiller starts for the Bills after running for three touchdowns in the preseason, leaving Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch as backups. Miami starts two rookies on defense, plus Tim Robbins starts for injured ILB Channing Crowder (groin).

Denver at Jacksonville: Hometown quarterback Tim Tebow will play some for the Broncos, who will start Kyle Orton. This would mean that Brady Quinn could be inactive because the Broncos need bodies for special teams. Denver probably will start three rookies on the offensive line along with super LT Ryan Clady against the Jaguars. This is a critical season for coach Jack Del Rio and QB David Garrard. You have to figure that both must win in order to return in 2011. TE Marcedes Lewis is the player to watch for the Jags.

Oakland at Tennessee: The Raiders have beefed up their corps of linebackers, and Titans RB Chris Johnson will be their first big test. The Titans did offer a fourth-round pick for Washington’s Albert Haynesworth, but some of the players wonder why they want the big headache to return. “Honestly, I think we have everybody we need right now,” said Titans DT Tony Brown. “Personally, I don’t think we need him. Plus, it wouldn’t be fair to the players who have worked their tails off to be a starter.” Also, Johnson continues to say that he’s a better back than Adrian Peterson. “I’m the best back in the league,” Johnson said. “I don’t think it is close.” Johnson ran for 2,006 yards last season. Peterson led the NFL in 2008 with 1,760 yards.

Cleveland at Tampa Bay: It’s been so hot and muggy in Tampa that Bucs coach Raheem Morris took his team indoors to baseball’s Tropicana Field on Thursday. Bucs QB Josh Freeman also practiced that day, meaning he will start Sunday despite a broken right thumb on his throwing hand. The Browns have high hopes for Jake Delhomme while also employing one of the league’s best all-around players in Josh Cribbs, who has 2,510 all-purpose yards last season. Could we see some wildcat offense with Cribbs and backup QB Seneca Wallace? The Bucs are back playing the Tampa Two defense, but can they generate enough points? Tampa is 3-17 in its last 20 games. When he was with the Panthers, Delhomme was 9-2 as a starter against the Bucs.

Dallas at Washington: Well, the Cowboys have beaten the Redskins a record 59 times, and they’d like to make it an even 60. Dallas is without two offensive line starters, and the lack of protection was an issue to Tony Romo in the preseason games. He started throwing off his back foot while under pressure. Donovan McNabb will start despite a sprained left ankle, and Albert Haynesworth will play, primarily as an inside rusher on passing downs. The Cowboys feel very good about their defense, which must control Clinton Portis. Dallas does have some packages in the game for rookie WR Dez Bryant, who missed all of the preseason because of a high right ankle sprain. This will be Bryant’s first game in a year after being suspended at Oklahoma State.

Tagged: Falcons, Bills, Bears, Bengals, Browns, Cowboys, Broncos, Lions, Packers, Titans, Colts, Raiders, Rams, Dolphins, Vikings, Patriots, Giants, Jets, Eagles, 49ers, Seahawks, Buccaneers, Redskins, Panthers, Jaguars, Ravens, Cardinals, Steelers, Chargers, Texans, Michael Vick, Brian Finneran, Brian Urlacher, Chad Johnson, Jeff Backus, Chad Clifton, Peyton Manning, Tony Gonzalez, Kurt Warner, Tom Brady, Jake Delhomme, John Abraham, Al Harris, Donovan McNabb, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Hines Ward, Terrell Owens, Matt Hasselbeck, Steve Smith Sr., Mike Williams, Albert Haynesworth, Julius Peppers, Brian Westbrook, Carson Palmer, Chris Johnson, Tony Romo, Tony Brown, Jamaal Jackson, Larry Fitzgerald, Ben Roethlisberger, Steven Jackson, Michael Jenkins, Michael Turner, Mark Clayton, Jason Campbell, Alex Smith, Alex Smith, Ronnie Brown, Mike Williams, Derek Anderson, Brandon Jacobs, Jason Spitz, Mario Williams, Vince Young, Vernon Davis, Jay Cutler, DeAngelo Williams, Tony Scheffler, Jason Avant, Leon Washington, Brandon Marshall, Fred Jackson, Tramon Williams, Steve Breaston, Kevin Boss, Steve Smith, Trent Edwards, Calvin Johnson, Jamaal Anderson, Brady Quinn, Kevin Kolb, Chris Houston, Matt Moore, Ryan Clady, Jonathan Stewart, Chris Johnson, Matt Forte, DeSean Jackson, Chad Henne, Matt Ryan, Tim Hightower, Dennis Dixon, Mike Wallace, Mike Goodson, Brian Cushing, Brandon Pettigrew, Jahvid Best, Matt Dodge, Brandon LaFell, Tim Tebow, Mike Iupati, Sam Bradford, Michael Hoomanawanui, Armanti Edwards, Sean Weatherspoon, Max Hall, Sam Shields, Stephen Williams

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