Countdown: NFL’s opening Sunday is finally here

Dallas at Tampa Bay, 1 ET




How will the weather affect the Cowboys and Bucs? Daryl Johnston has the answers.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Will the Cowboys really be conservative on offense? Will they simply pound the ball and operate out of a double tight end formation all day? Well, those are the plans with no Terrell Owens and plenty of solid runners in Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice. Another big edge is that offensive coordinator Jason Garrett knows Jim Bates, the Bucs’ new defensive coordinator, pretty well, having worked with him in Miami.

Bucs QB Byron Leftwich wants to play a ball-control offense and RB Cadillac Williams should start with Earnest Graham backing him up. Leftwich has all his receivers healthy, especially Antonio Bryant, but his main target figures to be TE Kellen Winslow. There’s a good chance of rainshowers during the game.

CZAR’S SCOOP: One of the not-so-funny comments going around the NFL this week was what would Cowboys owner Jerry Jones do to Wade Phillips if he lost to rookie head coach Raheem Morris? Would he fire him? Sounds too drastic, doesn’t it. But that’s the pressure that Phillips, who is in the final year of his contract, is under in Dallas.

It really wasn’t a fair quarterback duel between Leftwich and the since-traded Luke McCown this summer. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin encouraged Morris, a friend, to sign Leftwich, telling him that many Steelers preferred Leftwich to Ben Roethlisberger last season. That was enough for Morris. There is no question that Leftwich has above-average leadership skills and all those intangible qualities. The Cowboys are still attempting to work out a long-term contract with OLB DeMarcus Ware.

Minnesota at Cleveland, 1 ET

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The big news for the Vikings is that they will now have the Williams Wall for the remainder of the season after a federal appeals court upheld a Minnesota state court ruling, meaning a trial probably won’t happen until next year. It is great news for Kevin and Pat Williams, Minnesota’s Pro Bowl defensive tackles.

Brett Favre is a little nervous about his first start, knowing he must start delivering if the Vikings are going to win the NFC North and go deep into the playoffs. Vikings WR Bernard Berrian will play. Look for Adrian Peterson to get his carries, while Favre works play-action. Favre is a great screen passer and Chester Taylor is a great receiving running back. Favre isn’t yet comfortable with Berrian, but he is with TE Visanthe Shiancoe and rookie Percy Harvin.

Brady Quinn starts for the Browns and he must worry not just about the Williams Wall, but also Jared Allen.

CZAR’S SCOOP: This game marks Favre’s 272nd consecutive regular-season game and the record he is chasing belongs to former Vikings defensive end Jim Marshall. Barring injury, Favre should break it this season.

The NFL recognizes Marshall’s 282 consecutive games played as the record for a non-kicker or punter — Giants punter Jeff Feagles has appeared in 336 consecutive games. Marshall said recently that Favre “is the one person that I would have a great deal of respect for in breaking that record.”

Favre was voted captain by his teammates. One of the Vikings put a rocking chair in front of Favre’s locker last week. Favre said this week that it’s a long season and he would rest and lose the consecutive-game streak if it was best for the team. There is no question that many believe it will be difficult for Favre to go the entire season without getting hurt.

There is a split in management on whether Favre was the right decision, but coach Brad Childress and owner Zygi Wilf wanted it.

Ex-Vikings WR Bobby Wade is expected to sign with the Titans.

Philadelphia at Carolina, 1 ET




What’s the outlook for Donovan McNabb and the Philly offense? Charles Davis preview.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Well, all those plans for a dominating offensive line in Philadelphia are out the window in week 1 with Winston Justice replacing RT Shawn Andrews and Nick Cole starting for injured guard Todd Herremans. Still, Eagles QB Donovan McNabb figures to throw and throw a lot. Brian Westbrook (knee) will start for the Eagles.

The Panthers aren’t sure how many carries Jonathan Stewart (Achilles) will get, but no worries, they really like rookie RB Mike Goodson. Eagles LT Jason Peters will be matched up a lot against Julius Peppers, but the Panthers could also move Peppers around a lot to take advantage of Justice. Nick Hayden starts for injured DT Maake Kemoeatu.

Jake Delhomme was awful in the playoff loss to the Cardinals, but you can bet he plans to test Eagles rookie FS Victor “Macho” Harris in the deep middle. Also, Panthers MLB Jon Beason (sprained MCL) said he will start and is ready to go.

CZAR’S SCOOP: Michael Vick made his first of many planned appearances for schools and community groups this past week. Once he is activated, he also will make appearances in some of the cities that the Eagles visit this season. The team is planning a number of animal-welfare activities, including the deployment of other Eagles players in support of Vick. The team is going to have a mobile animal-care van that will visit at-risk areas. The team also plans to print trading cards that feature Eagles players and their pets. In fact, the team has done a masterful PR job in defusing the anti-Vick sentiment among animal rights activists and other fans.

Sounds like John Fox is going to roll the dice and have his superstar Steve Smith return punts. Bill Cowher’s youngest daughter has enrolled at Wofford College, the training-camp home of the Panthers. Cowher was rumored immediately as Fox’s replacement as soon as Cowher moved to Carolina.

Detroit at New Orleans, 1 ET




What’s in store today for Lions rookie QB Matthew Stafford? Chris Myers-Trent Green preview.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: With Pierre Thomas out, look for Reggie Bush to assume a heavy load in the offense for the Saints. Bush says he’s feeling great physically and ready to go after missing 10 of his last 20 regular-season games because of a knee injury. Still, Drew Brees figures to light up a Detroit team that has lost 17 consecutive games.

Tampa Bay owns the NFL record of 26 straight defeats. The Lions believe that No. 1 pick Matt Stafford needs to play because he knows the offense and won’t learn anything by sitting. There is no question that Stafford has the arm, and the veteran players believe he has a command of the offense and the huddle. The kid has all the intangibles.

Detroit believes it can run Kevin Smith and doesn’t believe the Saints have anybody who can stop WR Calvin Johnson.

CZAR’S SCOOP: Stafford, the first overall draft pick, will be the first rookie quarterback to start the opener for the Lions since Greg Landry in 1968. Other rookies have started for the Lions, but not in the opener.

With Minnesota’s Star Caps case basically resolved for this season, the Saints are wondering whether the NFL will follow through and suspend defensive linemen Charles Grant and Will Smith, who weren’t part of the Minnesota case. Privately, the Saints are hoping the league waits until next year. Everyone in the New Orleans organization is counting on defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to improve the defense. It’s a lot to ask of someone who doesn’t play.

Washington at N.Y. Giants, 4:15 ET




Can New York’s receivers take advantage of the ‘Skins? Troy Aikman preview.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: This could be a slugfest unless the Redskins decide to open it up; Bombs over Baghdad, as Clinton Portis would say. The Redskins didn’t score 30 points once last season and averaged just 14 over their final eight games. The key is how productive new starting WR Malcolm Kelly, all 6-foot-4 of him, is against a beat-up New York secondary. Aaron Ross is out and Kevin Dockery (hamstring) may be too gimpy to play. Rookie Bruce Johnson will play a lot and Redskins QB Jason Campbell must take advantage of him. Campbell passed for 365 yards in the two New York games, but the offense scored just 14 points.

Portis ran for 84 yards in the season-opening loss to the Giants last year, but Washington was 6-1 in games in which he rushed for at least 85 yards. No secret what the Giants are going to do. They will come out and test big Albert Haynesworth with Brandon Jacobs and new sidekick, Ahmad Bradshaw. The Giants plan to use some no-huddle offense to keep Big Albert puffing, and Corey Webster figures to isolate on Redskins WR Santana Moss. Chase Blackburn starts at weak-side linebacker for suspended Michael Boley.

CZAR’S SCOOP: Campbell is well-liked by his teammates, but owner Dan Snyder wanted to trade for Jay Cutler and also tried to acquire Mark Sanchez in the April draft. “It’s a new beginning,” Campbell said. “Another year in the system gives me a little leeway just to go out and play freely. We’ve been working together now for [more than] a year and we expect more out of ourselves.”

There is enormous pressure on both Campbell and his head coach, Jim Zorn, to win this season. If they don’t, Snyder is expected to make a coaching change. Whether he can find another quarterback, though, is another question.

After a fine training camp, rookie Ramses Barden probably will be the fifth or sixth receiver today for the Giants. In fact, the Giants are hoping to use Hakeem Hicks and Mario Manningham a lot in a rotation with starters Steve Smith and Dominik Hixon. Eventually, Hixon could be the odd receiver out.

San Francisco at Arizona, 4:15 ET




What do the defending NFC champs have to do to beat San Francisco? Tim Ryan preview.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Cardinals swept the NFC West last season and that’s the big reason they were a playoff team and had their best run in 61 years. Offensively, the Cardinals weren’t awesome in the preseason and there are concerns that QB Kurt Warner (hip) may struggle despite having offseason surgery. That would be worrisome for a receiving unit that features the best in Larry Fitzgerald and two very good complements in Anquan Boldin, who says he plans to play, and Steve Breaston.

The 49ers still haven’t been able to muster a great pass rush. They will rely on Frank Gore and impressive rookie RB Glen Coffee in order to play keep-away with the Cardinals. San Francisco needs to win the possession battle to have any chance.

CZAR’S SCOOP: The 49ers report no progress with holdout rookie Michael Crabtree. The Cardinals got extra time in order to lift the local blackout of this game. Arizona rookie RB Beanie Wells will play a lot, but Tim Hightower remains the starter.

Shawntae Spencer starts at RCB for the 49ers ahead of Dre’ Bly. San Francisco WR Isaac Bruce needs 56 receiving yards to join Jerry Rice as the only two with 15,000 yards. The 49ers gave Tony Pashos $1.2 million to be a backup offensive lineman. He was a starter the past three seasons in Baltimore and Jacksonville. After ripping him last season, 49ers coach Mike Singletary has been singing the praises of TE Vernon Davis.

St. Louis at Seattle, 4:15 ET




How will the Rams’ offense do against the Seahawks? John Lynch preview.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Rams have lost 10 straight NFC West games, and last year they lost them by an average of 15.3 points. For the Rams to stay with the Seahawks, Steven Jackson must have a big rushing day. He must dominate.

QB Marc Bulger will start despite missing the last three preseason games with a chipped bone in a pinky finger. He doesn’t plan to wear a protective covering on the finger, which was broken on a center snap from Jason Brown.

The Seahawks are minus LT Walter Jones and CB Marcus Trufant while also playing with an old safety in Lawyer Milloy, who is a great leader and hitter but someone who doesn’t run well anymore. But the Seahawks were running out of options there. Seattle WR Deion Branch (hamstring) will be a game-time decision. QB Matt Hasselbeck’s back is healthy and he’ll be targeting T.J. Houshmandzadeh and rookie Deon Butler.

CZAR’S SCOOP: Rams LB Chris Draft, who was asked to take a $380,000 pay cut from $1.2 million, went behind the team’s back and asked owner Chip Rosenbloom to intercede. When that happened, Draft wasn’t given a second chance to reconsider the team’s salary proposal and was immediately released. Draft said if the club needed the money that badly to take from Marc Bulger or someone else making millions.

David Vobora, Mr. Irrelevant of 2008, will assume the team’s strong-side linebacker role. Both of the Rams’ top picks, RT Jason Smith and MLB James Laurinaitis, will start. The Rams are still looking at prospective buyers for the franchise, but no sale is imminent. The Rams passed on LB Aaron Curry, the Seahawks’ No. 1 pick, because his position ranks low on coach Steve Spagnuolo’s chart for his defense. Curry, though, has been so impressive he could end up Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Other games

Miami at Altanta: The Falcons were 7-1 at home last year, but the defense has six new starters and the back seven is very young. You have to figure that Falcons QB Matt Ryan will attack Sean Smith and Nate Jones, two inexperienced defenders in the Miami secondary. Ryan has a bunch of weapons in new TE Tony Gonzalez, plus Pro Bowl receiver Roddy White and RB Michael Turner. The Dolphins aren’t saying if rookie QB Pat White will be active in order to run the wildcat offense.

Kansas City at Baltimore: Matt Cassel wants to start for the Chiefs, but his sprained left knee may be only 75 percent. The Chiefs want to be careful with their future and may decide to start Brodie Croyle instead against Baltimore’s dominating defense. Cassel may struggle getting away from the pressure. The Ravens plan to start RB Ray Rice and they continue to rave about the progress of second-year QB Joe Flacco. The big news in K.C. is not only did Todd Haley dump Chan Gailey as offensive coordinator, but he actually tore up some of the playbook, adding new running and passing plays.

Denver at Cincinnati: Even with a dislocated index finger on his throwing hand, Broncos QB Kyle Orton is expected to start. However, neither Orton nor Chris Simms is 100 percent and both were limited in practices all week. The Bengals did the right thing in babying Carson Palmer late in the preseason and his ankle seems fine. Without any good tight ends, the Bengals will use a lot of three-receiver sets, hoping for big games from Chad Ochocinco and Chris Henry, who was bothered by a thigh bruise late in the week. Broncos CB Champ Bailey figures to match up against Ochocinco.

Jacksonville at Indianapolis: The Colts have won six of the last eight games against the Jaguars. But David Garrard has a chance to throw because Indy’s secondary hasn’t played much together this summer because of injuries and safety Bob Sanders remains inactive. Jaguars RB Mo Jones-Drew will start after suffering a leg bruise in the final preseason game. New Jaguar Torry Holt has caught a pass in 153 consecutive games.

N.Y. Jets at Houston: A lot of NFL folks think the Texans are going to compete for the AFC South title and they are catching the Jets at the right time, with two defensive starters suspended (Shaun Ellis and Calvin Pace) who were the leading sackers last season. For the Jets to win, rookie QB Mark Sanchez must have an error-free game and hit some big plays deep. Houston QB Matt Schaub is ready to go and the Texans have a very good defense led by LB DeMeco Ryans and figure to dial up a pass rush to harass Sanchez.

Chicago at Green Bay: Bears coach Lovie Smith (7-3) has dominated this series because his special teams, coached by Dave Toub, have been superior to Green Bay’s. The Packers will have a new worry in rookie kick returner Johnny Knox. Still, the story of this game will be quarterbacks Jay Cutler and Aaron Rodgers — who makes the most plays and who makes the fewest mistakes. Cutler will have to deal with Green Bay’s new zone-blitz 3-4 defense and a ball-hawking secondary that has two veteran cornerbacks.

Buffalo at New England (Monday): It sounds like Bills coach Dick Jauron was simply listening to his offensive players, who were complaining about offensive coordinator Turk Schonert. The Bills will still use the spread offense, but might dial it back a bit to get the receivers more comfortable and also compensate for three starting offensive linemen with no NFL experience. Patriots WR Wes Welker is listed as questionable, but he expects to play. Tom Brady says his throwing shoulder is fine.

San Diego at Oakland (Monday): The Chargers have won 11 straight in the series while the Raiders have lost at least 11 games in the last six seasons, an NFL record for futility. The Raiders will try to run as much as possible with Darren McFadden, considering they will be starting two rookie receivers in Louis Murphy and Darrius Heyward-Bey. Phillip Rivers will team up with Vincent Jackson, who will be covered a lot by Nnamdi Asomugha, who will wear a soft cast to protect an injured wrist.