As new season dawns, nightmare end of '96 still hurts Picking against Jaguars is the proper payback

THE BALTIMORE SUN

My 24th year of picking NFL games begins with a still-angry old man remembering what might have been had things gone a bit more logically near the end of the NFL's 1996 season.

Jacksonville's second-year Jaguars were the primary problem. They had a chance to upset the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game. I didn't mind that they lost the game, but they certainly were going to cover the point spread until they fumbled late and the Patriots ran the recovery in for a touchdown.

That setback was minor, however, compared to the harm done by the Jaguars' victory over Denver at Mile High Stadium the previous week. That result really hurt. Not because I had picked the Broncos, but because it kept Denver out of the Super Bowl and ruined what would have been a wonderful opportunity to take a much more formidable underdog and the points against Green Bay.

We'll never know, of course, how that Green Bay-Denver matchup would have turned out, but the Packers weren't terribly impressive in beating the Patriots, 35-21, as a 14-point favorite in New Orleans.

My final scorecard last season showed a mythical profit of $495 with a 72-63-2 record, which simply shows I became involved with too many games. The number of selections in 1997-98 will not be as high, a promise I make the first week of nearly every season and frequently fail to remember.

And remember: The first weekend is usually a better time to look at the action than to bet on it. That seems to be particularly true pTC during the current period of heavy free-agent movement and unfathomable salary caps, when an accountant seems almost as important to a team's future as a general manager.

This week's picks

All bets in mythical dollars:

Jaguars (-3) at Ravens: I haven't forgotten what the Jaguars did to me in January, so what better way to gain a little revenge than by picking the Ravens?

Rob Johnson filled in adequately for the injured Mark Brunell in the preseason. Now it's time to see how the former Southern California quarterback will handle the pressure when the games count.

The addition of Tony Siragusa will help the Ravens' defensive front tremendously, and the rookie linebackers are promising.

Take the Ravens for $100.

Saints at Rams (-4): The Rams, under new coach Dick Vermeil, figure to improve on last year's 6-10 mark. Look for Mike Ditka, new coach at New Orleans, to do a good job with the Saints, too. St. Louis has the superior firepower in this contest, starting with Isaac Bruce and Eddie Kennison, as good a pair of receivers as there is in the league.

Take the Rams for $100.

Cowboys (-1) at Steelers: It's going to be interesting to see how Kordell Stewart fares in his first start as the Steelers' quarterback. Stewart has a chance to be the best scrambling quarterback in NFL history. Trouble is, pro teams don't pay quarterbacks big bucks to see them run. Can Stewart develop into an adequate passer? He has had mixed reviews.

The Cowboys' Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin will have a more productive year than they did in '96. The concern in Dallas is the defense, with Leon Lett banned for the first 13 games and Deion Sanders still playing baseball in most of his prime time.

Take Pittsburgh for $100.

Redskins at Panthers (-4): The Panthers were 8-1 against the spread last year at home, and much of that enthusiasm figures to carry over into the club's third season. The defection of blitzing linebacker Kevin Greene to San Francisco will be offset, in part, by the addition of Renaldo Turnbull.

Washington will be a good squad to watch as the season progresses, with Darrell Green and Cris Dishman on the corners. The Redskins still must prove they can stop the run, however, even with Green and Dishman in single coverage much of the time.

Take Carolina for $100.

Chiefs at Broncos (-7 1/2 ): Denver again appears to be the class of the AFC. The Chiefs, meanwhile, are in a rebuilding mode that could take longer than their fans might expect. Much depends on the progress of new quarterback Elvis Grbac. He has much to prove.

Take Denver for $250.

Pub Date: 8/29/97

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