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The biggest handicapping mistakes I've made have come when I
based my opening week picks on what I saw in the preseason. The
coaches who leave their first-stringers in just a little longer
than the other teams', trying to squeeze out meaningless
victories, are usually the guys who get killed once the games
are for real. Forget preseason records.

That said, I'm picking the Cowboys to beat the Steelers, who
were 4-0 in the preseason, in the showcase game of Week 1.
Dallas will have some trouble with Pittsburgh's new defensive
packages, which still rely heavily on the zone blitz but now use
three-man fronts even in passing situations. But I think the
Cowboys are ready to bust loose offensively. Here's a guy to
watch: Billy Davis, a third-year man from Pitt who's coming home
to play in Three Rivers. He's the best No. 2 wideout the team
has had since Alvin Harper, a big improvement over Kevin
Williams and that nonsensical experiment with Deion Sanders at
wideout last year. Pittsburgh running back Jerome Bettis would
figure to pound an undersized and outmanned Dallas front seven,
but I think the Cowboys will address their deficiencies by
loading up with eight men in the box to stop the run and put
Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart to the test. The player
formerly known as Slash is no longer the spray passer he was
last year. He completed 63.4% of his preseason passes, with no
interceptions. The Steelers are still marveling about the short
touchdown he threw to Courtney Hawkins against the Eagles,
whipping the ball into a very tight spot, plus the perfect touch
he put on another shortie for a score in that game, this time to
tight end Mark Bruener. But all that is preseason stuff, and
now, in the real deal, we'll go with Troy Aikman and experience,
at least at this stage of the season. If Stewart decides to
scramble, he'll be marked by the Cowboys' swiftest linebacker,
the little rookie Dexter Coakley. (Yes, I think Stewart's
sprained left knee will be O.K.)

I think the Packers will beat the Bears at Lambeau on Monday
night, but not in the blowout everyone's predicting. On paper it
should be a rout, but good old-fashioned emotion is at work here.

I pick the Bucs to upset the 49ers in Tampa. Yeah, I know this
is a shaky choice, and stop laughing, please. I think the Bucs'
rush will get to San Francisco quarterback Steve Young.

Blowout of the day? Rams over the Saints in St. Louis. Sorry,
but I don't buy all the Mike Ditka hoopla. Not with the talent
he's got to work with.

Michael (KO) Westbrook, the Redskins' slugging wideout, has been
fined 50 G's and benched for the start of their game against the
Panthers, but who's to say he won't come in the first time
Washington's in long yardage? We'll see how he bounces back from
that nasty practice-field incident. I pick the home-standing
Panthers over the Redskins, even though Carolina is without
linebacker Kevin Greene's pass rush. But an upset wouldn't
surprise me.

I like the Broncos over the Chiefs at Mile High, but I'm not
sure Denver quarterback John Elway's arm is right. Lost in the
jubilation over his triumphant return against San Francisco last
weekend is the fact that he completed seven passes for only 51
yards, which isn't like him. I could be seeing snakes under the
bed here, but Elway without the long ball is like a pickpocket
with one arm.


COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Against the Steelers, the Cowboys and Emmitt Smith (22) should bust loose. [Emmitt Smith and others in game]