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Dr. Z's Forecast

Can you have a critical game in Week 2? Yes. In fact, you can have a pair of them when the four NFC East archrivals go at it

EVERY GAME NFCEast teams play against each other will be a big one. Nobody knows yet who'sreally good. No one's a mortal lock to win the division, or strictly a longshot. And as much as we hate to fall into that trap of calling a mid-Septembercontest a "crucial," how else would you describe the twin pairings ofWashington-Dallas and Giants-Philly this weekend? Look at it this way. TheCowboys dropped both games to Washington last year, but if they had gained asplit--and they very easily could have taken the first game, a 14--13loss--then they, not the Redskins, would have been in the playoffs.

Giants-Eagles isan odd series. In 14 of the last 15 years the team that won the first contesthas taken the second one. This year I think the Giants will have Philly'snumber. Last week the Eagles got an early scare in Houston and then coasted.The Giants had a momentous game against Indy, whipping the Colts in mostcategories in which he-men are measured: running game, run defense, quarterbackpressure and so forth. But Peyton Manning was a magician, getting off hispasses at the very last moment, just before he felt the horns of the beast, tolead Indy to a most impressive victory.

The Eaglesenjoyed one of the utmost luxuries in NFL football against the Texans: beingable to substitute an entire front four at times. Fresh legs can stand firmagainst a big league running game. They can keep the pass rush going. Phillymight be a lot better than we suspect, but I just like the emotion and muscleNew York showed against the Colts. The Giants are my pick in an upset.

The second halfof the NFC East set matches a pair of quarterbacks with something to prove.Washington's Mark Brunell had a miserable exhibition season. Drew Bledsoe ofDallas seemed to tire last week as the loss to the Jaguars wore on. I'm notreally comfortable with this pick, but I'll stick with the Cowboys, onlybecause the game's in Dallas.

Upset special:Jets at home over New England. The Jets haven't beat the Patriots for the lastthree years. But there's a new spirit catching on in New York, and, guaranteed,when those victory-starved Jets fans see their offense take the field onSunday, the roars will be deafening. The Patriots were downplaying the holdoutby wideout Deion Branch. The Buffalo game was a chance to make a statement.See, we're just fine without him. Then the entire banged-up wideout corpscaught four passes for 51 yards, and Branch was traded.

In other gamesthat figure to be close, the Saints will win on the Packers' home turf for thefirst time in 35 years. Carolina gave up the second-most rushing yards infranchise history (252) to Atlanta, but I can't see a Vikings victory. BradJohnson's no Michael Vick. Panthers to win it. Wait a minute, I've foundanother upset: San Francisco, with an offense that's coming back to life, willbeat St. Louis in a shootout. And in the Monday-nighter, well, Jacksonville'sone of the few teams that's always matched up well physically with Pittsburgh,and if Big Ben isn't back yet.... Aah, the hell with it. With or without him,the Steelers will get their upset on the road.

Last week: 5--3(not including late Monday game)



STAR-EYED Bledsoe has plenty to prove, and enough to win, against the Skins.