When Red McCombs bought the Minnesota Vikings just before training camp opened, he told coach Dennis Green one way to sell tickets would be to win exhibitions. So the Vikings went 4-0 by often playing starters against backups, sold tickets and ended up being made one of the Super Bowl favorites in the NFC.
Now it gets real.
The Tampa Bay Bucs, who went 10-6 last season after 14 losing years, arrive at the Metrodome on Sunday for a game between the teams most likely to challenge Green Bay for the NFC Central title.
"Any other time, 10-6 would be considered a great year, but not this season," says Tampa Bay safety John Lynch, one of the many young stars on the Bucs defense.
Lynch is probably right. The NFC Central is the NFL's toughest division and Sunday is a big day -- while the Bucs and Vikings are meeting, Detroit will be in Green Bay.
For the Bucs and Vikings, the number to improve on is 29. The Bucs were 29th in the 30-team league offensively last season and the Vikings, who squeezed into the playoffs at 9-7, were 29th on defense.
"I don't think anybody's going to just roll over and hide because they're scared of us," says Tampa Bay quarterback Trent Dilfer, the key to upgrading the Bucs' offensive performance. "We have to go out and prove we can be explosive."
The Vikings think the same way about their defense, even though they've hardly upgraded a secondary that was their biggest problem last season.
"We'll find out once the season starts," defensive coordinator Foge Fazio says. "I think the guys have done their job in every aspect we've asked them to. We've had good minicamps, good training camp, good scrimmages, good preseason games. Now let's see if we can do it in the regular season."
There are many other highlights on opening week:
Jerry Rice will begin his comeback from two knee injuries last season when San Francisco plays host to the New York Jets.
Peyton Manning of Indianapolis and Ryan Leaf of San Diego, the first two picks in April's draft, will make their regular-season debuts. Manning will be at home against Miami and Dan Marino and Leaf is at home for Buffalo.
And on Monday night, New England is at Denver, the first AFC Super Bowl champion in 14 years in what probably is the first game of John Elway's final season. That game will start 47 minutes earlier than previous Monday night games, at 8:20 p.m. EDT, a product of the NFL's new eight-year, $17.8 billion television contract.
In other games Sunday, it's Atlanta at Carolina, Jacksonville at Chicago, New Orleans at St. Louis, Pittsburgh at Baltimore, Seattle at Philadelphia, Tennessee at Cincinnati, Washington at the New York Giants, Arizona at Dallas and Oakland at Kansas City.
New England (10-6) at Denver (12-4) (Monday night)
The only question mark for Denver is post-Super Bowl lethargy. There are more question marks for the Patriots, the biggest of which is the successor to free-agent defector Curtis Martin at running back.
The starter is likely to be rookie Robert Edwards, who succeeded Terrell Davis as the Georgia tailback and might have Davis' ability. But Edwards couldn't stay healthy in college and has had nagging injuries in training camp.
Some Pats think the start of the John Elway Farewell Tour is the perfect opener.
"It's great to go out there and play them right off the bat," Dave Wohlabaugh says. "It'll give us a chance to see where we are and where they are."
Detroit (9-7) at Green Bay (13-3)
A matchup of last year's co-MVPs, Brett Favre and Barry Sanders.
More important is whether the Packers have found the replacement for their free-agent losses, particularly on defense. "Overall, we think our defensive unit is as strong as it's been since we've been here," says general manager Ron Wolf.
If so, it could be a long day at Lambeau for the Lions, who may be without Herman Moore (groin pull). Green Bay, which has won 27 straight at home, will probably use just-signed running back Dorsey Levens sparingly, if at all.
New York Jets (9-7) at San Francisco (13-3)
Rice probably won't start but, he'll get the biggest ovation when he's introduced with the starting 11.
Are the Niners, who haven't had a season with less than 10 wins since 1982, a dying dynasty? Rice is nearly 36, Steve Young nearly 37, the offensive line is shaky and the front office is shattered.
The Jets unveil Martin, the free-agent running back claimed as the latest prize in Bill Parcells' raids on his former team in New England.
Miami (9-7) at Indianapolis (3-13)
Manning coming in and Marino going out -- if not after this year, then soon. And also the first regular-season game as Colts head coach for Jim Mora, who turned the Saints around more than a decade ago.
Manning will get pressure. Miami's quick defense, even without the injured Jason Taylor, is sure to hurry him into some mistakes. Marino could get pressure, too, if the running game that Jimmy Johnson's still seeking in his third season as Dolphins coach doesn't come around.
Arizona (4-12) at Dallas (6-10)
The Cardinals, who have lost 14 of 15 meetings with the Cowboys and eight straight at Texas Stadium, were supposed to challenge this year. But then, as usual, something went wrong -- Andre Wadsworth, the first-round pick who was supposed to make a good defense great, remained a holdout.
The Cowboys unveil Chan Gailey, the new coach. He kept the offense vanilla in a winless preseason, but is likely to sprinkle in a few new flavors now that the games count.
Washington (8-7-1) at New York Giants (10-5-1)
For the Redskins, who missed the playoffs last season, this is the third game with the Giants in their last six. The most recent was a 30-10 loss in the Meadowlands that gave New York the NFC East title and ended up killing the Skins' wild-card chances.
The Skins have since added Dana Stubblefield and Dan Wilkinson to shore up the run defense. The Giants have their team back intact, with one major minus: cornerback Jason Sehorn, who tore up a knee returning kickoffs in the exhibition season.
Buffalo (6-10) at San Diego (4-12)
Young and younger -- Buffalo's Rob Johnson (young) makes his second NFL start at quarterback against Leaf (younger).
The Bills are an odd mixture -- Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed are still around from the Super Bowl teams, and Doug Flutie has been signed to backup Johnson. Beyond them are some talented youngsters, led by running back Antowain Smith.
Oakland (4-12) at Kansas City (13-3)
The Chiefs, who have won 15 of the last 17 in this venerable rivalry, are one of the AFC favorites. But they're already banged up. Among the question marks are wide receivers Andre Rison and Derrick Alexander and defensive end Chester McGlockton, the ex-Raider signed for $30 million over five years.
The Raiders unveil two important new faces, 35-year-old coach Jon Gruden and cornerback Charles Woodson, the Heisman Trophy winner and fourth overall pick in the draft.
Pittsburgh (11-5) at Baltimore (6-9-1)
The old Cleveland-Pittsburgh rivalry in a brand-new setting, the 21st century stadium that enticed Art Modell to move his team to Baltimore after the 1995 season. There's also a brand new quarterback, Jim Harbaugh, and Rod Woodson, the former Steelers star now playing cornerback for the Ravens.
Pittsburgh's Kordell Stewart is still learning to be a full-time quarterback, scary since he accounted for 32 touchdowns last season, 21 passing and 11 running. He could have more troubles against the Ravens than most teams, because of Baltimore's bright young linebacking corps of Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware and Jamie Sharper.
Seattle (8-8) at Philadelphia (6-9-1)
Dennis Erickson has been consistent -- 8-8, 7-9 and 8-8 in his three years as coach of the Seahawks. Now he brings Ricky Watters, part of Seattle's continuing revolving door, back against the team and coach he claimed underappreciated his talents.
Not only do the Eagles lack talent, but what there is of it is hurt. "This is the ugliest preseason I have ever been through," says coach Ray Rhodes, who reportedly wants out.
Tennessee (8-8) at Cincinnati (7-9)
The Oilers might have a legitimate shot at the playoffs this year if Yancey Thigpen does for Steve McNair as he did for Kordell Stewart.
The Bengals, who have started 1-6 and 1-7 the last two seasons, have their third straight ex-Jet starting at quarterback in Neil O'Donnell. He replaces Boomer Esiason, who retired to the Monday Night Football booth after replacing Jeff Blake in the second half of last season.
Jacksonville (11-5) at Chicago (4-12)
The Jaguars enter the season with Super Bowl hopes. The Bears enter the season with probably unrealistic hopes of reaching .500. Chicago's quarterback this week could be Steve Stenstrom, who barely made the team, in place of the injured Erik Kramer.
James Stewart is the Jags' starting tailback. But look for rookies Fred Taylor and Tavian Banks to get some time, particularly if this gets out of hand early.
New Orleans (6-10) at St. Louis (5-11)
New Orleans has three quarterbacks of third-string ability: Billy Joe Hobert, who will start, plus Heath Shuler and Danny Wuerffel. St. Louis has one, Tony Banks, who hasn't been allowed to display his ability because he's usually ducking for cover.
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