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Thursday, March 28
 
Games with the best storylines in 2002

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

Maybe Fox and CBS didn't grant ABC the flexibility to adjust the television schedule for better broadcasts in December. But on paper, the 2002 NFL schedule looks well balanced.

Naturally, 2002 is new era for the NFL. The 32 teams are broken into eight four-team divisions. Teams such as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Seattle Seahawks must build and adjust to new rivalries. It might take a year or two for the Bucs to get emotional for games against the Saints, Falcons and Panthers in the NFC South. The same can be said for the Seahawks, who move from the AFC West to the NFC West, where they'll battle the Rams, 49ers and Cardinals.

There really isn't one game that stands out as being The Game of the Year. Part of that is because of the broken rivalries. The Saints-Rams wars are gone. The Ravens purged 12 starters from the team that made opponents circle the dates they were on the schedule. The Redskins and Cowboys are in the rebuilding phase, so their names don't immediately get hoisted onto the marquee.

What says most about the ever changing power structure of the league is the look of the five teams that will make three appearances on Monday Night Football -- the Rams, Bears, Steelers, 49ers and Eagles. Going into last season, the Bears, 49ers and Steelers weren't even locks for making the playoffs.

The Patriots, the Super Bowl champs who draw two Monday and two Sunday night appearances, are a well-coached team that goes against the idea of star players.

The key words are balance and newness when breaking down the 2002 schedule. Here are the 10 marquee games ... on paper, anyway:

The game:Sunday, Sept. 8 (Dallas Cowboys at Houston Texans)
The subplot: At times last year I wondered if the Cowboys could beat an expansion team. They were a team in transition, but Dave Campo did a great job coaching the defense and keeping the team competitive. Now, they open against an expansion team that grabbed eight starters out of the expansion draft and will likely draft quarterback David Carr with the No. 1 selection. The pressure is on the Cowboys to win. Houston pro football fans have been waiting a long time to get football back, but beating the Cowboys to open the season might even have them liking Bud Adams again. Ah, that might be too much to ask.

The game: Monday, Sept. 9 (Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots)
The subplot: Any rematch of a championship game is fascinating. This one appeals to football strategists. Did the Steelers vary too much from their normal game plan in losing the chance to go to the Super Bowl? How much of a difference would a healthier Jerome Bettis have made? Does Patriots coach Bill Belichick have the master plan to stop the simple schemes of Steelers offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey? Is referee Ed Hochuli still on the field explaining calls in a game that will seem to last forever? The Steelers will come into the game with a mission to erase their AFC championship loss. The Patriots will have the swagger of being the defending champs. That's a pretty good start to the season.

The game: Sunday, Sept. 15 (Oakland Raiders at Pittsburgh Steelers)
The subplot: Talk about tough opening games. The Steelers open in New England and then have to come back on a short week to host the Raiders. Good thing they have a bye week to rest up after playing the equivalent of two playoff games. With this being the Steelers' home opener, fans will be extra loud. Of course, it doesn't take much for Steelers fans to get excited about playing the Raiders. This is a rivalry that goes back to the 1970s and hasn't lost much intensity. No doubt this will be a physical game.

The game: Monday, Sept. 23 (St. Louis Rams at Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
The subplot: No, it won't be the same now that Tony Dungy has moved to Indianapolis. But the Bucs still have defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, who seems to have a good plan for containing the potent Rams offense. This is a great rivalry that will be even more intensified because this game will be played in Tampa. It will be Jon Gruden's first prime-time game as new head coach of the Bucs. The Rams will be coming off tough opening games against the Broncos and Giants. For this one, the Bucs will need to rely on Kiffin's schemes because Gruden will still be trying to get the kinks out of his offense, which will be completely new at the skilled positions except for wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson.

The game: Sunday, Nov. 10 (Miami Dolphins at New York Jets)
The subplot: This will be the second meeting between the two teams. They face each other in Miami in Week 3 on Sept. 22. This series has provided some wacky games but predictable outcomes. The Jets have won the past eight. The recent series has had amazing late comebacks and strange finishes. Even when the Dolphins appear to have games on ice, Wayne Chrebet comes out of nowhere to make big catches against the talented Dolphins secondary. Coach Dave Wannstedt brought in Ricky Williams on offense to hammer at the Jets defense. Coach Herman Edwards has revamped his defense but needs to find some defensive tackles in the draft to stop Williams.

The game: Monday, Nov. 11 (Oakland Raiders at Denver Broncos)
The subplot: The Raiders ended their seven-game losing streak against Mike Shanahan last year in Oakland, but Shanahan won't go away. He still craves that unpaid portion of his former Raiders salary that he won in arbitration. He'd love to get off to a good start against new Raiders coach Bill Callahan. The Raiders plan to run the ball more under Callahan, so naturally Shanahan brought in defensive tackle Lional Dalton from the Ravens to help firm up the middle. The big attraction to this game, though, will be Bill Romanowski's first game against his former team, the Broncos. Think there might be some talking on the field in this one?

The game: Sunday, Oct. 6 (St. Louis Rams at San Francisco 49ers)
The subplot: The 49ers know their success is judged on how they match up against the Rams. Though they draw closer to the Rams in terms of talent, the Rams still have the edge. The Rams have won six straight. As it was a year ago, there is a psychological edge to having the first meeting at home. Jeff Garcia hasn't had his best games against the Rams, which is one reason the Rams seem to have this edge. Expect high-scoring football between these two teams, but Garcia continues to grow as a quarterback. He has been to two Pro Bowls, and he's starting to win the big games. For the 49ers, no game is bigger than this one.

The game: Monday, Oct. 7 (Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears)
The subplot: Now that the Bears are a playoff team, these games have great significance. The Packers won both games against the Bears last season, but some thought the Bears were too conservative on offense. In fact, two of their worst offensive games were against the Packers. Maybe coordinator John Shoop will open things up on offense in the first Monday night game in Champaign, Ill. This game is so emotional that it will be good the Bears have a bye week following it.

The game: Monday, Oct. 28 (New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles)
The subplot: The NFC East leadership could hinge on this game? It's too early to call whether the Redskins and Cowboys will be contenders in this division. And you figure that defensive end Michael Strahan will either have a new contract extension or he'll be counting down his final days in a Giants uniform. The platform is there for the Eagles to step up and take control as they did in 2001. They are a franchise that continues to grow around quarterback Donovan McNabb and keeps advancing in the NFC playoffs with the goal of going to the Super Bowl. Winning this home game, though, will be critical. The first goal in a Super Bowl season is winning a division, and with four division champions and only two wild-card spots available, division home games are critical. If the Eagles let the Giants take the division lead by losing this game, the Eagles will have to go to Giants Stadium on Dec. 28 to make up ground.

The game: Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28 (Washington Redskins at Dallas Cowboys)
The subplot: Hey, it's one of the best rivalries on one of the best days to watch one. New Redskins coach Steve Spurrier keeps firing up the flames to this rivalry with his comments. He wants the Cowboys to be his Georgia. Remember that Spurrier's Florida teams won 11 of 12 games against Georgia. The success of this game will be how well the quarterbacks develop during the season. Maybe Spurrier is right and Danny Wuerffel can run his offense as he did when Wuerffel won the Heisman. Maybe Jerry Jones right that Quincy Carter is the next great quarterback. Of course, if they aren't good this late in the season, this game could be a turkey.

John Clayton is a senior writer at ESPN.com.






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