- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 12, 2004

The best division rivalry on the NFL’s opening weekend has AFC West champion Kansas City visiting Denver.

The Chiefs have perhaps the league’s most explosive offense, led by halfback Priest Holmes and quarterback Trent Green. Kansas City was 12-2 and averaged 31 points last year against every foe except the Broncos, whose fourth-rated defense should be even stingier with the addition of shutdown cornerback Champ Bailey from Washington.

The Broncos were 5-1 against AFC West foes, losing only 24-23 at Kansas City — a defeat they avenged with a 45-27 whipping nine weeks later. Third-year unknown Jeb Putzier takes over for retired tight end Shannon Sharpe, while 5-foot-7 jitterbug Quentin Griffin will try to replace Clinton Portis and become coach Mike Shanahan’s fifth 1,000-yard runner in seven years.

Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil believes new coordinator Gunther Cunningham can make the difference for a defense that was atrocious in 2003 and will try to postpone Shanahan’s 100th regular-season victory. Shanahan is 56-16 in Denver, 4-0 against Vermeil.

“They’re probably tired of hearing the defense is the weak part of their team,” said Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer. “They’re playing with a lot more energy.”

Cowboys-Vikings — The main story line tonight is whether Dallas’ top-ranked defense, led by safety Roy Williams and nose tackle La’Roi Glover, can slow down wideout Randy Moss, quarterback Daunte Culpepper and Minnesota’s No.1 offense. Moss’ numbers in his first six seasons are gaudy: 525 catches, 8,375 yards, 77 touchdowns.

“You don’t have to catch the ball to impact the game,” said the Cowboys’ new top receiver, Keyshawn Johnson, who was booted off Tampa Bay’s roster 11 months ago for insubordination. “Randy can just stand there, and you’re probably going to pay attention to him.”

These two surprise teams of 2003 have serious questions on the other sides of the ball. Dallas hopes the creaking duo of quarterback Vinny Testaverde and running back Eddie George can rev up an offense that was 22nd in scoring in 2003. Minnesota needs end Kenechi Udeze and linebacker Dontarrious Thomas, both rookies, and former Buffalo cornerback Antoine Winfield to stiffen a defense that allowed more points than all but nine teams.

The Cowboys made the bigger jump last year under new coach Bill Parcells, rising from 5-11 to 10-6 and a wild-card berth, but they lost four of their final six games including a one-sided playoff-opening defeat by the Panthers. The Vikings squandered a 6-0 start and just missed the postseason at 9-7. That put coach Mike Tice on the hot seat in 2004.

Packers-Panthers — Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre, a Hall of Famer in waiting, is usually the focus of any game. However, fans also will be watching to see if last season’s biggest surprise, the Panthers, were an aberration. Two years removed from a 1-15 disaster, Carolina shocked St. Louis and Philadelphia on the road in the NFC playoffs and almost pushed New England into overtime before losing the Super Bowl.

“People still think it was a fluke,” said Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kris Jenkins said. “People still think we aren’t real. It’s kind of insulting.”

The Panthers’ second-ranked defense lost three starters to free agency, but the fearsome front four is intact and linebacker Mark Fields is making an emotional return from Hodgkin’s disease. Also, Carolina was unbeaten for the second straight preseason.

Favre will be 35 next month, but he keeps rolling along, having quarterbacked the Packers to an NFC-high 12 straight nonlosing seasons. Favre led the league with 32 touchdown passes to nine different targets in 2003. He needs four more to join Dan Marino as the only quarterbacks with 350. Favre has led the Packers to a 15-9 record on “Monday Night Football” (6-1 from 2001 to 2003).

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