Hopes were high in Houston after the expansion draft last spring. Hopes were higher in Dallas when the Cowboys signed veteran defenders La'Roi Glover, Bryant Westbrook and Kevin Hardy.
When the Texans play their first regular-season game ever against the Cowboys on Sunday night in the new battle of Texas, Houston's hopes will be substantially lower than six weeks ago when training camp started.
But the many Dallas fans around the country still think the Cowboys can go from two straight 5-11 seasons to the Super Bowl, despite the unproven Quincy Carter at quarterback -- backed up by Chad Hutchinson, who's spent the last four years as a baseball player.
The Texans' successful expansion draft has turned sour because of injuries, the most important to three-time All-Pro left tackle Tony Boselli, recovering from the same shoulder injury that sidelined him with Jacksonville. He worked out for the first time this week.
''Obviously there was a lot of rust on the body, but for the first day back, it went good,'' said Boselli, who won't play Sunday night. ''It's still a long way to go, but it was a good step.''
Without Boselli, things will be more difficult for quarterback David Carr, the No. 1 overall draft pick, against a defensive line that includes Glover, who led the NFL in sacks two seasons ago. Carr bruised a knee in the final exhibition game, but will start.
Arizona at Washington
Arizona isn't as soft as some opponents Steve Spurrier faced in early-season college games. But a home game against the defensively challenged Cardinals is still one of the best ways to break in a new offensive system. Even if the offense sputters, Marvin Lewis has the defense looking strong.
St. Louis at Denver
The Broncos and rest of the league finally get a chance to see what Mike Martz has cooked up this year. St. Louis has kept its practices closed and its game plan simple during the preseason.
The Broncos should get their first indication if Brian Griese can rebound from a dismal 2001 season. Griese had the second-highest touchdown-to-turnover ratio ever two years ago, but threw 19 interceptions and had the worst fourth-quarter passer rating in the league last year.
Philadelphia at Tennessee
The Eagles feel ready for another shot at a Super Bowl they just missed last season. Donovan McNabb keeps improving, and they added RB Dorsey Levens and WR Antonio Freeman. Can Barry Gardner and Levon Kirkland tag-team enough so the Eagles don't miss LB Jeremiah Trotter, their leading tackler who left as a free agent?
Tennessee also has high hopes after injuries dropped it to 7-9 last season. Eddie George has more yards rushing since 1996 than anyone and is healthy again. QB Steve McNair hasn't felt this well in years.
Minnesota at Chicago
New coach Mike Tice wants to install the ''Randy Ratio,'' making sure the Vikings throw in WR Randy Moss' direction 40 percent of the time. They were 4-1 when it happened in 2001, when Minnesota won just five times. Moss will line up everywhere, thoroughly testing Chicago's secondary.
San Diego at Cincinnati
The Chargers turn to Drew Brees, who won the QB job over Doug Flutie. The Chargers have had six starters in the last three seasons: Jim Harbaugh, Erik Kramer, Ryan Leaf, Moses Moreno, Flutie and Brees, a second-round pick in 2001. LaDainian Tomlinson (sprained ankle) had only four preseason carries; the Chargers need him to take pressure off Brees.
The Bengals have chosen Gus Frerotte their fifth different starting quarterback in the last five years. He's their eighth starter overall in the last six years.
Pittsburgh at New England
When the Patriots won the Super Bowl as 14-point underdogs, coach Bill Belichick said he didn't expect the title would change the perception of his team as overachievers.
''I know we'll probably be underdogs next week,'' he said while the confetti was still fresh on the Superdome turf.
He was right: Pittsburgh is a 2 1/2-point favorite for Monday night's opener. If a win in a rematch of the AFC title game doesn't eliminate doubts whether last year was a fluke, expect another season of players complaining about a lack of respect.
New York Jets at Buffalo
The confident Jets come off a 4-0 preseason. QB Vinny Testaverde looks comfortable in an expanded attack with a healthy Santana Moss and a happy, re-signed Wayne Chrebet.
Drew Bledsoe, acquired from New England in April, will carry much of the offensive load for a team that showed no running attack in an 0-4 preseason.
New Orleans at Tampa Bay
The Bucs make their debut under coach Jon Gruden. The Saints unveil a new-look offense featuring more speed at receiver and versatile Deuce McAllister replacing Ricky Williams in the backfield behind QB Aaron Brooks.
New Orleans won three of its first four in 2001, then collapsed. Of four consecutive losses to finish 7-9 and miss the playoffs, one was a 48-21 rout at Tampa.
Baltimore at Carolina
The Ravens, torn apart by salary cap problems, start untested QB Chris Redman, who has thrown only three passes in two seasons and struggled in the preseason. Baltimore will bank on RB Jamal Lewis, returning after missing last season with a knee injury.
The Panthers, losers of their final 15 games last season, have their own offensive problems, panicking earlier this week when new coach John Fox realized Chris Weinke did not have a grasp on the offense. So 14-year veteran QB Rodney Peete will make his first start since 1998.
Indianapolis at Jacksonville
The Jaguars fired defensive coordinator Gary Moeller after one unsuccessful season, and replaced him with John Pease, who promises a more aggressive style than last year, when the Jaguars blew a bunch of late leads.
The Colts, meanwhile, went a step further, hiring defensive mastermind Tony Dungy to replace Jim Mora as head coach. Dungy must repair a defense that finished 29th last season.
Detroit at Miami
Miami is the biggest favorite of the first weekend for many reasons.
The Dolphins are the only team to make the playoffs each of the past five seasons, while Detroit was 2-14 last year. Miami's defense typically feasts on young quarterbacks, and the Lions will start 23-year-old Mike McMahon, with top draft pick Joey Harrington in the wings.
Seattle at Oakland
With QB Trent Dilfer slowed by a sprained right knee hurt in the first preseason game Aug. 10, Matt Hasselbeck will start. Shaun Alexander had a record day the last time these teams met, rushing for 266 yards and three touchdowns, including an 88-yard run, as the Seahawks won 34-27.
Bill Callahan, who replaced media darling Gruden, makes his debut and is on a quest to bring a championship to a veteran-laden team before it's too late. QB Rich Gannon, WR Tim Brown and new LB Bill Romanowski are 36, and WR Jerry Rice turns 40 next month.
Kansas City at Cleveland
Chiefs TE Tony Gonzalez finally ended his holdout last week and is expected to play. However, DT Ryan Sims, the first-round draft pick who also held out, will be kept out.
Browns QB Tim Couch has a sore right arm but says he will play. Cleveland's defense, which lost All-Pro linebacker Jamir Miller (torn Achilles' tendon) to a season-ending injury, will have to stop Kansas City's running game featuring Priest Holmes, the league's leading rusher a year ago.
Atlanta at Green Bay
The Falcons unveil a new 3-4 defense and QB Michael Vick, last year's top draft pick. Coach Dan Reeves simplified his notoriously complex playbook for the benefit of the 22-year-old Vick, who he is encouraging to run more often.
Green Bay went 12-4 last year, but a 23-20 home loss to the Falcons at Lambeau Field kept them from winning the NFC Central.
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