Week 1 features surprising losers

Posted: Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Junior Seau was supposed to take the Miami Dolphins to the Super Bowl. The St. Louis Rams were supposed to be the class of the NFC, and New England a prime contender in the AFC.

And Green Bay, of course, was going to dominate the otherwise dismal NFC North, as it did last season.

Sorry, but the NFL isn't that easy.

Despite losses Sunday, the Dolphins, Rams, Patriots and Packers remain contenders. But everything that happens the first week is magnified, and when a team looks as bad as those four did in losing, it becomes much worse.

Or, as Ricky Williams said of the Dolphins' 21-20 loss at home to second-year Houston: ''It's humbling.''

Of the four contenders who lost, the Dolphins' setback was, by far, the most shocking (OK, humbling). Miami was a two-touchdown favorite, had won 11 straight season openers, and entered the game 30-3 since 1983 at home in the September heat.

The Rams' loss to the Giants wasn't unexpected. New York, a playoff team with high expectations, won in St. Louis last season and pummeled Kurt Warner two years ago in a 15-14 loss.

New England's defeat in Buffalo also wasn't a big surprise, especially after team captain Lawyer Milloy was released by the Patriots and signed by the Bills. The move left Patriots players shocked and the Bills fired up.

Even Green Bay's loss to Minnesota at the opening of the new Lambeau Field wasn't a big shocker. The Vikings always play the Packers tough, and Randy Moss always seems to play well at Lambeau. He had nine catches for 150 yards and a touchdown on Sunday.

''It's a great rivalry. I don't see why that should change,'' said Brett Favre, who didn't help the Packers by throwing four interceptions.

Still, there have to be concerns.

Houston's win in Miami probably stemmed from the Dolphins' casual attitude entering the game.

''We could have played a pee wee team, and we still would have lost,'' cornerback Sam Madison said.

Houston's Dom Capers is a coach who has always taken advantage of that kind of mind-set. He also coached an expansion team in Carolina, so he's used to being a big underdog.

The loss raises questions about Miami's Dave Wannstedt.

Wannstedt keeps getting toys to play with Williams last season, and Seau this year but missed the playoffs in 2002 and was shocked Sunday. (To be fair, the acquisition of Seau, who is 34 and injury prone, was probably overhyped.)

Still, the head coach's job is to keep his players from letting down.

If you're a Wannstedt fan, don't listen to talk radio in South Florida this week.

The same can be said about fans of Rams coach Mike Martz.

Martz didn't know until sometime in the second half that Warner had a concussion, even though the quarterback was hurt in the first half. Martz let his quarterback stay in the game against a defense that ended up with six sacks and maybe 10 other plays on which Warner took hits.

The coach identified three plays on which the concussion could have occurred, finally settling Monday on a sack by Michael Strahan 6:26 into the game.

Another problem for Martz was that he didn't try to run, even with a healthy Marshall Faulk. In a game that the Rams were still in through three quarters, Faulk had only nine carries for 28 yards, allowing the Giants to go after Warner without much fear of being burned.

Yes, the Rams' offensive line was very soft in the middle against the Giants' well-disguised blitzes. And Martz stood up and took the blame.

''I called a terrible game,'' he said. ''I put Kurt in a lot of situations that made it hard for him. I'm at fault for this one.''

The Rams have an easy schedule on paper although the Texans and Vikings proved Sunday what that paper is worth. But next week's home opener against the 49ers could be more critical than expected San Francisco beat the Bears 49-7 Sunday and an 0-2 start for the Rams would rekindle unpleasant reminders of last season, when they began 0-5.

Martz said Monday that Warner will almost surely sit out and that Marc Bulger will start next week.

Bulger was 6-1 as a starter last season. If he starts winning, the talk-show debate will really be on.

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