The NFL's "Opening Kickoff" show keeps getting more ambitious, by which I mean schmaltzy.
From its modest beginnings two years ago, when Joe Theismann and Joe Namath traded Hudson Brothers-level jokes and nervous servicemembers introduced musical acts who all performed on the same stage, we've progressed through last year's no-sex-apalooza to an extravaganza featuring the Rolling Stones, Green Day and sundry other stars performing on every open arena stage in the Western world, with fireworks and giant video screens.
And, most impressively, M.C. Freddie Prinze Jr., who at one point deftly handled the requisite transition from whooping fratboy exhortations to somber, caring mode to talk about hurricane relief.
Next year the NFL's opening-night show will include the historic 10th reunion of Destiny's Child -- only the fifth since their actual breakup! Beyoncé Knowles and her pals will perform via satellite on the moon, which will explode at the end of their set.
The league is lobbying to get world governments to pay for the show, threatening to move out of the solar system if a deal can't be reached.
Thursday's program, which preceded the New England Patriots' victory over the Oakland Raiders, offered fans the first genuinely bizarre moment in the three-year history of "Opening Kickoff."
Ozzy Osbourne performed "Crazy Train," which the public-address announcer called the Patriots' "traditional entrance anthem" -- the Pats have been coming out to that song since the Babe Parilli era, you see.
He sang a chorus or two from a stage within a giant football helmet that had opened to reveal him. We haven't gotten to the bizarre part yet. Then Patriots owner Robert Kraft, on a separate stage, introduced the team. The cheerleaders opened a big gate thing on the front of the helmet-stage, and after a burst of dry-ice steam, out came the Super Bowl champs, and Ozzy went back to singing.
So hang on a second. I think we just watched the first duet in history between Ozzy Osbourne and an NFL owner.
This is to say nothing of how the show effectively had the Rolling Stones opening for Michelle Branch.
Performing a duet with Carlos Santana that was almost as entertaining as the Ozzy-Kraft collaboration, Branch stood on this motorized football-shaped stage -- are you getting the football theme here? -- that cruised across the field toward the main stage, not to be confused with the football-helmet stage.
Branch had this look on her face the whole time that was like, "I hope nobody I know sees me on this dumb football float." It had laces painted on it and everything. The stage, not her face.
But I have to give Branch credit for professionalism. She didn't drop a note when the stage swerved to avoid the miniature Stonehenge.
After what even ABC company man Al Michaels called "all the pregame gadgetry" was finally over, the Patriots went out and won another football game, in that way they do. After an entertaining, see-saw first half that featured Randy Moss consummating his Oakland period with a scintillating 73-yard touchdown catch, New England took control in the third quarter and won, 30-20.
You forget over the course of an offseason that the Patriots, good as they are, tend not to dominate games. They get cuffed around a little, in this case surrendering a 72-yard hot knife-through-butter opening drive that resulted in a touchdown and a 7-0 Raiders lead, and then they adjust.
Sure enough, before long the Pats had switched from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense, knocking Oakland quarterback Kerry Collins off his rhythm, and Tom Brady had commenced picking apart the Raiders defense by completing passes to every living New Englander.
And by that I don't just mean Patriots. I mean the Hottinger sisters of Woonsocket, R.I., each caught a pass, Sarah, the younger one, doing a nice job to get both feet inbounds. From what I hear, it wasn't the first pass Brady had completed to Sarah Hottinger, if you know what I mean.
The game turned with about six minutes left in the third quarter and the Patriots leading 17-14. New England pass rushers Richard Seymour and Jarvis Green sandwiched Collins as he tried to throw. The ball popped into the air and was caught by nose tackle Vince Wilfork.
Three plays later, Corey Dillon scored from the 8-yard line and the Raiders were pretty much cooked.
So, undefeated as a prognosticator, this column puts its 1-0 record on the line with its:
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Week 1 picks [PERMALINK]
Chicago (5-11) at WASHINGTON (6-10): Boy, it can really be a drag at this point in the season, can't it? Two teams going nowhere, just slogging it out for no reason. Oh, wait a second, it's the first game of the year. Washington's bad, but its defense is good. The Bears have a rookie quarterback.
DENVER (10-6) at Miami (4-12): The Dolphins are another bad team with a good defense, and they tend to stay in games. They'll win a couple this year that they wouldn't have last year because new coach Nick Saban will have them better prepared and more organized. I want to take them on a hunch to win this one but I can't quite bring myself to do it. Exciting news in Miami, though: The Dolphins have finally decided on a starting quarterback. It's Earl Morrall!
New Orleans (8-8) at CAROLINA (7-9): America will be rooting for this team as it tries to overcome the disaster that occurred on the eve of the season. I mean the Panthers, who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, which pegged them to win the Super Bowl. That's worse than getting picked to win it all by this column.
Seattle (9-7) at JACKSONVILLE (9-7): A really interesting matchup between what could be two solid playoff teams or, like last year, two not-quites. The Seahawks did make the playoffs last year, but that said more about the NFC than about Seattle. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is healthy again, and if his receivers can actually catch a few balls the offense should improve as a result. Jax has a stiff defense, though. The Seahawks have a better chance at making the playoffs again, but I think the Jaguars will get just enough offense out of a system better suited to Byron Leftwich's talents to be the better team.
Tennessee (5-11) at PITTSBURGH (15-1): It's going to be a rebuilding year in Music City and the Titans are going to lose a lot of games, but don't expect them to be patsies. Or clines, for that matter. This is still a team coached by Jeff Fisher and quarterbacked, as long as the baling wire holds out, by Steve McNair. Leave games on the table at your own risk, Titans opponents. And don't expect Ben Roethlisberger, who is undefeated in the regular season as the Steelers quarterback, to stay that way. All that said, Pittsburgh's the pick.
CINCINNATI (8-8) at Cleveland (4-12): It doesn't get any simpler than this. The Bengals have the talent to post their first winning season in 15 years, but they play in a brutal division, so if they're going to actually do it, they have to do things like beating the Browns at every opportunity, this being the first of two.
Houston (7-9) at BUFFALO (9-7): A pair of AFC wild-card dark horses. The Bills, like the Bears, are going with a new quarterback, second-year man J.P. Losman, who as a rookie last year hit the magic number that NFL analysts are always talking about, a 60 percent completion rate. Of course, he only threw five passes. But I think Losman has a chance to succeed this year because the Bills are a running team, and in the opener they get to run against the Texans' weak front.
N.Y. Jets (10-6) at KANSAS CITY (7-9): I think the Jets have a better shot at the playoffs, but that's because I have this trick knee thing that tells me that just as the Chiefs improve their defense, their explosive but aging offense is going to break down. But that's going to happen over time. At the start of the season, the Chiefs look like the better team.
Tampa Bay (5-11) at MINNESOTA (8-8): The post-Randy Moss era opens in the Twin Cities and the post, well, Charlie Garner era kicks off in Tampa. If I know the Vikings, they have a date with five losses in the second half of the season, so they'd better win games like this if all those experts are going to be right in picking them nearly unanimously to win the NFC North.
Dallas (6-10) at SAN DIEGO (12-4): Was 2004 a mirage for the Chargers, the way 2001 was for the Bears and, uh, 2003 was for the Cowboys? No. Was 2004 a mere blip for the Cowboys, who surprised everyone by making the playoffs in Bill Parcells' first season as coach? No. But will the Cowboys -- hey! Stop asking all these dumb questions. Geez.
St. Louis (8-8) at SAN FRANCISCO (2-14): What the Heck Pick of the week. Maybe the 49ers will go nuts in their first game for new coach Mike Nolan.
For those of you who haven't been with this column since back in the early days -- in the '50s, before I totally sold out -- the What the Heck Pick is a weekly prediction of a win for an underdog that I actually think is going to lose. Why pick a team I think is going to lose? I don't know. I mean, you know, What the Heck?
Amazingly, in these shoulder-shrugging times, I have been unable to sell sponsorship of the WTH Pick, having perhaps foolishly concentrated my efforts on a certain fast-food operation whose slogan is, basically, "What the heck, ya gotta eat something, why not the crap we serve?" Bidding starts at $1 million for the season.
Tell your boss to put a bid in. I've gotta move this thing so I don't have to take reader Baron Kimball up on his offer of dinner at his house to change the name to Baron's Topsy Turvy Pick of the week.
ARIZONA (6-10) at N.Y. Giants (6-10): Two 6-10 teams with playoff hopes, the Giants if Eli Manning plays like a Manning, the Cardinals if the NFC West is really as bad as it looks on paper. The NFC West is so bad it's eating through the paper, but I think the Cardinals have a chance to be a decent team once Kurt Warner's out of the way. A huncherrific pick that he'll have a good game against his last-year team before once again looking old, skittery and washed up. By the way, I really like the Cardinals' new uniforms.
Green Bay (10-6) at DETROIT (6-10): The torch passing begins. And Brett Favre has run past the line of scrimmage and tossed it to a linebacker!
INDIANAPOLIS (12-4) at Baltimore (9-7): If we're to believe these two teams, this is going to be the new, improved Ravens offense against the new, improved Colts defense. Plus the same old powerhouses on the other side of the ball. As it happens, I do believe these two teams, and I think this is going to be a Sunday night humdinger won by the Colts.
PHILADELPHIA (13-3) at Atlanta (11-5): Hey, Michael Vick, if you're ever planning to start throwing passes that your receivers have a chance at catching, I'm going to go ahead and ask you to start doing that on Monday night, OK? Because the Eagles know how to keep you bottled up, as they showed in last year's NFC Championship Game, and when you can't get off one of those astonishing runs, you're Kyle Boller.
Season record: 1-0
Last season: 157-99 regular season; 8-3 playoffs
Last season's What the Heck Picks: 6-10
Consecutive seasons a 157-99 record the previous year has been followed by those "Boy, it can really be a drag ..." and Earl Morrall jokes in the Week 1 preview: 2
Previous column: Experts: Eagles vs. Colts in Super Bowl
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