The good news about the 2008 NFL season is that it can only go uphill after Thursday night's Rin Tin Tin impersonation by the New York Giants and Washington. In case you fell asleep in the second quarter, in which case you outlasted most of America, the Giants won 16-7.
Here are this column's Week 1 picks, along with those of my kids, game-pickin' 5-year-old Buster and coin-flippin' 3-year-old Daisy, who automatically take all favorites of six points or more. The Panel o' Experts enters its sixth smash year. Details of its membership next week, but the defending champions are Mark Schlereth of ESPN and Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today.
Winners in caps.
Sunday early games
CINCINNATI (7-9) at Baltimore (5-11)
OK, it might not go uphill right away. If you're ready to count on a rookie quarterback winning his debut, take the Ravens.
N.Y. JETS (4-12) at Miami (1-15)
The rebuilding project starts here for both teams, with Brett Favre making his debut in green -- or, wait, in Jets green -- and Chad Pennington his debut out of Jets green. New York has taken a quick-fix approach that will pay dividends sooner than Miami's long-view method, which figures to return the franchise to the NFL elite in a couple of years.
KANSAS CITY (4-12) at New England (16-0)
Another youth-based rebuilding project is going on in Kansas City. Take the long view, Chiefs kids. This is just one game. One miserable game. What the Heck Pick of the week. It almost has to be.
To review for newcomers, or for those of you who don't commit nonsense to memory: The What the Heck Pick is a weekly game in which I pick a big underdog to lose. It's not an Upset of the Week. I think the team I pick really is going to lose. I just pick them because, well, What the Heck.
The rules are the WTH team has to have a losing record -- I use last year's records the first two weeks -- and be playing a team with a winning record, and I have to believe they're going to lose. So Buffalo over Seattle, below, wouldn't qualify because I think Buffalo is going to win.
The What the Heck Pick of the Week is available for sponsorship.
Kids: New England (15-point favorite)
Houston (8-8) at PITTSBURGH (10-6)
The Steelers' power game should still be a little too much at home for the improving Texans.
Kids: Pittsburgh (6.5-point favorite)
JACKSONVILLE (11-5) at Tennessee (10-6)
If the Jaguars didn't play in the smallest market south of Green Bay and in the same division as the Indianapolis Colts, they would be a hotter-than-Akon Super Bowl pick. I just found out who Akon is so I'm trying to look, as the kids say, groovy. If the Titans are anything like a 10-6 team this year, which I don't think they are, this could be the game of the week.
DETROIT (7-9) at Atlanta (4-12)
The less said the bett--.
Seattle (10-6) at BUFFALO (7-9)
The Seahawks and Bills look like two fringy playoff teams, but moving in the opposite direction, the Seahawks down, the Bills up. The Seahawks get a leg-up from playing in the weakest division in the weaker conference. This could be one of those games that throws the difference between the NFC and AFC into relief.
Tampa Bay (9-7) at NEW ORLEANS (7-9)
Not quite the post-Katrina homecoming, this should still be an emotional afternoon in the Superdome. The Bucs sweeping the Saints last year decided who went to the playoffs at 9-7 and who stayed home at 7-9. Well, that and the Saints' bizarre season-opening four-game losing streak. Neither will happen again.
Buster: New Orleans
Daisy: Tampa Bay
St. Louis (3-13) at PHILADELPHIA (8-8)
It'll be interesting to see how much Donovan McNabb has left. I mean next week, in the Monday night game at Dallas. This one won't tell us much unless what he has left is nothing.
Kids: Philadelphia (7.5-point favorite)
Sunday late games
Dallas (13-3) at CLEVELAND (10-6)
Another one that might be the game of the week. The Cowboys were on their way to the Super Bowl last year before they got tripped up in the first round of the playoffs by the eventual-champion Giants. They're widely considered one of two leading contenders again, along with Green Bay. I'm not so sure, but I wouldn't be shocked.
The Browns' suddenly spectacular offense propelled them from 4-12 to the brink of the postseason last year. It says here they would have been the third best team in the NFC. If they can play any defense at all this year, they'll ... squeeze into the AFC playoffs. The Cowboys will be a pretty good test, one I think the Browns will pass if Derek Anderson, returning from a concussion, is OK.
Carolina (7-9) at SAN DIEGO (11-5)
A What the Heck candidate, only for some reason I'm not feeling terribly good about the Chargers. They went to the AFC Championship Game last year and gave the Patriots trouble without their three best offensive players, and they're largely the same team this year, but somehow, I don't know. They'll still win an easy division and I think they'll get a win here. But if my trick knee is right and there are problems, the still-rough Panthers will take advantage.
Kids: San Diego (9.5-point favorite)
ARIZONA (8-8) at San Francisco (5-11)
Kurt Warner gets the start against his old coach, Mike Martz, the new offensive coordinator in San Francisco. The Cardinals are once again a fashionable pick to win the NFC West, and while that pick is as dubious as usual, the 49ers don't figure to stand in their way.
Buster: San Francisco
Sunday night game
Chicago (7-9) at INDIANAPOLIS (13-3)
The Colts are once again in the top group in the AFC unless Peyton Manning, who missed the entire practice-game season with a knee injury, isn't fully recovered. He says he's fine, and he even has favorite target Marvin Harrison back healthy. If the Bears defense is going to return to elite status, here's a good first chance to show it.
Kids: Indianapolis (9.5-point favorite)
Monday night games
Minnesota (8-8) at GREEN BAY (13-3)
Yet another game of the week candidate. Great job, schedule-making person. The Packers dominated the NFC North last year but this year they face a transition from Favre to Aaron Rodgers while the Vikings are threatening to put it all together if only their young quarterback, Tarvaris Jackson, improves to the point of consistent competency. And they can knock down a pass or two on defense. So let's have a look at 'em right from the get-go on the national TV. I think the Vikings will overtake the Packers this year, but after a slow start.
Kids: Green Bay
DENVER (7-9) at Oakland (4-12)
The bad idea of a weeknight double-header wouldn't be quite such a bad idea if the hapless Raiders weren't involved. This column is a Raiders fan and even it will find it hard to force itself to watch this game. The TV people dig the Raiders-Broncos rivalry. Twenty-three skidoo.
Season record: 1-0
Last season: 158-98 regular season, 7-4 playoffs
What the Heck Picks: 3-13
Number of games I think are going to be "the game of the week" that turn out to be the "the game of the week," on average, per year: 1