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Chargers _ And Maybe Packers _ Get Their First Test

September 12, 1996

To Bobby Ross, the confrontation between his Chargers and the Green Bay Packers is less a chance for victory than a test of how far his team has progressed.

``We want to see where we are against what many people consider to be one of the top three teams in the National Football League,″ said Ross, whose Chargers (2-0) play the Packers (2-0) on Sunday at Lambeau Field.

This is Super Bowl Preview I, one of perhaps a dozen matchups of potential title-game teams before the regular season ends. The next is a week from now when Dallas goes to Buffalo.

Ross’ praise of the Packers isn’t just coach talk. While the Chargers were beating Seattle and Cincinnati at home in games they were expected to win, the Packers have dominated, outscoring Tampa Bay and Philadelphia 73-16.

Brett Favre has seven touchdown passes and no interceptions, improving his ratio to 78-27 over the last two-plus seasons. And the Packers defense has taken the ball away 10 times already.

``I told Fritz (Shurmur, the defensive coordinator) I’m glad he’s finally coaching turnovers this year. He didn’t do that too well last year,″ Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren said. ``But actually, we’re not doing anything different, except maybe just talking more about turnovers.″

The Chargers get a break by going north in September instead of November or December. But cold or warm, they can gain a lot of credibility with a good performance.

``I don’t care if it’s 200 degrees or if it’s below zero, it’s going to be the first heated matchup for the NFL this season,″ defensive tackle Reuben Davis said. ``If we come out with a win, people have got to look at us and see what we have here.″

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In other games Sunday, Arizona is at New England, Baltimore at Houston, Detroit at Philadelphia, Minnesota at Chicago, New Orleans at Cincinnati, the New York Jets at Miami, Indianapolis at Dallas, Jacksonville at Oakland, Kansas City at Seattle, Washington at the New York Giants and Tampa Bay at Denver. Atlanta, Carolina, St. Louis and San Francisco are off.

Buffalo is at Pittsburgh on Monday night.

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Buffalo (2-0) at Pittsburgh (1-1) (Monday night)

The last game the Bills played last season was a 40-21 playoff loss at Three Rivers Stadium. But the Steelers team they played had Neil O’Donnell, Leon Searcy, Greg Lloyd and Ray Seals, none of whom will be on the field Monday.

Mike Tomczak stabilized Pittsburgh by going 18-for-25 for 195 yards and two touchdowns in the 31-17 win over the Ravens last week. But Tomczak’s problem has been inconsistency, and the Bills defense is better than Baltimore’s.

Buffalo wasn’t sharp on offense in either an overtime win over the Giants or last week’s 17-10 victory over New England.

With Lloyd out for the season, Pittsburgh went to a 3-1-7 defense last week. Instead of seeing guys with numbers in the 50s, 70s or 90s, Bills QB Jim Kelly is likely to see a lot of 20s. Kelly reads defenses much better than his Baltimore counterpart, Vinny Testaverde, but had trouble with the Giants when they blitzed from the secondary.

``We’re just trying to throw a bunch of guys out there with the same numbers so they don’t know who’s coming,″ Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. ``And we’ll probably expand on it as we go along.″

Indianapolis (2-0) at Dallas (1-1)

Dallas got well in a hurry against the Giants and could continue to improve this week against a team that had 17 players on its initial injury list.

In fact, the Colts could treat this as the first of two bye weeks. They’re off in two weeks, they have a two-game cushion, and this is one they didn’t figure to win. So there’s no reason to rush back the key injured players, defensive end Tony Bennett and running back Marshall Faulk.

``Every team has injuries,″ said cornerback Ray Buchanan, who vows to play despite a pulled hamstring. ``They have injuries. We have injuries. Some are more serious than others, but you’ve got to play with the cards you’re dealt.″

Detroit (1-1) at Philadelphia (1-1)

Detroit came into Philadelphia last year for a wild-card game after the seven-game winning streak that saved Wayne Fontes’ job. The Lions were trounced 58-37 and played so badly that Fontes’ future was in doubt again.

This time, it’s the Eagles coming off a stinker, that 39-13 loss in Green Bay on Monday night that left coach Ray Rhodes even more riled than usual.

``I’ve been knocked down, but I’ll get up,″ Rhodes said. ``I’m not one of those guys that’s going to wallow around on the ground and feel sorry for myself, and I’m not going to let the players do that.″

Minnesota (2-0) at Chicago (1-1)

Despite his off-field problems, Dennis Green remains with the Vikings, which is no surprise since winning is the bottom line. But Brad Johnson, the NFC offensive player of the week, is back on the bench because Warren Moon is ready.

Johnson’s a good soldier. After all, he was a backup at Florida State to Charlie Ward.

``The Atlanta game wasn’t a make-or-break situation for me,″ he said. ``What it did was help me out. It gave the players and coaches confidence that if something does happen, I can come in and help the team.″

Chicago might like to have him. Erik Kramer has yet to throw a TD pass, and the Bears’ two big offensive plays in two games came on a fake punt and a halfback pass.

New York Jets (0-2) at Miami (2-0)

With eight rookies contributing on the Dolphins, Jimmy Johnson has proved that money isn’t everything, although Don Shula and his overpaid all-stars got to 4-0 last year before collapsing.

The Jets have proven the same. The return on New York’s $70 million offseason investment: 13 points and two losses.

Baltimore (1-1) at Houston (1-1)

Another in the series of Franchise Free Agency bowls.

The way the Oilers played last week may actually get some fans into the Astrodome. But the 34-27 win in Jacksonville was less pleasing to coach Jeff Fisher than the 20-19 opening-day loss to Kansas City, because the defense nearly squandered a 31-13 lead.

The Ravens looked like last year’s Browns in Pittsburgh after their pumped-up Baltimore opener against the Raiders, and Testaverde was his old self again _ throwing an interception on the first play that was returned for a touchdown.

Jacksonville (1-1) at Oakland (0-2)

Remember Irwindale? If the Raiders lose this one, owner Al Davis may decide to head for one of the many locations he considered for a stadium during the team’s 14-year stay in Southern California.

One plus for the Raiders is the return of Jeff Hostetler, who has missed all or part of all his team’s eight straight losses.

Jacksonville showed all the signs of a young defense in its 34-27 loss to Houston by giving up the big plays it didn’t in the 24-9 win over Pittsburgh.

``We flushed the quarterback, and he throws a transcontinental pass across the field for a huge touchdown,″ coach Tom Coughlin said. ``We hit Eddie George in the backfield and the guy bounces off it and down the sideline he goes.″

Kansas City (2-0) at Seattle (0-2)

Ho hum. Here come the Chiefs again, on the way to 13-3 or 12-4 or 11-5, and nobody will really notice until they lose their first playoff game. This week’s crisis: wide receivers Lake Dawson and Tamarick Vanover are hurt, so coach Marty Schottenheimer’s turning cornerback Dale Carter into a Deion Sanders.

Seahawks coach Dennis Erickson’s job is to turn Rick Mirer into a semblance of what he was in 1994. He toyed with replacing Mirer with John Friesz, then decided to give another chance to Mirer, who might get in trouble early against the Chiefs’ pass rush.

Arizona (0-2) at New England (0-2)

Patriots coach Bill Parcells isn’t in a panic mode yet, and his team could get healthier here simply because the Cardinals are so woeful. But the long-term project is getting Drew Bledsoe to return to the form of his first two seasons. Terry Glenn helped last week in his first game, but Bledsoe couldn’t finish the final drive, something $42 million quarterbacks are supposed to do.

The Cardinals have an $800,000 quarterback, Boomer Esiason, who probably could have made more money if he’d retired to the broadcast booth last year.

New Orleans (0-2) at Cincinnati (0-2)

The Bengals’ Ki-Jana Carter has gained 27 yards in 21 carries and teammate Garrison Hearst has 22 yards on 10 carries. But the problem is less the multimillionaire running backs than the five-and-dime Cincinnati offensive line. Even Emmitt Smith wouldn’t gain behind this bunch, which also has allowed consistent pressure on Jeff Blake.

The Saints’ refrain is getting a little old, particularly after last week’s 22-20 home loss to Carolina.

``We’re a better football team,″ insists All-Pro tackle William Roaf. ``But that doesn’t mean anything if you don’t win on Sunday.″

Washington (1-1) at New York Giants (0-2)

The Giants almost always beat the Redskins _ six straight and 13 of the last 16. But the addition of Sean Gilbert has stabilized Washington’s defensive front, and Gilbert could go wild against New York’s offensive line, which is a work in progress.

Quarterback Gus Frerotte could have problems, too. New York’s defense has gotten more aggressive since last season, although it didn’t show in the 27-0 loss in Dallas.

Tampa Bay (0-2) at Denver (2-0)

The Bucs have scored nine points in two games. That’s three fewer than the Broncos have sacks.

Trent Dilfer, Tampa Bay’s quarterback, will bring a slightly separated left shoulder and a 17.6 quarterback rating into the game. Tampa Bay also will be without Paul Gruber, its best offensive lineman, as the Bucs look for their first touchdown of the season.

Is Denver good? Or are the Broncos lucky to work out the kinks early against the Jets, Seahawks and Bucs before next week’s trip to Kansas City?

End advance for Sept. 14-15

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