Expansion teams to play first games as NFL franchises

The Associated Press

The Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars, who faced numerous obstacles just getting to their first regular season NFL game, face one more now that they've reached it: The Fear Factor, the biggest motivation for a team facing the Panthers or Jaguars.

Nobody wants to lose to gasp! a first-year expansion team, particularly in its first game.

The teams in the bullseye this week are the Atlanta Falcons, who play the Panthers in the Georgia Dome Sunday, and the Houston Oilers, who visit Jacksonville.

The Oilers have reason to be scared. Not only did they finish 2-14 last season, but they have to go to newly renamed and refurbished Jacksonville Stadium, the old Gator Bowl, where 73,000 people will be cheering against them. The Oilers are little better than an expansion team themselves their first team couldn't beat Dallas' backups in last week's exhibition finale.

Tom Coughlin, the Jaguars' coach and general manager, spent 18 hours a day for l8 months in preparation, doing mock game plans last season when he had no players and no opponents.

Now he has players. Quarterback Steve Beuerlein and wide receivers Desmond Howard and Ernest Givins, a former Oiler, are probably the best known. His game plan is for real and he was 2-3 in exhibitions.

Carolina, meanwhile, got rid of its biggest name this week: Barry Foster, the oft-injured running back with a $2.5 million salary. Frank Reich, the ex-Bill, won the quarterback job over Jack Trudeau.

But the strength is defense, led by a respectable linebacking corps.

''I think the biggest factor is that we're playing well and we're playing together,'' says linebacker Paul Butcher, primarily a special teams player in Detroit and Indianapolis.

''They are going to be very good on defense,'' said linebacker Corey Miller of the Giants, who lost to Carolina last week. ''I wouldn't be surprised if they finish near the top in defense.''

That's to be seen as the 1995 season opens up with the two expansion teams in place and the two Los Angeles teams out of place the Raiders back in Oakland after 14 seasons in Southern California, and the Rams in St. Louis. The Raiders get to open at home against defending AFC champion San Diego and the Rams are in Green Bay.

In other games Sunday, Cincinnati is at Indianapolis; Cleveland is at New England; San Francisco is at New Orleans; Tampa Bay is at Philadelphia; St. Louis is at Green Bay; Detroit is at Pittsburgh; the New York Jets are at Miami; Kansas City is at Seattle; Arizona is at Washington; Minnesota is at Chicago, and Buffalo is at Denver. Dallas is at the New York Giants Monday night.

San Diego (11-5) at Oakland (9-7)

Last year's AFC champion against the team that was supposed to be. But things are different now for the Raiders some people would say this is the first game in 14 years in which they have a home field advantage.

Despite their trip to the Super Bowl (or maybe because of it, a 49-26 loss to San Francisco), the Chargers enter the season considered no better than the third-best team in the AFC West. They've had defections (Stanley Richard), holdouts (Natrone Means), injuries (Darrien Gordon), and even a coaching crisis when Bobby Ross underwent abdominal surgery last week.

Ross will be in Oakland, across from Mike White, who took over when Art Shell was fired after the season.

But there are two other major changes: rookie Napoleon Kaufman at running back and the home crowd in Oakland.

''I think they'll be good for at least two more wins,'' says quarterback Jeff Hostetler. ''We never felt like we had an edge in Los Angeles.''

Cleveland (11-5) at New England (10-6)

The last meeting between Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick was in Cleveland, where the Browns dispensed with the Patriots 20-13 in the first round of last year's playoffs.

Both teams are likely to be back in the postseason again this year.

Cleveland has added Andre Rison for more offensive oomph but subtracted defensive linemen Michael Dean Perry and James Jones. New England has added Dave Meggett, the all-purpose running back from the Giants, but has no heavy-duty back to pound the ball as Bill Parcells likes.

That could mean another of those 50-pass games for Drew Bledsoe, particularly if Dana Hall has to play Eric Turner's safety spot. This is the first of a killer opening schedule for New England Miami and a game at San Francisco follow.

Dallas (12-4) at New York Giants (9-7), Monday night

The Giants are supposed to make a run at the Cowboys in the NFC East after finishing last season with six straight wins, including a 15-10 victory over the Cowboys.

But New York's offense is shaky quarterback Dave Brown and wide receivers Mike Sherrard and Chris Calloway have been banged up and so is the offensive line. ''We're not ready ... yet,'' Dan Reeves said. ''But at least we have some extra time.''

The Cowboys will start Erik Williams, the game's best right tackle before he injured his knee in an auto accident last year. But they've lost depth to free agency and have problems at linebacker, where Darrin Smith remains a holdout. Godfrey Myles replaces him.

''It limits our flexibility,'' says linebackers coach Jim Eddy. ''We've always had the luxury of Godfrey Myles working as a backup at every linebacker position. Now we don't''

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