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FALCONS, BRONCOS HAVE PLENTY TO PROVE

Fans in 31 cities are foaming at the mouth after waiting an extra week for the end-of-the-century season to begin. In San Diego, they have to wait a week longer.

With an odd number of teams in the NFL this season, either one team or three will have to sit out every week, so the Chargers' opening day is an open date. And the team that threw the league out of balance, the Cleveland Browns Part II, closes its season with an open date.

Where are Abbott and Costello when you need them?

You don't have to search hard to find this week's top game. Minnesota visits Atlanta in a replay of the NFC Championship Game. The Vikings, 15-1 in the regular season, met their match in the Falcons, who were 14-2. The underdog Falcons won the title on the road, 30-27, in overtime.

The obvious theme for this game is revenge. The fact that the Vikings are four-point favorites shows the betting public thinks the Falcons' win was a fluke.

But the record book shows the Vikings do not have much luck in their first road games of the season, going 2-9 against the spread in the past 11 years, and they are 0-5 against the spread as favorites in their first road game.

To paraphrase a proverb: Revenge is a dish best served at home. I like the Falcons with the points.

The Monday night opener will help answer the burning question: Is there life after Elway for the Denver Broncos? The two-time defending Super Bowl champs open their defense at home against the ever-changing Miami Dolphins.

The Broncos are a very good team that John Elway made great. I believe that same very good team can make second-year quarterback Brian Griese great, maybe not as great as Elway or Griese's Hall of Fame father, Bob, but great enough to keep the Broncos' hopes for a three-peat alive.

Hats off to Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan for making his quarterback decision before the season began. This is a note I had jotted down after seeing the Broncos play in preseason: "Bubby Brister will be the Broncos' handicap until Brian Griese wins the job."

Take the Broncos, give the six points and remember that they are 16-3 against the spread at home vs. the AFC East, and the Dolphins are 1-10-1 against the spread on the road on Monday night.

Best bet

Mike Holmgren is now the head coach of the Seattle Seahawks. He inherited a third-string quarterback named Jon Kitna and elevated him to the starting job. Kitna looks like he could be Holmgren's Seattle version of Brett Favre. The Seahawks will improve on last year's 8-8 record. They will get off to a flying start against Detroit.

The Lions never roared with the great Barry Sanders. Without him, they're pussycats. Don't worry about the big point spread (nine points). Take the Seahawks. This won't be close.

Best of the rest

Buffalo's offensive line is the Bills' lifeline to success again this year. Its preseason play didn't build much confidence. But the Bills couldn't have asked for a better opening opponent. They have dominated Indianapolis in the '90s and will win by a touchdown. . . . The Jets swept New England last year, winning at home, 31-10, as 6 1/2 -point favorites. They will do at least as well this week. . . . Everyone expects big things from Jacksonville. The Jaguars will win their division and maybe even the AFC, but making them six-point favorites against San Francisco might be going a bit too far. The Niners have only been regular-season underdogs of six points or more two times in the 1990s. I'm taking the Niners and the six points. . . . Can fan emotion bring the Browns success in their return to the NFL? It can't hurt. Playing the hated Steelers in Cleveland will help too. I like the Browns and the 6 1/2 points.

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