10/04/2001 11:00PM

Chargers, Titans swap places


The Season is only three games old, but several surprise teams have already emerged from the pack - both good and bad. On the good side are teams like San Diego, Cincinnati, and Cleveland who are a combined 7-2 straight up and 8-1 against the spread to begin the season. On the down side are Tampa Bay, Minnesota, and Tennessee who combined are only 2-5 straight up and 1-6 against the spread.

The Chargers are clearly the big winners of the first month of the NFL season. After going 1-15 last season, the Bolts picked up Doug Flutie and LaDanian Tomlinson and suddenly find themselves 3-0. Additionally, things could get better before they get worse. The Chargers play Cleveland and New England this week and next, and have a great shot to start the year 5-0.

The big losers so far are the Tennessee Titans who started 0-2 after posting back-to-back 13-3 seasons the last two years. The Titans now must win on the road against the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens in order to avoid a potentially disastrous 0-3 start.

Tennessee (+4) at Baltimore

Tennessee beat Baltimore 14-16 on the road last year, but then proceeded to lose two games in a row to the Ravens, including a playoff game, and then had to watch as their division rivals marched all the way to a Super Bowl crown. The Titans have won and covered three times in a row at Baltimore, and now have a double revenge motivation going into this game as they try for four in a row. Tennessee is off to a disappointing 0-2 start and absolutely NEEDS this game if it wants to have a chance at the post-season. Steve McNair was hurt in the Titans' Week #1 loss to Miami, and was kept out of Tennessee's last game to ensure he would be ready for this particular match-up. Since then, Tennessee has had a bye week, McNair has healed, and the Titans have had two full weeks of prep time to get ready for this game that they've had circled on their schedule since last winter. The champs bounced back from their loss to Cincinnati with a win at Denver last week, but they still haven't found a running game and better find one fast if they want to beat the Titans. Play: Tennessee for 2 units.

Cincinnati at Pittsburgh (-6)

The Steelers unveil their new Stadium this week, and should get a huge boost from both their new grass stadium and their fans who should be loud and proud after spending years at horrid Three Rivers Stadium. Look at the numbers, Pittsburgh was much more of a grass team last year, anyway, with a record of 6-2 against the spread. The Steelers started slow this season but then bounced back, especially on defense, with a 20-3 win at Buffalo last week. This week they play Cincinnati, whom they outscored 63-28 in two meetings last season (they shut them out 15-0 at home). The Bengals began the season with two wins (half of last season's total of four) and actually played somewhat of an important game at San Diego last week. That makes this week's game a letdown, meaning they certainly won't be able to match the pumped-up Steelers level of intensity in this game. Cincy's offense is improved, no doubt about it, but the defense still has holes in it as evidenced by the 28 points they allowed the Chargers last week. Play: Pittsburgh for 2 units.

Minnesota at New Orleans (-3 1/2)

The only thing better than revenge is playoff revenge, and that's what the Saints will be seeking this week after the Vikings unceremoniously dumped them from last season's playoffs, 34-16 in Minnesota. As soon as the Saints lost that game they probably ran back into the clubhouse, checked this year's schedule, and jumped for joy as soon as they saw this home game against Minnesota marked on it. New Orleans won't need any extra inspiration to get up for this game, anyway, seeing as it has waited till Oct. 7 to play its home opener. The Saints had 21 days between their first and second games, and they understandably came out a bit rusty in the first half of last week's loss to the Giants. The offense later rebounded in the second half, and they should be faced with no similar rust problems this week. The Vikings started 1-2 and have been a major disappointment this season. The offense really misses Robert Smith, the defense really misses John Randle, and the team has done much more bickering than scoring thus far. More of the same can be expected this week, as Minny faces a non-division road sandwich assignment here against a very solid Saints defense. Play: New Orleans for 2 units.

Kansas City (+10) at Denver

The season is just a month old, but the schedule has already been very demanding on the Broncos, who've already played both of last year's Super Bowl teams and have been on national television twice (Sunday night once, Monday night once). The Broncos have also been dealt some injuries as well, with Ed McCaffrey and Terrell Davis both going down in the opening weeks. This game is actually the first chance Denver has had for a letdown, as there will be no national TV, and no headline opponent to face. Make no mistake about it. The Broncos are in for a football game this week, whether they are ready for it or not. A week ago this game looked like an easy win for the Broncos, but after they lost and KC won last week, it's not looking that way anymore. The Chiefs have not gotten off to the kind of start they wanted to under Dick Vermeil, but they did come to life in last week's blowout win at Washington, and they are usually a very tough team within their division, particularly against Denver. Kansas City is 6-2-1 against the spread in their last nine games vs. the AFC West, and have recently dominated the Broncos to the tune of four straight wins and five straight covers including three in a row at Denver. Play: Kansas City for 1 unit.

Jacksonville (-3 1/2) at Seattle

Something funny happened on Jacksonville's way to 3-0. Mark Brunell went down with a concussion (check status), and the Jags went down to the Browns for their first-ever loss to the Browns. No matter how bad things get for Jacksonville, they can't get close to how bad they've gotten for Seattle who've scored just 26 total points in three games so far. Coach Mike Holmgren seems to have finally given up on quarterback Matt "Hasselback-up," but his options are few with only Brock Huard and Trent Dilfer on the bench. Things aren't much better at running back either, as Ricky Watters is out for a month with an injury suffered last week. If Brunell can't play for the Jags this week, expect an improved performance from his back-up, Jonathan Quinn, who should take most of the snaps in practice this week. Quinn won All-NFL Europe honors at quarterback during the off-season. This is a non-division sandwich game for Seattle. Last week's game against Oakland and next week's game against Denver feature two of their biggest rivalries. The Seahawks don't play on a traditional Astroturf carpet, but the Field Turf surface at the U. of Wash. shouldn't pose a problem for the Jags, who have covered six of their last seven games on artificial turf. Play: Jacksonville for 1 unit.

Last week: 3-3 (even units)

Season record: 11-5-1 (plus 10 units)