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Predictions Time? Don't Look Too Far Ahead

Oh, you giddy fans. You look at the schedule, you start checking off all the wins and you think, "Hey, 10 wins easy. Playoffs."

Then you get even nuttier.

"Hmmm, Super Bowl in Miami. My in-laws have a condo in Del Ray Beach. I could crash there for a couple of nights. If I book flights now, I can fly for less and have money to buy tickets. What a kick it would be to see my Redskins in the Super Bowl."

This is how it starts. Every year. "We" can win this game. "We" can win that game. "We" can win the division, the conference, the Super Bowl, a lumberjack match against half of the WWE stable, an argument with the missus. OK, now we're being silly. No one wins an argument with the missus.

Nobody seriously believes that the opener against the New York Giants will be simple to steal. The Giants won the NFC East last season after starting 11-1 and they swept the season series from the Redskins. It is what follows that visit to scenic East Rutherford, N.J., that inflates expectations to the proportions of monster-truck tires.

The St. Louis Rams. The Detroit Lions. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers. All with new coaches. The Rams lost their last 10 games, the Lions every one of the 16 they played, the Buccaneers their last four.

There's a date with the Kansas City Chiefs, who were 2-14 and changed not only coaches but the quarterback as well, as did the Lions and Bucs. Then a game against the Denver Broncos, who led their division from the first day of the season to the last, when they lost their third consecutive game and the AFC West title as well. They too fired their coach and changed quarterbacks.

Easy street. A walk in the park. Five teams with new coaches and the only one that kept its quarterback was the Rams. Does Marc Bulger scare anyone anymore, except the Rams? Hello, Miami. Get me a table at Joe's Stone Crab. Pass the sun screen.

Except it's not so easy. And you should know you cannot get a reservation at Joe's--first come, first served.

Here's the problem with the easy schedule scenario--it's not always easy.

Take the Rams. Please (sorry). The Rams might not be very good but they beat the Redskins last year. The Lions led the Redskins 10-3 but got undone by Santana Moss, who caught a 50-yard touchdown pass and returned a punt 80 yards for a touchdown in Washington's 25-17 hard-earned victory.

Then there's the matter of playing against new coaches and new quarterbacks. How'd that work out last year for the teams salivating over games against the Miami Dolphins, Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens. All of them came off horrible seasons, the Fish the worst at 1-15, the Falcons next at 4-12 and the Ravens at 5-11. Each had a new quarterback, the Falcons (Matt Ryan) and Ravens (Joe Flacco) starting rookies selected in the first round of the draft.

Miami won the AFC East at 11-5, with veteran Chad Pennington settling down a young team. The other two also finished 11-5 and were wild-card playoff qualifiers. The Ravens reached the AFC championship game, knocking the Tennessee Titans out to get there.

Two other aspects of the schedule should give rise to caution as well. The good teams, the ones likely to be in playoff contention, sit at the distant end. The Redskins play the Giants, the Dallas Cowboys and the San Diego Chargers during the stretch drive. They play St. Louis in Week 2, Detroit in Week 3 and Tampa Bay in Week 4.

Ron Wolf, the general manager who built the Green Bay Packers 1996 championship team and had a hand in constructing others elsewhere, always liked to issue this warning: "You never want to play bad teams early. They don't know they're bad yet."

Bad teams early, good teams late. Hmmm. It would be easier to get that table at Joe's than guarantee victories.

Who had the toughest schedule going into '08? The Pittsburgh Steelers. Who won the Super Bowl? Why, the boys from the 'burgh. Who had the easiest schedule? The New England Patriots. Yes, we know they lost Tom Brady and still won 11 games but they missed the playoffs and we are nothing if not all about the bottom line.

The Chargers had the second-easiest schedule and finished 8-8 but still won the sad-sack AFC West. Of the eight teams with the least heavy lifting to do, seven failed to make the playoffs.

One year's bad team is next year's good team. One year's good team is next year's disappointment. The schedule tells us nothing except who's next.

The media tell us plenty, not that the track record of the prognosticators counts for much. Sporting News' football annual magazine says the Redskins will go 4-12. Its regular edition calls for a 5-11 record. Sports Illustrated puts the Skins at 6-10. USA TODAY's panel of eight football typists has six picking the Philadelphia Eagles to win the NFC East and two going with the Giants. Not a single one picks the Redskins for so much as a wild card.

You still going to Miami? Find something else to do on Super Bowl Sunday.

And this just in from your in-laws. They'd rather you stay at a hotel.

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