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Football has returned; here's who to start, sit

The lawn mower blew more smoke into the air than the front row at a Black Crowes concert before dying, someone removed my truck's catalytic converter (and effectively $475 from my checkbook) and my Fantasy Baseball team finally reached its final destination at the bottom of the universe.

Good thing it's football time, otherwise I might actually be upset over last weekend's events.

For those who had it rough on the diamond this summer, Sunday (and a much needed fantasy mulligan) can't get here soon enough.

So while you're busy dusting off the lucky hats and readying your NFL grocery lists, here's a rundown on the players to start, ones to sit and sleepers to consider in Week 1.

Must Starts

RUNNING BACKS -- Whether he's facing the 2000 Ravens, Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain or an angry band of mini Ditkas, never sit the Chargers' LaDainian Tomlinson. Ever. San Diego opens against Chicago and the NFL's No. 1-ranked defense, but that won't keep LT from getting his and you from getting yours, so enjoy.

Denver's Travis Henry has a score to settle with the Bills when he and the Broncos invade Buffalo, which cut Henry two seasons ago. Henry still has hard feelings and could run wild Sunday.

Owners considering giving the Chiefs' Larry Johnson another week to get his legs under him should seriously reconsider. Kansas City coach Herm Edwards says he plans to limit Johnson to 20 carries against Houston, but 20 carries could become 30 to 35 once LJ starts running up and down the Texans' defense.

The Ravens' Willis McGahee should have ample running room against the Bengals as should the Cardinals' Edgerrin James against the 49ers and the Patriots' Laurence Maroney against the Jets. The Raiders' LaMont Jordan (vs. Lions) and the Cowboys' Julius Jones (vs. Giants) could give their stock a huge boost with strong debuts, while the Panthers' 1-2 punch of DeAngelo Williams and DeShaun Foster could run amok against the Rams.

QUARTERBACKS -- The Cardinals' Matt Leinart and 49ers' Alex Smith might combine for 90 pass attempts and a mess of touchdowns in what should be a shootout Monday night in San Francisco. The Giants' Eli Manning and Cowboys' Tony Romo should put smiles on their owners' faces in another game where scoring should be plentiful, and Marc Bulger and Jake Delhomme could both push 300 yards and three touchdowns if Sunday's Rams-Panthers tilt in St. Louis turns into a track meet.

WIDE RECEIVERS -- San Francisco's Darrell Jackson and Arizona's dynamic duo of Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald will waste no time making owners glad they drafted them, and the Panthers' Steve Smith is sure to be a busy man against the Rams. The Raiders' Jerry Porter and Falcons' Joe Horn (at Vikings) are risks worth taking if you're thin at the wideout position.

TIGHT ENDS -- The Giants' Jeremy Shockey always saves his best for the Cowboys and, with New York Giants receivers Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer nursing injuries, could be primed for a huge game. Across the field, Dallas' Jason Witten will be a beast if the Giants key on receiver Terrell Owens, and the Patriots' Benjamin Watson should have plenty of balls coming his way against the Jets, with or without Randy Moss in the lineup.

The Ravens' Todd Heap, 49ers' Vernon Davis and Chiefs' Tony Gonzalez face soft defenses, and Raiders' rookie Zach Miller and the Dolphins' David Martin (at Redskins) are sleepers worthy of consideration.

Take a Seat

RUNNING BACKS -- Clinton Portis, who sat out the preseason because of knee tendinitis, is expected to play Sunday but you might want to give him another week to heal with the Redskins opening the season against a tough Dolphins defense.

Only twice a year should anyone consider benching the Bengals' Rudi Johnson -- when they face the Ravens. The Bears' Cedric Benson will have to scrape for every yard (and there won't be many) against a stingy Chargers defense, while the Browns' Jamal Lewis will be wearing a bull's-eye against the Steelers.

QUARTERBACKS -- You might have braved the Madden Curse and drafted the Titans' Vince Young, but you'll be pushing your luck even more by starting him against the Jaguars, one of the few team's that had an answer (twice) for him last season. San Diego's Philip Rivers could find the going rough against Chicago, while the Lions' Jon Kitna, whose back is already smarting, could spend a lot of time on it against the Raiders.

RECEIVERS -- Chicago's Bernard Berrian has become one of the game's biggest deep-ball threats, but Bears QB Rex Grossman won't be able to get it to him while he's seeing stars in the Bat Cave courtesy of Shawne Merriman and the Chargers. Buffalo's Lee Evans is good but Denver's super secondary should be able to neutralize him, and Moss' hamstring issues makes him a risky start against the Jets.

TIGHT ENDS -- The match-ups are not good for Cleveland's Kellen Winslow (at Pittsburgh) and Washington's Chris Cooley (vs. Miami), while Heath Miller could be Pittsburgh's forgotten man against Cleveland.

I hope I've been able to help, and good luck to all. Here's how my two drafts went:

TEAM No. 1 (9-team league) -- QB: Marc Bulger, Matt Leinart and Ben Roethlisberger; RB: LaDainian Tomlinson, Deuce McAllister, Edgerrin James and LaMont Jordan; WR: Steve Smith, Anquan Boldin and Chris Chambers; TE: Todd Heap; K: Jeff Wilkins and John Kasay; D/ST: Chargers and Jaguars.

TEAM NO. 2 (12-team league) -- QB: Tony Romo, Daunte Culpepper and Patrick Ramsey; RB: Shaun Alexander, Julius Jones and Clinton Portis; WR: Chad Johnson, Laveranues Coles, Terry Glenn and Joe Horn; TE: Ben Watson and Eric Johnson; K: Jeff Wilkins and Rian Lindell; D/ST: Eagles and Broncos.

Stu Rosenberg's fantasy sports column runs Fridays. He can be reached at srosenberg@modbee.com or 578-2300.

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