Thursday, December 29, 2005

Playoff Berths Await for the Stalwart as NFL Regular Season Concludes

Nothing to crow about last week, as the SMA Swami came in at 8-7-1 ATS. A few undecided playoff berths remain at stake on this, the final, weekend of the regular NFL season. Let's get to the rundowns:

1. Denver at San Diego (-10)—Denver has sewed up a first-round playoff bye. San Diego is out of the postseason running, but in fact Kansas City needs for the Chargers to lose in order for their slim playoff possibility to become a reality. Frankly, I don't see either of these teams having much incentive for leaving it all on this field. For the Chargers, a win will only be bittersweet, for at their best they're deserving of a playoff spot. Their tough schedule was too much to overcome. They might win this one, but I'm not confident of that spread. Pick: Denver.

2. NY Giants (-9) at Oakland—Giants want this one badly. They're already guaranteed a playoff spot, but a loss means that a Redskins victory at Philly gives the NFC East title to Washington. Having a first-round home game is worth fighting for. But the Giants are a little banged up these days on defense. Raiders are just playing out the string, but it might be interesting with former Giants QB Kerry Collins helming the home team. Giants should win, but by how much? Pick: Oakland.

3. Arizona at Indianapolis (-6.5)—All the Tony Dungy stuff aside, it would be a real downer for the Colts to drop their final three games. I imagine that even with Jim Sorgi (left) doing most of the quarterbacking, they can deliver a "W" at home against lowly Arizona. Pick: Indianapolis.

4. Baltimore (-3) at Cleveland—A game of no consequence that could go either way. Ravens just now showing glimpses of the good team a lot of people thought they'd be way back in September. Browns seem to be slowing up from earlier scrappy pace. Pick: Baltimore.

5. Buffalo (-1) at NY Jets—Another game between also-rans. Buffalo a better team, and coming off an exciting win over Cincy on the road. Pick: Buffalo.

6. Carolina (-4) at Atlanta—A huge game for Carolina. They need a win and a Tampa Bay loss to capture NFC South title. Plus, there's actually a scenario where they could be left out in the cold altogether if they lose. Atlanta is out of the playoff race after a lot of early-season hype. Falcons did play well last week against Tampa Bay, however. If Carolina wants this game badly enough, they should beat the spread. Pick: Carolina.

7. Chicago at Minnesota (-4)—What was thought might be a critical end-of-season game has turned into a ho-hum. Bears have a first-round bye no matter what they do. Vikings self-destructed last week against Baltimore with a playoff hope still available. Bears will work on their offensive chops here, with resurrected QB Rex Grossman getting needed playing time. Pick: Chicago.

8. Cincinnati at Kansas City (-7)—Believe it or not, after plenty of travails, the Chiefs still have a shot at the playoffs. But they need to defeat a very good Cincy team, and have both Pittsburgh and San Diego lose, in order to grab the wild-card. Cincy's already slated to host a first-round playoff game, and winning this contest won't change anything. Pick: Kansas City.

9. Detroit at Pittsburgh (-13.5)—Steelers need to win this game to assure their playoff berth. They could lose and still get in, but it might be better to just assume they need the "W," especially since their game will be played concurrently with the Cincy-KC matchup. Detroit is bad enough to not beat this healthy spread. Pick: Pittsburgh.

10. Miami at New England (-5.5)—Interesting matchup between surging Patriots and improving Dolphins. Dolphins, at 8-7, can actually gain a winning season with a victory. Even going .500 shows remarkable improvement under rookie head coach Nick Saban. All done with the likes of Gus Frerotte and Sage Rosenfels at QB. Patriots playing very tough football and seem to be feeling their oats, which is not good news for playoff-bound AFC teams. Pick: New England.

11. New Orleans at Tampa Bay (-14)—Buccaneers secure NFC South title with a victory. This game reeks of Tampa Bay rout: they have incentive and QB Chris Simms and RB Cadillac Williams (left) are playing very well. Pick: Tampa Bay.

12. Houston (-1.5) at San Francisco—The Texans favored on the road? I don't buy it. Pick: San Francisco.

13. Tennessee at Jacksonville (-3.5)—A pride game for the Titans, for whom a loss would mean a 4-12 season. Jags might be resting up for playoffs, which means a first-round game traveling either to Cincy or New England. There are rumors that Jags QB Byron Leftwich might try out his mending ankle. Not sure that's a good idea, or even if it matters. Pick: Jacksonville.

14. Seattle at Green Bay (-3.5)—Decent side story here, with Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren returning somewhat triumphantly to Green Bay, where he led the Packers to two Super Bowls in the '90s. His 13-2 team looks to be the cream of the NFC, but it'll be interesting to see how their defense holds up against playoff competition. This game's a blip. I guess the oddsmakers figure the Packers have something to play for. Like pride. But at 3-12, this is one decimated team. Favre's final home game at Green Bay? Pick: Seattle.

15. Washington (-7) at Philadelphia—Yes, the Eagles would love to burst the Redskins' late-season playoff-surging balloon. 'Skins, having won four straight and now at 9-6, in strange position whereby they can lose but still get a wild-card slot if Dallas or Carolina loses. On the other hand, if they win and the Giants somehow manage to lose in Oakland, they can snag an NFC East title and a first-round home playoff game. This looks like a dangerous game for the visitors, however, especially with 'Skins QB Mark Brunell questionable and usually unpredictable Patrick Ramsey (right) as the backup. Eagles gave Giants a tussle a few weeks back and could prove troublesome. If the Redskins have truly become as good as some suspect, they should grab this "W." Points a sticky wicket. Pick: Washington.

16. St. Louis at Dallas (-12.5)—Cowboys can make playoffs with a victory and a loss by either Washington or Carolina. Bill Parcells' squad got lucky last week against the Panthers, but it was still a major effort to go to Carolina with their backs to the wall and emerge triumphant. Cowboys are not a bad team at all. What's weird is that, by the time this game rolls around late Sunday night, they'll already know the outcome of the other games, and if Washington and Carolina have won, then this contest becomes moot. If the Cowboys can gain the wild-card berth by winning, then they should have all the incentive they need to beat this otherwise extravagant spread. If they're already out of the running, it's anybody's game. Pick: Dallas.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

When Your Reach Exceeds Your Grasp, There's Hell to Pay; Week 15 Bettors Learn Hard Lessons

In Steve Spurrier's first season as an NFL head coach, he guided the 2002 Washington Redskins to a 7-9 record. Inauspicious is the word for that. Which makes the same word applicable to SMA's prognosticating efforts last week. With the Chargers and Steelers winning on the road, the Seahawks winning but limping to the finish line against Tennessee, the 49ers finding some surprising mojo against the Jaguars, and with the suddenly resurgent Redskins delivering a sucker punch to the Cowboys, we lost our psychic shirts around here. Needless to say, taking a hopeful flyer on the Chiefs against the Giants on New York's home field was a real no-no. So we're battered and bruised, and now looking at a 15-17 record ATS the past two weeks. I guess that's still better than Spurrier's overall 12-20 pro record, which sent him scurrying for cover and back into the welcoming arms of the college coaching ranks. There's a lesson there: Never let your reach exceed your grasp. It's a tough lesson to learn, though. Especially when the betting's all in fun.

This is that time of year when weird things can happen on the football field. Like, Will the Lions rise up and smite the noble Saints? Or, Will the 49ers get inspired two weeks in a row to beat the spread, especially against a fellow also-ran? Or, Can Philly win two in a row on the road against an NFC West stinker? Seriously, though, there are still a handful of games that mean a lot to the playoff picture, and if you've got the inside scoop on the Redskins-Giants contest, please call us immediately. Collect. That game looks like a doozy.

1. Buffalo @ Cincinnati (-14)—Cincy still needs to win to get that first-round playoff bye, but here's another double-digit spread that perplexes. Them's a lot of points, even against too-often lackluster Bills. Let's hope the home crowd exhorts the Bengals into a bloodthirsty frenzy. Pick: Cincinnati.

2. Pittsburgh (-7) @ Cleveland—Steelers have tons of incentive to play hard-nosed football. The Browns are one of the better mediocrities, and there's a strong history of combativeness in this matchup. Browns would love to mess with the Steelers' playoff hopes, but I don't think it's gonna happen. Potentially tough spread, though. Pick: Pittsburgh.

3. San Diego @ Kansas City (-1.5)—Just another fun day in the life of San Diego's Marty Schottenheimer (left), the winningest active head coach in the league. Yes, Marty's got more victories than Joe Gibbs or Bill Parcells. Too bad he's also the Choke King of the playoffs. Once again, he gets to take his talented squad on the road in yet another matchup scheduled apparently by the Marquis de Sade. The Chargers upset the Colts last week, and once again established themselves as a team to be reckoned with. Yet the wounded Chiefs would love to put the kibosh on them and fan their own flickering, mathematically feasible playoff hopes. Too close to call, unless the Chiefs have simply given up after two straight devastating road losses to Cowboys and Giants. Pick: San Diego.

4. Tennessee @ Miami (-5.5)—Two rebuilding teams that are looking toward next year for quantum improvement. Dolphins coach Nick Saban already has his squad on the upswing, sporting a surprising 7-7 record, while Titans coach Jeff Fisher simply never knows what to expect from his young players. Anything could happen here. Go with the flow. Pick: Miami.

5. Jacksonville (-6) @ Houston—Jags QB David Garrard put 10 big points on the board versus the 49ers last week. Not too encouraging. For a 10-4 team that's a supposed lock for the playoffs, the Jags look shaky offensively. It's defense that's gotten them where they are, and they should win this game. However, they certainly didn't cover the spread against San Francisco, and this one's not a guarantee, either. Pick: Jacksonville.

6. Detroit @ New Orleans (-3)—Only Saints QB Todd Bouman's mother cares about this game, a meaningless affair between two sad sacks. The location is San Antonio, so the 3-11 Saints have a chance to perform well for the city that wants to adopt them. SMA's preseason prediction had the Saints at 4-12 for the year, so this is one of two final chances for the team to fulfill its destiny. Pick: San, New Orleans.

7. Dallas @ Carolina (-5)—The Cowboys got trounced by the Redskins last week, and are licking serious wounds. They still have an outside chance at a wild-card berth, but a lot of things have to fall in place for that to happen. First off, they have to beat the 10-4 Panthers in Carolina. No easy feat. Tampa Bay, at 9-5, is still breathing down the Panthers' collective neck, so it behooves them to play well. Pick: Carolina.

8. NY Giants @ Washington (-3)—'Skins were mysteriously favored by three last week against the Cowboys, then played an inspired magical game in which they could do no wrong. Fluke or fact? The Giants have a couple of injuries at linebacker, though fill-ins played well against Kansas City. Tiki Barber (right) is having a monster season, and as long as Eli Manning avoids critical mistakes, the Giants are tough, though only 3-3 on the road. This promises to be a classic tilt, with a divisional title and/or a wild-card berth at stake for one team or the other. Giants have been stronger season-long. Pick: New York.

9. Atlanta @ Tampa Bay (-3)—The Falcons like to think they're still in the wild-card race, and with help it could happen. But they've got to get past a Buccaneers team vying for a divisional title and striving to rebound from an embarrassing thrashing up at New England. The Falcons are too erratic to be counted on here. Pick: Tampa Bay.

10. San Francisco @ St. Louis (-9)—Pick your also-ran. Not sure what those nine points are based upon, unless it's the memory of Kurt Warner's 1999 season and the Rams' Super Bowl title. This is the kind of season-end game that could go any which way. Pick: San Francisco.

11. Philadelphia @ Arizona (-1)—Eagles traveled to St. Louis last week and came away one-point winners. The Cardinals lost to Houston. Doh! Pick: Philadelphia.

12. Indianapolis @ Seattle (-7.5)—An interesting matchup that some see as a preview of Super Bowl XL. Look for both teams to give quality efforts and ignore all that chatter about resting key players for the playoff run. That'll only happen if someone gets comfortably ahead. Seahawks defense faces stiff challenge against Peyton & Co., who are looking to regroup after last week's home loss to San Diego. Colts no longer perfect but still damn good. Pick: Indianapolis.

13. Oakland @ Denver (-13)—Broncs couldn't beat a healthy spread at home against Baltimore two weeks ago, then traveled to Buffalo last week and carved out methodical, convincing victory. When a talented 11-3 team at home faces a rudderless 4-10 team, even 13 points don't look so intimidating. Plus, Denver still needs to keep pace with Cincy in the battle for a first-round playoff bye. Pick: Denver.

14. Chicago (-6.5) @ Green Bay—If Bears QB Rex Grossman (left) keeps improving, the Bears will be tougher. Their defense is overpowering: a young, fast, hungry and swarming bunch that relentlessly pressures and punishes the opposition. With no offense, the Monsters of the Midway are still 10-4, and Grossman's encouraging play last Sunday against Atlanta definitely might be a shot in the playoff arm. Reeling Packers may never recover from their 48-3 Monday night pasting at the hands of Baltimore. Pick: Chicago.

15. Minnesota @ Baltimore (-2.5)—Vikings, at 8-6, have put themselves behind the playoff 8-ball by losing at home last week against the Steelers. Baltimore might be finally improving, but it's very hard to know that for sure. Intuition says that the Vikings will limp to their '05 finish. Pick: Baltimore.

16. New England (-5 ) @ NY Jets—The lousy Jets might keep this close, but it's pointless to worry about. Pick: New England.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Press Weighs In on Barnett Ouster at Colorado; Tunnel Vision (and Bad Grammar) Blur Analysis

Jon Saraceno's Dec. 13 USA Today "Keeping Score" column is entitled "Did Colorado Get Buffaloed by Barnett?" Seems like everybody wants to take out after Gary Barnett, the former Colorado football coach, who left the university recently under a cloud and with a $3 million bracer of a buyout. Until all the facts are in, Barnett remains a somewhat elusive and slick-demeanored dude who no doubt will wind up coaching elsewhere, barring revelations of gross and unforgivable scandal in the CU football program.

What's funny to me is the general opinion that Barnett (left) invented scandal at Colorado. Doesn't anyone remember Bill McCartney? Chicago sportswriter Rick Telander wrote a book years ago, The Hundred Yard Lie: The Corruption of College Football and What We Can Do to Stop It (1989), which detailed bad behavior all over the college football landscape and had special material related to McCartney's Colorado program, which harbored the same sex and alcohol issues Barnett is now accused of overlooking on his watch. Barnett's immediate predecessor, Rick Neuheisel, had similar problems as well.

So I guess I'd have to say, "No, Colorado wasn't buffaloed by Barnett." It looks to be business as usual as far as I can see. Besides, let's be honest: The only thing wrong with coaches who get pilloried for financially cooking the books or overlooking athletes' moral turpitude is that they've gotten caught. I have no idea if Barnett is responsible for malfeasance. He's managed to talk his way out of things so far, adopting a "Who, me?" stance that's proved effective.

Allegations have swirled. There's currently an investigation under way into the money issues surrounding Barnett's summer camps at CU. Plus, there's been past accusation that some of his players have been less than gentlemanly toward coeds. I guess the issue there is this: If he knew he had womanizing creeps on his team, why didn't he dismiss them? Who knows exactly what was swept under that rug, but Barnett escaped indictment. The players he kept around were good enough to win at a satisfactory level, and ironically enough, if Barnett's team hadn't been blown out two weeks ago by Texas, 70-3, in the Big 12 Conference championship game, he might still even be around. It would appear that the school's administration took losing the big game as the signal to oust the head coach. Which in a way makes them as strangely manipulative as Barnett. The cloud that surrounded Barnett certainly red-flagged his undoing, but he may yet walk out from under it unscathed.

Funny how no one thought of him as anything but a savior 10 years ago, when he took Northwestern to two straight postseason appearances, including the Rose Bowl. Northwestern had been in the throes of years of losing before his arrival. At a school where academic standards are seriously high, and recruiting against football factories like Ohio State and Michigan is nigh impossible, Barnett took young men who actually might qualify as "student-athletes," instilled them with pride and stressed teamwork, and made a rather modern miracle out of a pathetic, seemingly hopeless situation. There was one blip: an accusation of point-shaving. Well, if coaches are father figures and all that, even the good father might not know he's got a son who's consorting with gamblers. True, Barnett was always seeming to be on the verge of leaving Northwestern, and he played it coy and cagey as outside schools came a-calling. In their heady exultation that Barnett proved that their team could play with the big boys, overearnest Wildcat fans probably forgot that college football is a business. Never mind all the folderol about loyalty and such—Barnett did a great job at Northwestern, a program about which it was said it could never be done.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of his CU tenure was the case of Katie Hnida, a female placekicker trying to make the Buffs roster. In a very dark episode, Hnida claimed she was raped by a teammate. No doubt this situation was a huge burr under Barnett's saddle. We don't really know exactly what Barnett knew and when he knew it. But we do know that he sent an e-mail to the CU athletic director and inquired whether he should divulge what he knew of Hnida's promiscuity, presumably to throw some glaring light on the poor girl and an equal amount of suspicion on the propriety of her accusation. Did he have a point? Who knows.

But we do know that the school suspended Barnett in 2004 after he said of Hnida, "Not only was she terrible, she was a girl." This sounds harsh, I suppose, but if Hnida was terrible, possibly Barnett was responding to the notion that he felt politically bound to give her a shot, even when he knew the situation looked like nothing more than a publicity stunt. In stating that she was a girl, we can only conclude that Barnett was telling the truth as well. Sorry, folks, but big-time college football is still the domain of young, brawny men. Girls might break into the ranks someday, but should Barnett be attacked when he knew Hnida was a fish out of water?

No, we don't come to praise Barnett; maybe only to bury him for the time being. His resurrection is virtually assured. Anyone remember Mike Price, the guy hired to be Alabama's head coach a couple of seasons ago, who was caught consorting with hookers at a Gulf Coast resort the summer before his first season even got launched with the Crimson Tide? Yep, that was embarrassing to all concerned. Alabama dumped him almost immediately, so shocked were they by the revelations. Well, don't look now, but Mike Price, now head coach of the UTEP Miners, takes his 8-3 squad into Mobile, Ala., for a Dec. 21 date in the GMAC Bowl against Toledo. (Here's betting he'll know where to go to celebrate should his team emerge victorious.)

College football is a cesspool of hypocrisy, and anyone who claims otherwise has blinders on. For guys like Barnett, it's a game of survival. He seems to play it pretty well, but maybe the summer camp audit will prove otherwise. Somehow I doubt it.

One last journalistic salvo by way of a note to Mr. Saraceno, whose Barnett story includes the following sentence: "When you're paid the kind of scratch Barnett was, the level of scrutiny and accountability is equally as high." Dear Jon: Are you aware that it is wholly incorrect to say "equally as high"? "Equally" and "as" are redundant in your construction. The correct statement would read: "...the level of scrutiny and accountability is equally high." Never mix your adverbs and conjunctions that way, dude. It's really bad writing. What's amazing is that your editor didn't catch it, either. Which only proves that incompetence is everywhere, even where you least expect it.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Huge Playoff Impact in NFL's Week 15 Schedule; No Rest for the Weary ATS

A .500 record is never anything to crow about, but Week 14 ATS looked to be a toughie from the get-go, and so it was proved to be. All things considered, I'll take the 8-8. Amazing how Houston in defeat did more for me than Denver did in victory. Ditto the Browns, who lost but covered the spread against Cincy. I knew those double-digit spreads spelled trouble; while the Broncos were lucky to escape with their lives against Baltimore, the Chargers dealt themselves a serious playoff blow by losing at home to Miami. And even though I picked the game wrong, my intuition that Philly would put up a stiff challenge against the Giants was spot-on and helped restore faith in parity. And hats off to the Colts; favored by 7.5, they held on to edge Jacksonville 26-18, and as far as I'm concerned, that was more important than the fact that Indy became only the fourth team in NFL history to begin the season 13-0. (The others were the '72 Dolphins, the '85 Bears, and the '98 Broncos.)

Alas, this week's games look even tougher, with the playoff picture now scrambled but good. There's plenty of incentive for everybody concerned to win, and even the games between also-rans, like Arizona/Houston, Cleveland/Oakland, or Philly/St. Louis, should be very difficult to forecast. We might have as much luck picking team names out of a hat, but if we're gonna sweat it out to achieve .500 anyway, we might as well have fun doing it with our brains.

This week's schedule includes three games on Saturday. (Don't forget, or you could leave yourself in the lurch with your bookie.) Another MNF stinker this week, Green Bay at Baltimore, which I guess looked fairly attractive way back when.

1. Tampa Bay @ New England (-4)—The 8-5 Patriots stirred memories of recent seasons past with last week's 35-7 pasting of the Bills in Buffalo. Brady and Dillon looked very good indeed, and maybe this team is ready to make a charge. Tampa coming off huge win in Carolina, and adding to a resume that says "playoffs." The 9-4 Bucs are 5-2 on the road this year and 2-1 against AFC opponents, and, in fact, they need to win this game more than New England does. Barring a Miami miracle, the Pats will take their division but won't get a first-round bye; they'll get a first-round home game no matter what they do. No wonder there was no early line for this matchup. The incentive is all Tampa's, but historically the Bucs don't do well in cold weather, though the 2002 Super Bowl winners bucked that trend. Pick: New England.

2. Kansas City @ N.Y. Giants (-3)—Poor K.C. They go into Dallas last week and play an emotional game but lose in the last seconds. Now they have to go on the road again against the team trying to stay ahead of the Cowboys. The 8-5 Chiefs caught a little divisional break when Chargers also lost, but they're still in the thick of a tense AFC wild-card scenario, and a 10-6 record might not be good enough, with the Jags already at 9-4 and Pittsburgh and San Diego also at 8-5. Giants eked out a "W" against overachieving Philly squad last week. We're at that time of year where everybody needs to win. Question is, Can the Chiefs leave it all on the field two weeks in a row? Sure wish their defense was better, that's for sure. I'd rather watch this game on TV than bet on it. Pick: Kansas City.

3. Denver (-9) @ Buffalo—Bills got smacked by Patriots but good last week, 35-7. Broncos slipped past Baltimore, 12-10. With that hiccup out of the way, AFC West-leading Denver should get back on track with a decent victory. They'll need it to keep pace with Cincy in the playoff bye derby. Pick: Denver.

4. Arizona (-1) @ Houston—The bowser of the week. Artistically, this game could be really ugly, but figuring the spread on it is as tough as they come. Law of averages works in favor of the 1-12 Texans, who are home after having lost their last two on the road by a combined total of 4 points. Cardinals made the Redskins sweat last week, but still lost at home. In the interest of aesthetics, they should probably just not play this game, but we're stuck with making a choice. Pick: Arizona.

5. Carolina (-7) @ New Orleans (in Baton Rouge, La.)—Actually, San Antonio Saints has a ring to it. But Baton Rouge Saints sounds like a AA minor league baseball outfit. If 9-4 Carolina can't get up for this game, with a divisional title and possible wild-card berth at stake, then, well, they might as well forfeit the rest of their season. But they could lose this one and still finish 11-5, proving how important a good running start can be. Pick: Carolina.

6. N.Y. Jets @ Miami (-9)—A lot of history behind this match-up. The Dolphins are fresh off an energizing win at San Diego, and the Jets are fresh off an "it's about time" win over the lackadaisical Raiders. Believe it or not, at 6-7, the Dolphins are still not out of the AFC East divisional race. Nick Saban is proving that good coaching matters, and his team is capable of beating this spread, maybe even handily. Pick: Miami.

7. Philadelphia @ St. Louis (-3.5)—Last year's playoffs are only a dim memory for both of these squads. Injuries, ailing coaches, and off-the-field soap opera have conspired to ruin the 2005 season of each. Eagles offense is helmed by QB Mike McMahon (left), and the Rams' once-proud passing game is being run by rookie QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. Assuming the Eagles shot their wad last week in a tough loss to the Giants, then maybe the Rams can scoot by with this one. Pick: St. Louis.

8. Pittsburgh (-3) @ Minnesota—Both teams are 8-5, so why would visitors be favored by 3? Vikings have won 6 straight and can throw a major wrench into the NFC playoff works by continuing their winning ways. Their rise seems unlikely—especially without Daunte Culpepper—but remember: a lot of pre-season prognosticators picked them to do well and even win the weak NFC North. They still might do that if the Bears falter. Pick: Minnesota.

9. San Diego @ Indianapolis (-7.5)—The 8-5 Chargers absolutely need to win this game, while the 13-0 Colts are trying for a perfect record to match the history-making 1972 Dolphins. Why, you ask, did the Chargers shoot themselves in the foot, losing to Miami last week in San Diego? I have no idea. Unless it's the Schottenheimer Curse all over again. The Chargers do have an unbelievably brutal schedule, but that's the way it goes. I think the Colts want that record, and if they can beat the Jags in Jacksonville by 8, as they did last week, then they can at least duplicate that result at home against the Chargers. The Colts' defense plays a bigger role these days in keeping the team ahead of every challenger. Pick: Indianapolis.

10. Seattle (-7) @ Tennessee—Considering the 11-2 Seahawks have the inside track to the Super Bowl, and the Titans are now 4-9, fresh off an underwhelming home victory over the Texans, you'd think this spread would be a lot more. Seattle defense can be porous, though. The Titans play aggressive football, and it's not lack of trying that has been their downfall. They just don't execute anything with any consistency. No reason to think they'll suddenly put it all together now. Pick: Seattle.

11. San Francisco @ Jacksonville (15)—The 9-4 Jaguars have a leg up on all the AFC wild-card competition. No one can touch them if they win out. The 49ers will hardly stand in their way, but what about that spread with Jags QB David Garrard still trying to achieve consistency? Niners got trounced by Seattle last week, 41-3. They are one bad team. Pick: Jacksonville.

12. Cincinnati (-7.5) @ Detroit—The Bengals are in a fight with the Broncos to see who can get that other AFC first-round playoff bye. They were challenged by Cleveland last week, but still won not playing their best. Tough to imagine the Lions playing a coherent-enough game to beat this relatively modest spread. Pick: Cincinnati.

13. Cleveland @ Oakland (-3)—Cleveland is a scrappy 4-9, having played Cincy last week to a near standstill; Oakland is an impotent 4-9, having lost to the Jets. Raiders QB Marques Tuiasosopo (left) squares off against Browns' QB Charlie Frye (right). Which means...what? (Maybe they'll set NFL records for aggregate ineptitude.) For what it's worth, the Browns look like a team that wants to keep improving. Pick: Cleveland. [LATE-BREAKING NEWS: Kerry Collins has been tapped to start at QB for the Raiders.]

14. Dallas @ Washington (-3)—It's been a while since a game in this historic rivalry actually meant something. It's huge now. At 7-6, Redskins are battling to stay in the playoff race, and this game begins a home stretch of contests against all three divisional foes. The Giants come to D.C. next week, and Philly hosts the season closer. A sweep puts the 'Skins at 10-6, and with help they could grab a wild-card. Cowboys won emotional, critical game versus the Chiefs last week. It would be nostalgic and fun and good for football to see Joe Gibbs best Bill Parcells, but overall history is against it. Pick: Dallas.

15. Atlanta @ Chicago (-3)—The Bears have the NFC South's number this year. They beat New Orleans and Tampa Bay on the road, then defeated Carolina in Chicago. This is a huge game for both teams, and it's a real toughie to pick because let's face it, the Bears have no offense. At 9-4, they've had only two games this season that qualify as blow-outs, and among their losses is one to less-than-mediocre Cleveland. This is the Bears' final home game; they're 6-1 at Soldier Field. Hard-to-peg Falcons are 4-2 on the road, and this is a must-win for them. When the Bears are victorious, it's usually a tight squeeze. Can they beat the Falcons by 4? Well, they beat the Panthers by 10. Pick: Chicago.

16. Green Bay @ Baltimore (-3.5)—Another dog of a Monday-Nighter. Will Favre work any magic? Who knows, but it could be his last MNF appearance as a Packer. Ravens somehow kept things frighteningly close against the Broncos last week, while Pack struggled to defeat Detroit in friendly Green Bay surroundings. Those three and a half points are just enough to sink a logical bettor. Pick: Ravens.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Clairvoyance Doesn't Bring Security, but It Sure Delivers a Nice Temporary High

The SMA braintrust looked positively clairvoyant last week, snagging 12 out of 16 ATS, with the Redskins and Panthers coming through in fine style. We’re still tinkering with our hometown loyalties, however, and we’ve simply got to stop believing that the Titans are better than they look. In fact, they look 3-9, and that’s exactly what they are. Even this week’s home date against the lowly Texans looks iffy ATS. So how do you root for a beloved lousy team to win the game, but not by too much??

And how about those swamis in the NFL’s scheduling office? They decided that this week’s Saints/Falcons matchup would be worthy of a Monday Night Football slot. Since when was putting the Saints in prime-time on Week 14 of any season a viable idea? Yeah, the Falcons are still alive in the playoff race, but their fortunes have slipped, and they’re not really playing very well. Strangely enough—or maybe not so, in light of Katrina—the Saints have a better record on the road than at home this year. But I don’t wanna think about that too much, since I went ahead and picked the Falcons to beat the spread at home. (Saints preserve us!)

Five games are double-digit spread affairs this week. That looks like a lot to me. After all, these aren’t college games we’re calling, where teams get their asses kicked in a Big 12 conference championship by 70-3. That said, I went with the big numbers 4 out of 5. But I have a feeling that the bookies feast in Week 14. We’re only just pawns in their game, you know.

1. Tampa Bay @ Carolina (-5)—Huge divisional matchup with a lot on the line, including impact on wild-card scenario. Gotta assume the Panthers’ D-line will throttle Bucs QB Chris Simms (right). Pick: Carolina.

2. New England (-3) @ Buffalo—The Bills played tough at home two weeks ago against Carolina, holding the Panthers to 13 points and forcing a push ATS. New England simply isn’t the team of the recent past. The Bills’ D is no embarrassment, and they’ve got a chance to make this close. Pick: Buffalo.

3. St. Louis @ Minnesota (-6.5)—Vikings are still in the playoff hunt, and the Rams are only still in it mathematically. Vikings are on a five-game winning streak, and the Rams just give up too many points. Plus, the Rams’ Harvard-grad rookie QB Fitzpatrick has now learned that not every team around here is as beatable as the Houston Texans. Pick: Minnesota.

4. Chicago @ Pittsburgh (-5.5)—Lovable but ornery young Bears have won eight in a row, and they count Carolina and Tampa Bay as recent victims. The Steelers have lost three in a row and, at 7-5, are fighting for their playoff lives. They looked better last week against Cincy, especially because QB Ben Roethlisberger (left) looks like he can throw again, despite the fact that his thumb is slated for post-season surgery of some kind. Still, the Steelers did lose at home, and this spread looks tricky indeed, considering that the Bears are giving up only 10.6 points per game. Pick: Steelers.

5. Oakland (-3) @ New York Jets—Gosh, the Jets suck. Oakland is no prize, either, and who knows what they’ll do. But the Raiders do have some offense, and a couple of scores should do the trick. Pick: Oakland.

6. Indianapolis (-7.5) @ Jacksonville—The Jags have a defense that might actually stymie Peyton Manning for a couple of series. The problem is that the Colts also have a defense, one capable of giving fill-in Jags QB David Garrard fits. This should be a hard-hitting affair, and maybe a surprise result. But it’s tough to back it with money. Pick: Colts.

7. Houston @ Tennessee (-6.5)—The Titans seem to be deteriorating; unlike teams loaded with young players, they're not showing the kind of improvement you might expect. Plus, they’re getting hit by the injury bug, losing talented rookie wide receivers Roydell Williams and Brandon Jones to season-ending surgery. They might win this game, but there’s every reason to believe it’ll be close. Pick: Houston.

8. Cleveland @ Cincinnati (-12)—I have a feeling Cleveland’s gonna stick around for this one. Their defense is scrappy enough to hold on for a while, before Bengals claw their way to victory, say, about, 28-17. Pick: Cleveland.

9. Washington (-3) @ Arizona—Redskins got back on winning track last week by beating an NFC West squad (the Rams) on the road. They get the same challenge here. (Seems like an awful lot of plane travel.) At 6-6, the Redskins need to win out for any playoff chance, and after this game they close the season with contests against each of their divisional foes. Their destiny is in their own erratic hands. Pick: Washington.

10. New York Giants (-7) @ Philadelphia—Based on their Monday night performance against Seattle, the Eagles look remarkably pathetic. They have no QB, no running game (and injured Brian Westbrook was just declared out for the year), and their receivers drop passes. To be fair to their defense, it was the Eagles’ offense that was responsible for a lot of the Seahawks’ points in the 42-0 debacle. Giants need this game in a hotly contended divisional situation. It’ll be a tougher battle than it looks for the G-Men, and someone in Vegas knows it, because the early spread on the game was -3 and then changed to -7 from Monday to Wednesday. Ask yourself this: Is it possible for Eagles coach Andy Reid to inspire his troops to make a sufficient effort—especially with their defense—to thwart the playoff aspirations of a longtime hated divisional rival? I almost wish I could take this one back. Pick: New York.

11. San Francisco @ Seattle (-16)—Seattle wants to win this game in service of getting home-field advantage come playoff time. So they need to play well, but they don’t need to break a sweat or risk injury to key players. It could be a romp, of course, but they only beat the Niners by two points on Nov. 20 in San Francisco. Pick: San Francisco.

12. Miami @ San Diego (-13.5)—San Diego is hot, and they need to stay that way. I don’t like these points much, however. Dolphins are capable of tenacity; on the other hand, their QB last week in a close win versus the Bills was Sage Rosenfels (right). Sounds more like a stock brokerage to me. Pick: San Diego.

13. Baltimore @ Denver (-14)—Even at 9-3 and looking good, the Broncos need to keep pace in the AFC West, where Kansas City and San Diego are breathing down their necks. They could probably sleep-walk through this affair and come out with a win, but 14 points is always reason for concern. Pick: Denver.

14. Kansas City @ Dallas (-3)—All eyes will be on this matchup, where two good teams engage with divisional and wild-card aspirations looming large. K.C. looked good against Denver last week, but sometimes they just don’t put it all together. They’ve won three in a row, while the Cowboys have dropped two straight. Go with the positive trend. Pick: Kansas City.

15. Detroit @ Green Bay (-5.5)—This game would be a laugh-riot if it weren’t for the fact that it’s a bitch to call. Both teams are on three-game skids. The Packers winning wouldn’t be a surprise at all, but at 2-10, what says they’ll beat the 4-8 Lions by six points? Pick: Detroit.

16. New Orleans @ Atlanta (-10)—If the Falcons are so good, why are they 7-5 and in third place in the NFC South? And why did Carolina drub ‘em 24-6 last week? Aren’t they supposed to get up for a game like that? If they can’t get it in gear for this one, you can write ‘em off for the rest of the season. As it is, they still might be goners, and there’s nothing that says they will cover this spread handily. The Saints kept it close against the Buccaneers last week. Pick: Atlanta.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Getting Back on Beam ATS Doesn't Make Things Any Easier; Week 13 Filled with Pitfalls

A decent record ATS last week: SMA pulled a 10-5-1, but missed the big fish on critical games, like Seattle-Giants and Chicago-Tampa Bay. My little brother—well, he's taller than me, but younger—is out in the Los Angeles sunshine basking in the glow of his 12-3-1 effort. He picked the toughies well, and one of these days he might start putting real money down. Which could lead to riches, or maybe even a movie screenplay: Let's see...little brother starts playing the game big-time, gets Pete Rose Disease, raises the stakes to cover his losses, starts playing on credit, loses even more, gets in deep with Vegas bookies, then hightails it to Nashville to hide out at his brother's place. I see Ben Stiller as the lovable but hard-luck, gambling-addicted lead, with Vince Vaughn as the reluctantly protective older sibling. How about Steve Carell as the humorously edgy but still kinda scary bookie bent on getting his money? Will Farrell plays Carell's stooge. It sounds almost as adventurous as this week's lineup of games. Thankfully, it can still be easier to have a winning week than to get a movie screenplay produced. Here's the fresh dope:

1. Buffalo at Miami (-4)—Guess it depends which Dolphins team shows up, the losers who got drubbed in Cleveland two weeks ago, or the road warriors who solidly defeated the Raiders in Oakland last week. The Bills seem lost in space; they lose on the road, they lose at home, and J. P. Losman does little to encourage the betting man. Pick: Miami.

2. Cincinnati at Pittsburgh (-3)—Big AFC North divisional matchup. The Steelers seemed to be trying mightily against the Colts, and still got spanked on Monday night. Roethlisberger's back for 'em, but he looked erratic, and the Bengals have been intercepting passes left and right this season. Plus, the tiger-stripes have a potent offense. If the Steelers are gonna give away three points, I'm a Bengal man. Pick: Cincinnati.

3. Houston at Baltimore (-7.5)—There are three games this week that are absolutely irrelevant to the playoffs, and this is one of them. Baltimore has scored 145 points in 11 games; only the Jets are worse offensively. The Texans aren't much better (168). Baltimore at least has the semblance of a defense in place, while Houston's giving up nearly 30 points a game. Obviously, the points are sneakily just above a TD and PAT. So if the Ravens go for the two-point conversion, would that seal the deal? Texans have to win another game sometime, but they have patsies like Arizona and San Francisco still coming up on the schedule. Ya got me on this one. Pick: Houston.

4. Tennessee at Indianapolis (-15)—When a 3-8 team filled with rookies heads to Indy, 15 points look pretty sweet. On the other hand, there's a lot of recent competitive history here. Titans actually hung around a while in the earlier meeting in Nashville. If I was a liberal-thinking man, I'd probably say that Peyton unmercifully chews up the youthful Titans secondary, and the Colts D-line makes Steve McNair get back to thinking about retirement. It could be very ugly, but I'm a conservative where outcomes and parity are concerned, and I think the Titans will put up a relative struggle. Pick: Tennessee.

5. Jacksonville (-3) at Cleveland—Having won four games, Romeo Crennel's Browns have already surpassed some preseason predictions. David Garrard (left) takes over for the Jags at QB, with Byron Leftwich out with a broken ankle. Jags won by 7 on the road last week at Arizona. Tricky stuff here. Garrard's talented, even while his QB style—he likes to run—is very different than Leftwich, who is determined to be a pocket passer (good for him). But Jags have a defense too. Don't bet the farm on this one. (Pop quiz: Where did Garrard go to college? Answer below.) Pick: Jacksonville.

6. Dallas at New York Giants (-3)—For a lot of reasons, the game of the week. Bill Parcells invades his old haunts in a game that matters to divisional supremacy. But for their placekicking, Giants should have won last week at Seattle. Cowboys could have won on Thanksgiving but didn't. G-Men get obligatory home-field 3-point nod. Looks like a toss-up. Pick: New York.

7. Green Bay at Chicago (-7)—The Bears are winning without an offense. I guess that might matter if the Packers had some sort of defense. Actually, they're not as shabby as you might suppose, having yielded 223 points in 11 games. Yet the Bears have given up only 120 points this season, and no one's even close to that anywhere in the league. And the Bears are at home in front of adoring fans who love their youthful spunk and will be relishing this storied rivalry. Brett Favre could throw some costly interceptions. He also might get hurt. Pick: Chicago.

8. Minnesota (-2.5) at Detroit—Steve Mariucci gets fired and Dick Jauron takes over at coach for the Lions. Some teams respond well to adversity. The Lions don't seem to respond well to anything. It's like they're on permanent Ritalin. They're definitely not the best 4-7 team in the league, though they're playing .500 ball at home. I see no reason why the Vikings can't win this game 20-17 and cover the spread. Pick: Minnesota.

9. Atlanta at Carolina (-3)—Big NFC South matchup. Only Colts and Bears have given up fewer points than Panthers this year. On paper, this one looks pretty even-Steven, especially since Atlanta has already blown some chances to assert their supposed superiority. Now they're in a dogfight for a wild-card berth. QB Jake Delhomme (left) along with the Panthers D corral Vick and Dunn. (Pop quiz: Where did Delhomme go to college? See answer below.) Pick: Carolina.

10. Tampa Bay (-3.5) at New Orleans—Buccaneers have golden chance to gain a game on one divisional rival. Playing the peripatetic (and also pathetic) Saints plays right into their hands, and if Gruden can't get his squad up for this one then maybe they don't belong in the playoff hunt. Only 3.5? Gotta grab that. Pick: Tampa Bay.

11. Arizona (-3) at San Francisco—Okay, why is Arizona favored in this game? I have no idea. You can't really articulate a rationale for it. They're 3-8, the Niners 2-9. If you counterbalance the spread with the Niners' home-field potential, you get an absolute pick-'em situation. So if these inept teams come out of an overtime still tied, the 49ers win the bet. Pick: San Francisco.

12. Washington (-3) at St. Louis—Two 5-6 teams playing for a last-gasp chance at getting into the wild-card hunt. 'Skins, coming off three straight losses, have the superior defense, and Rams played rookie Ryan Fitzpatrick at QB last week in a preposterous win over Houston. Washington has been losing close games to decent teams, and look to get healthy on the road. A very tough game to call. If anyone should have more incentive, it's Joe Gibbs & Co. Pick: Redskins.

13. New York Jets at New England (-10)—There's every reason to believe that the sputtering Pats will not cover this spread. But the Jets are so lame that it's easier to put faith in the points offered. Which is sad commentary indeed on Herm Edwards and his punchless offense, which has scored a league-low 140 points and has yet to win a game on the road. The Jets' D is not that bad, actually, and I wouldn't fault anyone for letting some money ride on the underdogs here. But I can't do it. Pick: New England.

14. Denver (-1) at Kansas City—Chance for Chiefs to get right into the thick of AFC West race. But Denver needs to win because the Chargers are gaining momentum right behind them. Chiefs coming off convincing home win against Patriots, if only that meant as much as it used to. Broncos are rested after Thanksgiving victory in Dallas. Denver has looked very good this year, while Chiefs are capable of looking laconic. Pick: Denver.

15. Oakland at San Diego (-11)—You can probably lay your money on the Chargers this week with confidence. If Oakland can't beat Miami on their home turf, how will they do on the road against San Diego? Probably a no-brainer, though stranger things have happened. Pick: San Diego.

16. Seattle (-3.5) at Philadelphia—VERY tricky proposition here. Seahawks lucky to escape with 3-point overtime victory at home last week against Giants. They also beat the Cowboys earlier this year at home in a close shave. But they lost by 3 in Washington previously in yet another barn-burner. Now they complete their tour of the NFC East by taking on forgotten Philly. Eagles are desperate, while 'Hawks are comfortably atop NFC West and can clinch the division with a "W." I think the 'Hawks can pull off the win, but the points...the points... Taking a flyer. Pick: Seattle.

Quiz answers: David Garrard attended East Carolina; Jake Delhomme went to Louisiana-Lafayette.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Some White Men Can Jump: Seahawks' Jurevicius Heading for Career Year

In yesterday's 24-21 overtime victory against the New York Giants, Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Joe Jurevicius (right) caught 8 passes for 137 yards (a 17.1-yard average), with 2 TDs. That gives him 44 catches for 558 yards, and puts him on pace for a 64-reception, 812-yard season. Those numbers aren't astonishing by any means, but they'll be career numbers for Jurevicius, a 6'5," 230-lb. veteran out of Penn State now in his eighth NFL season. Jurevicius spent his first four years in the NFL with the Giants, then spent three years with the Tampa Bay Bucs, with whom he won a Super Bowl after the 2002 season. He's struggled with some injuries, however, and has never managed to assert himself into the higher echelon of NFL wide receivers.

No one's ever going to confuse Jurevicius with T.O. or Randy Moss. But the fact of the matter is that, in a season where the Seahawks are now 9-2 and threatening to establish themselves as the class of the NFC, Jurevicius looks to be the team's key free-agent pickup. Clearly, Joe J. is the tonic that the Seattle passing game desperately needed: a guy who could actually CATCH THE BALL. In their attempt in recent years to establish a passing attack with up-and-coming QB Matt Hasselback, the Seahawks kept sending wide receivers onto the field who seemed to know well enough how to get open but continually dropped passes when it counted. Darrell Jackson, Bobby Engram, and Koren Robinson were the main receivers for 2004, and on paper they looked all right, especially Jackson, who caught 87 passes for 1,199 yards and 7 TDs. Yet the Seahawks also went through some frustrating periods where Hasselback would find a groove and then a case of iron hands would afflict his receiving corps at the most inopportune times. A couple of late-season games were downright ugly in this department, and even with the great Shaun Alexander running the ball and Hasselback gaining in experience, the Seahawks more or less stumbled to a wild-card berth at 9-7, then promptly lost a playoff encounter to the Rams, 27-20.

Jurevicius may not be the fastest guy on the field, but by golly he's got reliable hands. And with his height and heft, he enters traffic as a prime target for Hasselback, who got the Seahawks on the board first yesterday with a beauty of a 35-yard TD pass in which Joe J. skied high at the goal line, twisted his muscular frame brilliantly to establish position over a shorter Giants defender, then plucked the ball out of the air, simultaneously wresting it away from the defensive back and securely into his grasp. Jurevicius later grabbed a 16-yard TD toss from Hasselback, and with Alexander finally getting in gear, the 'Hawks nipped the Giants on a Josh Brown field goal.

So it's taken Jurevicius a while to find a spotlight, but he's got one now, on a hungry team with a sharp QB, a killer running back, and a head coach, Mike Holmgren, who's already won a Super Bowl with the Packers. Questions linger about the Seahawks defense, which plays aggressively enough but has yet to pass a few more serious tests. For example, they yielded 151 yards on the ground to Tiki Barber yesterday, and Giants QB Eli Manning passed for 344 yards. Nevertheless, in the absence of any other NFC team asserting its dominance, the 'Hawks look as good as any to make a serious run for Super Bowl XL.

As long as he stays healthy, Jurevicius not only has a chance to achieve career stats; he may also serve as the poster boy for a new-ish NFL trend: the tall, white receiver who can catch a pass in traffic and use his size to terrific advantage over smaller, usually faster cornerbacks and safeties. Tennessee's Drew Bennett is another one of these guys; he's also 6'5" and built very similar to Jurevicius. Bennett returned to action yesterday after missing three games with a broken thumb. He caught five passes as the Titans broke a five-game losing streak. Jacksonville Jaguars rookie wide receiver Matt Jones (left) is also making his considerable physical presence felt. Jones is 6'6" and listed at 229 pounds, but he looks more hulkish than that on television. (Older college profiles list him at 242 pounds.) Like Bennett a college quarterback—Bennett at UCLA, Jones at Arkansas—Jones is making the Jags' draft-day decision to select him as a wideout to look brilliant. He's a huge target who is extraordinarily mobile for his size and looks to have the necessary good hands to go with his position. Jones is a hugely gifted football player. At Arkansas, he proved he could throw well enough to be a first-string QB, but he also put up impressive numbers running the ball when he had to. As Jones gains NFL experience, and begins to catch more passes in traffic and on the run, he's liable to become an incredible threat with daunting YAC (yards after catch) numbers. It's gonna be like trying to tackle a Larry Csonka or John Riggins clone in full stride, except Jones is even bigger in every way, plus he has the speed to line up on the outside even though his height/weight profile would seem to equate to playing tight end.

(It'll be interesting to watch in the next few years, to see if NFL teams start looking for more size in their cornerbacks, especially, in order to combat the tall-guy trend. Some of the typical current DBs are giving away 8 or 9 inches to a guy like Jones.)

Anyway, for now, a healthy Joe Jurevicius is the leading exemplar of the trend. We may see a lot of him come playoff time.

NFL Notes
For the second straight week, a former Redskins head coach returned to Washington to lead his AFC West team to victory. Last week, it was Norv Turner, who returned to DC with his Oakland Raiders to deal a serious blow to the 'Skins playoff hopes, 16-13. Yesterday, it was Marty Schottenheimer's turn, as his San Diego Chargers beat the 'Skins in overtime 23-17. (Schottenheimer was unceremoniously released by 'Skins owner Dan Snyder following the 2001 season, after he struggled early with a rag-tag bunch and then got the team to play above its head on the way to an inspired 8-8 finish.) With LaDainian Tomlinson (left) gaining 184 yards rushing and scoring three TDs, the Chargers raised their record to 7-4, and certainly look like the best non-division leader in the league. The 'Skins, meanwhile, have dropped three toughies in a row by a combined score of 75-65, and at 5-6 would have to probably win out the rest of the way and get some help from faltering others to even have a shot at a wild-card berth.... And yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus—at least that's what it looks like in Chicago, where the Bears are now 8-3 after beating the Bucs in Tampa Bay, 13-10. The Bears have a popgun offense commandeered by a rookie QB (Kyle Orton, pictured at right), and it hardly challenged the Bucs' defense yesterday. But the Bears' young and aggressive defense is sporting claws sharp enough to take down two consecutive good NFC South teams (last week it was Carolina), and if there's a feel-good story coming up in the playoffs, it's gotta be the Bears.... The Vikings will try to have something to say about the Bears' NFC North divisional aspirations, having won four straight after a lackluster start. Now 6-5, Minnesota still has a shot at the post-season, and who would've guessed they'd be doing it without QB Daunte Culpepper? With Culpepper out for the year, the Vikings are relying on the 37-year-old, well-traveled Brad Johnson at quarterback, who, lest we forget, led the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Super Bowl title.... With their 26-16 loss at Kansas City, the Patriots have dropped to 6-5, still good enough for first place in the anemic AFC East, which also includes the Bills (4-7), the Dolphins (4-7) and the Jets (2-9). The Pats aren't likely to achieve in the playoffs, despite their mystique and the brilliance of coach Bill Belichick Their running game is currently nonexistent, and Tom Brady threw four interceptions against the Chiefs. Other AFC division leaders Indy (10-0), Cincy (8-3) and Denver (9-2) are playing well and look to be healthy, and this is not the Pats' year.... On the sad-sack front, how 'bout them Packers (2-9), Jets (2-9) and 49ers (2-9)?... Then there's Houston, now 1-10 after dropping one to the Rams in overtime, 33-27. This is a really sad situation. The home-team Texans led 24-3 at the half. Their QB David Carr had a banner game, with 25-34 for 293 yards and 3 TDs. Their talented WR Andre Johnson had 12 catches for 159 yards. The Rams were starting second-string QB Jamie Martin in place of injured Marc Bulger, whereupon the Texans sacked Martin early and put him out of the game with a case of blurred vision. In a scenario straight out of a Disney movie script, enter third-string Rams rookie QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (left), a 7th-round draft choice—out of Harvard, no less!—playing in his first ever NFL game. Despite enduring five sacks of his own, Fitzpatrick goes 19-30 for 310 yards and 3 TDs, gets 110 rushing yards from the erratic but gifted Steven Jackson, puts up 24 second-half points to send the game into overtime, then throws WR Kevin Curtis a 56-yard TD pass to complete a story-book ending that can only be a nightmare for the woeful Texans. I'm not even sure the chance to get the #1 pick in the 2006 draft is worth all this agony for Houston. Even the league's youngest team, the Tennessee Titans, are playing better ball at 3-8, and look to have better down-the-road potential talent. Last I looked, Dom Capers is still Houston's head coach. He worked magic when he took over the expansion Carolina Panthers a decade ago, but the Texans' saga has been one of erratic free-agent talent-gathering, so-so drafting (one wonders if even Carr is the talent he was purported to be), an inability to build an offensive line of any consistency, and an overall talent level that seems to be losing steam rather than gathering it. Plus, negative karma seems to rule the day every time the Texans take the field, Sunday's game being a classic example.

Friday, November 25, 2005

ESPN Makes Hay Off OnStar and the Most Disturbing Advertising Campaign in the History of Humankind

You've heard the ads. Some desperate lady is moaning into the phone, "Oh, please help me!" The cool-as-a-cucumber OnStar representative ascertains her problem, offers reassurance, then contacts the nearest police department or ambulance service to dispatch live, in-person assistance to the distressed motorist. Then there are the warm and fuzzy ads, where Grampa has locked his keys in the car, then jovially blames his granddaughter for the offending act, then engages in jocular conversation with the sensitive OnStar representative, who then uses the miraculous magic of OnStar to unlock the car door from hundreds, maybe thousands, of miles away. The early versions of these ads used to conclude with, "Thank you, OnStar." Now they only button the ads with conversational examples of the OnStar rep's robotic-like efficiency and pre-programmed rote concern for humanity.

Anyone who listens to ESPN Radio knows these ads, since the GM-owned subscription-based communications, monitoring, and tracking service is a big sponsor of the sports programming. How often have we heard ESPN standard-bearer Dan Patrick (below, right)—a guy making thousands and thousands of dollars from extracurricular commercial spokesmanship—say that his intervew with say, Joe Montana, was coming "courtesy of the OnStar Hotline"? The way things are going, without OnStar we won't be able to hear any more ESPN Radio interviews, so ubiquitous is its presence on the ESPN airwaves. Well, I'm glad ESPN has found itself a reliable sugar-daddy; meanwhile, you can bet that ESPN sales execs must be laughing themselves to sleep at night. Because, let's face it, when you really think about it, OnStar is one of the dumbest ideas foisted on the ultra-security-minded, maybe even paranoid, American car-driving public. But if GM wants to pay ESPN tons of money to continuously get the word out, why should the sports network care about the folly of the product?

Meanwhile, GM recently announced 30,000 new job cuts which will affect employees at manufacturing plants all over the country. GM is going through difficult times, but, by God, OnStar gets full-blown promotion, probably because scaring people might be a better sales tactic than building affordable, reliable, stylishly designed, fuel-efficient cars.

As of 2005, OnStar is a standard feature for many GM vehicles, and it reportedly will be standard on all new GM vehicles sold in North America by 2007. GM also sells the system to other auto manufacturers, while competitors like Ford have been developing their own versions. Through its factory-installed hardware, OnStar enhances communication capabilities for drivers by uniting mobile phone networks with tracking by GPS (global-positioning) technology. Drivers use an audio interface to contact OnStar representatives for what has been described as "concierge-like" roadside services. (Listen to the ads for an example of OnStar's caretaker role.) The reps can further initiate contact with the driver when vehicle telemetry indicates an emergency, such as might be indicated by airbag deployment.

OnStar, originally developed by an IBM internship team, is being touted as an essential New Age safety tool. It affords the potential for aiding police in tracking down stolen vehicles (remember LoJack?), for making swift contact with emergency medical services, for notifying drivers of potentially dangerous mechanical problems, and to unlock doors for drivers who've misplaced their keys or locked them inside the car.

Supposedly, OnStar is in about 3 million cars, and supposedly several thousand more are being installed every day. The cost ranges from about $200-$800 per year, paid on a monthly basis not unlike your Internet service provider bill. Plus, at least before it becomes the standard in every GM car, you have to pay separately for its installation.

Now a lot of questions have been raised about the OnStar technology, most pertinently about where it fits into our modern age of security and surveillance and access to information. The privacy implications of OnStar are palpable. Can police or others make use of OnStar’s tracking for surveillance, or even for stalking? Does OnStar have the potential to provide evidence that can be used in court, against the driver’s wishes, in cases of auto accidents? And what about data collected by the OnStar "event-data" recorder—can insurance companies or auto dealers use that information to possibly cite reckless driving (or something else) as the basis for denying claims or warranty service?

So besides its awful, fear-based advertising campaign, and its promotion in an era when GM is laying-off workers who actually build the cars, OnStar also raises issues of its becoming some kind of tacky “Big Brother” watchdog. (Oh, and lest we forget, the last time I checked, the so-called fuzz-buster is illegal; God forbid that individuals have any knowledge of the whereabouts of the police.) One wonders what George Orwell would have said if you told him, "Oh yeah, there's a system in your vehicle that tracks your every move, your every destination, the speed at which you traveled to arrive at said destination, and whether you happened to have an incident of any kind involving another motorist." It's enough to make 1984 look like the "good ol' days."

Based on the law of averages involving highway breakdowns, car accidents and severity of car accidents, and the odds that a driver will be completely incapacitated by said incidents, what is it that OnStar does for anybody on a cost-effective basis that is any different than what might be achieved with a cell phone (which almost everyone has nowadays) combined with a low-cost membership in AAA?

So let's see, I'm in a fender-bender and my air bag is deployed. I'm conscious and I reach for my cell phone and I call 911. Alternatively, I'm in a hellacious accident and I'm unconscious, whereby I can't call anybody, but odds are that another motorist passing by will see the event and phone the police themselves. People still do that, don't they?

Now, as to OnStar's probably most practical service—unlocking car doors—are you gonna pay up to $70 a month for that?? Or maybe you'll keep your wits about you a little better where your car keys are concerned, or maybe even carry a spare on your person always to avoid something like that ever happening again. Or maybe you can use your cell phone to call your spouse who has a spare key. And yes—gasp!—you might have to call a locksmith. If you're lucky, you might run into an enterprising individual who knows how to creatively get into your car. All are a lot cheaper than what OnStar costs over the course of a year.

The OnStar campaign is very strange indeed. It provides insight into the eerie confluence where human insecurity, human disconnectedness and the fear of aloneness in a cold modern world meet high-tech developments designed to sell us peace of mind. As if anyone can purchase that.

The sad news is that maybe someday you won't be able to purchase a new car that doesn't have an OnStar-type device. In which case, you might want to hold on to that old beater for as long as you can. Better still, maybe people will realize what an unnecessary crock OnStar is, refuse to purchase it, then refuse to purchase GM cars in general come 2007 (thus rendering the auto giant irrelevant and causing massive unemployment), whereupon OnStar can go the way of the Chinese wok or the Tupperware party: a quaint little passing fad whose time came and went because common sense prevailed over it.

Meanwhile, ESPN coffers swell—and we get to hear Dan Patrick converse amicably with John Riggins—while GM employees in Spring Hill, Tennessee, and elsewhere will be looking for new work very soon. If they can find it.

"Way to go, OnStar."

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Week 11 Spreads Deliver Sucker Punch; Week 12 Looks Like Another Big Challenge

After a 10-4 showing in Week 10 NFL prognosticating against the spread (ATS), I came a-cropper last weekend, finishing at 5-11. I'll never make a living this way. Thankfully, no money's changing hands, though you can bet I felt a lot differently one week ago today. This stuff is hard. No wonder the bookies have normal prosperous lives and the bettors ponder rehab. This is still tons of fun, though, and I'm gonna do it till I get it right. Bring your knowledge to bear and pray for a little intuition on the toughies. Here's the Week 12 scoop:

1. Atlanta at Detroit (+3)—Atlanta, reeling at home, hopes to get healthy on the road and salvage playoff hopes in the competitive NFC South. Gut-check time for the Falcons, against a mediocre Lions team hoping to find some of that Thanksgiving Day home-field magic. The Lions could surprise, and getting 3 points into the bargain makes the ATS situation a slippery slope. Still, the Falcons have a lot more at stake. Pick: Atlanta.

2. Denver at Dallas (+2.5)—If you've eaten your turkey before you sit down to watch this one, indigestion may ensue. Two teams in the thick of the playoff hunt, and a tight spread guaranteed to earn the house a healthy vig. Denver seems like the better team; the Cowboys still have questions. Parcells (left) vs. Shanahan (right) may be best individual matchup of the day. Talk about throwing caution to the wind. Pick: Denver.

3. Baltimore at Cincinnati (-9)—Are the Ravens better now that they beat the Steelers in Baltimore? Bengals put up a fight against Colts last week, but clearly aren't their equals. A tricky situation here. Bengals still seem to have the firepower to make this one work. And they're at home. Pick: Cincinnati.

4. Carolina at Buffalo (+4)—Based on their thumping against San Diego last week, I would guess the Bills aren't as good as I thought they were. Yet Carolina's second straight road game in the northern climes has danger written all over it. I think they'll win it, but how close will it be? Pick: Carolina.

5. Chicago at Tampa Bay (-3)—A huge test for the hungry young Bears. Bucs coming off two dramatic last-second victories over Redskins and Falcons. Can Bucs QB Chris Simms do it again against the swarming Chicago defense? Being at home will help. Pick: Tampa Bay.

6. Cleveland at Minnesota (-4)—Are the Vikings back in the playoff race? They've won three straight and they oughta be up for this home game against a weak Browns outfit. Which probably means anything can happen. Pick: Minnesota.

7. New England at Kansas City (-3)—A helluva matchup here. I like the Chiefs, but I sure wish that spread was a "Pick 'em." Pick: Kansas City.

8. San Diego at Washington (+3)—Redskins are a mystery team. Chargers need to keep pace with Denver. Pick: Chargers.

9. San Francisco at Tennessee (-8)—When's the last time you saw a 2-8 team giving 8 points? Titans still having critical execution problems. They're due for a win, especially on their home turf, but the spread's another matter. Pick: San Francisco.

10. St. Louis at Houston (+4)—The Rams lost at home last week against Arizona. That's a very bad sign. They can still beat the lowly Texans by five. I think. Pick: St. Louis.

11. Jacksonville at Arizona (+3.5)—Jags only beat the Titans by three points last week, but the game wasn't that close. Byron Leftwich gaining momentum with his talented wide receivers. Pick: Jacksonville.

12. Miami at Oakland (-7)—A lot of points are being given away on this one, given the mediocre records involved. Dolphins got spanked last week—at Cleveland. Ugh. Raiders stole a victory on the road at Washington. Oakland wins; Miami covers. Pick: Miami.

13. Green Bay at Philadelphia (-4.5)—Once upon a time, this was a marquee matchup. How quickly things change. Frankly, I don't know if Favre has enough juice left to win another one on the road, even against a reeling Eagles team. Easy game not to care about, but very tough game to pick ATS. Look for Eagles to tease their fans with a decent victory. Pick: Philadelphia.

14. N.Y. Giants at Seattle (-4.5)—Seahawks eked out road victory last week against the struggling Niners. Good teams do that sort of thing, then come home and kick ass. I'm still not sold on the Giants. Pick: Seattle.

15. New Orleans at N.Y. Jets (+1.5)—Can you say, "Bow-wow"? The dog of the week pits two mangy mutts in a battle that is of no interest to anyone—except gamblers. The Jets are due, I guess. And they're at home. If they win 19-17, they'll have covered. Pick: Jets.

16. Pittsburgh at Indianapolis (-8)—Excellent Monday night matchup. Those eight points are awfully tantalizing, with Peyton at home on the well-lit TV stage, and the Colts coming off a convincing road victory at Cincy. Steelers dropped one to the Ravens last week, and their QB situation is still an issue. I'm gonna take a flyer on the Steelers' D and hope they can keep this close. Colts on the field, Steelers ATS. Pick: Pittsburgh.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!!


Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Spread Formation: Defying the Odds and Why Picking Winners Is a Daunting Task

I drove a taxi for four years in the Chicago area. It's an interesting profession, which I heartily recommend to anyone. It's sort of like being a bartender—everyone should do it for a little while, to learn about people in all their infinite glory and folly. Cab drivers themselves are a rare subspecies. Their numbers include an eclectic ethnic mix of mostly men and a few singular females. I met ex-cons doing that job. I also met ex-'Nam vets. And down-and-outers looking for quick cash. And people between jobs, just looking to "fill-in," who ended up driving a cab for years. And unemployed musicians. Also a lot of pot smokers. I even knew a few crackheads. Cabbies often wear the mantle of "losers," but their hearts are often unbelievably good, and their spirit of perseverance is remarkable. Always tip them well.

It's also probably not a surprise to learn that a profession that revolves around cold hard cash also attracts a gambling element, and there are quite a few cabbies who go in for horse racing. It's not uncommon for the addictive-natured cabbie to get a decent $50 run, and then head straight for the track to test his luck. It's ultimately probably going to be a losing trek—but at least the odds are better than doing crack.

Besides horse-racing, cab drivers love the NFL football pool. I was involved in one of these during my driving tenure. I even won a few times, and my biggest pay-out was splitting a $600 pot. Pretty much chickenfeed compared to big-time gambling, but I figured that, over the course of four years, I probably broke even, which is all a gambler should realistically expect. Those weekly pools, however, were based on a "straight-up" formula: You picked winners outright. This, of course, is a lot tougher than it seems, because there's always some game or other that befuddles expert analysis. (This explains why a cabbie named Doobie Unterberger's sister, who knew nothing about football, won as often as anybody, using a system based on the "cuteness" of team uniforms. "I like the Bengals," she'd say, "they have those cute tiger stripes!")

But I was glad that the cabbie pool was not based on the vaunted point spread, that bete noire of serious gamblers everywhere. With the spread, it's not enough to pick a winner—no, you have to pick a winner based on what the final score would be when the projected lesser team is allotted extra points before game time. The spread is a lot like horse-racing odds, in that they can change all week depending on the "action." The oddsmakers shift things around, all in service of their own profit, because, as in Vegas casinos, the odds are always with the house.

Last week, my brother called from L.A. and decided that we were going to do our own mock picks against the spread. "Just for fun," of course. I never liked this spread business. It's a dangerous game. Still, when there's no money involved, it's simply a fun exercise, and I figured what the hell: time to get my feet wet in an area of sports that has intimidated me for years.

So, based on the early Wednesday odds, I picked the 14 games. All of a sudden, things like home-field advantage and injuries and historical tendencies and specific player matchups and coaching stength loomed larger than before. You gotta think harder and longer when you pick against the spread. Picking undefeated Indianapolis to beat lowly Houston is a no-brainer; picking Indy to beat the Texans by 19 points is another matter altogether. Indy won, all right, but "only" by 14, so in that case Indy was a losing pick. World-beaters are often losers in the "spread formation," and the system makes insignificant games and seemingly pointless plays loom large indeed. New England, for example, was a three-point favorite at Miami. That game careened wildly and closely back and forth, and it looked like the Dolphins might emerge triumphant. And if not the winners on the scoreboard, they seemed a lock to "cover the spread." But the final, 23-16 Pats—not at all indicative of how close the game truly was—covered the spread nicely if your money was on New England. Then there were the Redskins, hovering at victory, leading Tampa Bay 35-34 and seemingly having blocked the Buccaneers' extra-point attempt with time running out. The 'Skins were favored by one point, and if the game ends 35-34, then no money changes hands: this is what they call a "push" (you've got to "beat" the spread). Then the refs call the 'Skins for an off-sides penalty, and the Bucs, instead of trying the PAT again, go for the two-point conversion and get it, winning the game 36-35, and making Tampa Bay money good as gold.

But whattya know—I picked 10 correct out of 14. Not bad. So now I'm feeling frisky (like gamblers and cab drivers often do), and I wanna try this spread stuff again. So here goes nothing. My first public offering based on the "early line." This could become a habit. It's the kind of thing that got Pete Rose in a truckload of trouble. Still beats crack, though.

1. Jacksonville at Tennessee (+4)—The 2-7 Titans are rebuilding (some might say in disarray). The experts want to give them 4 points, so, if they lose 20-17 on the field, they win 21-20 at the Vegas pay-out window. The Jaguars are an up-and coming team with a shot at the playoffs. They have incentive, then. Yet this game's in Nashville, the Titans are coming off a bye week, and they're desperate for a "W." Pick: Tennessee.

2. Miami at Cleveland (-2)—Lowly Cleveland is "giving" 2 points. That means if they win 17-16 on the field, they lose 18-17 with the bookies. Will Miami respond positively after a noble losing effort last week against the Patriots? This is the kind of game that drives gamblers mad: it means almost nothing in the playoff race, but it's a damn tough call. Pick: Miami.

3. New Orleans at New England (-10)—To avoid a push, the Pats need to win by 11 at home against a demoralized Saints team. It's a no-brainer if this is the 2004 Patriots. They've been up and down, however. Winning isn't the issue here. It's the points. You see what a hassle this is? Pick: New England.

4. Oakland at Washington (-6)—Raiders coach Norv Turner returns to his old stomping grounds, where he was the last coach to take the 'Skins to the playoffs in 1999. 'Skins coming off heartbreaking loss in Tampa. Theoretically, both teams are improving, but that's not always apparent. Under the circumstances, it seems a daunting spread for Washington to cover. They could even lose outright. Of course, they might win 26-21, but that's not good enough. Pick: Oakland.

5. Philadelphia at N.Y. Giants (-7)—Two soap operas collide. The Eagles have no T.O., probably no McNabb, and are reeling from a crushing Monday night home loss to Dallas. Giants coach Tom Coughlin's ass is redder than red after his special teams gave up two touchdowns and his Manning QB threw 4 interceptions in losing at home to an otherwise inept Vikings team. For 57 minutes on Monday, the Eagles looked like their own methodical, boring, grind-'em-out selves. They should've won that game, but now face a tough road challenge with former Lions QB Mike McMahon under center. The Eagles still have a D, and Manning is still capable of costly errors. It'll be low-scoring, it says here. Maybe Giants win, 14-10. Pick: Philadelphia.

6. Tampa Bay at Atlanta (-6)—So the Falcons are gonna spot the Bucs 6 points? I'll take that action. Chris Sims looked very good for the Bucs last week. So the odds are in favor of his getting rattled by the Falcons' aggressive D. And even though the Bucs gave up 35 points to the Redskins, they still have a pretty good D on paper. Meanwhile, the Falcons blew it against an inferior Packers team on their own home field. They're not bound to lose two straight at home. Maybe Michael Vick will work his magic. Or maybe he'll let Warrick Dunn work his. Still looks close to me. Pick: Tampa Bay.

7. Arizona at St. Louis (-9.5)—Here's one of those funny little oddsmakers wrinkles: the half-point. If the Rams win by 9, there's no push. They must win at home by 10 over a bad Arizona team. If they win by 9, Arizona money wins. Who knows which Arizona team will show up: the bad one, or, the uh...the worse one. Let's hope Steven Jackson runs roughshod over 'em. Pick: St. Louis.

8. Carolina at Chicago (+3)—Bears get the obligatory home-field spread, which presumes that if these teams played at a neutral site the game would end in a tie. At 6-3, the Bears are a big surprise, but exactly how good are they? Excluding their games against woeful divisional foes, they're 3-3. The Panthers, meanwhile, at 7-2, look to be feeling their oats. Sidebar story: Bears wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad faces his old team for the first time. Not that the Panthers are missing him, not with the emergence of Steve Smith as all-world. The Bears' D has allowed fewer than 12 points a game, and that's impressive. They'll be jacked-up in the Windy City, which means even more pressure for rookie Bears QB Kyle Orton, who'll be facing an aggressive and good Panthers defensive line. This'd be a helluva game to watch, but a nasty one to bet on. Pick: Carolina.

9. Detroit at Dallas (-8)—Cowboys, coming off the high of improbable Monday night win over Eagles, spot 8 points to a confirmed mediocrity, the 4-5 Lions. Those points are a classic trick here. To avoid the push, Cowboys need to win by, say, 24-15, which could happen. Or not. The Cowboys need to keep pace in their division, so the winning part isn't really the problem. It's that damned spread. The Lions suck, which means they might put up a fight. Pick: Detroit.

10. Pittsburgh at Baltimore (+4)—That's strange. Initially, I could find no line for this game. I had to hunt down the +4 for Baltimore. Maybe that's because Charlie Batch is injured and Ben Roethlisberger isn't ready to return to action, leaving the Steelers with Tommy Maddox at QB. On the surface, this looks like an easy bet, since the Steelers look way superior to the incredibly disappointing Ravens, who, it must be acknowledged, have had crippling injury problems. But someone in Vegas is antsy. They're afraid Maddox will fold up on the road against a usually very tough foe. I guess it's a good thing that the Ravens have Kyle Boller back at QB. What would be better is if they had Ed Reed and Ray Lewis back on the defensive side. The Ravens got killed last week at Jacksonville, and Jamal Lewis still hasn't gotten his sealegs. Who knows, maybe this fainthearted spread has some legs of its own. But that's why they play the games. Pick: Pittsburgh.

11. Seattle at San Francisco (+12)—As Harry Caray used to say, "There's danger here, cherie." The Seahawks are looking great. Terrific young QB in Hasselback, the amazing Shaun Alexander at RB, and a renewed team spirit that has them ruling the roost in the NFC West. 49ers are 2-7 and yielding almost 30 points a game. They're better at home, of course. On the other hand, Cody Pickett's their QB. Let's see, the Niners lost 52-17 in Washington on Oct. 23. Question: Can they gain 23 points over that effort against a good Seattle team on the S.F. home turf? Well, maybe 22. It's not unlikely for 'Hawks to win this 30-17. Pick: Seattle.

12. Buffalo at San Diego (-10)—Buffalo stomps on the Chiefs at home last week, and now the oddsmakers are gonna spot 'em 10 points? Guess they figure that Bills QB J. P. Losman will not repeat his excellent effort, and that the Chargers' Brees, Tomlinson and Gates will do the big-time offensive nasty. This is the kind of game that makes bookies rich men. I'm all confused. Yet the Bills still have a chance to make a run in the AFC East, and if they can shut down a good K.C. offense, they can at least stem the tide against the Chargers. They'll lose, but they'll cover. Pick: Buffalo.

13. N.Y. Jets at Denver (-13)—Now you're talking. A team on the upswing at home against a team in despair. Heck, spot the Jets 14, and I'll still pick the Broncs. Pick: Denver.

14. Indianapolis at Cincinnati (+4.5)—Ya gotta love that ".5." Should be a helluva matchup. Unless, of course, Peyton gets hot and the improved Indy defense pressures Carson Palmer. Then there's the law of averages: Can Indy go 10-0, and on the road against a team with a fire in its belly? For all the offensive potential here, it should be noted that only Indy's D has given up fewer points in the AFC than Cincy's. So let's do a little reverse thinking: If this game were in Indy, the Colts would be favored by 7.5. Does that help? It's a huge test for the Bengals, and maybe a major showcase for their gifted, flamboyant WR Chad Johnson (pictured above in "cute tiger stripes"). We've even got two African American division-leading coaches squaring off, Tony Dungy versus Marvin Lewis. Ya got me. Sometimes you can only roll the dice. Pick: Cincinnati.

15. Kansas City at Houston (+6.5)—This is sad. Houston's 1-8. Are they really this bad? Maybe so. The Chiefs at 5-4 need to re-prove that they're any good. They need to reassert their offense before the year gets away from them and the Broncos get out of divisional reach. Maybe Houston can lose by 6. They're just as likely to lose by 7. Pick: Chiefs.

16. Minnesota at Green Bay (-4)—When the schedule-makers put this one on the MNF docket many months ago, it looked like a winner. Now we have a 4-5 Vikings team, fresh off a yacht orgy and a weird "W" in New York, facing a gasping 2-7 Packer team riddled with injuries and fresh off a surprise "W" in Atlanta. Look for the Packers to play as well as they can on their home field. Favre also has a knack for performing well on Mondays. Still a very tricky proposition for a 2-7 team to spot any opponent 4 points. I can only base this one on what I saw on TV last week. The Vikings won, yes, but their offense was anemic, and they had an opposing QB throw them 4 interceptions. The Packers played with a lot of moxie, and Favre is still Favre. Nevertheless, I'm biting my lip on this one. Pick: Packers.

Even as we speak, the oddsmakers are finagling with these spreads. They'll continue to do so up until gametime. But this is how I'd spend my money if I placed my bets today. If I were only still driving that cab, I'd probably manage to find myself a spare $50, and lay it all on Denver, which looks like the pick to click. (Now if only Jets QB Brooks Bollinger can repeat his 4-interception performance of last week against Carolina. Here's hoping.)


Monday, November 14, 2005

Packers May Be Dead, but Favre Sure Isn't: QBs Tell the Tale of Key Week 10 Games

"Any given Sunday" happened yesterday. That's what you call it when lesser teams smite greater teams in the NFL. If the old adage is a cliche, then so be it. But it's nice to be reminded once more why pro football is a reliable religion and television its well-attended church.

Yesterday's FOX and CBS broadcasts helped us learn some new lessons all over again: That experience and leadership definitely count at quarterback; that a major part of football's allure is its violence; and that the game continues to offer choice opportunities for nobodys to become somebodys.

All of this was in evidence in the Green Bay-Atlanta matchup. The Packers entered the game at 1-7, probably headed for their worst finish, and their first sub-.500 record, since 1991 (4-12). Pop quiz: Who was the Packers' coach that year? Give yourself a gold star if you said Lindy Infante. That's right: Lindy Infante. You could look it up. '91 was also the last year Brett Favre was NOT the Packers quarterback. The legendary figures who shared the duties that season were Mike Tomczak and Don Majkowski, two names that Pack fans are happy not to hear.

The Packers have done quite well since then, with eight double-digit-win seasons, mostly under Mke Holmgren and current coach Mike Sherman, including 10 trips to the playoffs and two Super Bowl appearances. How such consistency has been achieved in an isolated podunk Wisconsin town would seem elusive to determine. It's cold up there. It's not a glamorous place to live. The Packers don't throw money around like Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder. And despite its time-honored tradition as the home of a storied NFL franchise, Green Bay just isn't very sexy, nor are there sunny beaches anywhere nearby (certainly not in the wintertime).

Which maybe explains why the talent level on the Packers never seems that impressive. There've had decent players through the years, of course, and the late Reggie White was much more than that. But generally these teams have been devoid of marquee, Hall of Fame-caliber players. Except for Brett Favre. While the otherwise competent cast of characters keeps changing, Favre (left), 36, keeps chugging along. There's been plenty of talk lately that his days are numbered, that it's time to consider his retirement, or that he needs to possibly agree to a trade to a team that can use his abilities immediately. But Favre is still a great QB, and his performance Sunday brought his skills into stark relief, especially in comparison with his opposite number, the too-ballyhooed Michael Vick, who referred to Favre as "Brent" during a mid-week interview.

Now in his fifth season, Vick (right) still has all those marvelous skills that fill up miles of highlight reels, dating back to his college days at Virginia Tech. He's a sure bet to win any Punt, Pass & Kick competition. But by now, Vick should know more about NFL quarterbacking than he showed against the Packers in a 33-25 defeat on his home field. Vick had a capable statistical day, much better than his usual. Entering the 2005 season, Vick was sporting a mediocre career QB rating of 76.9, so when he went 20-30 for 209 yards (2 TDs, 0 INTs) against the Packers, he was certainly exceeding his typically confounding numbers. Vick has tremendous running help with the gifted Warrick Dunn and the bruising T. J. Duckett in his backfield. His receivers aren't all-world, but there's some talent there, including the excellent tight end Alge Crumpler. The Falcons also have an aggressive defense capable of shutting down good offenses. And yes, the team is 6-3 with the playoffs in sight.

Yet there were a few boos in Atlanta. And why not? Vick showed Sunday why there's so much more to his craft than having a golden arm or running a 4.3 40. Sometimes Vick captains the Falcons' offense as if it were a Chinese fire drill, balancing his occasional brilliance with panicky back-pedaling, poor defensive reads, and some clueless maneuvers that a lot of less-gifted rookies wouldn't even try. At one point, in the grasp of a Packer defender, Vick heaved a mindless, targetless pass into the near stratosphere—and not out of bounds—and only pure luck prevented it from being picked off. Vick poses a threat as a runner, but he mostly spends his time trying to decide whether to pass or run, the result being that he excels at neither. In addition, his scrambling antics expose him to potential injury far more than other QBs, and in fact his health hasn't really been very good during his career. If Vick is trying to transition to a pocket passer, he seems no further along than he was two years ago. He almost looks worse, since back then he was at least fairly blatant about his running skills, and the one-man-show approach yielded some tremendous football and the promise of surprise victory. On a day that the Packers put up 33 points against a good Falcon defense, Vick was statistically sound. But he needed to do more, and he simply looked unable when it counted.

Which brings us to Favre, a guy who has made lesser athletes look great for more than a decade. Yeah, the Packers are now 2-7 with the win. The miracle is that this team didn't have a major collapse a couple of years ago. Favre is capable of willing his team to victory, but it's gotten tougher to do when the talent is suspect to begin with and then major players go down with injury. Favre doesn't have Dunn and Duckett. He doesn't even have talented but fumble-prone Ahman Green, who's been injured (as are his usual, occasionally effective replacements). Instead, Favre's running back yesterday was Sam Gado, a little-known rookie celebrating his 23rd birthday by gaining 103 yards on 25 carries and scoring three touchdowns (one on a toss from Favre). Favre can still fling a sharp accurate pass, he can still roll-out to deceptive effect, he still plays with gutty instinct. His numbers weren't glittering (26-39, 252 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT), but he took a 1-7 team, decimated by injuries, on the road to the house of a 6-2 division leader, and he showed a national TV audience what will and winning are all about.

The Packers don't figure to improve much this year. If they finish 6-10, they might be grateful. And possibly Favre will have to make a tough decision about his future fairly soon. But any number of teams would love to have him. Right now. that includes the Miami Dolphins, who matched the New England Patriots for intensity and hard-hitting desire yesterday, but came up short in Miami, 23-16. The Pats are another team already banged up by injury, and they lost RB Corey Dillon early in this game. With a 5-4 record, these are not your Super Bowl-winning defending league champions. Not by a long shot. But they still have Tom Brady (left), who himself "pulled a Favre": He took a battered team onto the road, put up some efficient numbers (21-36, 275 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs) and caught an aggressive defense napping with nifty play execution, including a couple of gutsy scoring passes to tight end Ben Watson. Brady's complementary running back? A fifth-year journeyman named Heath Evans, whose busiest previous season in the league was 2002 with Seattle, when he amassed a grand total of 17 carries. He got 17 in this game alone, and he gained 84 yards, providing enough of a ground attack so Brady could work his magic.

The improving Dolphins (now 3-6) were poised to win this game, which was a compelling, rock-'em/sock-'em affair, and was actually a lot closer than the score indicates. The Fish were clearly hungry to knock off the longtime-rival Pats, and they played tough D throughout. They also got flashes of good running from rookie Ronnie Brown and some fine play from underrated wide receivers Marty Booker and Chris Chambers (2 TDs). The big QB numbers even belonged to their own Gus Frerotte (25-47, 360 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT), a veteran with some moxie if not all the talent in the world. It's easy to root for Frerotte (below), 34, who once started for the Redskins but since 1999 languished as a part-timer for the Lions, Broncos, Bengals and Vikings, before getting a chance this year to resurrect his career with a rebuilding, QB-needy Dolphins squad under new coach Nick Saban. Yesterday, with 93 seconds to play, Frerotte had five downs within the Patriot 15-yard-line to tie the game. He completed two passes for a net gain of 0 yards, and he misfired on three others. There were no heroics left apparently. Maybe because the savvy Brady had used them all up.

And before we start anointing Peyton's little brother as the next great QB—there's been talk of an all-Manning Super Bowl—let's not forget that Eli is still learning. His New York Giants were yet another home team betrayed by its quarterbacking, though that wasn't the only reason the Minnesota Vikings clipped the Giants 24-21. If you look at the stats, you'd guess the Giants had won this game in a romp, as they piled up a net 405 yards on offense. Meanwhile, for the Vikings, Michael Bennett led them in rushing—with 16 yards in 19 carries (!?). The well-traveled 37-year-old Brad Johnson (left), taking over for injured Viking QB Daunte Culpepper, completed 17 of 30 passes for only 144 yards and no TDs. The Vikings scored three TDs—one each by punt return, kickoff return, and interception return—then held on for dear life as Paul Edinger kicked a game-winning field goal with 10 seconds left on the clock.

The Vikings—now a surprising 4-5 in a season where they started badly, lost their star Culpepper and have had strange internal goings-on creating incredible distractions—looked aggressive if not particularly polished. Big plays carried the day, and while Manning the Lesser (right) put up some interesting numbers for the Giants (23-48, 291 yards, 1 TD), the youngster also threw four interceptions. Yes, the Giants' special-teams coverage wasn't very good, and fiery head coach Tom Coughlin was fit to be tied about that. Even so, the Giants could have won this game, and the Manning turnovers were equally responsible for the Giants' downfall. Now 6-3, New York missed a golden chance to work their home-field advantage and gain a win against a team generally considered inferior. Yet more disappointment looms, if only because Eli, clearly pretty talented, is still learning what reading a defense is all about. Few will ever do what Brady did in his second (and first full) season: Win a Super Bowl. If Sunday is any indication, Eli isn't quite ready for that.

Obvious talent and big numbers can be deceptive things, and good quarterbacking is still assessed by intangibles and what's in the "win" column.

It takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a leader to direct a pro football offense.