Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The Nats Are Coming! The Nats Are Coming!

I grew up in suburban Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C. When I was a kid, I was a baseball nut, a complete fanatic. (It was my egghead literary Dad who taught me that the word "fan" came from the word "fanatic." I remember feeling pretty smart knowing that.)

I collected baseball cards, mostly the Topps brand, by the hundreds. They came 10 to a pack with a single piece of rectangular rock-hard bubble gum included. The gum wasn't bad--chalky but sweet. I wish I could have said the same about the cards. I mean, the cards were cool, of course; but I never, ever seemed to get Hall-of-Fame-caliber players. I'd drop a buck or so on about 5 packs at a time, eagerly opening them before I was barely a block away from the drug store. I kept looking for Mickey Mantle or Sandy Koufax or Bob Gibson or Roberto Clemente. They were never there. Instead, I'd get Pat Corrales or Joe Nuxhall or Tex Clevenger or Don Wert. Or Ryne Duren. Or Bob Sadowski. Or Cal Neeman. Or Pumpsie Green. Sometimes I'd get not one, but two, of the same lousy guy--like Ruben Amaro or Bob Uecker--in the same damn pack. It was frustrating.

But maybe worse than struggling to improve my collection with the greats of the game, was my struggle to obtain the players who were on my favorite team, the hometown Washington Senators. In a word, the Senators sucked. Their rosters, year after year, were filled with mediocrities. Guys like Ed Hobaugh and Coot Veal and Bud Zipfel and Cap Peterson and Ed Stroud and Jim Hannan and Ken Retzer. So why was it that these guys were hardly ever in the Topps packages at my local stores? They were surely as bad as the other lousy guys I always got in abundance from other teams. In fact, they were quite often worse. In the Suck Dept., I'd put Bob Saverine up against Pumpsie Green any day of the week. To the good, Green was actually an interesting card to have: he was the first black man to ever play for the Boston Red Sox. Still, he kinda sucked. If I had to get all that mediocrity in one package, I sure wished I could have gotten the Senators. I'm sure I was too naive to have articulated a conspiracy theory, but after a while I think subconsciously I wondered: Could it be that the Topps folks would deliberately not put Senators guys in my locally distributed packages of baseball cards, because then that would force me to buy more and more packages in search of, say, Don Lock or Chuck Hinton?? Naw, an esteemed manufacturing enterprise like Topps--promoters of America's Favorite Pastime--would never do such a thing... Or would they?? Hmmm....

The only decent strategy I could employ under these circumstances was to hope that I'd get a few Baltimore Orioles guys. The Orioles did not suck in the '60s. In fact, they were pretty good. And the kid down the street, Johnny Eyler, was a huge Orioles fan. I hated that he loved the Orioles. He used to gloat about 'em. And he'd rub it in when the Senators would play the Orioles and get their fannies whipped. The Orioles had Brooks Robinson and Frank Robinson and Jim Palmer and Boog Powell and Paul Blair. The Senators had Buster Narum (an Orioles castoff) and Don Leppert and Tim Cullen and Jim King and washed-up guys like Don Zimmer. However, if I could snag a few Orioles in the Topps packages, they were trade bait with Johnny Eyler, and maybe I could exchange 'em for some Senators cards, which Johnny was usually glad to do if he had any himself.

Baseball cards are a hugely nostalgic thing. And unlike most kids, I didn't have a mother who threw my baseball cards away. A lot of them disappeared from carelessness, but I still have a significant number of 'em. My kids in Chicago, as far as I know, still have the albums I eventually put the cards in. I hope they're safe.

What has spurred on this memory jag is the fact that, after an absence of 34 years, Washington, D.C., is getting another baseball team in 2005. In my youth, I lived through two Senators teams: the original bunch, who played in D.C. through the 1960 season, and then fled West to become the Minnesota Twins; and the expansion Senators, who arrived in 1961, and then fled West to become the Texas Rangers after the 1971 season. This new contingent is yet another renegade squad: They used to be the Montreal Expos. Since 1969, the Expos played major league baseball, not once making it to the World Series. Like the dear old Senators, they mostly sucked too. So I guess there's some justice there. D.C. gets baseball again: Apparently the same crummy caliber it always had in the "old days." But for those of us who loved our hapless old Senators no matter what, it's perfectly okay. Besides, the Nats will be a National League franchise, and that's something different and maybe a harbinger of something new. Happily, the game has changed a lot in 40 years. With free agency, you can build a decent team rapidly. So maybe the new team, dubbed the Nationals (a.k.a. Nats, as they were always colloquially referred to even when they were the Senators), can start to compete at a slightly higher level than, say, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. (Let's shoot low for now.)

The nostalgia trip comes completely full circle, however, with the announcement that the Nats will play their first season in old RFK Stadium. RFK, originally named D.C. Stadium, was first used in the fall of 1961 as the home of the football Washington Redskins. In spring 1962, the Senators made their debut there, having played their inaugural expansion season in old Griffith Stadium. D.C. Stadium became RFK Stadium after the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. RFK was (and apparently still is) a good place to play football and baseball. The new ownership is bringing in groundskeeping and structural experts to get the old joint spruced up and solidified for a season of major league baseball. Those of us who remember the occasional thrills there--the Redskins, of course, had huge success, but so did mammoth Frank Howard hitting towering home runs--are psyched at the prospect of sitting in those seats again.

(Damn, I can buy Washington Nationals baseball cards, can't I? I'm gonna set my sights on a Vinny Castilla card. He's a pretty decent ballplayer and he's set to open the season at third base.)

I've got a special reason to get back into baseball, which is pretty remarkable given the game's steroid scandals and whatnot. Somehow, all of that fades away when I think that I can sit in RFK again and see major league baseball and root for the hometown team.

April's not far off at all. Nation's Capital, here I come.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Here's to the Winners

It's the Patriots and Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX. (That's #39 for those of you who are Roman numeral-challenged.)

After a lousy weekend of Divisional Playoff predictions (1-3), I got the Conference Championship round correct (2-0). I was only surprised by the definitiveness of the victories:

AFC: Patriots 41, Steelers 27
NFC: Eagles 27, Falcons 10

There's been a lot of commentary about Steelers coach Bill Cowher's on-field decision-making. (They should have punted instead of going for it on the early 4th-and-1; they should have gone for the TD instead of kicking the later field goal.) I don't think so. If they make the 4th-and-1, the pundits say it was a ballsy early move to establish the authority of their offensive line, and who knows how it might've paid off? Later, kicking the field goal made it 31-20, and there was still enough time for the Steelers to catch the Pats. Oh, how they would've howled if the Steelers hadn't gotten the TD and had come away from the goal-line situation with nothing! Hindsight is always 20-20. Cowher's moves were reasonable, and in both cases showed faith in his team.

Instead, let us praise Tom Brady and the Patriots. Brady's 60-yard TD bomb to Deion Branch was a thing of beauty. Brady's got football brains and poise up the wazoo. He looked left, then right, then stood his ground waiting for things to develop, then hurled a perfect pass that Branch gobbled up on the run with a defender close by. But the real unsung heroes are the Patriots offensive linemen. I think I can name one of these guys (Abruzzi), but that's about it. They are models of consistency and toughness, and they pass-block as well as they run-block. On a team that's mostly no-name, these guys are practically completely anonymous. They sure are good.

The Steelers got way too far behind the 8-ball in this game. Their second-half effort was courageous, but you can't fall behind 24-3 to the World Champions and reasonably expect to win. Finally, rookie Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger came a-cropper, though it's still hard to believe that his first-ever NFL loss came in the AFC Championship Game. He had an amazing season. He'll be fun to watch in the future.

As for the NFC, the Eagles took care of business against the Falcons, though I was still pretty unimpressed with Philly. Falcons QB Michael Vick proved what I've been saying for years: scramblers don't win the big one. All it takes is for a determined defense to shut down the scrambler's ability to scramble, which leaves him with reliance on the passing game. Maybe if the Falcons had gotten their running game going better, things would've turned out differently. But Vick got rattled, and the game plan went with him. When he couldn't run himself out of bad situations, he tried to throw, something he does with occasional beauty but clear-cut inconsistency. The guy needs to work on managing the game from the pocket. Until he does that successfully, he'll be a wonderfully gifted athlete with a marginally good W-L record.

There was a point early in the game when Falcons RB Warrick Dunn gained a first down with two successive running plays. Then, inexplicably, on the fresh 1st down, Vick rolled back left to pass. The Eagles came charging and stuffed him for a serious loss, and then the Falcons were in a hole and ended up punting. Makes no sense. They should've run Dunn and T.J. Duckett a good long while: to minimize the chaos and until the Eagles proved they could stuff the run. I also thought the Falcons' defense looked a little disheveled. They played with toughness but got caught flatfooted.

I guess the Eagles' offense is okay. QB Donavan McNabb played a clean game, and RB Brian Westbrook got some big yards in a timely fashion. But their receiving corps is now further depleted with the loss of tight end Chad Lewis, who, after snagging two TDs in this big game, will miss the Super Bowl with a foot injury requiring surgery. There's talk that the great TO--Terrell Owens--might make it back for the big finale, but his impact will have to be considered marginal if he makes it back at all.

The Eagles to me seem like a team floating on true grit, and I guess you have to tip your hat to the power of pure will. I don't see them beating the Patriots, though. The Eagles' defense does play with thuggish abandon, and they've shut down athletic QBs Daunte Culpepper and Vick in this post-season. But I see Brady outwitting them, and I can't imagine the Eagles' offense putting many points on the board against the Pats' cagey, punishing defense. I don't however, foresee one of those awful boring blowouts, which is good news for us all.

Early Super Bowl prediction:

Patriots 21, Eagles 13

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Armen Keteyian--Another TV Sports Reporter Tells It Like It Ain't

I was listening to ESPN Radio early this morning. The show was something called "Sports Byline USA" hosted by someone named Ron Barr. His featured guest was TV sports football reporter Armen Keteyian. I think Keteyian is with CBS now, but he's been with ESPN, and like all of these guys, he seems to show up wherever sports are being discussed no matter what their affiliation. It's the Big Fraternity, don't ya know.

Keteyian seems like a reasonably intelligent guy. But like many a sports reporter, he's a legend in his own mind. Barr asked Keteyian set-up questions about his work, which gave Keteyian ample opportunity to wax on about how tough it is. Keteyian earnestly filled us in on the challenges of coming up with insightful stuff to spew in the 20-second chunks of time he gets as a sideline wonk. He further went on to inform us of the challenges of being outside when it's really cold. He kissed the ass of fellow sideline reporter, ABC's Michele Tafoya, talking about "what a great job she does." And then he went on to tell us about the book he's co-written with comedian George Lopez. Lopez' life story or something.

I don't know whether to yawn, laugh or cry. I hate to disabuse these guys of their highfalutin' notions--but someone has to do it. There seems to be this belief among sports reporters that theirs is a profession that requires incredible brains and skill, as if the Big Fraternity is justified because, after all, these are the creme de la creme of journalism. They want us to think they are an elite group. But they're only elite in that they are a tightly knit group, very cautious of how they're perceived and extremely protective of their turf. What these guys really know is that you could take any person with a reasonable amount of reporting experience (of any kind) and an average brain, and shove them in front of a camera and have them spew some crud about "Terrell Owens is headed to the locker room, Jim...We'll try to get the preliminary word on his injury as soon as we can, but clearly he won't be returning to the game. As you just saw, Owens was limping hard as he left the field, and the Eagles are going to have to have their other wide receivers step up and take up the slack for the rest of the afternoon. Back to you, Jim..."

The truth is that 90% of that sideline reporting stuff is crap. It's annoying show-biz is what it is. And if Armen Keteyian had the balls to tell it like it is, he'd admit that. But no, saith he, this is tough work. This requires special skills, special camera presence, special insights... Uh, no, Armen...It's just a job, one that probably pays pretty well and which you are damn lucky to have. Of course, Keteyian knows he's lucky and that there are probably a few thousand guys and gals all over the country who could step into that position. Oh sure, some of them wouldn't be as poised as he is. Not at first. But many would be. And those that aren't could probably be trained to do it. Give 'em a little experience, let 'em screw up for a while--like the networks readily allow for ex-jocks who want cushy broadcasting slots--and soon enough you'd have a reasonably competent humanoid who knows how to work on a 20-second demi-insight and then deliver it with tons of faux enthusiasm. Really, I don't mind that these guys have these dumbass insubstantial jobs. What I mind is them going on radio with other sports interviewers and trying to create this image of uniquely gifted pro. It's a crock.

And now, Armen, tell us what you really think of Michele Tafoya. I mean, if Armen considers himself a highly challenged professional journalist, then what does he think when Tafoya spews even less substantial crap than he does? Here's a fantasy sample of a Tafoya 20-second "report": "Al, John....Donovan McNabb looked up into the stands tonight and saw that his mother wasn't sitting in her usual seat in Section 43, Row 7, Seat 19. He became a little concerned, until an Eagles press aide came down to the sideline to inform him that she'd run into a traffic jam on the Schuylkill Expressway, where a tractor-trailer had overturned. Luckily, she had her cell phone with her, was able to call the Eagles front office, and got the message down here to her son. By kickoff time, she was sitting in her customary seat." (Go ahead, you may roll your eyes. I do.)

Tafoya's rap is no different than that of other sideline babes, like Suzy Kolber or Melissa Stark. I suppose she's somewhat better than her predecessor, Lisa Guerrero, who I guess kinda didn't make the grade for the ABC Sports execs. But the fact is that Tafoya, though older and supposedly a journalist projecting more seriousness, rattles on with a lot of mindless crap. And yes, like Keteyian, she's eminently replaceable. You don't need a genius to spew crap. And, while Tafoya is a pleasant-enough screen presence, she's no babe like Stark was. At least if we're destined to get nothing but crap, the networks could package it up with the foxy likes of Stark. If I've gotta look at the screen while I get this crap, I want to look at maximized "babishness." I don't think that's too much to ask.

As for Keteyian writing a book with George Lopez, all I can say is, "What does it feel like to be a journalistic whore, Armen?"

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

So Much for Predictions--Now It's on to the Conference Championships

So much for predicting football results on instinct. All four home teams won last week's NFL Divisional Playoffs, leaving me with a sorry 1-3 record as prognosticator. I was lucky I didn't end up 0-4, because the New York Jets should've won their game at Pittsburgh, the Steelers being the only home team I figured to emerge victorious. How can a pro kicker miss two makeable field goals with the game on the line? I dunno, but Doug Brien managed it for the Jets. He's gonna have a sorry off-season. He also might be looking for a job. But thanks to him, I didn't go winless.

I bucked all the odds in picking the Vikings and Rams--both Wild Card teams--to advance in the NFC. I look like a moron: Everyone knows that the teams with the best records almost always advance, and so it was as the Eagles and Falcons sharpened their talons convincingly on clearly lesser opponents. I still liked the picks. How was I to know the Rams' and Vikings' shortcomings would be so exposed? The Eagles and Falcons were home teams with superior records, and they did what they were supposed to do. And yes, they both won a lot bigger than I'd ever have guessed. Yet I'm still not convinced how good they are. The Rams' defense didn't rise to the challenge, and Michael Vick, Warrick Dunn and T. J. Duckett chewed 'em up for more than 300 yards on the ground. The Vikings seemed to play hard, then kept shooting themselves in the foot--yet they were still in the game into the fourth quarter, because the Eagles looked a little ragged themselves. Philly should've won the game by a lot more than 27-14. The Eagles looked a little "lite" in the killer-instinct department.

But the biggest result, and still a huge surprise, was the ease with which the Patriots dispatched the Colts. I suspect Peyton Manning's off-season might be even murkier than Doug Brien's--filled with what-ifs, and why-nots, and how-comes. The Patriots are tough as nails, and their victory was one that would have made Vince Lombardi proud. Here we are in the age of 400-yard passing games, and the Patriots kick ass by running the ball consistently, chewing up tons of clock (thus keeping Manning off the field), and then playing intimidating defense. That's a formula that will win in any era. Apparently, more teams don't do it that way these days because they simply can't. So they focus on high-flying offenses that pile up yardage through the air, are a lot of fun to watch, but don't necessarily win the critical game. Pats QB Tom Brady threw for a mere 144 yards, proving again that efficient leadership trumps gaudy statistics on any given Sunday. But let's not forget that Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk piled up 200 of the team's 210 yards on the ground. It doesn't matter how you chew up real estate; it only matters that you do. And the running game is less prone to turnovers. End of story. The Pats are unflappable. Their team ethos is incredibly admirable. They're confident and determined. Can't wait to watch them this weekend.

So here come the conference title games. Let's go to the mat with the odds again and find out who's going to the Super Bowl:


New England Patriots @ Pittsburgh Steelers

The history doesn't look good for the Steelers. Coach Bill Cowher has a knack for losing big games. Being at home has never helped him much in the playoffs, either. This team has weapons at running back and wide receiver, and their rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger has yet to lose a game this year. What Big Ben has achieved is unheard-of. Can a rookie QB actually win every game he starts, all the way to the Super Bowl? Based on what he did against the Jets, I'd say R-berger looks shaky. He did manage to do enough to win, though, and that still counts for something. But I just don't see betting against the Patriots. If they can completely muffle Manning--and totally deny him the end zone--will R-berger fare any better? Believe it or not, picking the Pats goes against the grain: the Steelers have a better record and the home field. But can a team that struggled against the Jets be expected to defeat the Patriots' aggressive, machine-like efficiency? Some might argue that the Steelers got a mediocre game against a lesser opponent out of their system, and now can play loose with all cylinders firing. I'm still waiting for Steelers receiver Antwaan Randle-El to become a huge star. This would certainly be the national stage for it. And Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward are great receivers too. Bettis and Staley are tough runners. The Steelers hit hard on defense. The pieces are in place for victory, but I think the Patriots will eventually kick their puzzle all over the living room floor. It should be a close one, though.

Final score: Patriots 16, Steelers 14


Atlanta Falcons @ Philadelphia Eagles

I have no idea who' s going to win this game. If you figure the Falcons are for real based on last week, then they look hugely intimidating. They ran all over the place. They have a tremendous athlete at quarterback (Michael Vick), they have a fleet-footed, shifty halfback in Warrick Dunn, and they have a Brahma bull named T. J. Duckett at fullback. Their tight end, Alge Crumpler, is a moose who can run and catch the ball, and once he's in motion he can't be brought down. Their front seven on defense are muscular and tenacious. If the game were in Atlanta, in their home dome, I'd pick 'em. Alas, the game's in Philly, outside and probably in fairly cold weather. I think the Eagles' defense is good enough to clamp down on Dunn/Duckett, then confuse Vick and force him into some bad throws (the Falcons receivers are only so-so anyway). I'm still not sold on the Eagles' offense. They looked uninspired against Minnesota. They got lucky a few times too. QB Donovan McNabb has confidence and is capable of great things. It says here he'll do just enough to win. But nagging questions remain: If this team struggled to put away the schizoid Vikings, what happens against a hungry, up-and-coming, good-looking team like the Falcons? The Eagles have lost the last three conference championship games. I won't be surprised if they make it four straight. For now, it's a chalk pick, with an assist to David Akers' kicking leg.

Final score: Eagles 17, Falcons 16

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Joe Buck Is a Weenie

I don't want to waste much time on this topic. I've already written about Joe Buck, the FOX announcer who I think sucks. But I quickly want to get in and out on the latest flap involving Buck, who pulled some holier-than-thou crap last week about Randy Moss' antics at the NFC Wild Card game versus the Packers. I have a sinking suspicion that Buck might be one of these really obnoxious "Christian" types. How else to explain his pompous criticism of Moss' post-touchdown end zone "fake moon" at the Green Bay crowd. Once Joe Buck starts to become the arbiter of taste and morality in a public forum, then we're all doomed. From Terrell Owens and the Sharpie, to Joe Horn and his cell phone, to Moss' "moon," we're all getting pretty used to pass-catchers' theatrical displays. Sometimes it's funny. C'mon now--the Sharpie WAS funny. Sometimes it's silly. Horn promised his kids at home that he'd call 'em on his cell phone if he scored a touchdown. So he had fun with that. Moss "mooning" the crowd wasn't that big a deal. Until stupid Joe Buck opened his mouth.

Buck, who himself does dumbass commercials that exploit his position as a high-profile announcer, decided to pontificate on Moss' lack of taste and the bad example he's setting. What a crock. Shut up, Joe. Get down on your knees and thank the Lord that you were able to cash in big-time on nepotism, that because everyone in the broadcast industry knew your dad, the wheels were greased for you to prematurely advance to the choice role you have in network sports. You still sound like a phony-ass weenie when you work, but many of us have decided we'll just have to live with it. Don't press your luck, dude, by giving us your heartfelt opinions on "the good of the game." What an ass. Shut up, Joe. Just keep doing your boring rote play-by-play, collect your paycheck, do your dumbass commercials, and make a special prayer that FOX executives don't wake up in the middle of the night and say to themselves, "Gosh, what were we thinking? This guy is a total weenie. He could be replaced in a nano-second. And now he's making stupid pious remarks about the football players? Get me Pat Summerall. Get me Keith Jackson. Get me anybody, but let's get Buck outta there!"

Buck will be announcing the Vikings-Eagles Divisional Playoff game this Sunday. Post-game reaction to his comments last week came in the form of a salvo from Vikings owner Red McCombs, who said that Buck should be off the broadcast. Well, that won't happen. But don't be surprised if Buck starts out with some kind of disclaimer about his comments, or some kind of conciliatory catch-all phraseology designed to excuse himself or to put his previous remarks in some kind of "context." But if he's smart--which he isn't--he'll shut the f**k up, and say nothing and just do his job. Unfortunately, Buck is too full of himself to simply do that. I betcha he says something. Just watch. He's a weenie. And an ass. He oughta be canned.

One of the worst things about the Buck situation, though, is the fact that football broadcasting is already filled with meathead ex-jocks who are godawful to listen to. The list is endless: Dierdorf, Baldinger, Bradshaw, etc. They're either dumb as a box of rocks, bombastic and loud, repetitive and unoriginal, or they work that stupid cornpone country thing that makes them look dumber. So you'd think the networks would try to get smooth, efficient and cool announcers in the booth who are NOT ex-jocks. Alas, when they do hire non-jocks, we get the likes of Joe Buck.

Joe Buck is a weenie. Maybe Troy Aikman will put a ball-gag in his mouth on Sunday. A guy can dream.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Bold Predictions: NFL Divisional Playoffs, 2005

Divisional Playoffs (Jan. 15 & 16, 2005)

When it comes to the NFL playoffs, the pundits like to trot out statistics about domed teams and cold-weather teams and visiting teams. If you play in a dome at home, and you're on the road in an open-air stadium, you don't stand a chance, right? I guess the won-loss statistics back this stuff up. Nevertheless, I gotta go with instincts. This year, the NFC has certainly looked like the NDC (National Dog Conference). .500 clubs abounded, and not only did two of 'em make it into the playoffs--Vikings and Rams--but they both advanced in the Wild Card round. So as far as I'm concerned, anything could happen. The AFC looks a little more predictable, but it's risky indeed to pick against those Patriots. Call me crazy, but I like how these predictions feel.


New York Jets @ Pittsburgh Steelers

The Jets don't have much of a chance. They're on the road against a typically hard-hitting Pittsburgh team. Bettis and Roethlisberger, who gets to throw to Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle-El, will probably be too much for the Jets' admirable defense. Curtis Martin would have to have an all-world day running the ball for the Jets to have even a flicker of an offensive breakthrough. Pennington is good, and he has some talented guys to throw to, like Santana Moss and Justin McCareins, but overcoming all the odds is simply too tall of an order.

Final score: Steelers 24, Jets 17

Indianapolis Colts @ New England Patriots

The Patriots have enough talent, charisma and mystique to win this game. Not to mention home-field advantage, playing outdoors in chilly weather against a dome team. They also have Tom Brady and Corey Dillon, and the latter has all kinds of incentive to prove that he's a great running back in this, his first-ever playoff appearance after toiling for years with lousy Bengals teams. But the Pats' defense is hurting seriously. The defensive backfield is a patchwork job at this point, with last year's playoff star Ty Law out for the season. Law intercepted Peyton Manning three times in last year's AFC Championship Game. Instead, the Pats just signed retread journeyman Hank Poteat to their playoff roster, in an effort to shore up the secondary. Not a good sign. Heck, even a very good and healthy secondary would have its hands full facing Manning and his minions. (Just ask the Broncos, who have All-Pros Champ Bailey and John Lynch in their secondary and got their asses whipped last week.) So how do the Patriots shut down the Colts' passing attack? Their only chance is to bring it hard against Peyton, using their aggressive front seven linemen and linebackers. No doubt crafty Pats coach Belichick is scheming, but if Manning can get useful yardage out of Edgerrin James, he should find sufficient opportunity to get the ball to those dangerous receivers. Either that, or he'll simply light up the Pats' secondary like a Christmas tree. It's a huge game for Manning: the chance to prove he's as good as the records say he is. The Colts defense isn't perfect by any means, but they're playing aggressively and young Dwight Freeney is coming into his prime. They'll stave off Brady & Co. efficiently enough.

Final score: Colts 28, Patriots 24


Minnesota Vikings @ Philadelphia Eagles

How good are the Vikings? Well, there's only one other question more perplexing, i.e., How good are the Eagles? Supposedly, the Eagles are the cream of the NFC. Well, they were with Terrell Owens, anyway. But he's injured for the rest of the year. There's talk that TO will make it back for the Super Bowl. Fuggeddaboutit. The guy's a severely wounded bird, and the Eagles aren't the same on offense without him. McNabb's good, but he's been known to make errors too. He's back to throwing to his mediocre receivers and relying on a ground game that features Brian Westbrook. Westbrook has his moments, but exactly how good is he? What's really scary is that there's talk that aging Dorsey Levens may be shouldering more of the burden out of the Philly backfield. Levens has shown flashes of his past skills, but he was never that good even when he was a youngster. If the Bizarro Levens shows up, things could get pretty ugly. Which means that this game could come down to the Eagles' defense shutting down QB Daunte Culpepper and receivers Randy Moss and Nate Burleson. Without a doubt, the Vikings are a conundrum. They have serious talent on offense, including their running backs-- Michael Bennett, Onterrio Smith, Mo Williams--who are mostly unheralded but are pretty tough customers. (Alas, Williams won't play due to injury. Mewelde Moore has shown flashes of talent in a support role off the bench.) The Vikings defense intercepted Brett Favre four times last week, and the unit as a whole looked a lot more aggressive in the upset victory over the Packers. Fact is, the Vikings have a chance here. Owens is worth 14 points to the Eagles in a big game like this, but he won't be there to provide them. Which means if Culpepper brings his brilliance, the Eagles will fall (again).

Final score: Vikings 24, Eagles 20

St. Louis Rams @ Atlanta Falcons

Michael Vick is another conundrum. Yeah, he's a great athlete. His highlight reel is vastly entertaining. But I dunno. The Rams come from Missouri, the Show-Me State, and Vick'll definitely have to show them he's the real deal. It's hard to know if the Rams are truly on a roll. They've won three straight, and they pulled out a victory on the road last week, but the Seahawks they vanquished are simply the most gutless squad around. Still, QB Marc Bulger looked pretty good throwing to his receivers, who are a well-disciplined bunch. The Rams also have rookie running back Steven Jackson, who is capable of a breakout game of serious proportions. And maybe even Marshall Faulk has one great game left in him. The Rams' defense is only so-so, but they might get Vick to run around alot, which always looks good on camera but often looks bad on the final scoreboard. Warrick Dunn is still a gifted back for the Falcons, but there's no guarantee he'll bring his A game. It's the Falcons' defense that will have the most to say in this game. They're supposed to be pretty good, if not an elite NFL unit. They could harass Bulger and shut him down, while Vick runs and passes his way into the playoff record books. Both teams are dome teams, for whatever that's worth. If the Rams fail, we can't blame it on the weather or the fake turf. But it says here that Bulger and Torry Holt and Kevin Curtis and Jackson and/or Faulk have the talent to ratchet it up for a surprise victory. They could take an early lead, Vick could panic, and the Falcons could fly away.

Final score: Rams 23, Falcons 20