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.