Tuesday, October 31, 2006

NFL Week 9 ATS: Midpoint Mediocrity

They like to call it parity in the NFL. Which is a nice way of avoiding the term mediocrity. Mediocrity kills the handicapper, because predicting can't be based on trends. In other words, things aren't always what they seem. There is no way, at this point in the 2006 season, to know the true character of teams like St. Louis, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Minnesota, Jacksonville or Dallas. They're all just above .500 at 4-3. A couple of weeks ago, they were sounding the death knell for the chaotic Cowboys. Now it's all upbeat after a solid win on the road versus Carolina (also surprisingly mediocre at 4-4).

Predicting games in which mediocrities are participating is stressful. My friend Polly has a sort-of gypsy fortune teller/palmist/Tarot reader she seeks occasionally for advice or enlightenment. I might go over there and ask this lady about Sunday's Chiefs-Rams tilt. I keep saying I don't have a crystal ball—maybe I should go visit someone who actually does.

At least we got back on the winning track last week, with an 8-6 ATS. Now 41-36-5 on the season, we head into the mid-point slate hoping to get more comfortably above .500 and then shoot for the big peak performance that will take us all the way to the Super Bowl. Only a serious brain injury can stop the SMA swami now. Or a cloudy crystal ball.

1. KANSAS CITY @ ST. LOUIS (-2.5) Both teams are 4-3 and need to stay in playoff contention. It’ll be Rams’ passing attack with Marc Bulger versus Chiefs’ running attack with Larry Johnson. The defenses are both up and down, with neither a dominant force. The Chiefs are coming off two big home wins against San Diego and Seattle. Rams got outclassed by Chargers on Sunday. Maybe, all things considered, the toughest play of this week. Rams on synthetic home field could be the difference, but it’s sure tempting to take the road ‘dog. Prediction: Rams.

2. CINCINNATI @ BALTIMORE (-3.5) One of the marquee games of the week. The Ravens’ defense looked mighty against the Saints last Sunday, and Steve McNair performed like a leader. Cincy (4-3) seems to be losing steam, and hasn’t really uncorked that potent offense this year. Plus, their defense is suspect. Home field gives Baltimore (5-2) a solid advantage. Still a tough play. Prediction: Ravens.

3. HOUSTON @ NY GIANTS (-13) A complete no-brainer on paper. The Texans (2-5) probably ought to stick with Sage Rosenfels at quarterback. He looked very poised last week and almost brought the team back in the loss to Tennessee. But David Carr will get the nod. Giants are 5-2 and atop the NFC East. There’s simply too much that can go wrong for the Texans in this one. And it probably will. Prediction: Giants.

4. TENNESSEE @ JACKSONVILLE (-9) Titans (2-5) are on a two-game winning “streak.” They’re scrapping now, the way a Jeff Fisher team ought to play. They also have a history of causing trouble for the Jaguars, who are a slight disappointment at 4-3 but are coming off a good road win at Philly. A few Tennessee breakdowns and the Jags could be off and running, the way they trounced the Jets 41-0 a while back. This smells like nearly a push. But Titans actually look competitive. Prediction: Titans.

5. DALLAS (-3) @ WASHINGTON One of the great time-honored matchups. Parcells tends to beat Gibbs, and the Skins, at 2-5, look like a team in need of Human Growth Hormone. All that talent on paper but limp results. It’s a conundrum. Cowboys (4-3) looked very good versus Carolina and won a big road victory and apparently found a new quarterback as well. But Tony Romo’s still young, and it was the Cowboys’ running game that did most of the damage against the Panthers. Will he not get rattled by the tense atmosphere of this game? Very tough play, because somehow you have to factor emotions and history into the bargain. If the oddsmakers gave the Skins a few more points, they’d be worth some money, but Cowboys simply look better. Enter at your own risk. Prediction: Cowboys.

6. GREEN BAY @ BUFFALO (-3) Packers at 3-4 are semi-rejuvenated. Brett Favre and Ahman Green seem to be playing well. Buffalo, coming off bye week, is 2-5, which includes a home victory against the NFC North Vikings. Basically we have two struggling cold-weather teams having at it in the out-of-doors. Anything could happen, and erratic play rules teams like these. Hard to believe the Pack will win a third game in a row. Prediction: Bills.

7. NEW ORLEANS (-1) @ TAMPA BAY The Bucs (2-5) still have no offense. Yet they’ve played Philly and Cincy tough at home. This spread is basically asking, “Who do you think will win the game?” Intradivisional matchups tend to be emotional affairs, but I guess it’s time to start believing in New Orleans (5-2), even if Baltimore cleaned their clocks last week. Prediction: Saints.

8. ATLANTA (-5.5) @ DETROIT Michael Vick is on a roll, currently silencing his critics. Falcons are 5-2; Lions are 1-6. You’d have to be that lady on the “Medium” TV show to put your money on Detroit. Prediction: Falcons.

9. MIAMI @ CHICAGO (-13.5) Dolphins 1-6; Bears 7-0. Not much to talk about here. It’s a surprise the points aren’t more. Prediction: Bears.

10. MINNESOTA (-6.5) @ SAN FRANCISCO Vikings (4-3) got an ass-whupping at home on Monday night courtesy of the Patriots. ‘Frisco (2-5) reeling from facing the Bears. Inscrutable play, but home underdog a decent risk. Prediction: 49ers.

11. CLEVELAND @ SAN DIEGO (-12.5) The Chargers (5-2) tend to beat up on bad teams at home. Browns (2-5) were lucky to snag win versus Jets last week. Could be a tough play if the underdog brings it physically and the Chargers do that “soft” Southern California thing. Chargers beat a decent Rams team by 14 last week, however. Prediction: Chargers.

12. DENVER @ PITTSBURGH (-2.5) Just the kind of game you love to hate. Denver is 5-2 after losing a toughie at home to the Colts. Steelers are 2-5 after embarrassing themselves in Oakland and getting hit with injuries. A critical time for Bill Cowher & Co.—falling to 2-6 would make the playoffs all but unreachable for the World Champions. And here they’re giving points. I...just....don’t....know... Still, Denver’s a very good team, and if you’re gonna give me points, then I’ll take ‘em. Sayonara, Steelers. Prediction: Broncos.

13. INDIANAPOLIS @ NEW ENGLAND (-2.5) For the second week in a row, the Colts take their undefeated (7-0) record on the road versus a team with only one loss, with Indy again sized up as a 2.5-point underdog. The Patriots (6-1) looked terrific on Monday night, and no matter how obvious it seems that Peyton Manning is the greatest quarterback since Johnny Unitas, there sits Tom Brady with his three Super Bowl rings, his charmingly boyish grin and his admirably methodical poise and ability that can cut the heart out of any defense. Plus, the New England defense keeps impressing with its systematic intensity. The Pats didn’t run much against the Vikings, but rookie RB Laurence Maroney is a force to be reckoned with, and the Colts are vulnerable (Denver chewed ‘em up for 227 yards on the ground). This spread looks just about right, and it’s anybody’s game. But the Colts have to lose one, right? Prediction: Patriots.

14. OAKLAND @ SEATTLE (-8) Don’t look now, but the Raiders (2-5) have won two games in a row. Their offense sucks, however, and the only reason they won last week was because Ben Roethlisberger gave them the game via turnovers in between piling up hundreds of yards against a porous Oakland defense. Seattle (4-3) is hurting physically, and this one could be closer than the spread. But don’t bet on it. Prediction: Seahawks.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Greed and Bad Weather Have Ruined the World Series

There's a new book out called Reel Baseball: Baseball's Golden Era the Way America Witnessed It—In the Movie Newsreels (Doubleday, $29.95). The book compiles baseball stories from the early 1930s to the early 1960s, covering notable World Series, All-Star Games, and individual achievements like Johnny Vander Meer's two consecutive no-hitters, DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, Maris's 61 home runs, etc. There's also coverage of funny and poignant moments in the game, from the appearance of midget Eddie Gaedel as a pinch-hitter in a 1951 game for Bill Veeck's St. Louis Browns to Babe Ruth's death in 1948 from cancer. There are lots of black-and-white photos in the book, and it's quite a nostalgic walk back into time.

The World Series accounts, in particular, are a swell reminder of the way things used to be—when the Fall Classic was truly played in the fall. The last Series covered is the exciting 1962 showdown between the Yankees and the Giants, and I noticed that the final game, Game 7, was played on October 16. Game 7 of the 1960 Series (Pirates-Yankees; the Mazeroski walk-off home run) was completed on October 13. The final game of the famous 1955 Series, when the Brooklyn Dodgers finally beat their postseason archnemesis Yankees, took place on Oct. 4, 1955.

Today is October 26, and we haven't yet played Game 4 of the current Series. It's been raining in St. Louis. If the Series makes its way back to Detroit, it could snow by then.

Yes, technically speaking, the season of autumn extends well into December. By the calendar, this is still the Fall Classic. But is there anything more annoying, almost depressing, than watching baseball players competing for the championship of the entire world in a wind chill of 33 degrees? Baseball was not meant to be played while fans are bundled up in parkas, gloves and wool ski caps. The splendor—and maximum play-ability—of the game—is totally compromised under these conditions. It's just plain stupid.

It happens this way because baseball has seen fit to extend its playoff system. This makes some sense because the number of teams has expanded through the years. So I'm not really against the playoffs, per se, even though they are the reason the World Series gets played so frigidly late in the year.

The solution seems crystal clear. Baseball needs to reduce the 162-game regular-season schedule. It's way too long anyway, but its length in the modern era, coupled with the divisional and league playoff series, is the reason why we have to watch pitchers on the mound blowing chilling vapors out of their mouths while they try to pitch the most important games of their careers.

Baseball is the summer game. It's a warm-weather sport, meant to be played out-of-doors. That's part of why we love it. Baseball, sunshine, beer, short-sleeve shirts.

What's the point of doing something if you're not going to do it well? Major League Baseball ought to reduce the regular season. Get back to 154 games, as it was until 1961, or whatever number thereabouts works out well mathematically for scheduling.

It'll probably never happen, and greed is the reason. But someone with vision ought to spearhead the change. It would be for the good of the game. Isn't that what the baseball commissioner is supposed to uphold?

I won't hold my vapor breath.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

NFL Week 8 ATS: Back to the Future

Now with two straight sub-.500 weeks under our belt, we sit brooding with a 33-30-5 record ATS for the season. It’s getting to the point where about the only way the SMA swami can get anything right is to get a hold of that sports almanac that Michael J. Fox had in Back to the Future, Part II. Looking for silver linings, we did have some sweet picks last week (Falcons over Steelers, Raiders over Cardinals). But really, who but Marty McFly could have known that the Vikings would go into Seattle and wallop the Seahawks, who hadn’t lost a home game since late in 2004? Or that the Giants would trounce the Cowboys in Dallas? (By the way, for those of you who might suggest we weren’t doing our homework on arcane trends, let it be known that, prior to Monday night, the Giants were 1-7 against the Cowboys on Monday nights in their entire history. Now they’re 2-7. So is the trend over?) And don’t get me started on the Texans’ resounding victory over the Jaguars. (The only thing that ever usually resounds with the Texans is the thud that happens when David Carr gets sacked. But they didn’t just beat the spread against an acknowledgedly far superior team—they beat their asses. It makes no sense.)

I oughta give up. Even the so-called good teams aren’t that good, so how can you even crunch the data to arrive at a logical choice? I wasn’t that high on the Eagles before the season started, but some serious pro observers had ‘em leading the pack in the NFC East. Now they’re 4-3, which is okay, I guess, but it’s hardly elite. Then there are the Redskins, who I guessed would contend with the Giants for the division title. With all that high-priced offensive talent and a veteran offensive line, they now stand at 2-5. They were totally outclassed by the Colts last week. Losing that game was no surprise, but getting whupped (and not covering the hefty spread) indicates serious defensive problems to go along with an offensive engine that looks like it needs a new fuel pump. Or maybe a timing belt. Where NFL aesthetics are concerned, it’s a good thing the Skins have a bye this week. P.U.—they stink.

Let’s face it: Parity’s a bitch. With that in mind, we’ll drag our sorry-ass masochistic self once more to the drawing board. (As always, spreads courtesy of FootballLocks.com.)

1. HOUSTON @ TENNESSEE (-3) The also-rans of the AFC South tee it up in Nashville. Titans (1-5) off a bye week, and still savoring their first victory at Washington. Houston (2-4) basking in glow of home victory over Jags. Texans never good on the road, while Titans are so far winless at home. David Carr vs. Vince Young. Pretty much a toss-up. Travis Henry running strong these days for Tennessee. Prediction: Titans.

2. JACKSONVILLE @ PHILADELPHIA (-6) Suddenly, the Jaguars (3-3) don’t look so good. They’ve had injuries on the defensive side, and that’s always been their strength in the recent era. Eagles looking to get healthy after two straight road losses. A difficult play, but Jags trending downward. Prediction: Eagles.

3. ATLANTA @ CINCINNATI (-4.5) I love it. Michael Vick has a good game, so all the wonks at NFL.com start writing stories about how underestimated he is. Fact is, he’s a completely erratic quarterback with remarkable gifts. That’s not how you describe the great ones. The Bengals (4-2) held off a good Panthers team last week at home. Their offense is struggling, though, having scored only 43 points in their past three games. They’re due for a break-out, and Falcons (4-2) have yielded 65 points in their last two games. Prediction: Bengals.

4. TAMPA BAY @ NY GIANTS (-9) Bucs (2-4) are on a two-game winning streak. Yet they’ve only scored 85 points all year (14.2 per game), and their defense has done most of that. Giants (4-2) won Monday night but got roughed up on the Dallas artificial turf, losing LaVar Arrington for the year, with other key players hurting. If not for that, this play would be fairly logical. Still, the Bucs have no offense. Prediction: Giants.

5. SAN FRANCISCO @ CHICAGO (-16.5) The 49ers pinched themselves every morning they woke up this past bye week. By golly, they’re 2-4! When last we saw them, the Bears—now 6-0 and yielding 9.8 points per game—were driving a stake into Arizona coach Dennis Green’s heart with that wild, wacky Monday night victory in which they turned the ball over six times. Bears' offense is a sometime thing, but the team still averages 30 points a game. So, if they get 30, and give up 9.8, they cover. (If only it were that simple.) Prediction: Bears.

6. ARIZONA @ GREEN BAY (-3.5) The Cards are 1-6 and their much-ballyhooed season is a shambles. (Go back and see what the “experts” said about them in preseason predictions. Some guys had ’em making the playoffs. I thought 7-9 seemed do-able, but clearly even that was too optimistic.) Packers are 2-4, fresh off a “big” victory over Miami on the road. It’ll probably be cold in Green Bay, though maybe not as cold as the Cards’ running game. Here’s a scary stat: Edgerrin James leads the NFL in carries with 161, yet he’s averaging only 2.7 yards a pop. Wow, that’s ugly. No one’s even close to him in futility. It’s a scandal, but at least James is being paid well for being lousy. Until the Cards show something, it’s impossible to back ‘em. Prediction: Packers.

7. SEATTLE @ KANSAS CITY (-6) Seattle might be 4-2, but they’re giving up more points than they’re scoring. Plus, they’ve lost quarterback Matt Hasselbeck for a while, and they still don’t have Shaun Alexander back from injury. If the Vikings’ Chester Taylor can have a career rushing performance against ‘em, one wonders what KC’s Larry Johnson will do. Chiefs at 3-3 are feeling good about themselves, and home is where the heart is. Prediction: Chiefs.

8. BALTIMORE @ NEW ORLEANS (-2) A very interesting matchup here. Ravens are 4-2 coming off a bye week. But they’re also coming off two losses in a row and a “dump offensive coordinator Jim Fassel” week as well. Head coach Brian Billick assumes play-calling duties in the shakeup. What’s ironic about that is that Billick used to be an offensive coordinator, yet ever since he came to Baltimore it’s been his defenses that have saved his ass. Plus, the other two teams that recently dumped offensive coordinators were the Cards and the Browns, where chaos currently reigns. The Saints, meanwhile, are the sweethearts of the NFL rodeo, riding high at 5-1. Drew Brees & Co. look pretty confident. Still, a strong effort by that Ravens D could keep this very close. I like the road ‘dog. Prediction: Ravens.

9. ST. LOUIS @ SAN DIEGO (-9) Chargers now 4-2 after losing close one in KC. But also, they continue to experience trauma off-the-field, in the way of drug allegations, police run-ins, etc. Their stout defense is losing too many players. The offense is still strong, however. St. Louis is also 4-2. They’ve looked a little wobbly getting there, but they’re not a bad team. Covering these points should be do-able. Prediction: Rams.

10. PITTSBURGH (-9) @ OAKLAND R-berger will probably be out for this game. Steelers, at 2-4, need this win, and there’s no reason why Charlie Batch can’t deliver it for ‘em. If the Steelers take care of business in the other phases of the game, they should cover this semi-treacherous heavy-road-favorite spread. Raiders hepped up on the catnip of victory. Over the Cardinals. (Ho-hum.) But at 1-5, can it be that they’re only one game worse than the world champs? No, it can’t. Prediction: Steelers.

11. NY JETS @ CLEVELAND (-1.5) Don’t ask how, just savor the fact that the Jets are 4-3. They’ve given up 26 more points than they’ve scored this year, but most of that occurred when they went to Jacksonville a few weeks back and got walloped. Otherwise, Chad Pennington continues to play like the clever quarterback that he is. They’ve improved their running game a bit also. Browns are 1-5 and woeful all over, and they just fired their offensive coordinator. But maybe when you’re averaging 14.7 points a game, that’s a good thing. The points here are negligible, and the Jets need only find some incentive to win. Prediction: Jets.

12. INDIANAPOLIS @ DENVER (-2.5) It’s not often that a 6-0 team comes into a game the underdog. It only makes sense because the home team is 5-1. And can this be right: The Broncos are giving up only 7.3 points per game? That almost makes the Bears look generous. But the Broncos also are only scoring 13.2 points per game. Something’s gotta give here. But if you told me I could have Peyton Manning and his undefeated team AND 2.5 points going into any opposing venue in the NFL, I’d take it. A very slippery slope here, especially because the Redskins did only one thing right last week in losing to Indy: They rattled Peyton’s cage a little. On the other hand, the vaunted Denver defense hasn’t been tested by an opponent with real firepower. Prediction: Colts.

13. DALLAS @ CAROLINA (-5) I’m surprised the oddsmakers didn’t give the Panthers 10 points this week–to really test the punters. Cowboys are 3-3, reeling from a Monday night embarrassment, and it looks like Tony Romo’s gonna take over from Drew Bledsoe at QB. Looking back, Parcells made a tactical error in the Giants game by yanking Bledsoe after the half. Up to then, the ‘boys were still in it, and while Bledsoe was under assault, he was still coping. Now it all looks like a PR nightmare, and Romo threw three times as many interceptions as Bledsoe that game. Romo probably won’t enjoy facing the 4-3 Panthers much. They have a very good secondary. The kid’ll have to play exceptionally. Doesn’t seem likely. Prediction: Panthers.

14. NEW ENGLAND (-2.5) @ MINNESOTA Surprisingly interesting matchup. Vikings scorched the Seahawks in Seattle last week, and have now given up just under 16 points per game in building a 4-2 record. Then there are the 5-1 Patriots, who have quietly gone about holding opponents to 13.3 points per game. If the Pats were giving just a few more points, there might be something to think about here. But the road fav looks like the logical bet. Prediction: Patriots.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

NFL Week 7 ATS: Sunday, Bloody Sunday; and a Pox on Frist's House

With cap in hand—that phrase is the origin of the word handicapped; think about it—I come to you, dear reader, with the word that last week's 5-8 ATS was an all-time low for the SMA swami. Hunches didn't play out, favored visitors (the Eagles, the Seahawks, e.g.) tanked, home favorites (Redskins, Broncos) did the same, and visiting underdogs given a chance by the oddsmakers (the Texans) looked very bad. Sometimes I just don't listen to myself. I build arguments why a team might win, but then I don't have the sense to buck the chalk. I'm not convinced that a totally different approach need be taken. I'm still gonna argue the facts and the tendencies. But maybe I'll pay attention a little more to that old adage about "any given Sunday." Except maybe where the Texans are concerned. Getting beat is one thing; laying over and playing dead, against your big instrastate rival, is another matter altogether.

We also come to you on the heels of recent action in the U.S. Senate, which has put the kibosh on a lot of internet wagering. On Friday, Oct. 13, Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee dicked around on the Senate floor and stealthily attached a rider to a bill on U.S. port security, which, in effect, dealt a blow to American-originated internet gambling transacted with off-shore betting services. I see three potential reasons why this portion of the bill was shoved through without anyone really knowing about it: 1) Frist is striking a blow for conservative Christians who think gambling is sinful (even though he doesn't apparently mind if Christians get drunk and risk killing others when behind the wheel of a car); 2) he wants to control the internet (even though it's rightfully called the WORLD-wide Web); 3) monies placed with off-shore services don't yield any tax dollars for the U.S. government so he wants to play the role of punisher.

An online wagering industry exec, who shall remain nameless, told me directly: "The government, in its infinite wisdom, passed a bill called the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act.... There were no options to attach amendments to this bill. There was no time for politicians to even read the bill before it was brought up in Congress. There was no opportunity for any dissent or discussion. The bill was deceitfully attached to a Port Security Bill by Senator Bill Frist [and] it passed overwhelmingly. Several of the offshore sportsbooks have buckled under the pressure and will no longer accept American bettors. Several have stopped advertising and marketing. This has resulted in...sponsors pulling out and a tremendous amount of uncertainty in the industry."

Fascism's around the corner, folks. Between Frist and Bush, we get no say-so on anything. But if gambling's such a bad thing, why does the state of Tennessee—Frist's state—have a huge public lottery that funds the public education system by sucking precious dollars out of the hands of poor folks desperate to take a flyer on a million-to-one chance to hit the big time and alleviate their financially stressed existence? Ever stand in line at the convenience store behind a lottery player? The odds are 10-1 it's a woebegone minority or older person obviously not living the middle-class demi-dream. Ever ponder that reality, Mr. Frist? Doubtless, he knows nothing about it. It's hypocrisy writ large, America. Meanwhile, the people who can actually afford to gamble are now punished because Frist doesn't like how they're able to do it without his imprimatur.

Time to take back our country, methinks. If the fascists don't get us frist...er...first.

Season record: 28-23-4. Let's have at it again. (Spreads courtesy of FootballLocks.com.)

1. SAN DIEGO (-5) @ KANSAS CITY Chargers (4-1) playing well; Chiefs (2-3) off a debacle in Pittsburgh. Traditionally a tough game. Chiefs showed almost nothing last week, and QB Damon Huard will have to face that insistent Chargers defense. If I saw a strong reason to think the Chiefs could do this—besides the fact that they're at home—I'd pick 'em. Prediction: Chargers.

2. JACKSONVILLE (-9.5) @ HOUSTON Jaguars (3-2) coming off a bye week, rested and talented defensively. Texans (1-4) coming off a lackluster effort versus Cowboys, just when you'd think they'd have had a chance to prove something. They have no running game, and their offensive line is ready to collapse again under the onslaught of an aggressive D. They won't win. They could cover—but the facts say they won't. Prediction: Jaguars.

3. NEW ENGLAND (-5) @ BUFFALO Bills (2-4) played Pats (4-1) tough in Week 1, dropping a squeaker in Foxboro. But for all their moxie, the Bills are, plain and simple, mediocre. The Pats are still in the middle of re-tooling aspects of their team on both sides of the ball, yet have won anyway. If Brady is on, they should cover this one. Prediction: Patriots.

4. PITTSBURGH (-2.5) @ ATLANTA A 2-3 visitor is yielding points to a 3-2 host. Make any sense to you? Well, the Steelers did look formidable last week, and the Falcons stumbled badly at home against the Giants. I simply don't understand the Falcons. But maybe, when all is said and done, it's because Michael Vick is simply not a championship-caliber quarterback. I still think they have a chance here, though. Prediction: Falcons.

5. GREEN BAY @ MIAMI (-5) How much fun can you have? These two also-rans are a combined 2-9, and they've looked even worse getting there. On paper, the 'Fins are better, and in this case home field has to mean something. Prediction: Dolphins.

6. PHILADELPHIA (-5) @ TAMPA BAY Eagles (4-2) play second straight southern road game. Bucs (1-4) coming off first win, versus Cincy. Fairly tough play here, but Eagles can do it. Prediction: Eagles.

7. DETROIT @ NY JETS (-3.5) Lions are 1-5 coming off their first victory of the year. Jets are a surprising 3-3. That half-point is tricky, but the play has to be the Jets. Prediction: Jets.

8. CAROLINA @ CINCINNATI (-3) An interesting matchup here. Panthers are playing very well, having won four in a row. Cincy dropped a road game to lowly Tampa Bay last week, after coming off a bye. Panthers covered last week as a road underdog, and they're capable of doing it again. Prediction: Panthers.

9. DENVER (-4.5) @ CLEVELAND Denver's offense last week against Oakland was pathetic. Rarely will you see a team show that little faith in its quarterback. Cleveland (1-4) is off a bye week, though as Cincy showed us last Sunday, that doesn't necessarily mean anything. You can be rested and still not find your rhythm. Denver's defense is tough; Cleveland's is hurting. Prediction: Broncos.

10. WASHINGTON @ INDIANAPOLIS (-9.5) If Indy were playing better...wait a minute...Can you be better than 5-0? The Jekyll & Hyde Skins are 2-4, 2-1 against the AFC South. Indy should win, but Washington has the talent to cover the spread. Prediction: Redskins.

11. MINNESOTA @ SEATTLE (-6.5) The Vikings, at 3-2, have showed plenty of grit. But if they lost by 5 on the road at Buffalo (which they did), they're likely to lose by more than that on the road against the defending conference champions. Prediction: Seahawks.

12. ARIZONA (-3) @ OAKLAND Whattya say, America? Can the Raiders (0-5) win their first game? Was Cardinals coach Dennis Green's postgame Monday night tirade enough to inspire his overrated, underachieving 1-5 team? I see chaos everywhere I turn. Raiders could lose but still cover. Prediction: Raiders.

13. NY GIANTS @ DALLAS (-3) Here's a Monday night matchup worthy of the ages. It's practically a toss-up. I like the Cowboys at home. The spread could be a killer though. Prediction: Cowboys.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

NFL Week 6 ATS: When Push Comes to Shove

The bettor’s “push” is just like what they say about playing any competitive game to a tie: It’s like kissing your sister. Well, we kissed two sisters this past week, ending up at 7-5-2. All things considered, maybe we should be grateful. If Brett Favre holds onto the ball at the end of the Packers/Rams game, we might’ve had overtime and an eventual Packers victory. So we’ll take that push. As for the Patriots and Dolphins, I guess the 10-point margin made perfect sense, both in Vegas and on the field in Foxboro. So we’re accepting. (Besides, I’ve got four sisters. I’ve given ‘em each a peck on the cheek. You survive.)

Harder to accept is the reality that if we’d waited another day before going on the record with our picks, the Chiefs’ spread over the Cards would’ve shrunk a half point, thus turning a close, painful loss into a preferable push and a 7-4-3 finish for the weekend. Once again, the Panthers got lax on their late lead, and what appeared to be a 20-9 win over Cleveland (and a spread win for the good guys), turned into 20-12 and a loss for us. Those close ones are murder. And you can imagine our high when we learned that the Lions went into the fourth quarter against the Vikings leading 17-3. How could they possibly not be winners when Minnesota was spotting them 6.5 points? Now imagine our low when we heard the report that the Vikes had pulled it out 26-17, covering almost handily. Sheeesh. Mama said there’d be days like this—when the Titans play over their heads and the Redskins hide their heads in the sand.

But thank goodness for the seeming miracles. We were staring at a possible worst-case scenario 4-8-2 by late Sunday afternoon, when the Eagles, Chargers and Broncos, home favorites all, and facing teams who might easily have beaten them (spreadwise or otherwise), rose to the stiff challenges and won their games by comfortable margins. 7-5-2 is not very good in my book. It’s not playoff-caliber. In fact, it’s only a little better than kissing your sister. We’re still looking for that hot date, then. Record for the year: 23-15-4. (Spreads courtesy of FootballLocks.com.)

1. CINCINNATI (-6) @ TAMPA BAY The Bucs are winless. I thought they had a shot at a Super Bowl berth. My bad. Either they got old very fast, or last year’s defense was just lucky. Now they have a rookie quarterback trying to save their season. The Bengals (3-1) are off a bye week, which they spent conferring with their lawyers, trying to figure out which of their law-breaking players they should reprimand, or replace, first. Tough call here, especially since the Tampa Bay offense showed signs of life last week on the road, with Cadillac Williams surpassing the 100-yard mark on the ground for the first time in 2006, and rookie QB Gradkowski throwing 2 TD passes with no interceptions. Yet the Bengals have Carson Palmer and all that firepower. I’m thinking the Bucs will stay with ‘em for a while. Prediction: Bucs.

2. TENNESSEE @ WASHINGTON (-10) The Titans (0-5) are just the kind of desperate, winless sad-sacks to put up a fight versus the erratic Redskins (2-3). And just why couldn’t the Skins get it up for the Giants last week? Pretty tough to put any faith in a team that needs the on-field equivalent of a penile implant. The Titans are losing games by an average of 27-12; what we don’t know is whether last week’s 14-13 loss at Indy was anomaly or genuine improvement. The Skins have beaten two other AFC South teams this year—the Jags at home by 6, and the Texans on the road by 20. I see this one two ways: Either the Skins blow it completely and lose, or their offense rediscovers itself and catches fire for the rout. Anything close is a “W” for the Tennessee money. Prediction: Redskins.

3. HOUSTON @ DALLAS (-13) Cowboys licking their wounds after a difficult loss in Philly. Houston is off a bye. Cowboys should win all right, but 13 points? The ‘dog looks good to me. Prediction: Texans.

4. BUFFALO (-1) @ DETROIT Hard to believe, but there are still four winless teams in the NFL, and Detroit, at 0-5, is one of ‘em. Buffalo (2-3) has already played two other NFC North teams, beating the Vikings at home by 5, and getting routed in Chicago. Except for the Chicago fiasco, Buffalo has played every opponent tough. This is a...uh...pointless point spread. I’m going with the better team. Prediction: Bills.

5. SEATTLE (-3) @ ST. LOUIS Along with New Orleans one of the surprise teams of the NFC, the Rams are 4-1. They still give up almost 20 points a game, though, and they seem to just skitter by in their victories. Which explains why they’re getting three points at home. Seattle (3-1), still without the services of Shaun Alexander at running back, hasn’t been impressive. This one’s a bitch, and the bookies like it that way. Go with the pedigree and pray. Prediction: Seahawks.

6. NY GIANTS @ ATLANTA (-3) Falcons should be rested after their bye week. You’d think the Giants (2-2) would be spent from a big game against Washington, but they handled the Skins pretty easily. If only Michael Vick were a money QB. He’s not, but that Falcons running game and aggressive defense, and a vocal home crowd, should bring home the bacon. Prediction: Falcons.

7. PHILADELPHIA (-3) @ NEW ORLEANS Only the Bears have scored more than the Eagles thus far this season. Which is a huge testament to QB Donavan McNabb, who’s been without running backs and wide receivers along the way to putting up 155 points. The Saints’ Cinderella season continues at 4-1, and this game should be a solid indicator of just how good they are. However, they did not cover the spread at home last week against the flailing Bucs. This time they get points instead of giving them. Fact is, it’s impossible to know how good New Orleans will be against a veteran squad on the upswing like Philly. They’ll just have to prove it to us. Prediction: Eagles.

8. CAROLINA @ BALTIMORE (-3) Remember that kids’ toy, Rock’ em-Sock ‘em Robots? That’s what we have here. Tough defenses versus capable offenses. Ravens on a short work week after losing Monday night to Denver as QB Steve McNair displayed his ugly penchant for throwing interceptions at absolutely the wrong time. I like McNair, and I think the Ravens could go far this season. But I was surprised how incapable their offense looked against the Broncos, even on the road and in the rain against a good D. Jamal Lewis has moments as a runner, then goes into hibernation. Carolina has shown a remarkable aptitude for giving away points and then not covering. But this time they’re getting the points. Prediction: Panthers.

9. MIAMI @ NY JETS (-2.5) It’s sad how bad the Dolphins have looked. I doubt, when he was at LSU, Coach Nick Saban ever thought things could get this dire. And now he’s got Joey Harrington at quarterback. The Jets have Chad Pennington at QB and are at home, and they can’t even give away three points? Well, the Dolphins are due. Still, seeing is believing. Prediction: Jets.

10. SAN DIEGO (-10) @ SAN FRANCISCO At 2-3, the Niners must be feeling good about themselves. I suppose they could get the 10 points and thwart the San Diego money. It’s very possible. But Chargers QB Philip Rivers looked terrific last week against the Steelers, and the Niners look like just the kind of team that LaDainian Tomlinson could chew up for big yardage. Plus, the San Diego defense will pose problems for young and still-learning Niners QB Alex Smith. Prediction: Chargers.

11. KANSAS CITY @ PITTSBURGH (-7) The World Champions are 1-3, and their quarterback looks like a reject from the Mid-American Conference. The Chiefs (2-2) are on a roll...sort of. I guess the 7 points here are supposed to indicate that we’re all nuts—that the Steelers are as good as ever and that what we’ve been witnessing is just a bad dream. They need to win this game, and it’ll be a surprise if they don’t, but covering the spread is another matter. Okay, I’m gonna hope they wake up from the nightmare. Prediction: Steelers.

12. OAKLAND @ DENVER (-15) This should be a no-brainer, but 15 points is never that. Broncos on a short work week and poised for a letdown, even though they remain at home. Thinking....thinking... Raiders lost by 14 last week on the road just across the Bay—to mediocre 49ers. This means that the Broncos could probably stumble their way to covering the points. Prediction: Broncos.

13. CHICAGO (-10.5) @ ARIZONA I drove through Illinois last weekend, listening to Chicago sports radio. The town is in a frenzy about their Bears. Old and young alike call up the radio stations and gush about this team, how they’re the second coming of the 1985 “Super Bowl Shuffle” squad that won it all. It’s premature, but this team does look awfully good. Now they get a Monday night podium to show the world just how good. They’re not really an offensive juggernaut yet, but Cardinals rookie QB Matt Leinart will have his hands full trying to pierce that Chicago D, which is capable of turnovers that can change games quickly. And Edgerrin James could get hurt trying to run against that Bears front 7. It’s a lot of points to cover on the road, and Leinart seems gutsy and talented, so this becomes a much more interesting proposition. Let’s presume the Bears want to show off on national television. Prediction: Bears.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Division III Football: Alive and Well in Dubuque, Iowa

There aren’t 103,000 screaming, raucous fans in the stands. There’s little media coverage. The major networks don’t even scroll their scores along the bottom of the television screen during the high-profile Saturday broadcasts. The games don’t generate millions of dollars. You probably can’t get odds in Vegas on the outcomes. Welcome to the world of Division III college football.

What Division III lacks in clout, it more than makes up for in competitive spirit and sportsmanship. You know—those rare things that used to be the raison d’etre of college football in general.

You won’t find many, if any, scandals in Division III. The thuggery quotient is nil. You won’t hear about its players attacking young ladies. Or dealing drugs. Or packing a piece. Or getting under-the-table money.

The young men who play Division III do it because they love to play football while they’re studying at small institutions that are interested in producing individuals who are destined to be productive members of society whether they continue in sports or not. But that doesn’t mean the games aren’t important, or that the kids don’t really care—or don’t give it 100% when they take the field.

I know all this because I just spent Homecoming Weekend in Dubuque, Iowa, watching the showdown between the host Loras College Duhawks and the Cornell College Rams, both members of the Division III Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. My interest was journalistic to be sure, but moreso specifically very personal: My son, Leo Brady (left), is the starting tight end and co-captain of the Loras squad, which entered the game on a two-game winning streak after last week’s upset 32-30 victory over conference power Coe College.

Watching the game, of course, was pure pleasure. Getting to Dubuque from Nashville was quite another story.

It’s a 600-mile trip by car. (621.2 to be precise, according to Yahoo, whose directions I used to get there.) It’s an estimated 10-to-11-hour sojourn. This is true if a) you average about 60 miles per hour; b) you stop only for gas and snack while you drive; c) you don’t get lost; d) there’s no construction; and e) the traffic cooperates. Those seemed like a lot of factors to have to fall into place, and, even at that, the prospect of 10+ hours in a car, without anyone to share the driving, still seemed pretty daunting. But I’d never seen my son play a college game, and I was determined to make the trek.

I learned that you can fly in to Dubuque’s regional airport—if you can get a flight there, available only out of O’Hare Airport in Chicago. Going through all that seemed pointless; besides, I‘d need a car when I got there anyway. So, at 8:20 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 6, I left Nashville in a rental car, jumped on I-24 West, and began the first leg of the long trip.

I-24 ambles out through Tennessee’s northwest corner, cuts across Kentucky’s southwest corner,and continues in a northwesterly direction up into Illinois. It’s generally pretty country, and even the southern portion of flat and boring Illinois has its bucolic charm. Luckily, all the colors of autumn were springing forth, and the roadways had been recently mowed, making for a neat and picturesque heartland journey.

175 miles later, you catch I-57 just south of Champaign, Illinois. 190 miles after that you catch I-74, which eats up 165 more miles heading toward Peoria. By this time, you’ve crossed the Cumberland River, the Tennessee River, the Ohio River, the Illinois River, and even the Spoon River (of Anthology fame). You’ve also wandered into historical terrain, passing through Eureka College, President Reagan’s alma mater, and Galesburg, birthplace of Carl Sandburg and site of one of the more famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. Eventually, I-74 works its way into a 20-mile stretch of I-80 notable mostly for its exits that lead to the Quad Cities of Bettendorf and Davenport, Iowa, and Rock Island and Moline, Illinois, each of which flanks the Mississippi River.

I kept a close watch on the clock in my car. More importantly, I decided early on that I would not allow the posted 65 MPH speed limit to impede my ability to challenge the estimated driving time. It was a gorgeous fall day, sunny and warm, and the traffic was mercifully light. I had encountered a little construction in Paducah, Kentucky, which slowed things to a crawl for a little while, but that was the only glitch.

In short, I drove like a bat out of hell. I hit 80 MPH as often as possible. Sometimes I went 85. Sometimes when I passed cars on the left, I went 90. I pulled back to the 70-75 range on many occasions, but mostly they were the calming respites before gunning it back to 80, passing passels of cars, then pulling quickly over to the right lane to continue on, keeping my eyes on the rearview mirror for police. (Admittedly, at those speeds, I was tempting fate, especially since the state police sometimes use newer-style, deceptively plain compact cars to do their dirty work, and you couldn’t realistically expect to spot one of those in your rearview mirror anyway. Still, I kept ever vigilant.)

My frenzied, pedal-to-the-metal approach paid off big-time. At 4:10 p.m., I crossed the mighty Mississippi on I-80, driving alongside a car full of young men, who I guessed were bound for Iowa City, where the University of Iowa was squaring off against Purdue University the next afternoon in a Big Ten football game. A few minutes later, I turned off onto Iowa Route 61, and headed north 65 more miles. I went 80 MPH on that road as well, a four-lane rural highway surrounded by acres and acres of endless farmland.

At 5:10 p.m., I pulled into Dubuque. I had made the journey in 8 hours and 50 minutes. All I could think was, “Hurray for good roads and good weather and light traffic and for my own moxie and ‘Why the heck don’t we have an Autobahn like the Germans? Why should what I did have been considered illegal when I had so much ground to cover for such an important reason?’ “

Dubuque, Iowa, is an interesting town. Its population is about 60,000. It’s an old city built upon hills that overlook the Mississippi River. The ethnic makeup historically is predominately German and Irish with other Eastern European strains thrown in for good measure. The homes are sometimes brick, but most seem to be classic midwestern frame houses, some very large, with big front porches.

Looking at Dubuque at a glance, one thinks of fictional settings such as Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life or the trick-or-treating scene from Meet Me in St. Louis. It looks blessedly average and wholesome, the kind of place where people work, drink and pro-create, and probably in that order. Dubuque looks like it’s seen better days, too, way back when it was a thriving Mississippi port city. Its downtown looks like it’s trying to make a comeback—spurred on by the more recent addition of casino boats at its harbor—but otherwise it also looks a bit haunted by its founder, Julien Dubuque, and the other ghosts of a bygone age, when fur traders or French missionaries were setting up shop. (For the historical lowdown on Dubuque, go here.)

There is something melancholy about Dubuque—it does not look modern, its hills are precipitously steep, its seedy houses and corner taverns seemingly pulled at downward angles by gravity, its streets dark at night. But there’s also something very triumphant about the place, as if you can tell that really good people live there and that their daily plight involves finding the bright side of an otherwise fairly humdrum, albeit all-American routine. I am also struck by this: If you were a person who wanted to forget the competitive challenges of, say, an artistic career, or to leave behind all the glad-handing, ass-kissing aspects of an existence where you were trying to “prove” yourself to “important people” in order to get ahead, then you might find a blessed kind of escape in Dubuque.

It’s historically a very Roman Catholic place, and two of its three major institutions of higher learning (the other being the University of Dubuque) are Clarke College and Loras College, both Catholic and coeducational, with Clarke once a females-only school where midwestern Catholic parents would send their daughters to keep them out of harm’s way and steeped in their religion.

Loras, a liberal arts school with about 1,700 students, was founded in 1839. Once it was all-male, but it’s been coeducational since 1971. Probably the school’s most famous contemporary grad is sports broadcaster Greg Gumbel.

The Loras football team is a microcosm of the school at large, meaning its players come mostly from small Iowa and Illinois towns, with the occasional kid thrown in from Missouri, Indiana and Wisconsin. This year’s squad also boasts one player each from California, Colorado, and Massachusetts. There’s also a strong Chicago-area presence at Loras, which means the football team draws from big-time Windy City high school programs like St. Patrick High School (where my son attended) and Loyola Academy.

The Duhawks play their football games in the Rock Bowl, a 66-year-old stadium seating 3,500 fans. In 2005, the Rock Bowl was renovated, the upgrades including a video scoreboard, a new press box, and so-called “field turf,” a no-maintenance synthetic that feels and looks somewhat like that fake grass your parents used to put in your Easter basket.

The Rock Bowl isn’t flashy or slick. Like Dubuque itself, it’s a ”just folks” kind of thing. But it’s got charm and sincerity, and if a couple of small-college football teams are going to square off and play a homecoming game smack-dab in the middle of the United States of America on a fall Saturday afternoon, then you couldn’t pick a finer venue.

A packed house cheered heartily as the purple-and-gold-clad Loras Duhawks bounded down a steep corner incline leading from their locker room into the Rock Bowl.

From the opening coin toss (left), the sun was golden bright all afternoon, which proved to be a good omen for the home team. It was a defensive struggle at first, and the half ended at 0-0. But behind the shifty running of 5’6,” 170-lb. sophomore tailback Brennan McCarron and his 112 yards, and a tough defense led by linebacker Brock Hall and his 16 tackles, the Duhawks charged ahead 14-0, lengthened the lead to 21-6, and held off Cornell’s late comeback to seal a 21-14 victory. Cornell was led by tough-minded running back Travion Hardman, a 5’8,” 198-lb. sophomore who finished the day with 100 hard-earned yards.

The victory, punctuated by the ceremonial postgame handshake between combatants, was Loras’ third in a row and vaulted them into a tie for the conference lead with undefeated Central College. On Oct. 14, the Duhawks travel to face a tough 4-1 Wartburg team. If they keep on the winning trail, they could be heading toward a big Oct. 28 showdown at Central. But first things first. Word is that the Wartburg team is as tough as they sound.

Homecoming Weekend ended just like it should—pounding beers and reveling with family and hanging out with football players and lots of very friendly Loras students.

Come the next morning, after sharing a big breakfast at the local Perkins (Dubuque’s answer to Denny’s) with my son—the victorious tight end and fabulous all-around guy—and after sharing warm goodbyes, it was off again to Nashville.

The journey home took a little longer this time. (I got lost in a cornfield on my way out of town, and almost ended up heading toward the Field of Dreams baseball landmark in nearby Dyersville.) But a few friendly directions from the locals set me straight, and I rolled back into Music City well before midnight on Sunday.

All told, I spent 63 hours away from home, 18+ of them in a car. The other 45 I count as rare and special moments with incredible people, not to mention a celebration of college football the way it was meant to be played.

Go Duhawks!

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

NFL Week 5 ATS: Tweaking the Game Plan

The SMA “swami” again scored 8-5-1 against the spread (ATS) last week. Consistency is an okay thing, and at 16-10-2 for the year, we’re not grousing. But we’re not jubilant either. Oh, to have shown some faith in those upstart Jets and Chad Pennington. Oh, to have listened to that inner voice that whispered, “The Titans really suck.” Oh, to have realized that it’s never wise to underestimate Tom Brady & Co. And who knew that the Dolphins were so bad that they’d lose an early-season must-win against the Texans? And don’t get me started on that New Orleans/Carolina encounter, where the Panthers had a healthy, spread-busting 11-point lead with a minute to go, then gave up an 86-yard TD pass. That all said, the beloved Bills covered comfortably (“Thank you, J.P. Losman”), and the Ravens and Redskins (home underdogs both) sent the competition back to sunnier Cali and Florida climes while stuffing a couple of tough picks into our back pocket. Even the un-knowable Rams gave 6 points and then went out and nipped the Lions by 7, turning that early Sunday sour stomach into a fairly full feeling. The romps by Chicago, Kansas City and Philly felt pretty good too. So the question now is, “How do I tweak the game plan to start predicting like a marquee player?” 10-4 would look awfully nice. So would 11-3. It’s a constant battle between head—where all the facts reside—and that thing called instinct. It’s like that line in Miracle on 34th Street: “Faith is believing in something common sense tells you not to.” (But not if you’re only getting 4 points as a Monday night road team.) Methinks tweaking will be tough this week. (Early-line spreads courtesy of FootballLocks.com.)

1. TENNESSEE @ INDIANAPOLIS (-18.5) Yes, the Titans (0-4) suck. Now that Albert (“The Gouger”) Haynesworth is out of the lineup, maybe they’ll be nicer—or even better. Rookie Vince Young takes his “Potential” tour on the road here, and the oddsmakers are giving the undefeated Colts (4-0) the world. Let’s see, if the Titans lose by 31 at home to Drew Bledsoe, how will they fare on the road against Peyton Manning? Well, they won’t fare well, but what happens if they “only” lose 31-14? Head...instinct...head...instinct... I like 28-6. Prediction: Colts.

2. WASHINGTON @ NY GIANTS (-4) The Skins’ offense has come alive. The Giants are 1-2, giving up 30.7 points a game, but coming off a bye week. Meanwhile, the Skins' defense has only been so-so compared to last year’s squad. This should be a heckuva game, and I don’t see the Giants running away with it. Prediction: Redskins.

3. DETROIT @ MINNESOTA (-6.5) Vikes come back to earth (2-2) and come home. Lions on the road for the second straight week and still searching for a “W.” Vikings are giving up only 16 points a game (in the NFC, only the Bears and Falcons are better after 4 games). Their offense is wobbly, though. The Lions scored 34 points in their loss last week. The Vikings should win, but it could be close. Prediction: Lions.

4. TAMPA BAY @ NEW ORLEANS (-6.5) The Bucs (0-3) try to start the season over, this time after a bye week and with rookie Bruce Gradkowski behind center. The Saints (3-1) looked decent in their road loss to Carolina and now come home to their adoring fans. It doesn’t seem possible that the Bucs will win, but I can’t shake the notion that they’re not as bad as all that. Prediction: Bucs.

5. ST. LOUIS (-3) @ GREEN BAY Beware the road favorite. The Rams are 3-1, looking as lucky as they might be good. They’re a dome team, playing here in the cooler air and wide-open grassy spaces of Lambeau Field. The Packers looked bad on Monday night versus Philly, which means they also have a short work week. The plain fact is, I have no faith in the Packers. Prediction: Rams.

6. MIAMI @ NEW ENGLAND (-10) Last year’s Dolphins would have swaggered into Foxboro and said, “Hit me with your best shot.” This year the wheels have fallen off. The defense still has some players, but QB Daunte Culpepper looks pretty consistently lost in that offense. They encounter a Patriots team fresh off a big, bad win in Cincy and looking to build on the strides they’ve made with new personnel. This explains the double-digit spread. It’s tempting to take the ‘Fins and the points, but, until Miami (1-3) proves something/anything, probably not prudent. Prediction: Patriots.

7. BUFFALO @ CHICAGO (-11) Can a team that beat the Seahawks by 31 at home beat the Bills by 12 at home? The Bears are giving up 7.3 points per game, while the Bills have yielded 16.3 PPG. There’s 9 points right there. On the other hand, it’s all about the blue-collar matchups, and then you have the “Jauron factor,” where ex-Bears coach Dick Jauron comes back to Soldier Field leading a 2-2 squad that plays gritty, if not inspired, football. The Bills might hang in there for a while, and quite honestly the bettor enters here at his/her own risk. But I suspect that, along about the third quarter, Bills QB J.P. Losman won’t know what to do with all those black jerseys in his face. Prediction: Bears.

8. CLEVELAND @ CAROLINA (-9) Yet another game with tricky heavy numbers. The Browns escaped Oakland with a narrow victory last week, and now hit the road again, facing a 2-2 Panthers team that would like to forget they lost those early games. Steve Smith is back and playing well, the Carolina running game looks in synch, and the D seems to be settling in. With the Panthers needing to keep pace with Atlanta and New Orleans, maybe 9 points isn’t spread enough. Prediction: Panthers.

9. NY JETS @ JACKSONVILLE (-7) The 2-2 Jags return home to get some peace of mind and back to their winning ways after tough road losses to Indy and Washington. Chad Pennington’s surprisingly good health makes the Jets a surprisingly interesting team, and one not easy to count out. They beat the spread last week against Indy, thank you very much, but they were in New York. A tougher task lies ahead of them here. Pennington can’t do it alone, especially not in this hostile environment. Prediction: Jaguars.

10. KANSAS CITY (-3.5) @ ARIZONA Another road favorite, but at 1-2 the Chiefs are hardly automatic anything. But imagine this: They’ve only given up 32 points, just under 11 a game. The defense faces Cards rookie QB Matt Leinart, making his starting NFL debut. Chiefs backup QB Damon Huard hasn’t been spectacular, but he’s playing error-free ball in place of concussed Trent Green, which can work out if your running back is Larry Johnson. The Chiefs could win, but will they cover? If Leinart makes a mistake or two, it could all fall KC’s way. Arizona, at 1-3, is not looking like the hot young team many predicted, and they’re giving up almost 25 points a game. Prediction: Chiefs.

11. OAKLAND @ SAN FRANCISCO (-3.5) How do you spell “dog”? B-A-Y A-R-E-A. On the one hand, the Niners appear to be the better team. And they’re at home. On the other hand, the Raiders have to win a game sometime. Well, don’t they? (Don’t they??) Even a Joe Nedney field goal only counts for three points, and that +.5 could be hard for the Niners to come by. This game’s as ugly as the two teams’ combined 1-6 record. Crap shoot. Prediction: 49ers.

12. DALLAS @ PHILADELPHIA (-2) An emotion-filled game with plenty of impact on the NFC East. Eagles have built 3-1 record against patsies, but would be 4-0 if they hadn’t given one away to the Giants. The Cowboys definitely look improved, but I can’t see the Eagles laying down for this one, even with the short work week. A very tough call, and the oddsmakers know it. Say they go into overtime and David Akers kicks a field goal? That means the Eagles would win by 3 and cover. Prediction: Eagles.

13. PITTSBURGH @ SAN DIEGO (-3.5) The Steelers are 1-2 and falling behind in the AFC North to Cincy (3-1) and Baltimore (4-0). Their win was the opener against a Miami team that maybe isn’t as good as everyone thought. The Steelers aren’t scoring much, though their defense has been adequate. After the bye week, QB Ben Roethlisberger has had some extra time to get healthier. The Chargers lost a toughie versus the Ravens and home could be a tonic. That Chargers D is good and they have L.T. to carry the offense. Head says Chargers. Instinct says...Chargers. If only I had a crystal ball. Prediction: Chargers.

14. BALTIMORE @ DENVER (-4) Two early challengers for conference supremacy. I watched Ravens QB Steve McNair for years in Nashville. He’s an exciting guy, and last week against San Diego he looked like he had regained some of the speed that injuries were threatening to beat out of him. But I’m not sure Denver is the right setting for his cardiac-arrest approach to victory. This’ll be a whale of a game, and maybe that Ravens defense can win it all by themselves. Fact is, I used to be a major detractor of Broncos QB Jake Plummer. But the numbers last year don’t lie: He only threw 7 interceptions in all of 2005. If the old Jake shows up, then the Ravens will rattle his cage. The Ravens are due to lose, though, so the question is, “By how much?” Oddsmakers messin’ with our heads. Pray for Mile High Magic. Prediction: Broncos.