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.