Thursday, January 18, 2007

Victors and Vanquished

All were favorites, but not a single home team covered the spread in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. On top of that, two home teams, the two teams with the best records in the AFC—San Diego and Baltimore—took it on the chin and were beaten outright. The SMA swami took it on the chin too: a 1-3 mark for the weekend, and now 3-5 for the playoffs thus far.

Here’s the dope on the losers, followed by prognostications on the conference championship games. Spreads, as always, courtesy of

The Vanquished

Baltimore Ravens—It wouldn’t be unfair to lay the blame for their loss to the Colts on quarterback Steve McNair. He threw two interceptions, which exacerbated the turnover problem (four in all). One of them was right on the Colts' goal-line, a critical third down play, which, if McNair converts, would’ve changed the complexion of the game. As expected, the team played good defense, and if you’d told the average fan that the Ravens would hold the Colts to no touchdowns in that game, he’d probably assume a Ravens victory. But the Ravens just never found themselves. Now they head into the offseason with an impressive but ultimately disappointing 13-4 record and a few questions that need answering.

San Diego Chargers—They beat the Patriots in three critical stats that usually tell a happier tale: time of possession, third-down conversions and first downs. Armed with home-field advantage and the greatest player in the league (LT), the Chargers still lost a game they could’ve, and maybe should’ve, won. Call it the Marty Factor, call it a choke—whatever it was, it wasn’t pretty.

Philadelphia Eagles—The Eagles reached the end of the line despite playing a good ballgame. The Saints outlasted ‘em, and it’s not untypical for teams that’ve played a wild-card round, and then have to travel, to wilt against a rested, higher-seeded team. Hats off to Jeff Garcia, for resurrecting his career with such impressive style. He should be starting somewhere, but maybe, soon to be 37, he’ll be content to back-up Donavan McNabb in’07.

Seattle Seahawks—Ditto for the Seahawks, coming off a tough wild-card-round victory and then having to hit the road. The Bears were impressive only in fits and starts, and they might’ve been beaten if the ‘Hawks had had more gas in their tank (or fewer injuries in their secondary). They got the game into overtime but it just wasn’t to be. There’s still a lot of talent on that team, and they should be back.

The Victors

AFC Championship

New England Patriots (14-4) @ Indianapolis Colts (14-4)
Sunday, January 21, 6:30 p.m. EST, CBS

Like it or not—for example, if you live in San Diego or Baltimore—this is the matchup that can’t be ignored by anyone. The two finest pro quarterbacks in the world face off with a Super Bowl berth on the line. The Patriots’ Tom Brady is an old hand at big games, with a 12-1 postseason record and three Super Bowl rings to attest to his poise, intelligence, mental toughness and a throwing arm that is always underrated but nevertheless gets the job done. That description sounds eerily like Joe Montana, and if Brady wins this game, he will join Montana (4-0), Terry Bradshaw (4-0) and Jim Kelly (0-4) as the only QBs to ever lead their team to four Super Bowls. (John Elway, 2-3, has the all-time mark, making it to five with the Broncos.) The Pats dodged a bullet against the Chargers: they didn’t seem to be at the top of their game, but they managed a victory. The Pats have played the Colts fours years in a row now. In 2003 and 2004, they defeated Indy in playoff games in Boston. In 2005 and 2006, they lost to the Colts in regular season games, also in Boston. Now they invade the Colts’ home (artificial) turf, where the hosts are 9-0 this year, including a January 6 wild-card playoff victory over Kansas City. The Colts’ defense has been the biggest surprise of the postseason, yielding only 14 points in two games. Meanwhile, QB Peyton Manning has been less than his usual spectacular self as an aerial showman, but he’s shown restraint and efficiency in taking what his opponents have given him and churning out workmanlike positive results. It’s damn nigh impossible to pick against the Patriots, because they have Brady, battle-hardened playoff experience and a head coach, Belichick, who seems to thrive on big-game pressure. Both Manning and his head coach, Tony Dungy, are looking to reverse their fortunes and both finally make it to Super Bowl Land. The running attacks are a critical factor here, because if only one steps up big-time, the other team will be forced to throw more, which opens up the margin for errors and turnovers. Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney are capable of providing a dominant force for New England, but they haven’t really shown it lately. Meanwhile, the Colts’ run D has been superb. Rookie Joseph Addai is the Colts’ main runner. He’s served as a solid complement to Manning, but the team got monster yards out of Dominic Rhodes last week versus Baltimore. Rhodes, a fifth-year man out of little Midwestern Texas State, is an unsung hero on this team, and people tend to forget that he gained over 1,000 yards in 2001 (4.7 avg.), filling in for an injured Edgerrin James. Adam Vinatieri is the Colts’ placekicker, after having spent the first 10 years of his career with the Patriots and winning huge games for them with his talented toe. That’s yet another sidebar story in a game fraught with intrigue and generating high universal interest. This could be the Colts’ year.

Prediction: Colts 23, Patriots 17
ATS: Colts (-3)

NFC Championship

New Orleans Saints (11-6) @ Chicago Bears (14-3)
Sunday, January 21, 3 p.m. EST, FOX

Few people recall that the Bears met the Saints one time before in the playoffs. It was in the wild-card round following the 1990 season and the Bears won 16-6. With last week’s victory over Philadelphia, the Saints improved their career playoff record to an unimpressive 2-5. This game means a chance to exorcise 40 years of frustration, and to put the capper on a magical and quite unexpected year of success. Saints quarterback Drew Brees has been a huge factor in the team’s good fortunes: he knows how to play big, and, for what it’s worth, he’s got more overall experience than Bears counterpart Rex Grossman. Brees brings consistency, while Grossman brings a case of panic attack. It might be wrong to assume that Grossman won’t perform, because he’s certainly done well enough to move the Bears this far. But if one guy freaks, it’s most likely to be Grossman, and he’ll have a lot of pressure on him from the home crowd, which doesn’t like the nervous stomach activity that his play brings. The Bears’ running-back tandem of Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson is a good one, but without a decent passing attack to complement them, they can become mere plodders. For the Saints, it’s thunder and lightning, with shifty speedster rookie Reggie Bush alternating with tough-guy Deuce McAllister, who’s proved that he’s back all the way from serious knee surgery in 2005. The old saw is that defense wins playoff games. That would swing this game in the Bears’ favor based on their early season performance. But lately they have looked vulnerable. They lost starters Mike Brown and Tommie Harris to injury, and they’ve yielded 129 points in their past five games. That’s not shutdown football. Perhaps they’ve been holding back, since they had their division and home-field playoff advantage sewed up pretty early. Yet the Saints have real weapons, including a quarterback who can hang tough and make pinpoint throws. Even the Bears’ presumed advantage on special teams, with all-world kick returner Devin Hester, is somewhat cancelled out by the presence of Bush, who’s been known to do his own damage in the return game. As for the Saints’ defense, it doesn’t have marquee names; instead, it’s a collection of hard-nosed overachievers, who proved able to withstand a gutty Eagles team led by the excellent Jeff Garcia. The Bears are at home, and that ought to count for something, but these Saints don’t look like pansies. They seem to be the better team right now.

Prediction: Saints 20, Bears 17
ATS: Saints (+2.5)

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Wild Cards Tank, Interesting Matchups Await in Divisional Playoffs

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. This year’s wild-card entries in the NFL playoffs were by and large teams that struggled just to get into the postseason. So when all four lost last weekend, by hook and by crook, perhaps justice was done. Getting to the Super Bowl is a survival-of-the-fittest proposition, and it’s a secure feeling knowing that the very best teams have advanced.

As for the losers, we’ll be brief:

Kansas City Chiefs—Peyton Manning was off for the Colts, but the Chiefs couldn’t take advantage of the situation. Instead, their running game was gridlocked, they didn’t use the passing game effectively, and playing decent defense only became painful to watch as the Colts’ offense—even with Manning throwing three interceptions—eventually wore them out. Mediocrity has no place in the postseason. Sayonara, Chiefs.

Dallas Cowboys—Tony Romo gets the rest of his life to ponder mishandling a field goal snap that probably would have won his team the game against the Seahawks. Both teams ran hot and cold, but, as predicted here, it was a fair matchup and a damn exciting game. I still think the Cowboys are the better team, but they didn’t exactly blow the ‘Hawks away. And, as we all know, mistakes’ll kill ya.

New York Jets—They hung in there for a good while, and when it was 23-16, they still had a fourth-quarter shot at the Patriots. What can we say? Tom Brady may not have all the theatrics of Peyton Manning, but he’s a great quarterback. If playoff performance is how we gauge the great ones, Brady remains the king of contemporary pro football. The Jets simply weren’t good enough.

New York Giants—It went down to the wire against the Eagles, and the Giants aren’t a bad team. But they end the year at 8-9, and that’s nothing to crow about. Now they need to go find a running back to replace the retired Tiki Barber. And the verdict’s still out on Eli Manning. They probably don’t need that many spare parts to get their engine running again at full throttle, but it remains to be seen if Tom Coughlin is the guy to advance their program.

We were 2-2 against the spread on Wild Card Weekend, with the Colts and Patriots looking stronger than anticipated. The divisional matchups look very tough to predict, but the home teams have to like their situations. Straight-up predicted scores are followed by the predicted winner ATS.

Spreads courtesy of


Indianapolis Colts (13-4) @ Baltimore Ravens (13-3)
Saturday, January 13, 4:30 p.m. EST, CBS

Maybe it’s good for Indy that Peyton Manning got a mediocre game out of his system against the Chiefs. He’s going to need all he can muster against the Ravens’ defense, which isn’t all Ray Lewis anymore. Now there’s Adalius Thomas and Terrell Suggs to worry about, both young turks with killer instincts. Of course, Lewis is still hanging around, and playing good football. The Ravens’ offense isn’t a terror, but it’s consistent and efficient enough to grind out yardage and make scoring plays when it counts. This is a huge test for Steve McNair, who brought his talent and experience to Baltimore to lead them to the playoffs. He’s done just that, but he’s got to avoid his occasional penchant for the inopportune interception and also get at least 70-80 yards out of on-again/off-again RB Jamal Lewis. Will the Colts’ defense step up again as it did versus the Chiefs’ running game? That’s a huge factor here. This one could go any number of ways. If the Ravens’ D is on its game but its O is not, it might be a very low-scoring affair. If Manning is hot but the Colts’ D reverts to form, scoring could be rampant. This is the playoffs, where defense always seems to count the most. Look for the Ravens to be aggressive and physically punishing, and look for that to take its toll.

Prediction: Ravens 20, Colts 17
ATS: Colts (+4)

New England Patriots (13-4) @ San Diego Chargers (14-2)
Sunday, January 14, 4:30 p.m. EST, CBS

It’s sure hard not to favor the Patriots. They’re getting to be the New York Yankees of pro football: You can’t help but respect them, but you also want to see them lose because they’re so formidable. They’re going to have to confront the Chargers’ defense here, which, when it wants to turn it on, can be overwhelming. The Jets, for all their effort last week versus the Pats, simply are not the Chargers when it comes to pressuring the quarterback, and Tom Brady will have to be at his sharpest for his team to have a chance. But probably the biggest consideration in this game is the performance of Chargers QB Philip Rivers. He’s had a very productive year and clearly has high-caliber skills. But he’s also never been in a playoff game before. If his running back, LaDainian Tomlinson, breaks out big-time, maybe Rivers won’t have to think so much, but you can bet that Pats coach Bill Belichick is scheming with that very fact in mind. Shutting down LT and pressuring Rivers will be a mighty feat to pull off. Then there’s the Marty Factor. Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer has a history of jinx in the NFL playoffs. His career regular season coaching record is 200-126-1; yet he’s only 5-12 in the postseason, including some gut-wrenching losses back when he coached the Cleveland Browns in the ‘80s. More recently, following the 2004 season, he lost a home playoff game to the Jets. He’s the Robert E. Lee of his profession: a great leader, but greater glory eludes him. Now he faces Belichick, who I suppose is Ulysses S. Grant—the unlikable winner type. This should be a terrific game. Maybe LT can win it all by himself, and Marty can relax. That seems unlikely, though. (Factoid of interest: Chargers are undefeated at home in 2006.)

Prediction: Chargers 20, Patriots 14
ATS: Chargers (-5)


Philadelphia Eagles (11-6) @ New Orleans Saints (10-6)
Saturday, January 13, 8 p.m. EST, FOX

The #3-seeded Eagles kinda get screwed here: They played a wild-card game on Sunday, but now play on Saturday, losing one day of preparation. (Meanwhile, the NFC’s #4 seed, the Seahawks, who played their game on Saturday, get an extra day on their schedule, since they play the #1-seeded Bears in Chicago on Sunday.) Plus the Eagles have to travel to New Orleans, where they lost in the regular season, 27-24, back in Week 6 when they had Donovan McNabb healthy. It all bodes negatively for feisty Philly, who also lost valuable DB Lito Sheppard to injury against the Giants. Can Jeff Garcia continue the magic? Does Brian Westbrook have another killer game in his bruised-up frame? History is not on the Eagles’ side. The Saints are rested, have some youth in Reggie Bush, and their QB, Drew Brees, has been exceptional all year long. It’s an upset if Philly wins, though not an impossible task. But somehow it seems like their drive to the Super Bowl, fueled mostly by character and heart, ends here.

Prediction: Saints 24, Eagles 16
ATS: Saints (-4.5)

Seattle Seahawks (10-7) at Chicago Bears (13-3)
Sunday, January 14, 1 p.m. EST, FOX

More than talent, the Seahawks seem to have luck. That might help them against the Bears, who destroyed them 37-6 in Soldier Field in Week 4. Otherwise, the Bears have built an impressive record against decidedly unimpressive competition. They only played two teams this year who finished above .500: the Jets (whom they beat 10-0) and the Patriots (to whom they lost, 17-13). The Bears can be had, without question, but are the Seahawks the team to do it? Yes, if Bears QB Rex Grossman plays so badly that he gives them the game. No, if Grossman plays fairly well enough, and the Bears’ defense and special teams show up like they’re capable of doing. Seattle was lucky to get past the Cowboys last week, but going into Chicago with a banged-up secondary, and with QB Matt Hasselbeck and RB Shaun Alexander still not performing up to expectations, they’ve got a steep hill to climb. If Bears RB Thomas Jones put forth an aggressive blue-collar effort and the Bears’ D swarms to the ball, the rest should take care of itself. Keep your eyes on Bears return man Devin Hester. Chicago hasn’t seen his like since Gale Sayers.

Prediction: Bears 24, Seahawks 13
ATS: Bears (-8.5)

Friday, January 05, 2007

An African American Tragedy

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”—Hamlet. ACT I, Scene 4.

The body of Darrent Williams will be publically viewed tonight in Fort Worth, the hometown of the Denver Broncos player who was gunned down in Denver early on New Year’s Day. Williams’ funeral will be held January 6 at Great Commission Baptist Church.

After a few days’ worth of reflection, it’s no easier to understand why this horrible crime took place. The police have in their possession an abandoned SUV, which may be the vehicle from which the crime was committed. The 1998 Chevrolet Tahoe in custody is reportedly registered to a 28-year-old man who is currently in jail on drug and attempted murder charges, the latter stemming from the shooting death of a woman who was scheduled to testify against him in December.

If the link to thugs and thuggery pans out, then it’s time once again to examine this cancer in American society.

While Denver Crime Stoppers offers a cash reward of $2,000 for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the Williams case, Denver’s Rev. Leon Kelly rightfully assesses the wider situation. Said Kelly, who works to help Denver-area youth escape gangs and drugs, "You don't want the bad guys to win, but if you do the right thing, what do you get? Two thousand dollars? That's not even enough to take care of your funeral."

Rev. Kelly might as well be the late Johnnie Cochran. To paraphrase, "If you snitch, you end up in a ditch."

The Williams slaying was particularly ugly and presumably beyond senseless. Now it’s time for the gloves to come off, for media and political leaders everywhere to say “Enough!” and to have the courage to fearlessly assess this evil in the African American community.

Crimes of this nature rarely happen anywhere except among young black citizens, particularly those surrounding athletes or entertainers. Why is that? The Williams slaying smacked of a mob hit in Al Capone’s Chicago of the 1920s. America launched a war on crime back in those days. Was it successful? Hard to say. The Mob remained with us, morphed into pseudo-legitimacy with its business (they used to call them “rackets”), but even today occasionally makes headlines with its internecine murders. But in general, the Mob tends to stick to its own, and the average citizen makes the fair assessment that if you’re involved somehow with syndicate folks then you are most likely reaping what you sow.

The Williams death, as far as we know, isn’t that kind of thing, though its assassin-like brutality isn’t far removed from the harshness of the murder of Malcolm X. What then is it all about? While we ponder that, let’s also be amazed at the lack of public outcry from black leaders with status as national figures. Where is Jesse Jackson? Where is Barack Obama? Where is Charles Rangel? No doubt they are as outraged as the rest of us, yet they appear silent on the causes that underlie such a heinous act. If they have spoken up, the evidence is thin.

After more than 40 years of civil rights legislation, Affirmative Action, and the forward-marching assimilation of African Americans into the American social, economic and political ballgames, we are experiencing something in the modern era that no black American of the Jim Crow era ever dreamed of: black gangs and thuggery turned inward against its own kind. The situation is made additionally frightening when we ponder that the “gangsta” culture—Do they use that word in its “creative” spelling because it sounds less threatening?—has been made increasingly mobile through the use of modern communication devices and big, fast cars. Then there are the guns. And the drugs.

Pathetically, that culture has also been tacitly legitimized, in particular through the rise of rap music.

But why, we want to know, do young black men behave like this now, when they never behaved like this when blacks were supposedly suffering blatant oppression from the society at large? A mind is indeed a terrible thing to waste. So why does it seem like so many of them are infected with nth-degree immorality and criminal behavior? In the days of the 1960s inner-city riots, the mayhem was ascribed sociologically to poverty and lack of opportunity. Nowadays the mayhem is carried out with the assistance of cell phones and expensive SUVs, while the pathology goes unidentified, or worse, ignored.

Darrent Williams wasn’t supposed to die when he did. The immediate conclusion is that he was killed in an act of underworld treachery fueled by pure evil. But what is the underlying cause? Jealousy? That he had made it to the glory and big paydays of an NFL career and could afford to ride around on New Year’s Eve in the largest and longest Hummer limousine known to man? Unless, or until, we learn that Williams was involved in a drug deal gone bad, that is all we can conclude. There’s been talk of an “altercation” at the party Williams had attended. What could it possibly have been about, to end in murder?

It’s tragically, tragically sad. Not only for Williams’ family and the two children he left behind, but for the entire African American population, who probably had more peace within their own communities in the racially unenlightened United States of the early 1950s than they have in progressive 2006 when their young people go out for a night on the town.

Maybe evil just happens. Maybe people just go crazy. But it’s hard to avoid thinking that the murder of Darrent Williams signals something scandalously wrong in black America, where gangsterism, guns, drugs, hostile music, and the “coolness” of being a thug motivate far too many of its youth.

It’s time for answers, but don’t hold your breath.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Wild Weekend, Wild Finish, and Wild Cards

The NFL’s wild regular-season-ending weekend brought a few on-field surprises but also a bounty of ATS (against the spread) picks that clicked for the SMA swami. Chronic underachievers came through for us in fine style, including the Lions (over the Cowboys), the Steelers (over the Bengals), the Panthers (over the Saints), the 49ers (over the Broncos), the Packers (over the Bears), the Dolphins (over the Colts) and even the Falcons (over the Eagles). Proving that pride matters, most of these teams won outright, with the exception of the Fins and the Falcons, who both lost on the scoreboard but beat the spread (God love ‘em!), leaving us with a season high 11-5 record in all games, and a concluding regular season mark of 116-102-6.

Like the teams we follow so religiously, we’re looking at positive trends to build on for next season. The news is definitely good: In the last seven weeks of the season, our record ATS was 64-47-1, and we only dropped below .500 once during that time. The analysis was never in doubt, but the swami’s method of playing the spreads clearly has needed tweaking. With the upsurge in the latter portion of the season, we may have found an answer to more reliable prognosticating, but now we’ll need a full season to test it out. At the moment, we’re feeling like the Tennessee Titans—hopeful, and possibly with the right man behind center.

A note for the locals: Who ever guessed that the one piece of the Titans’ playoff puzzle that wouldn’t work out was the one they could control themselves? With Denver, Cincy and Jacksonville falling on Sunday, the Titans were poised to take that wild-card berth. Sadly, Tom Brady and the Patriots cut their hearts out, and we learned clearly that Vince Young still has a lot to learn about prime-time quarterbacking. Still, it was a fantastically surprising year, Young is obviously a huge talent, and the team has legit hope for the postseason in ‘07.

Now it’s on to the wild-card round of the playoffs, featuring upstarts like the Jets and the Chiefs. Home-field advantage doesn’t seem to matter like it used to, but it still looks like a strong fact of life in the first round. This time around you get the pick straight-up with a projected score followed by the winner ATS.

Spreads courtesy of


Kansas City Chiefs (9-7) @ Indianapolis Colts (12-4)
Saturday, Jan. 6, 4:30 p.m. EST on NBC

Here’s one I don’t understand: If the Colts are a higher seed than the Patriots, why do they play on Saturday with one less day of rest? (It works out properly in the NFC, where the #4 seed Seahawks play Saturday and the #3 seed Eagles play Sunday.) Anyway, the Colts are undefeated at home, and they’ll take every perk they can get. Their vulnerable run defense will be sorely tested by KC running back Larry Johnson (1,789 yards), and QB Trent Green has some capable receivers, like Eddie Kennison and Tony Gonzalez, not to mention Johnson out of the backfield. The Chiefs’ defense has only performed really well against teams with weak offenses, and even at that they gave up 31 points to Cleveland in Week 13. It looks like a potential field day for Peyton Manning & Co., but it’s important to note that the Colts went 3-4 to close the season, including a loss to Houston. Fact is, the Indy offense has been subpar compared to recent previous seasons, and in truth this team can be had. KC’s probably not the team that will do it, though. Is this the first time that two African American coaches, Herm Edwards and Tony Dungy, have ever opposed each other in a wild-card game? (Factoid of interest: Besides the Ravens, the Chiefs are the only other team to defeat the Chargers this year.)

Prediction: Colts 30, Chiefs 24
ATS: Chiefs (+6.5)

NY Jets (10-6) @ New England Patriots (12-4)
Sunday, Jan. 7, 1 p.m. EST on CBS

Either the Jets put up the fight of their young life under rookie head coach Eric Mangini—and lose a close one—or the chickens come home to roost and they lose in a rout. Chad Pennington is good enough to keep the New Yorkers close, but the other Jets skill-position players tend to underwhelm, though once in a while WR Laveranues Coles comes up big. The running game is still iffy. All that said, there’s no doubting that Mangini has this team playing with passion, and if they keep it close, anything’s possible. The Patriots are playing good, consistent football. They were 6-2 in each half of the season, so they can be expected to bring their “A” game. (One can only assume that their 21-0 Week 14 loss to the Dolphins was a blip on the radar screen.) Plus, with all the focus on Tom Brady and his supposedly mediocre receiving corps, don’t be surprised to see RBs Laurence Maroney and Corey Dillon pounding out plenty of yards on the ground. Pats will miss DB Rodney Harrison, injured against Tennessee last week. The thing about the Patriots is: their impending demise has been forecast with sound logic, but they apparently didn’t get the message. They certainly lead the league in determination, and Brady can never be underestimated.

Prediction: Patriots 17, Jets 13
ATS: Jets (+8.5)


Dallas Cowboys (9-7) @ Seattle Seahawks (9-7)
Saturday, Jan. 6, 8 p.m. EST on NBC

This is the Two-Veteran-Super-Bowl-Winning-Coaches-Square-Off Bowl. Both Bill Parcells and Mike Holmgren helm mystery teams. The Cowboys dropped three of their final four games, and the ‘Hawks haven’t been right all year. But here they both are in the playoffs, and it should be a pretty good game. The Seahawks were banged up a lot early, and just when they got QB Matt Hasselbeck and RB Shaun Alexander back into the lineup, down went three of their starting DBs. Which would make them ripe for the picking for Dallas QB Tony Romo and his receiving corps—depending on if they all show up. The Cowboys more recently have looked like a team without a mission, but they still put a lot of talent on the field. If they can get the personality stuff behind them, and Romo chips in with a good performance, they might put enough points on the board. RBs Julius Jones and Marion Barber are more than capable of first-rate production, and say what you will about him, but WR Terrell Owens put up serious numbers (85 catches, 1180 yards, 13 TDs). It could be that the Cowboys have given up on team play, but they certainly have the potential to win this game.

Prediction: Cowboys 24, Seahawks 17
ATS: Cowboys (+3)

NY Giants (8-8) @ Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)
Sunday, Jan. 7, 4:30 p.m. EST on FOX

If Eli Manning weren’t so unpredictable, the Giants might merit a nod here. But they’ve still got Tiki Barber, who destroyed the Redskins last Saturday night with 234 yards on the ground. The Giants look a lot like the Cowboys: talented but tainted. Their coach, Tom Coughlin, is definitely in danger of losing his job, and before the victory over Washington, the team had lost six of seven. If they pull it together and make a major effort, they’ll be fending off an Eagles squad that has won five in a row and can make rightful claim to momentum in the NFC. Philly QB Jeff Garcia has been superior since taking over for injured Donavan McNabb, efficiently running a controlled offense and making a fair crew of receivers look even better. Brian Westbrook is the only real runner the team has, but he’s been relentlessly efficient, especially out of the backfield catching passes. The Eagles defense has been consistent but rarely exceptional. Based on the way they’ve been playing, the Eagles are the clear favorite. Yet closer scrutiny of their schedule reveals a lack of important wins outside their division. If the Giants of the first half of the year show up, this could be a real dogfight.

Prediction: Eagles 23, Giants 20
ATS: Giants (+6.5)