Meanwhile, in the professional football league that has a working system for crowning a champion ...
While the bickering continues over the college football championship, the NFL playoff painting became a lot more representational last week. Don't you get sick of hearing about how the playoff "picture" is getting "clearer"?
Actually all that really happened was a lot of sorting out, plus the Saints dropping from extremely unlikely wild-card team to no-way-in-the-world wild-card team. The Eagles, Rams, Patriots, Colts and Ravens either won or went a long way toward winning their divisions, and the other likely playoff teams kind of jockeyed around. The Pats and Eagles lead for home-field advantage based on tie-breakers, and the wild-card races are more or less down to three teams going for the spot that the AFC South runner-up won't take, and three teams fighting for the two spots in the NFC.
Is that clear?
Your humble prognosticator went 11-5 in Week 14, a fourth straight winning week and a third straight week with at least 10 out of 16 games correct. At 126-82, I have moved from one game behind to three games ahead of Merrill Hoge into seventh place in my contest with ESPN's eight-man panel of experts, a contest of which they are unaware. I've also pulled to within one game of Mike Golic. I've spent most of the season ahead of Eric Allen, who trails me by four games, though that should be five, according to blogger Ryan Waddell, who says ESPN.com credited Allen with one win too many way back in Week 1.
This kind of thing wouldn't happen if we had a bunch of computers picking the games.
This week's picks, with the winners fully capitalized, as they say in the business pages:
Jacksonville (4-9) at NEW ENGLAND (11-2): The forecast for Sunday is light snow showers, 33 degrees and not much scoring. The Pats are the first team in 65 years to play four straight home games without giving up a touchdown, and they've won those games by an average score of about 12-2. The Jaguars are playing well lately, mostly because of their fifth-ranked defense, but they're not playing well enough to do much about the hottest team in the league, which should stay on track for home field in the AFC. And because I said not much scoring, the final score will be 57-39.
MINNESOTA (8-5) at Chicago (5-8): The Vikings have a chance to win the NFC North and the Bears have a chance to look at their future. I like the idea of the Bears starting rookie quarterback Rex Grossman for the last three games. Coach Dick Jauron made the decision because the Bears were "finally" eliminated from playoff contention, which is kind of funny, but it's an admirably gutsy move because Chicago's playing reasonably well lately, and Jauron might be able to save his job if the Bears finish strong. Grossman turns that into more of a crapshoot, but it's the right move. He's the franchise's future, and three regular-season games ought to be a good gauge of whether he's ready to take over next year. Minnesota would win the division with a victory and a Packers loss in San Diego. The Vikes'll do their part.
Atlanta (3-10) at INDIANAPOLIS (10-3): Did you see Michael Vick Sunday night in his return to the starting lineup, a 20-14 overtime win over the Panthers? Holy cow. That had to be one of the great living up to the hype performances of the decade. Atlanta fired Dan Reeves this week and named defensive coordinator Wade Phillips his interim replacement, so the Falcons are the first of what may be close to a third of the NFL's teams to enter the head coach search for 2004. ESPN analyst Bryan Cox, a former linebacker known for shooting off his mouth, said something on the air this week that I'm surprised hasn't caused a stir. Falcons owner Arthur Blank and vice president Ray Anderson are both on the league's diversity committee, and the conversation had turned to possible minority candidates for the job. Cox, who is black, said he lives in Atlanta and he doesn't know that the area is "ready" for a black head coach of the Falcons. I have no idea if that's an astute comment or a crackpot one, but it's weird that, to my knowledge, nobody has stepped up to refute or agree with it. Anyway, I think Vick, not LeBron James, is the Michael Jordan of the next 10 years or so, but even with him the Falcons don't seem likely to beat the Colts.
San Francisco (6-7) at CINCINNATI (7-6): The Bengals can still win their division if they get help from Baltimore's opponents, and the 49ers can still get a wild-card berth if ... well, if pretty much the whole NFC turns upside-down in the next three weeks. San Francisco's probably the better team, but not on the road.
Detroit (4-9) at KANSAS CITY (11-2) The Chiefs get to look like their problems are behind them, instead of just the other team's running backs.
SEATTLE (8-5) at St. Louis (10-3): My record would be much better if I didn't keep making hunch picks like this, but on the rare occasions when they're right, I feel like a genius. Everything points to the Rams winning this game and continuing the Seahawks' unraveling, especially on the road. But something tells me the Rams are due for a bump in the road, and Seattle's due to stop veering off of it.
Buffalo (6-7) at TENNESSEE (9-4): Steve McNair already had a strained calf when he hurt his other leg last week. X-rays showed he has a sprained ankle and a cracked bone spur. A cracked bone spur? This guy's injuries have injuries. So will he play Sunday? Of course! And he'll win too, snapping a two-game skid and probably a ligament or two.
Pittsburgh (5-8) at N.Y. JETS (5-8): The Steelers are feeling pretty good after pounding the Raiders. They're about to find out how little it means to pound the Raiders these days.
Houston (5-8) at TAMPA BAY (6-7): Two teams going in opposite directions. By that I mean one of them will be going to Houston soon.
Cleveland (4-9) at DENVER (8-5): You know, if Kelly Holcomb hadn't made Aeneas Williams of the Rams his favorite receiver in the last two minutes of the first half Monday, the Browns would probably be coming off a win over one of the hottest teams in football on national TV. Instead, they have a new-old quarterback, Tim Couch, and now they get to have Clinton Portis' cleat-prints all over them.
Baltimore (8-5) at OAKLAND (3-10): What the Heck Pick of the week. How far have the Raiders fallen to be a WTH pick at home against the Ravens? The way the Raiders have played this year they're better suited to fetching sticks and chewing up slippers than to playing football, but maybe Baltimore will have a little let-down after that big win over the Bengals. A big let-down, I guess it would have to be.
DALLAS (8-5) at Washington (5-8): The Cowboys, once 7-2, have lost three out of four, but I don't think they're tanking as much as their results are just better reflecting how good they are, which is pretty good but not 7-2 kinda good. They built up that record against the weaker part of their schedule, and they've lost to three pretty good teams -- New England, Miami and Philadelphia -- in their skid while also beating one, Carolina. Considering that beating the Seahawks at home is not a win over a good team, the Redskins don't have one of those wins since they surprised the Patriots in September.
CAROLINA (8-5) at Arizona (3-10): The Panthers win the South.
GREEN BAY (7-6) at San Diego (3-10): The Packers get to play the Chargers and the Raiders consecutively, but it's awfully hard to go to the West Coast back-to-back weeks. It's tough to pick against Green Bay in either of those games, but not so tough to imagine them going 1-1 and blowing their shot at winning the dreary NFC North race.
N.Y. Giants (4-9) at NEW ORLEANS (6-7): Playing out the string on national TV.
PHILADELPHIA (10-3) at Miami (8-5): Nice schedule for the Dolphins. They go from playing the hottest team in the AFC to the hottest team in the NFC. The Eagles are due for a hiccup, but with Jay Fiedler limping and the calendar reading "December," I think they'll win a good one.
Season record: 126-82
Last week: 11-5
What the Heck Picks: 6-7 (bye last week)
Single words in this story "surrounded" by quotation marks: 8
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