OK, I'm sloooowly taking my fingers out of my ears. Has everyone stopped talking yet about Saints receiver Joe Horn pretending to make a cellphone call after scoring a touchdown last week?
I believe that as a nation we should make an effort to get over that. Sure, it was uncalled-for, unsporting and boorish. Even worse, it was unfunny, unoriginal and weak. If you're going to be an unsportsmanlike boob, you should at least have the courtesy to be funny or, failing that, mildly clever. Bengals receiver Chad Johnson nearly qualified with his sign that said, "Dear NFL: Please don't fine me again." Almost.
The NFL fined Horn $30,000 and Johnson $10,000 and Western civilization will survive. Spontaneous celebrations are a wonderful thing, while contrived antics like last weekend's are merely tiresome. But they hardly "detract from the game," as the bluenoses are fond of saying. Teams playing with as little effort as the Giants showed against the Saints: That detracts from the game. Some clown waving a cellphone around? Let's move on.
There are important things to talk about as the NFL heads into the last two weeks of the regular season, such as who's going to make the playoffs (Minnesota? Green Bay? Cincinnati? Denver?), what coaches are going to get fired (Callahan? Wannstedt? Cowher? Jauron? McGinnis? Schottenheimer? Etc.?), and what I want for Christmas ("GOAT: A Tribute to Muhammad Ali," $3,000 at better booksellers).
I'm coming off my best prognosticating outing of the season, going 14-2 last week, including yet another win with my What the Heck Pick of the week, Raiders over Ravens. I'm now 7-7 and threatening to have a winning record in games in which I've picked the team I actually think is going to lose as the winner, just for the heck of it. I'm not sure what this says about my football expertise, but whatever it says, it can't be good.
One great thing about the last two weeks of the season, not to mention the first two weeks of the playoffs, is that games are played on Saturday. What a refreshing contrast to the mostly predictable fare offered on most autumn Saturdays, when the majority of nationally televised games post the fascinating question, "Will there be a huge upset?"
ESPN.com has an eight-man panel of experts predicting the winner of every NFL game, and they've combined to pick accurately 64.2 percent of the time. Only Ron Jaworski, at 69.2 percent, has pegged the winner two-thirds of the time. Imagine what the success rate of experts would be if they were picking winners in a sport where -- for most nationally prominent teams -- calling a 9-3 record "mediocre," as the powers at Nebraska did recently, isn't ridiculous. I'm thinking 85 percent correct would be common.
Big-time college football has it all over the NFL for stadium atmosphere, but in every other way, Saturday football is about to get a whole lot better.
This week's picks, with winners in jaunty caps. The first three games will be played on Saturday:
Atlanta (3-11) at TAMPA BAY (7-7): The Bucs, left for dead long ago by most, including me, can actually still make the playoffs by winning their last two games and getting a heaping helping of help. They are on a two-game winning streak for the first time this year, and they'll make it three straight unless Michael Vick does something superhuman -- and gets a helping of help himself.
KANSAS CITY (12-2) at Minnesota (8-6): The Vikings, once 6-0, are fighting for their playoff lives while the Chiefs are merely jockeying for seeding. That, the home field and the Chiefs' porous run defense favor the Vikes. Everything else favors the Chiefs.
NEW ENGLAND (12-2) at N.Y. Jets (6-8): Will the Patriots remember how to play when it's not snowing? Yes.
New Orleans (7-7) at JACKSONVILLE (4-10): Unfortunately for the Saints' ultraslim playoff hopes, the Jaguars are by far the best 4-10 team in football. Joe Horn: Call your travel agent. January looks wide open.
Washington (5-9) at CHICAGO (6-8): Not counting two What the Heck Picks, this is only the second time I've taken the Bears to win. The other time, they beat the Cardinals 28-3.
Baltimore (8-6) at CLEVELAND (4-10): The Browns have been playing just well enough to lose the last two weeks. I think their four-game skid will come to an end here, a boon to their fellow Ohioans the Bengals...
Cincinnati (8-6) at ST. LOUIS (11-3): ... who won't capitalize.
Miami (8-6) at BUFFALO (6-8): So I watched that Miami-Philadelphia Eagles game Monday night, and what I'm wondering is whether the Dolphins know it's tackle football.
TENNESSEE (10-4) at Houston (5-9): The Titans' brilliant quarterback is hurt, out for the season, and they may have to go to the backup. Oh no! How can they win without Billy Volek?
DETROIT (4-10) at Carolina (9-5): What the Heck Pick of the week, and if this isn't a What the Heck game, one where the underdog is the underest of dogs, then I don't know what is. The Lions have lost 23 games in a row on the road. You've probably heard about that, but have you really thought about it? I mean, this is the NFL, where any given team yadda yadda any given Sunday, where parity rules, where teams routinely go from below .500 to the Super Bowl in one year. The Bills, Jets, Browns, Chargers, Giants and Falcons, last-place teams all, have each won at least two road games this year. And the Lions have gone 23 straight, one game short of three seasons, without a road win. The last time they won a road game, chads were being counted in Florida. Twenty-three straight road losses in the NFL is an achievement in futility that I'm not sure is being properly appreciated.
N.Y. Giants (4-10) at DALLAS (9-5): This would have been a good WTH candidate too. You know, maybe the Giants will be inspired by the firing of Jim Fassell, who's sticking around to coach the last two games. Maybe the Cowboys, leading in the wild-card race, will kick one away. Uh, maybe a big monster will come and eat Bill Parcells and the Cowboys will be all confused and stuff.
San Diego (3-11) at PITTSBURGH (5-9): A print ad for a certain very large computer company is item No. 43,762 in a file I keep called "Why the world needs copy editors." The ad features a black-and-white picture of Franco Harris running with the ball. The copy suggests the photo is from his famous "Immaculate Reception" against the Raiders in the 1972 playoffs, and there's no reason to believe it isn't. The headline says, "Before the Miracle on Ice/ There was the Miracle on Grass." Except that game, like all other games at Three Rivers Stadium, was played on artificial turf, not grass. Would you trust your data to a company whose attention to detail is that poor?
San Francisco (6-8) at PHILADELPHIA (11-3): The 49ers are 0-7 on the road, which would be a stunning stat in a world that didn't include the Lions. The Eagles haven't lost since Frankie Valli was in diapers. Well, not since Oct. 12 anyway. This would have been yet another great WTH pick.
Arizona (3-11) at SEATTLE (8-6): Am I the only one who loves to look at the standings after Week 15? Look at these records: 3-11, 5-9, 8-6. And how about: 11-3. That's what season records looked like when I was a kid and the NFL season was only 14 games. That changed in 1978, but somehow that 14-game season is still in my hard wiring or something. It resonates with me. When I see any record from any sport that adds up to 14 games -- a fighter or a basketball team, say, at 12-2 -- my first flash thought is, "That's a football record." I don't think that when I see the record of a team after 16 games. I'm not nostalgic for a 14-game season. In fact I wouldn't mind if the NFL season were 18 games long. It's just funny how that 14-game schedule, which lasted all of 17 years, roughly half of which I witnessed, feels so much more comfortable to me than the 16-game slate that's in its 26th season. This is by far the longest that the NFL schedule has stayed the same length, by the way. And don't get me started on exotic, pre-overtime-era records like 5-6-3. Oh, baby! Incidentally, Seattle's pretty good at home, so this is a win.
Denver (9-5) at INDIANAPOLIS (11-3): A great Sunday night game to make up for the Monday night woofer. If the seedings stay the same, these teams would meet again in two weeks for a playoff game under the same roof. The Broncos escaped with their lives at home last week against Cleveland, and now they're on the road against Peyton Manning and a Colts team that seems to really be clicking. Also, Clinton Portis is hurting. Tall order.
GREEN BAY (8-6) at Oakland (4-10): If the Raiders club that beat the Ravens last week shows up, this might be a good game, but those Raiders had kept themselves scarce in losing three in a row and eight of nine before Sunday. The Packers might just win the NFC North because, apparently, someone has to.
Season record: 140-84
Last week: 14-2
What the Heck Picks: 7-7
Position occupied by "GOAT: A Tribute to Muhammad Ali" on the all-time list of stupid titles for comically expensive books: 1
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