In today's NFL, it takes real effort to pick a 3-0 team to win its fourth game, or an 0-3 team to lose again. This is the week I start thinking teams are going to win or lose just because of their record.
Three teams enter the week 3-0, not counting the idle Seahawks. Even if the Jaguars, Falcons and Eagles were playing the Central High six-man team, I'd be looking at their games and thinking, "They're not going to go 4-0, are they? Not in the NFL, where it's so hard to put together a winning streak, where it's not that uncommon for a bottom team to jump up and beat a top. Four in a row out of the gate?"
I'd be thinking this fully aware that Tuesday marked the one-year anniversary of the last time the New England Patriots lost a game that counted.
The same goes for 0-3 teams, which means the Chiefs, Dolphins, Cardinals, 49ers and Buccaneers. They're not going to lose their first four, are they? I don't know what it is about four in a row that makes me think this way.
Because the problem is, 3-0 teams win quite a bit, since they tend to be pretty good, and 0-3 teams lose pretty often for the exact opposite reason. Over the last three seasons, teams that started 3-0 have gone a combined 8-7 in their fourth games. Last year they went 5-1. Teams that started 0-3 have gone a combined 6-10 since 2001.
What we have here is a way of looking at the NFL that is intricate, precise, nuanced, and almost totally worthless. But that won't stop me from looking at the 3-0 Falcons and going, "The Falcons? 4-0? Ya think?" -- an approach that figures to be successful about as often as flipping a coin.
Speaking of which, I mentioned the other day that in my pool o' NFL game-picking experts -- which I still lead, incidentally -- I had Ron Jaworski of ESPN at 26-20 after three weeks, but ESPN.com listed him at 25-21. A source at the Web site confirms that 25-21 is the correct count for the champion of last year's pool, meaning that he's a mere one game ahead of a certain 1-year-old whom I've been mentioning too much lately, who picks game by flipping a coin.
Worthless analytical tools at the ready, we dive in to Week 4, with predicted winners in capital letters.
Cincinnati (1-2) at PITTSBURGH (2-1): The Bengals have been getting outplayed up front, which is where the Steelers are strong, especially on defense. If rookie Ben Roethlisberger, making his first start on dry land, can avoid being forced into big-play mistakes by what figures to be frequent blitzing, the Steelers should be looking at 3-1, with crippled Cleveland on the schedule next week.
INDIANAPOLIS (2-1) at Jacksonville (3-0): The Colts are amazing to watch, but they're beatable. If you can disrupt their passing game the way the Patriots do, and you have an offense that can exploit their weak defense, especially their secondary, you've got a good chance. I'm not saying it's easy, but it's not impossible or anything. The Jags should be able to run on Indy with Fred Taylor, but the way Byron Leftwich has been playing, it's not likely they'll be able to make hay in the air. And anyway they're not going to stop the red-hot Peyton Manning, so there goes one 3-0 team.
NEW ENGLAND (2-0) at Buffalo (0-2): Kids, ask your parents. The Patriots actually used to lose once in a while. On Sept. 28, 2003, they lost to the Redskins 20-17. At that point, the Patriots were 2-2 and the Redskins, coached by that irrepressible dynamo Steve Spurrier, were 3-1 and on their way. Oh, and the Bills were just two weeks removed from being 2-0, on the cover of Sports Illustrated and basking in Super Bowl buzz. There's a lesson in here somewhere about drawing conclusions from the first four weeks of the season but I'll be damned if I can figure out what it is. Maybe Drew Bledsoe can think about it while he's waiting for Patriots linemen to climb off of him after another sack on the way to consecutive win No. 18 for the Pats, counting playoffs.
N.Y. Giants (2-1) at GREEN BAY (1-2): I have to say I was wrong about Kurt Warner. I thought he was completely finished, but he's put together two nice games in a row. Not Kurt Warner MVP-years games, but solid ones, and the Giants, showing up five minutes early to meetings and all that, are off to a better start than most anyone expected. The Packers, who blitzed Manning like crazy last week with absolutely no success, should do better with a similar strategy against Warner. That and a return to the running game will get them back to .500.
OAKLAND (2-1) at Houston (1-2): Kerry Collins replaces the injured Rich Gannon at quarterback for the Raiders, which is probably a good thing. The Texans got a big win at Kansas City last week, but they're still the kind of team the Raiders simply have to beat if they want any chance at competing for a playoff spot. So far so good with wins over the Bills and Bucs, but if they don't take this one, which I think they will, they'll be looking at 2-4 after the Colts and Broncos get through with them.
PHILADELPHIA (3-0) at Chicago (1-2): The Eagles took a big hit when John Ritchie went out for the year with a knee injury. The big fullback is a key to their running game. Fortunately for Philly, they get to play the Bears this week, who are plenty banged up on defense, and will start career backup Jonathan Quinn at quarterback. You all remember him from ... well, nothing. But he was born in the Central Valley town of Turlock, Calif., which reminds me of a story from my pug-writing days: A fighter from Turlock was preparing for a featherweight title shot, and I asked him if a world champ had ever come out of Turlock. "Nothing's ever come out of Turlock," he said. "Except turkeys."
WASHINGTON (1-2) at Cleveland (1-2): Joe Gibbs looked and acted lost and befuddled on the sidelines against Dallas last week. Was it just an off night or has this game left him behind? We're not likely to find out this week against the Browns, who have so many injuries they offered a contract to Drew Carey. The first time Clinton Portis touched the ball as a Redskin, he ran it 64 yards for a touchdown. I joked the next week that he'd been fading badly after that, meaning the rest of the game, when he'd averaged 3.0 a carry to finish with 148 yards. Ha ha. Since that first touch, Portis has now run 71 times for 247 yards -- 3.5 yards per carry -- with no touchdowns and three fumbles. Ha.
Atlanta (3-0) at CAROLINA (1-1): Michael Vick eats the Panthers for lunch, and I don't see Carolina's DeShaun Foster, who ran wild against the Chiefs, doing the same against the -- I can't believe I'm typing this -- stout Falcons defense. On the other hand, and far more importantly, I am always, always, always wrong about the Panthers. Therefore, since I don't see them winning, I'm betting the house on them. I think the Falcons will win the NFC South, but the Panthers will keep them in sight with a win here. Besides: The Falcons? 4-0? Ya think?
New Orleans (2-1) at ARIZONA (0-3): Once the early games end Sunday, the NFL weekend is half over. Seven games will have been played, with seven remaining, including Monday night. Five of those seven late games involve a team that's 0-3, and another pits two 1-2 teams. Only two of the 12 teams that start their games Sunday after 4 p.m. EDT have winning records. Might I suggest you get a little air once the early games end? Since it's never a terrible idea to bet against the wildly inconsistent Saints, and because the Cardinals are kind of a regular in this category, Arizona is my What the Heck Pick of the week. Besides: Even the Cardinals aren't going to start 0-4, are they?
DENVER (2-1) at Tampa Bay (0-3): The Bucs lost running back Charlie Garner to injury last week, but they get Michael Pittman back from suspension. That means that instead of having no offense featuring Garner, they'll have no offense featuring Pittman. Garner, who is 97, wasn't doing much, but it's not like Pittman's anything special. The Bucs defense will keep it close as usual, and the 2002 champs will fall to -- really? Ya think? -- 0-4.
N.Y. Jets (2-0) at MIAMI (0-3): For no good reason, I think the Dolphins, who are really awful, will rise up and win this game. Maybe ancient Jets running back Curtis Martin, who's been running well on borrowed time, will break down. Maybe the return to Jay Fiedler at quarterback will work wonders for the Dolphins. Maybe the Jets will take the Dolphins too lightly or the Dolphins will play over their heads in response to the latest devastating news for them, the season-ending injury to new running back Lamar Gordon. I don't know. I just have a feeling. And I realize I've now picked the Dolphins twice in a row after saying you wouldn't catch me picking them any time soon.
TENNESSEE (1-2) at San Diego (1-2): You know the difference between God and Steve McNair, don't you? McNair works on Sunday and rests the other six.
ST. LOUIS (1-2) at San Francisco (0-3): Looks like the Sunday night games were picked before anybody realized the Rams and 49ers wouldn't be any good. Wait, who thought the 49ers would be any good? Nobody, but you know who thought the Rams would be any good? You did. The readers of this column picked them as a wild card. I didn't agree before the season and I don't agree now, but while the 49ers couldn't possibly just keep losing indefinitely -- I mean, 0-4? -- I think the Rams will win this one.
Kansas City (0-3) at BALTIMORE (2-1): Looks like the Monday night games were picked before anybody realized the Chiefs wouldn't be any good. If DeShaun Foster can run wild on the Chiefs, imagine what Jamal Lewis is going to be able to do. I don't know if I'm ready to jump back on the Ravens Super Bowl bus just yet, but after Lewis gets through with them, the Chiefs are going to feel like they've been run over by it.
Season record: 33-13
Last week: 7-7
What the Heck Picks: 2-1
Consecutive weeks I've typed, with only the game details changing, the first sentence of the last two capsules: 3
Previous column: Renaming the Expos
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