It's finally here, the biggest football week of the year!
In Canada, that is.
The 92nd Grey Cup, the Canadian Football League championship game, is Sunday in Ottawa. "4,000 Replacement Livers Arrive in Ottawa for Grey Cup Week," declared a headline in the Hammer, a Canadian humor, which is to say humour, site.
The British Columbia Lions, my favorite CFL team, are fresh off a 27-25 overtime thriller over Saskatchewan in the West Division Championship. They'll take on the Toronto Argonauts, who upset Montreal in the East Division Championship. I'm picking B.C.
The game will be available to about half of the TV households in the United States. Check those cable listings.
One of my hopeless causes is to see the NFL, with the best football players in the world, play by the far more exciting rules of the CFL, with its larger field, including deeper end zones, and its three downs, which make for a wide open game. But I'd be pretty happy if I could just regularly watch CFL games without emigrating or moving to a border state.
CFL teams averaged more than 40 more yards of total offense than NFL teams have this year, well over 10 percent, and they scored 26.5 points per game, compared to 21.2 for NFL teams so far.
Lions quarterback Casey Printers was named the league's outstanding player this week for leading the CFL's most potent offense -- sorry, offence. Yet B.C. coach Wally Buono has spent the week dodging the question of whether Printers would even start in the Grey Cup. That's because Dave Dickenson, who was the starter before he had knee surgery in the offseason, is healthy again. He was the league's outstanding player in 2000 before spending two years as a backup in the NFL and returning to the Lions last season.
The Argos are led by a pair of dynamite kick returners, of all things, Bashir Levingston and Arland Bruce III. That shouldn't be surprising because their coach is Pinball Clemons, who in the '90s teamed with Rocket Ismail to provide a similar threat.
"Rocket and I were more exciting but less effective," Clemons told the Toronto Sun. "The only area where we're better than them -- we had nicknames."
The CFL is enjoying something of a renaissance, with attendance and TV ratings up and, as the Canadian Press put it, "no major fires burning." The Argos, for one, were recently in serious trouble as a franchise, and the league had to take over operations last year. Now, under new ownership, they're building a new outdoor stadium so they can escape the SkyDome.
It certainly hasn't hurt the CFL that the NHL has disappeared for the duration. Here's hoping the league builds on its success and becomes a fixture on American TV in the coming years. There must be some room on the schedule between some of those poker tournaments.
Why am I talking so much about Canadian football? Because I'm tired of talking about Terrell Owens and Nicollette Sheridan and the silly ruckus over the towel. The rest of this week's discussion of the NFL will remain, like Sheridan's body, a towel-free zone.
And so we return to southern climes for a look at Week 11, in which the NFL playoff picture begins to come into focus. In short: If you're not better than 4-5 in the AFC or 3-6 in the NFC, you're probably blurred beyond repair.
The picks, with winners in all caps.
DENVER (6-3) at New Orleans (4-5): The Broncos are coming off a bye and should be well-rested and doubly prepared. Wait, sorry, that was left over from last week. The other teams coming off the final bye week are the Dolphins, Raiders and Chargers.
Last week, for the first time all year, the four teams returning from a bye had a winning record, going 3-1 to bring the season record of teams coming back from a week off to 13-15. Considering the Raiders and Chargers are playing each other, teams will finish no better than .500 in the first games after their bye, and considering the Dolphins are at Seattle, they'll likely finish with a losing record. But the Broncos will do their part for this cause that only I care about.
Dallas (3-6) at BALTIMORE (6-3): Bill Parcells is showing signs of melting down, which I find amusing. After last week's ass-whupping by the Eagles, Parcells cut short the postgame press conference by storming off after snapping at a questioner, "Now you're just looking for a sound bite."
You're a football coach, Bill. What are reporters in a postgame press conference supposed to be looking for, the secret to eternal youth? An economic program that will lead this great nation to a new prosperity? Honest, noncondescending answers? Don't be silly. The team you command is 3-6 and just got pantsed on national TV, so if you can't provide a sound bite, of what use are you to anybody?
Arizona (4-5) at CAROLINA (2-7): Panthers kicker John Kasay strained his calf last week, and punter Todd Sauerbrun filled in, as he's done in the past. With Kasay questionable for Sunday's game, Sauerbrun offered to step in again, but only if the team agreed to forgive some of the $40,000 it's fined him so far this season for weighing more than 217 pounds. The Panthers said no.
Sauerbrun is one of the best punters in the league, and he's also one of the few guys who makes a living with one foot who can actually, like, tackle somebody once in a while. He says he accepts responsibility for not making weight but finds the fines annoying because he's never been more than four pounds over his awfully arbitrary-sounding limit. And he's still doing a pretty good job, though he won't lead the conference as usual this year. Perhaps he's in decline, but is that because of four pounds?
I find Sauerbrun's inability to drop four pounds amusing. I find the Panthers' rigidity in fining a good player for such an obviously beside-the-point reason amusing. I find Sauerbrun's offer and the Panthers' rigidity in refusing it amusing -- they've signed the great Jeff Chandler in case Kasay can't go. I even find this game sort of amusing, though certainly not worth three paragraphs.
Detroit (4-5) at MINNESOTA (5-4): Two teams on three-game losing streaks and in bad need of a win. The Vikings are a different club without Randy Moss, who will either be out or hampered again with a bad hamstring, the kind of injury that's likely to bother him all year. That and a bad defense are going to doom the Vikings, but not this week.
INDIANAPOLIS (6-3) at Chicago (4-5): The Colts have been replaced as an elite AFC team by the Steelers, but with four highly winnable games coming up, they could find themselves right back in the high-rent district before heading into a tough stretch to finish the season: the Ravens and Chargers at home and the Broncos on the road. The Bears are kind of scary because they play tough defense but, especially with Brian Urlacher out again, they'll have too much to stop here.
N.Y. JETS (6-3) at Cleveland (3-6): The Jets, with an injured starting quarterback and a two-game losing streak, are suddenly in bad need of a win after having started 5-0. Ah, Cleveland in November.
PITTSBURGH (8-1) at Cincinnati (4-5): It's the Much-Hyped Young Quarterback Bowl, with rookie Roethlisberger of the Steelers heavily favored over sophomore Carson Palmer of the Bengals. But the Bengals play well at home, and the Steelers are due for a hiccup, so this one won't be easy.
San Francisco (1-8) at TAMPA BAY (3-6): Rumor is that 49ers coach Dennis Erickson has let it be known he wouldn't mind becoming the new coach at the University of Washington. Another college coach retreating from the NFL -- in Erickson's case for the second time -- as a failure will surely cause gnashing of teeth and rending of garments among 49ers fans. No, wait, that was his hiring two years ago. It's always tough to call games between teams that have dropped out of the playoff picture and are playing out the string, but the 49ers make it a little easier.
ST. LOUIS (5-4) at Buffalo (3-6): What with young quarterbacks all the rage, they're starting to holler for Drew Bledsoe to get the hook in Buffalo in favor of J.P. Losman, a rookie from Tulane. Sounds like a good idea to me, with the Bills going nowhere and Bledsoe looking like a former NFL quarterback lately. All those 5-4 NFC teams have to win games like this if they want to make the playoffs.
Tennessee (3-6) at JACKSONVILLE (6-3): If there are two teams in the NFL that I can never figure out what they're going to do from one week to the next, it's the Titans and the Jaguars. This has been going on for two weeks. I'll go with the records, the home field and the fact that I think the Titans are in serious decline, but really, I don't even know where to start looking for a clue.
Miami (1-8) at SEATTLE (5-4): This would be a pretty decent What the Heck Pick of the week candidate, especially with the Dolphins having just fired their coach, which sometimes results in a little bounce. But the Seahawks are a winning team because they win games like this one. The four teams they've beaten, including the 49ers twice, have a combined record of 10-26.
SAN DIEGO (6-3) at Oakland (3-6): Another nice What the Heck candidate. The Chargers have scored more points than anyone except the Colts. The Raiders have given up more than anyone except the Saints, Cowboys and -- points are cheap wherever you go in the Bay Area -- 49ers. The Chargers beat the Raiders so bad three weeks ago, 42-14, that the Raiders simply have to turn in a better showing, especially after they managed a win against the Panthers the next week. But it won't be better enough, I don't think.
ATLANTA (7-2) at N.Y. Giants (5-4): The Eli Manning era begins, and Peyton's grandson, or whatever he is, gets to get his feet wet against a Falcons defense that's good against the run and awful against the pass. Ben Roethlisberger has taught us not to write off a team just because it's playing a rookie quarterback. But it's OK if that team has no offensive line and is in free-fall.
WASHINGTON (3-6) at Philadelphia (8-1): What the Heck Pick of the week. I don't believe elaboration is necessary.
Green Bay (5-4) at HOUSTON (4-5): The Packers are flying pretty high after pulling out that win against the Vikings, who are struggling. It looks like Green Bay's going to waltz to another Central Division crown after a terrible start. Meanwhile the Texans have been squashed like bugs in their last two games by the Broncos and Colts. But hang on a second. Houston's a dangerous team, and the Packers have their flaws. I think both clubs' fortunes are going to turn around in this one.
NEW ENGLAND (8-1) at Kansas City (3-6): Around Labor Day this baby was looking like a possible AFC Championship Game to a lot of people, though not to this column, which picked the Chiefs to miss the playoffs. (And the Cowboys, Saints and Redskins to make them. I know. Shut up.) Over the last two years the Colts have shown how successful you can be against the Patriots with a great offense and no defense, which is not successful at all. And the Colts are way better than the Chiefs.
Season record: 83-61
Last week: 7-7
What the Heck Picks: 5-5
Record picking CFL games this year: 0-0
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