In Week 13, for the first and last time since Week 1, there are no interconference games on the NFL schedule. The problem with this arrangement is that half of the games involve nothing but NFC teams, and the NFC is the biggest collection of dogs this side of P.D. Eastman.
Seven NFC teams -- one shy of half the conference! -- are 4-7. Let's say you were an NFC team and I pointed at you and said, "You're 4-7!" I'd be almost even-money to be right. How sad for you.
NFC teams have gone a meager 18-32 against AFC teams this season. The NFC West, a pooch among hounds, could be the first division since the old AFC Central in 1985 to be won by a team that fails to finish above .500. There's even a chance it could be won by a 7-9 team. The NFC West is 2-10 against the AFC East, and both of those wins came against the Dolphins, who should be called the Seals, which sort of bark like dogs.
There are two games pitting 4-7 teams against each other this week. It could be worse. There could have been three. And here's the worst part: All of those teams are in the playoff hunt!
The NFC is so bad that 4-7 teams aren't just theoretically, maybe, "we have to win all our games and hope" kind of in the hunt. They're right in there. The loser of the Vikings-Packers race for the NFC Central title will take the first wild-card spot, but those 4-7 teams are all one game out of the other one, currently held jointly in the cold, dead fingers of the Rams and Giants, both 5-6.
The Rams would win a tie-breaker if the season ended today, but a 4-7 team that simply plays well, wins four of its last five, will almost surely take that last playoff bid. The Rams, losers of four of their last five, look completely bewildered, and the Giants have lost four straight and are wisely letting Eli "The Third Manning" Manning take his lumps and learn the ropes. And three of their remaining five games are against teams from the AFC, where the good teams are.
But not quite all of the good teams. The NFC does offer one snazzy game this week when the Packers go to Philadelphia to test their theory that they -- the Packers -- are among the league's elite. They've won six straight and seem to be humming along even without star running back Ahman Green, but the Eagles are the top team in the conference, and would be even if it were a better conference.
The AFC has plenty of good teams, and they all seem to be matched up with the bad teams. You thought all the dogs were in the NFC? Listen, the score of that Browns-Bengals game last Sunday was really 8.3 to 6.9. It was only 58-48 in dog scores.
Anyway, the AFC does have a marquee game that's a dandy: The Broncos visit San Diego, and if the Chargers -- the most surprising team in the league, winners of five in a row and seven of eight -- can earn a season split, they'll have a commanding two-game lead in the AFC West. Plus, San Diego would have an advantage in the first several tie-breakers. The Broncos would pull even with a win, but with a season sweep would have the trump card if the teams ended up tied.
And so to Week 13, winners in caps -- those little dog caps that come with the raincoats. Please note that in order to make my final What the Heck Pick record look like an NFL team's 16-game mark, I have to give WTH a week off. For no particular reason, this is that week.
Arizona (4-7) at DETROIT (4-7): We start with a pooch, of course. Both teams have back-slud a bit since encouraging stretches, and they're both trying to figure out who should play quarterback. The Cardinals are going with rookie John Navarre, a recent Michigan non-standout, before asking for volunteers from the crowd. The Lions are sticking with Joey Harrington, while telling Mike McMahon to sit, stay. But: Don't stray too far from your helmet.
Atlanta (9-2) at TAMPA BAY (4-7): My third favorite boxing joke, which I'll clean up a bit: Two old fellows in the crowd are admiring the ring card girl as she struts around in a tiny bikini holding up a card announcing the next round as the 10th. "I sure would like to kiss her again," muses one codger. "Again?" says the other, wide-eyed. "Yeah," says the first. "I wanted to kiss her the last few times she walked by too." I have a hunch the Bucs are going to beat the Falcons again. Again? But the Falcons won the first meeting three weeks ago. Yeah, but I had a hunch the Bucs were going to win that one too.
BUFFALO (5-6) at Miami (2-9): Don't look now but the Bills are actually playing pretty good ball. Running back Willis McGahee, offensive whiz coach Mike Mularkey and the special teams are getting the ink, but the Bills are doing it with defense. Against teams not named Patriots they're allowing under 15 points a game.
CAROLINA (4-7) at New Orleans (4-7): Woof! Have I mentioned how many 4-7 teams there are? Any of them could be playoff teams, folks, so pay attention. The Panthers are playing well and the Saints are playing poorly, but the Saints are so goofy they just might win this one. On the other hand, whenever I start thinking that, they get shellacked. See what I did there?
NEW ENGLAND (10-1) at Cleveland (3-8): It wasn't widely reported, but following that 58-48 loss to the Bengals last Sunday, the Browns kept giving up touchdowns right through Tuesday. They also took time to fire coach Butch Davis, though it's being called a resignation. So another college coach couldn't cut the condiments in the NFL. Teams often respond after a coaching change. Why, just a couple of weeks ago the Dolphins responded to one by losing to the Seahawks. But the Browns have a good chance of beating the Patriots. Not really. I just wanted to see if I lost everyone with that P.D. Eastman reference.
Cincinnati (5-6) at BALTIMORE (7-4): This one won't be 58-48. The Ravens, who have one of the best defenses and worst offenses in the league, managed just 124 yards last week in a muddy, soggy loss to the Patriots. But like many of us after our most pathetic and humiliating days, the Ravens should be feeling considerably better after drying out. Good news for the Bengals is that Ravens running back Jamal Lewis, who absolutely eats Cincy for lunch every time these teams play, will miss the game with a sore ankle. The bad news for Cincy is that the Ravens will likely get tight end Todd Heap back. The bad news doesn't quite cancel out the good for the Bengals, but the Ravens are just a better team.
Houston (5-6) at N.Y. JETS (8-3): The Jets appeared to have survived the dangerous Quincy Carter era by going 2-1 and hanging on to the catbird seat in the AFC wild-card race. Now Chad Pennington is expected to return at quarterback after missing those three games with an injured throwing shoulder. That should make the Jets breathe easier, but the key to this game will be which team can stop the other's big back, and since the Jets have the better big back and the better run defense, my money's on them, though the Texans' ability to throw downfield makes them dangerous.
MINNESOTA (7-4) at Chicago (4-7): The Vikings always lose in Chicago lately but they'll be hard-pressed to drop this one. The Bears, with one of the worst offenses in the league, will try former Cowboys and NFL Europe non-standout Chad Hutchinson at quarterback. And waiting in the wings is the newly signed Jeff "No! Not Jeff George!" George, last seen playing in two games for Washington in 2001, during which he hit 23 of 42 passes for 168 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions, plus six sacks. A football team signing Jeff George is the equivalent of a sitcom adding a 3-year-old as a major character. It says, "We know, we know, but we're desperate and we've run out of good ideas."
San Francisco (1-10) at ST. LOUIS (5-6): Woof! You don't have to be 4-7 to scratch fleas. This pooch of a game makes the case that win-loss records can be misleading. The Rams are not as good as their record would indicate. The 49ers, on the other hand, are also not as good as their record would indicate.
Tennessee (4-7) at INDIANAPOLIS (8-3): Last year these teams' quarterbacks, Steve McNair and Peyton Manning, shared the MVP award. This year Manning -- who was much better than McNair last year -- is rewriting the record books while his rival is considering retirement at age 31. Titans coach Jeff Fisher says that's just McNair's frustration talking in the midst of a disappointing season in which he's been hampered by a bruised sternum. Uncle King says: Good idea, Steve. You've been valiant as well as excellent, battling through injury after injury to lead your team deep into the playoffs, but you're entering that phase of your career where in exchange for diminishing returns, you'll be doing damage to your body that you'll pay for all your life.
But having said that I'm not betting on McNair, one of my favorite players ever, to quit. McNair is questionable for this game, which means he'll play. But even if the Titans can run enough to keep the Colts' offense off the field for significant stretches, which they can, the depleted defense can't stop Manning.
DENVER (7-4) at San Diego (8-3): The Broncos are in the mess they're in because they lost a home game they should have won last week, to the Raiders in the snow. A big contributor to that loss was running back Reuben Droughns' fumbling. But that was a snow game, and overall Droughns has been a big plus for Denver. It's tough to sweep a season series from a good team, but I think the Broncos' being able to take advantage of the Chargers' banged-up secondary will be the difference that will let them pull it off.
Green Bay (7-4) at PHILADELPHIA (10-1): Too bad the other marquee game of the week is on at the same time as Broncos-Chargers. The Packers are looking like world-beaters lately, thanks mostly to a stiffened defense. But they gave up 31 points in beating the Vikings, the only team they've faced on the streak with a high-octane offense. The Eagles' balanced attack is a different animal than the Texans and Washingtons of the world. Philadelphia, having already clinched the NFC East, is due for a letdown game one of these weeks, but this is a rematch of that playoff game the Eagles pulled out of a hat last year. They'll be ready for this one. It'll be a battle, but the Packers aren't in Philly's class.
KANSAS CITY (3-8) at Oakland (4-7): The Chiefs are now 7-12, including a playoff game, since they started last season 9-0. The Raiders are now 8-20, including a Super Bowl, since winning the 2002 AFC Championship Game. I'm sure there's a lesson in there somewhere and I'll have plenty of time to think about what it might be while not paying attention to this schnauzer of a game between two of the league's more generous teams, which may be won by the last team that doesn't turn the ball over. If Chiefs quarterback Trent Green, who has bruised ribs, plays, which he says he will, I'll take the Chiefs. If not, I'm stuck with the pick.
N.Y. Giants (5-6) at WASHINGTON (3-8): Woof! These teams' records average out to 4-7. You might think this would be a golden opportunity for Manning III to pick up an easy first win, but the Washington defense is tough. It's the offense that's offensive. But I like the Washingtons' chances in this one to score while their offense is off the field.
PITTSBURGH (10-1) at Jacksonville (6-5): Man, that was a tough loss to the Vikings last week for the Jaguars. Now they're a game behind two teams for the last wild-card spot and have to play maybe the toughest team in the league. The Steelers get running back Duce Staley and receiver Plaxico Burress back from injury. The Jaguars, a plucky bunch, will have to play over their heads to stay in the playoff race. This isn't the AFC's big game this week, but it's pretty big.
Dallas (4-7) at SEATTLE (6-5): Woof! Oh, wait, this can't be a dog because the Seahawks are leading their division. Three words, TV viewers: "Animal Precinct" reruns.
Season record: 109-67
Last week: 14-2 (!)
What the Heck Picks: 6-6 (would qualify for the NFC playoffs)
Actual odds I would be correct if I pointed at you and said, "You're 4-7!" (If you were an NFC team, that is): 1 in 2.2857142
Previous column: Notre Dame and race: The readers write
NOTE: This column, stretching the definition of "daily" like mad, will return next Friday, Dec. 10.
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