Now that college football's regular season is over, the NFL feels free to slide some games over to Saturday. It's a little like your parents moving a big TV and a recliner into your bedroom the day after you move out.
The first of the three games Saturday is a postgraduate seminar, the big showdown between two quarterbacks who were playing on Saturdays last year. Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers vs. Eli Manning of the Giants is the game that's going to get the most attention, although it's not quite the most interesting one of the day.
The Giants traded to get Manning, the top overall pick out of Ole Miss, leaving Roethlisberger of Miami-Ohio to be drafted later by Pittsburgh. As you know, Roethlisberger has led the Steelers to 11 straight wins, in the sense that he's played quarterback during them.
He's played well, showing a veteran's poise, but it's not like he alone is responsible for that winning streak, which ties the longest in Steelers history, which is saying something. The Steelers, when you get right down to it, win with their defense.
Manning, meanwhile, took over from Kurt Warner in Week 11 and the once-contending Giants have proceeded to lose four straight -- and counting. Manning has posted a quarterback rating of 33.8, almost 15 percent lower than his rating would have been if he'd thrown nothing but incomplete passes. The NFL's quarterback rating stat is totally nonsensical, but it's still fun to talk about when someone goes below 39.6. Shoot, we all can do better than that!
So what a screw-up by the football Giants, huh? They look like fools, sinking slowly in the NFC East as Roethlisberger guides the Steelers to the best record in the AFC. What a tough break for the Giants that this is the one out of every four years Pittsburgh appears on their schedule and they'll have to spend a Saturday getting pounded by Big Ben and his teammates.
Well, yes. but also no.
The Giants probably would have lost most or all of those games with Warner, who had reverted to his washed-up self after a renaissance early in the season, but we'll never know. And a strategy of letting the kid take his lumps now to hasten the day when he'll be a true NFL quarterback, at the expense of a theoretically possible wild card spot and certain first-round playoff loss, well, that's not the kind of thing that flies on New York's back pages and radio stations.
But it's too early to judge whether the Giants blundered by casting their lot with Manning rather than Roethlisberger, never mind Philip Rivers of North Carolina State, their actual pick, now riding the pine in San Diego, where the Giants traded him to get Manning. Let's wait a couple of years and see how Manning does if he ever has a decent line and some weapons other than Tiki Barber. This week, though: Courage, Giants fans. Saturday will be long.
And so to the Week 15 picks, with predicted winners in all caps.
PITTSBURGH (12-1) at N.Y. Giants (5-8): What I just said.
WASHINGTON (4-9) at San Francisco (2-11): Another college connection. Fresh off his team's second win last week, 49ers coach Dennis Erickson says he's not in the running for the head coach job at Ole Miss. He's sticking with the 49ers, and the 49ers are sticking with him. At least for three more weeks. Maybe. Can the woeful Niners win two in a row? Or are they another team, the first being the Giants, the Redskins can actually score points against? The latter.
Carolina (6-7) at ATLANTA (10-3): The Saturday nightcap is the most intriguing contest of the three, and I'm tired of coming up with college tie-ins so let's drop it. The Falcons are Cadillacking to an NFC South title and a first-round bye in the playoffs, but the Panthers are red, red hot, roaring back to take possession of the last wild-card spot with five straight wins after starting 1-7 amid a rash of injuries.
It's not like the Panthers have been beating up on the elites, though. Their victims have been the 49ers, Cardinals, Bucs, Saints and Rams. Combined record: 22-43. It's a shaky pick, but I'll take the Falcons.
BUFFALO (7-6) at Cincinnati (6-7): Speaking of red, red hot, we turn to Sunday and the Bills, who have won four in a row and six out of seven, though also mostly against lousy teams. The Bengals will likely be without quarterback Carson Palmer, who has a bum knee, but remember that his backup, Jon Kitna, is pretty good. But Kitna has thrown exactly 13 passes this year and may have to shake off some rust. The key here, though, figures to be the Bengals' inability to stop Willis McGahee's running unless they crowd the line of scrimmage, which would mean they'd get burned through the air.
Dallas (5-8) at PHILADELPHIA (12-1): The Eagles have a chance to lose their fourth straight NFC Championship game next month. Staying healthy enough to avoid that fate should be their main concern in this one. And the next two.
Houston (5-8) at CHICAGO (5-8): The current ESPN the Magazine did kind of a hit piece about the most overrated players in the NFL at each position, and the headliner, the most overrated of the overrated in the view of the anonymous scouts polled was Brian Urlacher the Linebacker, of Chicago Bears the Football Team. Maybe so. I haven't seen enough of the Bears or Urlacher in the last couple of years to speak intelligently one way or the other, or to know if there's any cause and effect to this stat: The Bears are 5-4 when he plays, 0-4 when he doesn't. Both teams are struggling offensively, but I'll go hunchy on the Bears.
Minnesota (7-6) at DETROIT (5-8): The Vikings are in collapse again, as they were last year at this time, and one has to wonder how long coach Mike Tice, pencil tucked jauntily behind his right ear, will last if the Vikes actually fail to make the playoffs, which they could do even in the joke that is the NFC. The Vikings just can't stop anybody on the ground, and while the Lions' passing game has been weak, they have a strong running game. If they can keep the ball out of the Vikings' hands enough, and more importantly keep from getting burned by Randy Moss, they'll make an even bigger muddle of the wild-card picture by pulling the Vikes back to the crowd of 5-8 and 6-7 scufflers. Those are big ifs, of course.
San Diego (10-3) at CLEVELAND (3-10): What the Heck Pick of the week. Watch the team that looks completely hopeless, WTH fans.
Denver (8-5) at KANSAS CITY (5-8): The Chiefs are playing better than 5-8 and the Broncos are playing worse than 8-5. Denver only snapped a two-game losing streak by beating the Dolphins last week, barely, with the most notable moment being quarterback Jake Plummer's obscene gesture at a fan. The obscenities will be flying in the other direction in thousands of Denver rec rooms when the Chiefs' offense, averaging 38 a game the last three weeks, starts piling up the points.
Seattle (7-6) at N.Y. JETS (9-4): If the Jets, who are poised to take a wild-card spot, were in the NFC, we'd be talking about their chances to get past the Eagles and Falcons and go to the Super Bowl. If the Seahawks, who are probably going to win their division, were in the AFC, we'd be talking about them the way we talk about the Texans and Titans.
New Orleans (5-8) at TAMPA BAY (5-8): Incredibly, one of these teams will stay in the wild-card hunt by winning. Over the last six weeks, the Buccaneers have gone win, loss, win, loss, win, loss. Do you detect a pattern there? Me neither. But the Bucs' defense is the kind of thing that makes Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks do crazy things with the ball, and that should go a long way in helping Tampa Bay keep its January hopes wheezing along.
St. Louis (6-7) at ARIZONA (4-9): Two bad teams. The Rams turned the ball over seven times at Carolina last week. The Cardinals managed to lose in overtime at home to the 49ers. It's a shame somebody has to win a game like this.
Tennessee (4-9) at OAKLAND (4-9): Two bad teams. And just two years ago, they were playing each other for the AFC championship. The Titans have given up 100 points in their last two games. A hundred! The Steelers, just to pick a team, have given up fewer than that in their last eight games. The Raiders rolled over against the Falcons last week. The Titans seem to be showing a little more life, somehow, but they're awfully banged up.
Jacksonville (7-6) at GREEN BAY (8-5): This is a tough one. It's going to be cold, dark and maybe snowy for this late afternoon game at Lambeau, and those are the conditions the Packers tend to like. Jax quarterback Byron Leftwich got plenty of cold-weather experience in college, but the Jags are a warm-weather team. I suspect that puts them at a disadvantage, though I don't know that.
We heard a lot a few years ago about how the Buccaneers had never won a game when the kickoff temperature was below 30 degrees, a streak that ended in the 2002 NFC Championship Game in Philadelphia. But I'd love to see a study of the records of all warm-weather or dome teams in cold-weather games. We know anecdotally that the Dolphins tend to have trouble in late-season division road games, and I grew up watching the Los Angeles Rams turn to putty whenever they had to go to Minnesota and play the Vikings, who -- listen up, kiddies! -- used to play outdoors. And we all know how the Vikings have never been as intimidating since moving inside. Someone work on this and get back to me.
In the meantime, I think this one will be close, probably high scoring, and a win for the Packers, who aren't necessarily the better team.
BALTIMORE (8-5) at Indianapolis (10-3): The Colts offense is averaging 39 points a game during the team's six-game winning streak, and you've heard all about Peyton Manning and his record chase. But even at home, this will be a tough one. The Ravens bring a much sturdier defense than any of the six teams the Colts have just beaten, and unlike the Colts, who have already won the AFC South and have almost no shot at even a first-round bye, they have something to play for. Baltimore's tied with fading Denver for the last wild-card spot, a game ahead of the Jaguars and the surging Bills. It's a stretch, but I'll take the upset. I seem to be stretching a lot this week. I'm either going to move way up or way down in this column's Pool o' Experts.
NEW ENGLAND (12-1) at Miami (2-11): Lots of news in Miami this week. LSU coach Nick Saban had "a preliminary conversation" with Dolphins bigwigs in Baton Rouge, though he says he's committed to the LSU job, in which he's in the first year of a seven-year deal. Meanwhile, erstwhile running back Ricky Williams opened up to "60 Minutes" to say that the Fins' troubles don't keep him up at night.
The Associated Press story about the interview, which will air Sunday night, says Williams said the Dolphins' 2-11 season isn't his fault, but then quotes him saying it's not his problem. Those are two different things. "I moved on," he says. Parts of the interview will also air on "The NFL Today," CBS's Sunday pregame show. Williams says he retired because he'd failed a third drug test, and was scared the public would find out he smoked marijuana. Instead we found out he was a punk.
The good news for Dolphins fans is that all of this is more interesting -- barely -- than the beatdown their team is about to take on national TV.
Season record: 131-77
Last week: 10-6
What the Heck Picks: 6-7 (would tie for last NFC wild card)
Number of columns I've written in temperatures below 30 degrees since moving my office from the basement to the kitchen: 0!