Terrell Owens tore up his ankle last week, and now everything's different in the NFC.
Owens' Eagles were sailing along as the class of the conference, clearly better than anyone else, and with one awkward fall, they became essentially the same team that's lost the last three NFC Championship Games. One of the league's most dangerous offenses once again finds itself with the likes of Todd Pinkston as a go-to guy.
There's a word for having Todd Pinkston as a go-to guy, and that word is: Good luck getting to the Super Bowl.
If you're a fan of parity, this is good news -- proper sorrow over T.O.'s misfortune and pain aside. What had been a skirmish between a bunch of crappy 8-6 or worse teams, plus the Falcons, to see who will lose to the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game becomes a skirmish between all those teams to possibly go to Jacksonville in February.
All of a sudden that Friday night Packers-Vikings game, which will decide the NFC North champion, takes on a little more importance because these teams, both of which are 8-6, are suddenly Super Bowl contenders. So is almost everyone else: 6-8 is the new 9-5, darlings.
I happen to be a fan of parity. For a long time I believed that the NFL had made a mistake by instituting a salary-cap system that made dynasties like those of the '70s Steelers or '80s 49ers impossible. I'm still not a big fan of the cap because it creates such extremes of player movement that it becomes difficult for fans to identify with the players on the home team, many of whom will be gone in a year or two. But there's no denying the freewheeling nature of NFL competition is a thing of beauty.
Not only can any team famously beat any other team on any given Sunday, but any team can go from the outhouse to the penthouse in one year, or vice versa. In any other sport, the Dolphins, 3-11 after just missing the playoffs last year, would be in for years of suckitude. But with a few smart offseason moves, they could be right back in the playoff hunt in '05. I've grown to like that. I also like that the Dolphins, with two wins coming in, handed the Patriots their second loss of the season Monday night.
But if you don't like such things, if your word for parity is "enforced mediocrity," there's still the AFC. Over there you have the Steelers (13-1), the Patriots (12-2) and the Colts and Chargers (11-3) lording it over everyone, with the possible exception of the Jets (10-4). All four divisions have been clinched.
And a Week 16 bonus: Four of those teams are playing each other in possible playoff previews. The Chargers are at Indianapolis and the Patriots are visiting the Jets.
Sure, the AFC has its share of 8-6 teams too, but they're not playing for division championships. Four of them -- the Broncos, Jaguars, Ravens and Bills -- are scrapping for the last wild-card spot. None of them have more than an underdog's shot to win a road playoff game against any of the division champs. This is pretty much how it used to be, a class system.
So, boosted by the infusion of meaningfulness that Owens' injury has given to the Week 16 games, here are the picks, with winners in caps. Note that the games are listed chronologically. The first game will be played Friday night, and the next two on Christmas Day.
Green Bay (8-6) at MINNESOTA (8-6): Evidently the rules state there must be a champion in each division, deserving or no, so the winner of this game will take the NFC North. Given the Packers' struggles in domes, their inability to stop the pass -- you may have heard of the Vikings' Randy Moss -- and quarterback Brett Favre's injured thumb, I'll take the Vikings. If I'm right, Vikings brass may have to figure out if there's a good way to fire a coach who's just won a division title.
Oakland (5-9) at KANSAS CITY (6-8): There haven't been many years when these teams could meet in the penultimate game with nothing on the line for either of them. The Chiefs are really clicking on offense, averaging nearly 40 points a game over the last month, and they beat the Raiders on the road four weeks ago.
DENVER (8-6) at Tennessee (4-10): The Broncos, once cruising toward a playoff spot at 5-1, have lost five of their last eight and are in grave danger of elimination. They're coming off a blowout loss to the Chiefs and they haven't beaten a good team since September. The good news is they won't have to beat a good team to win this one. The Titans are just a disaster on defense -- they've given up at least 40 in three straight games, though all were against explosive offenses -- and should be the cure that slumping Jake Plummer needs. The Titans can pitch it around a little too, though. Steve McNair's replacement, Billy Volek, has found a favorite receiver in Drew Bennett. It'll be a shootout.
Atlanta (11-3) at NEW ORLEANS (6-8): There's talk the Falcons, who have secured a first-round bye and can't catch the Eagles for home-field advantage, will rest their starters. The Saints, meanwhile, have rebounded from their second three-game losing streak of the year to win back-to-back road games in Dallas and Tampa and, incredibly, could make the playoffs. Whether the Falcons rest their first string or not -- and as of posting time coach Jim Mora had made no announcement -- I'll take the more motivated Saints, always a risky move.
Baltimore (8-6) at PITTSBURGH (13-1): Tom Brady did the Steelers a huge favor with that crazy pass that was intercepted late in Monday night's game in Miami. With the Patriots' loss, the Steelers can now afford to lose one of their last two and keep home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. That's no small thing, considering the Ravens are fighting for their lives and next week's opponent is the red-hot Bills. The Ravens are the only team that's beaten the Steelers this year, a 30-13 shellacking in Week 2, before anyone realized how good Pittsburgh is. A sweep is too tall an order.
Chicago (5-9) at DETROIT (5-9): Nice job by the Lions last week, coming back against the Vikings and then losing the game on a botched extra-point snap. The Bears are really struggling on offense, though, and this one shouldn't come down to something as tricky as a PAT.
Houston (6-8) at JACKSONVILLE (8-6): The Jaguars, a hip preseason wild-card pick, struggled at midseason but they've righted things just in time to fight for the last playoff spot. They lost a tough one at home to the Steelers three weeks ago, then pounded the Bears and got a cold-weather win in Green Bay. The Texans are remarkably consistent. They beat the teams they should beat and lose to the teams they should lose to. Look at their schedule and tell me if you can find a really surprising result. They beat the Jags at home on Halloween, but I think Jacksonville, playing well and smelling the postseason, will earn a split.
N.Y. Giants (5-9) at CINCINNATI (6-8): The Bengals haven't had a winning season since 1990, and last week's blowout loss to the Bills keeps that streak alive, though the Bengals have an outside shot at their first back-to-back non-losing seasons since 1990. Carson Palmer is expected back after missing a game with a sprained knee. His ability to throw deep will make the weak Giants defense look even weaker. Eli Manning is coming off his best game, against the tough Steelers defense. He should feel more comfortable against the Bengals, but I don't think he'll get his first win.
San Diego (11-3) at INDIANAPOLIS (11-3): Before the Pats lost, this was going to be a battle for the No. 3 seed and a chance to open the playoffs against one of the teams that are now 8-6, rather than against the Jets. Now, the Chargers would take over the lead for the second seed and a first-round bye with a win and a Patriots loss to the Jets, which is hardly a far-fetched scenario. The Colts would need another win, in Denver, and a Patriots loss to the 49ers next week, but at least there'd be hope.
This is a terrific matchup, one of two marquee games this weekend, the other being Patriots-Jets. The Colts are on fire, having won seven straight including a tough 20-10 decision over the Ravens last week. While Peyton Manning's pursuit of Dan Marino's 20-year-old touchdown pass record has gotten all the attention -- he needs one to tie-- the thing that makes the Colts scary is that their defense has come around. The Chargers have a versatile offense and a solid defense and their 11-3 record is no fluke, but playing on Indy's rug, they're going to be a little bit outmatched in what should be a great game.
Buffalo (8-6) at SAN FRANCISCO (2-12): What the Heck Pick of the week. The Bills are also on fire and have also won seven straight. The 49ers are hands down the worst team in the league. With a dearth of one-sided matchups, this isn't a great week for WTH choices, but they don't get much more What the Hecky than this one, even if Bills running back Willis McGahee can't play.
NEW ENGLAND (12-2) at N.Y. Jets (10-4): The other big game this week is a tough assignment for the Super Bowl champs, who are suddenly, after one consecutive loss, being talked about as having weaknesses and being vulnerable. My gosh, the commentariat is saying, Troy Brown is playing cornerback. He's a wide receiver! Well, folks, Brown's been playing corner most of the season and the Patriots are 12-2. So they kicked one away against the Dolphins. They're still plenty good, and this week they're expected to get shut-down corner Ty Law back, which makes their defense quite a bit better because it needn't rely on anyone named after a '70s R&B band.
The Jets are plenty good too, and they should be able to stay with the Patriots with a balanced attack and a good pass rush. The Patriots won the first meeting 13-7 in Foxboro two months ago, but the Jets are fully capable of beating them. My trick knee tells me the Pats will pull out a close one and lock up their first-round bye.
Carolina (6-8) at TAMPA BAY (5-9): The Panthers are playing well. They'd won five straight before losing a tough one in overtime to the Falcons last week. They came from two touchdowns back in the fourth quarter to take the lead in that game before Michael Vick did 'em in. The Bucs lost to the Saints and have spent the week sniping at the coach. Bad scene down there.
Arizona (5-9) at SEATTLE (7-7): Two hideous teams playing out the string, biding their time until they can -- holy crap! Both of these teams could make the playoffs! The Seahawks are the NFC West leaders at the moment. The Cardinals, deliciously, still have a slight chance to win the division with a 7-9 record. The Seahawks are a little better and should win at home. And considering the second-place Rams are playing the Eagles Monday night, that win will probably be enough to give Seattle the division title.
WASHINGTON (5-9) at Dallas (5-9): When these teams met in Week 3, I thought the Redskins' strong defense would be the difference. I was wrong and the Cowboys won. So I'll try again.
Cleveland (3-11) at MIAMI (3-11): This game affords football fans throughout this great land to spend a quiet Sunday evening with the TV set turned off.
PHILADELPHIA (13-1) at St. Louis (6-8): The Eagles should win according to my theory that teams that lose a star player do well in the next game before feeling the effects of the loss after that. But then, they should win this game without that theory. They're just a much better team than the nosediving Rams, Terrell Owens or no.
Season record: 140-84
Last week: 9-7
What the Heck Picks: 6-8 (would tie for last NFC wild card)
My record in picking the games of the remarkably consistent Houston Texans, who have pretty much won the games they were supposed to win and lost the games they were supposed to lose: 8-6
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This concludes our writing year [PERMALINK]
This column stands in recess. The Week 17 picks will appear in Table Talk. The next column will be on Monday, Jan. 3. We'll talk then about the NFL playoffs, the BCS bowls and whatever else is bubbling up.
I'd like to wish readers a happy and safe holiday season and thank you all for reading and for writing. Thanks for slapping my back when you think I've got it right and getting in my face when you think I've got it wrong. Thanks for catching every stray comma and clumsy misstatement within seconds of them hitting the Net. You're the best editors in town.
Every writer should have a readership as loyal, enthusiastic, smart and tough as you all. See you next year.
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