Half a season ago, the Philadelphia Eagles looked like a slam-dunk lock to run away with the NFC -- kind of like how the San Antonio Spurs look like a lock to win the NBA title as the season starts.
Hmm. Who else looks good in the NBA? Because the Eagles are looking at the moment like a slam-dunk lock to miss the playoffs. They've been routed two of the last three weeks, with the win in between coming on a crazy-lucky bounce that allowed them to run a blocked kick back for the winning touchdown against the San Diego Chargers.
Quarterback Donovan McNabb has a bunch of nagging injuries, the worst of them a painful sports hernia that's going to require surgery and seems to be limiting him severely. Meanwhile, his pal and best receiver Terrell Owens has a bum ankle again, and T.O.'s latest gambit is to say the Eagles would be undefeated if Brett Favre had been playing quarterback for them.
That's the Brett Favre who's not entirely to blame, but not blameless, for the Green Bay Packers being 1-6. Owens has also been whining that the Eagles didn't stop the game to build him a statue when he scored his 100th touchdown. The real issue here is that he wants a new contract and the Eagles don't want to give him one.
Meanwhile, the Eagles can't run. Or rather, they won't run. Though Philly trails the league by a lot in rushes and yards, there are eight teams, including the Cowboys, Panthers and Patriots, who are equal to or worse than the Eagles in yards per carry.
You can win without a running game, as the New England Patriots taught us a couple of years ago, but with no running game, an injured quarterback and the only decent receiver on the team hurt and pouting? And did I mention the defense, the cornerstone of the Eagles' success these last few years? They're not much better at stopping the run than they are at running.
So all of a sudden, the NFC is wide open. The reason the Eagles looked like such a lock is that nobody else looked like much at all. And that's still sorta true. There are a bunch of teams at or near 5-2, but you look at each of them and can't help saying: Eh.
Here's a look at them, in this column's usual west to east and south to north order, in defiance of media norms:
Seattle Seahawks (5-2): With that defense?
Atlanta Falcons (5-2): Their defense, which took a hit when middle linebacker Ed Hartwell got hurt, hasn't been playing well enough to make them look like a team that will go far in the playoffs. Michael Vick, the great wild card, has been bothered by injuries.
Carolina Panthers (5-2): Can you win the conference with one (1) offensive weapon? Even if that weapon is Steve Smith.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-2): All seven of Tampa Bay's opponents so far have losing records. Let's see what the Bucs do over the next four weeks against tougher foes: Carolina, Washington, Atlanta on the road and Chicago. It wouldn't be shocking to see them finish at 8-8. They did lose quarterback Brian Griese and then promptly get beaten by the 49ers when he went out, but if Griese was playing well, he sure fooled me.
New York Giants (5-2): It's customary for teams contending for the Super Bowl to win a game on the road at some point. It's customary to play on the road once in a while. Seriously, the defense is just OK, and yes I'm aware it just pitched a shutout. At the moment, the Giants are looking like the best team in the conference, but there are a lot of moments between now and the playoffs.
Dallas Cowboys (5-3): The Cowboys have trouble stopping the run, which is not as bad as having trouble stopping the pass, but it's a problem, right Eagles? Also, gosh, I feel bad about this, but I'm just not ready to believe Drew Bledsoe's going to keep playing well all year. I have no real reason not to believe that, I just don't.
Chicago Bears (4-3): Have to include them because they're leading their division, and even though someone's going to say, "Why didn't you include Washington, which is also 4-3?" But the Bears really don't look like conference championship material, and incidentally, after that 36-0 loss to the Giants, neither does Washington, though it seems more likely to change that perception.
On to the games, with winning teams capitalized.
ATLANTA (5-2) at Miami (3-4): After two weeks of running mostly backwards, Ricky the Holisticky Williams had his first good game Sunday in the win over the Saints. With an effective Williams and Ronnie Brown splitting time in the backfield, the assignment for the young, injury-damaged Falcons defense is simple: Make quarterback Gus Frerotte be the guy who beats you.
SAN DIEGO (4-4) at N.Y. Jets (2-5): The Chargers have this game, then a bye week, then a home game against the Bills, and then their schedule gets nasty again. They just have to win these next two, and I think they will.
Houston (1-6) at JACKSONVILLE (4-3): I thought I was kind of a hot shot last week when I picked the Texans to win their first game, over Cleveland, and they did. I'm all walking around the kitchen pounding my chest and stuff. Then I realized everyone in the Western world, plus a prognosticating yak in Nepal, picked the Texans. The Jaguars win when they should lose and lose when they should win. They should win this one, so I think they'll ... win.
CINCINNATI (6-2) at Baltimore (2-5): Ooh, a tasty candidate for What the Heck Pick of the week. The Ravens gave the Steelers a good game last week, which means they're due to fall on their faces in this game, which would make them a great WTH Pick. But I'm going with Carson Palmer to pick 'em apart.
CAROLINA (5-2) at Tampa Bay (5-2): The Panthers were a hip preseason Super Bowl pick among the grideratti who didn't want to pick the Eagles, then were quickly dumped when they lost two of their first three games to the Saints and Dolphins. Ugh, Carolina Panthers: That's so three weeks ago, darling. Now the Panthers have put together four straight wins over weak sisters, and this game will say a lot about them.
Ditto for the Bucs, who have taken a similar but opposite route to 5-2, four wins over losing teams, then two out of three losses without a winning opponent in the bunch. An intriguing game, but I think the Bucs will have too much trouble moving the ball.
Tennessee (2-6) at CLEVELAND (2-5): Two clubs playing like last-place teams. The winner is ... (throws dart) ... Browns.
OAKLAND (3-4) at Kansas City (4-3): Don't look now, but the Raiders are actually playing pretty well. Not well enough to make the playoffs, I don't think, given their schedule, but well enough to beat a Chiefs team that I'm still not quite buying. It rarely pays to pick against K.C. as home, but I've already done it this year, and I'm taking a little flyer here.
DETROIT (3-4) at Minnesota (2-5): Joey Harrington is back at quarterback for the Lions with Jeff Garcia hurting following the beating he took last week at the hands of the Bears. Brad Johnson takes over for the injured Daunte Culpepper for Minnesota. Hooboy. Will Steve Mariucci and Mike Tice still be coaching these teams when they meet again in four weeks? That's probably a yes and no.
SEATTLE (5-2) at Arizona (2-5): Kurt Warner returns at quarterback for the Cardinals, which means their defense will get to spend even more time chasing Shaun Alexander around. Boy, I'm picking a lot of visiting teams.
CHICAGO (4-3) at New Orleans (2-6): Saints owner Tom Benson continued his campaign of endearing himself to the people of Louisiana last week by going off on a TV cameraman for no apparent reason, then saying he felt like he and his family feared for their lives because of all the hostility in Tiger Stadium and he won't be returning to Baton Rouge. Ooh, the sting.
N.Y. GIANTS (5-2) at San Francisco (2-5): A lot of visiting teams, is what I'm picking. This would be another handy What the Heck Pick if the 49ers hadn't pulled off a WTH win over the Bucs last week.
Pittsburgh (5-2) at GREEN BAY (1-6): Here it is. What the Heck Pick of the week. Even with Charlie Batch replacing the injured Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback for the Steelers, it still qualifies, because the Packers are just so bad.
Bookies are offering proposition bets on what crazy, bonehead plays Brett Favre will make. Throwing a ball straight up in the air to be intercepted while being hit: 4-1. Scrambling past the line of scrimmage and then throwing: 5-2. Faking a spike without telling his teammates: 7-1. If the Eagles could be undefeated with Favre at quarterback, Donovan McNabb must be the worst quarterback since Baravelli.
Philadelphia (4-3) at WASHINGTON (4-3): The battle for last place in the NFC East. As bad as Washington looked last week in getting scorched by the Giants, the Eagles might actually be worse. Their only wins in the last four games have come courtesy of a crazy bounce against the Chargers -- though to be fair that bounce was caused by a good play, a blocked kick -- and an utter collapse by the Chiefs. The other two games in that stretch, they got drilled, by the Cowboys and Broncos, and they just generally look like a team that's getting ready to pack it in.
INDIANAPOLIS (7-0) at New England (4-3): The last two years, the Colts' season has ended at Gillette Stadium. If they win there Monday night, they'll pretty much guarantee they won't have to go back in January. The Patriots rode the emotional high of linebacker Tedy Bruschi's triumphant return from a stroke to a nice win over the mediocre Bills last week, but they still have a lot of problems with their injury-riddled defense.
The Pats' season so far has gone like this: win, loss, win, loss, win, loss, win. Detect a pattern there? Me neither, but I think they'll lose this one, and people will start talking seriously about the Colts going undefeated -- right up until they lose to the Texans at home next week.
Season record: 75-41
Last week: 10-4
What the Heck Picks: 4-4
Number of wins Baravelli earned in his best season at quarterback: 1
Previous column: High price of fandom
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