NFL Week 9 is one game: The New England Patriots at the Indianapolis Colts. Looked at a certain way, it's the best regular-season matchup in NFL history. Here's the way: Never before have two undefeated teams met so late in the season.
The Patriots are 8-0, the Colts 7-0.
Stakes are everything, which is why you'll be watching a whole lot more badminton and whitewater canoeing next summer than you did this summer, and there isn't nearly as much at stake in this blockbuster as there is in any number of late-season games with playoff berths on the line.
The Patriots and Colts could both play the rest of the season with their shoelaces tied together and still make the playoffs.
The actual stake is the tie-breaker that Sunday's winner would hold should the Pats and Colts end the season with the same record. In that case, the winner Sunday would host a playoff rematch, which, if both teams avoid upsets between now and then, would be the AFC Championship Game.
A bit abstract, if you ask me, and home-field advantage may not mean too terribly much in this rivalry anymore. The Colts have shown in the last two years that they can win in Foxboro, while the Patriots' new speed on offense mutes the advantage the Colts traditionally have while playing on their fast carpet.
But this game's so good, it doesn't need stakes. Here is the NFL's best rivalry of the past decade, with both teams arguably better than they've ever been during that time.
The football stathead Web site Football Outsiders has been home to a running Tom Brady-vs.-Peyton Manning debate for years, and this week it had so much traffic its servers blew out, forcing it to post a notice apologizing for being unable to handle the load "with the GAME OF THE CENTURY looming." The Outsiders argue that the Patriots and Colts are the two best teams after Week 8 in the last 12 years, which is as far back as the site's data goes.
Here is a chance to measure the two teams that have adamantly separated themselves from the rest of the league in the first half of the season. The Colts may learn they have a lot of work to do to catch up to the Patriots. The Patriots may learn they're not quite as dominant as their first eight wins would indicate.
Or we might all learn that if these teams lined up against each other 10 times neither would win more than six. And, deliciously, there's a very good chance they're going to line up against each other again in January.
This is that rare gem of a game where we can forget the stakes and just revel in two great teams squaring off. The only thing I can think of that's comparable is a regular-season game between rival college basketball powerhouses, Duke-North Carolina being the obvious example. Rarely is anything at stake in that game. Both teams are going to the NCAA Tournament with high seedings most years. Yet it's a war every time.
It should be the same thing in the dome in Indy Sunday.
Darn my luck for already having used the "forget all those other games" gambit when the Patriots played the Dallas Cowboys three weeks ago, but: Forget all those other games, even though there are better other games this week than there were in Week 6.
That Monday night Baltimore-Pittsburgh game is pretty intriguing, and so are Green Bay-Kansas City, Carolina-Tennessee, Jacksonville-New Orleans and Denver-Detroit. This would be a very interesting week under ordinary circumstances, with a bunch of teams in fascinating crossroads games.
Forget 'em all.
Unless you live near Houston or Cleveland and don't have the satellite package, that is. Poor you. Then you're stuck with the Texans-Oakland Raiders stinker in Texas, the Seattle Seahawks-Cleveland Browns yawner in Ohio, even though that one's on the other network. Call the league office with your thanks, Clevelanders. Your call is very important to the NFL.
San Francisco Bay Area fans would have had to sit through that Texans-Raiders pooch and miss the Game of the Century if the Raiders had sold out their game by 1:15 p.m. PDT Thursday. The deadline passed with tickets remaining unsold, and I'm sure that had nothing to do with the heavily armed fans who formed a human barricade in front of the Raiders ticket office Thursday morning.
An unscientific Interweb poll at the San Francisco Chronicle's affiliated Web site asked local fans if they'd rather see the Raiders game or Pats-Colts on local TV. The answer: Pats-Colts, 87-13 percent.
I think Pats-Colts ran up the score a little bit there, don't you?
Here are the Week 9 picks, also known as Patriots-Colts and the 13 dwarves. Winners in caps, accompanied by the picks of my almost-certainly hallucinated children, 4-year-old Buster, who picks games just like the other experts, and Daisy, the coin-flippinest 2-year-old who ever took the points on Indy.
Sunday late games that are so much more important than all the other games combined, or even, like, multiplied by each other, that they go first, even though chronologically they should be near the end of the column
NEW ENGLAND (8-0) at Indianapolis (7-0)
Good as the Colts are -- really, really good, as my kids will apparently tell you -- I'm sticking with the idea that this Patriots team is just transcendent. Shut down Randy Moss, here's Donte' Stallworth. Shut them both down -- yeah, right -- here's Wes Welker and Ben Watson and the other Brady and whoops, there went Moss. And Laurence Maroney's averaged better than five yards a pop in each of the last four games he's played. And if you leave anything open, Tom Brady will find it.
Of course, Manning has his share of weapons and his own opening-finding skills. Marvin Harrison has been nursing a bad knee, but even if he's not 100 percent, Manning can do a lot of damage with Reggie Wayne and, especially, Dallas Clark. And Joseph Addai's been running as well as Maroney, but more often.
I think it'll be a close one, and turnovers or bad bounces could easily send things Indy's way. But I think the Patriots are going to win, and then I think the typists and chatterers are going to start talking about an undefeated season, and for once, I won't think they're all nuts.
Sunday early games
San Francisco (2-5) at ATLANTA (1-6)
The stakes might be higher here than in Indianapolis. The loser does some important work in nailing down the top pick in next year's draft. Of course, in the Niner's case, they'd be nailing it down for New England, who they traded it to.
Daisy: San Francisco
Carolina (4-3) at TENNESSEE (5-2)
In their last 16 games, the Titans are a very healthy 11-5. They've been winning lately without, strictly speaking, having an offense. This week they get the Panthers, who, shall we say, can relate. The banged-up David Carr figures to start at quarterback over the banged up Vinnie Testaverde. Middling AFC teams should beat middling NFC teams.
Arizona (3-4) at TAMPA BAY (4-4)
And speaking of banged-up quarterbacks, here's Kurt Warner, under center for the Cardinals. The Bucs should reverse their recent trend of not getting any takeaways, and if so they'll nose into the lead in the weak NFC South.
Kids: Tampa Bay
Washington (4-3) at N.Y. JETS (1-7)
The Washingtons got thrashed by the Patriots 52-7 last week. The Pats were accused of running up the score, which is just stupid, these people being professionals and all, but they probably weren't so much rubbing it in to Washington as flexing their muscles for Indy's benefit. Now Washington gets to take it out on Jets rookie quarterback Kellen Clemens, which makes this the What the Heck Pick of the week.
Buster: New York
JACKSONVILLE (5-2) at New Orleans (3-4)
Fortunately for the Saints, who started the season by falling flat on their faces with four straight losses, the NFC South is still there for the taking. They're all of one game out of first. Drew Brees and the offense have found their mojo. The Jags are struggling on offense with quarterback David Garrard out, and it looks like defensive tackle Marcus Stroud is about to start a drug suspension. Unfortunately for the Saints, they're not the kind of team that can pound the ball up the middle to take advantage. The Jags are good at rushing the quarterback while the Saints are not good at protecting him, and that old middling AFC over middling NFC team thing should help Jax.
Buster: New Orleans
SAN DIEGO (4-3) at Minnesota (2-5)
The Chargers have also found their offensive mojo. The Vikings have not, and aren't going to, but this game is notable for featuring two of the best running backs in the league, LaDainian Tomlinson and Adrian Peterson.
Kids: San Diego (7-point favorite)
GREEN BAY (6-1) at Kansas City (4-3)
The Packers are on too much of a roll for the middling AFC thing to work, I think, even though the Packers are coming off an emotional win and a short week. Still, I'm just about ready to hand Herman Edwards of the Chiefs my Coach of the Year award, which is way better than admitting how much I underestimated his team at the start of the season.
Buster: Kansas City
Daisy: Green Bay
Cincinnati (2-5) at BUFFALO (3-4)
Boy, the Bengals have just fallen off a cliff in the last year, haven't they? Buffalo's superior defense -- not saying much -- and special teams should make up for Cincy's offensive firepower, which hasn't been all that powerful.
Denver (3-4) at DETROIT (5-2)
The Broncos are just nuts. Without things going terribly differently, they could be 0-7. They could also be 4-3 and in a three-way tie for first in the AFC West. They got pounded in consecutive weeks by the Colts (38-20) and Chargers (41-3), then turned around after a bye and beat the Steelers. I mean: What? The Lions have an improving defense, and at some point we out here in the world are going to have to admit that Jon Kitna's a pretty good quarterback.
Sunday late games that are to blame for some perfectly innocent fans of the NFL who live in or near Houston and Cleveland not being able to watch the game that's so much more important than all the other games unless they go spend four hours in a sports bar, not that there's anything wrong with sports bars necessarily but some people don't like sports bars, because maybe they don't like the smoke, or they're sober, or it's expensive to keep ordering drinks or food, which let's face it you're gonna do, or it's just hard to find a comfortable place to sit sometimes, and besides what about the people with childcare issues?
Seattle (4-3) at CLEVELAND (4-3)
In an odd scheduling twist, both teams are coming off of wins over the Rams. The Rams are probably capable of losing two games in a week, but the explanation here is a bye last week for Seattle after their 33-6 shellacking of their division, ahem, rivals. The Browns escaped St. Louis with a 27-20 win, which is why I'm taking the Browns, if you follow.
Houston (3-5) at OAKLAND (2-5)
These teams could combine for 37 touchdowns and you'd never see a highlight. Don't worry. They won't.
Sunday night game
Dallas (6-1) at PHILADELPHIA (3-4)
The Eagles are scuffling pretty badly while the Cowboys are cruising through the easy part of their schedule, plus that loss to the Patriots. This one won't be easy, though. The Philly fans hate them some Cowboys, especially Terrell Owens, and this prime-time game will have a playoff feel as the desperate Eagles try to keep their season alive. I'm going with the kids: I think Philly pulls off an emotional upset thanks to the defense forcing turnovers and Donovan McNabb making a couple of inspired plays.
Monday night game
Baltimore (4-3) at PITTSBURGH (5-2)
Big, intriguing game. For the nicked-up Ravens, the question is whether they can hang in the playoff race. For the Steelers it's is you is or is you ain't an elite AFC team? All that really means in today's AFC is whether a team is a solid No. 3 in the conference, but there's a lot to be said for being No. 3. You get to host a playoff game, and if one of the top two stumbles, you're only an upset away from the Super Bowl. I don't know about that big point spread, but I think the Steelers are the real deal No. 3.
But this week, it'll all be about those top two.
Kids: Pittsburgh (8.5-point favorite)
Season record: 70-46
Last week: 7-6
What the Heck Picks: 0-7
Considering the above, predicted scores of, in order, the Seahawks-Browns, Texans-Raiders and Patriots-Colts games: 66-60 (OT), 49-48, 6-4.
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