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Week Five Picks

October 8th, 2005

Easily the toughest picking of the year so far. Lets see how many games I can get wrong.

Baltimore (+1) at Detroit
Neither offense is worth a damn (which has to really hurt when you’re the team with all the first round draft choices at receiver, and kinda bug you when you’re the team whose star running back’s off-season conditioning program was centered in a prison weight room). Baltimore’s D is good. Detroit’s is slightly better than average. (There’s a difference of 41 yards per game between them.) So, yeah, home field does give Detroit a slight advantage. I’m still taking Baltimore in the upset, because I just think they’re less awful.

Chicago (+3) at Cleveland
Well, Ced, this is how it works. You opted to skip the pre-season and now you’ve gotta sit on the bench and watch Thomas Jones, the guy you were drafted in the first round to replace, rack up 100-plus-yard games. Sucks, huh? What really sucks for the Bears is that that Jones’ 100 yards a game has been about half their total offense. That’s not good. The Browns, meanwhile, are having the opposite problem. Trent Dilfer is throwing the ball pretty well (to the tune of 267 yards a game), but Reuben Droughns is getting nothing. I’m not sure what any of that stuff means. Here’s what I do know. The Browns have a better all-around O and the Bears have a better D. Flip a coin. Mine came down on the Cleveland side, so I’m taking them to win, but not to cover. Yours could go the other way. And one of ours would be right.

Miami (+2.5) at Buffalo
I was happily crunching the statistical numbers on this game, trying to figure out what I’d missed that made Buffalo, even at home, a three-point favorite to what looks to me like a much better Miami team when the Bills went and announced they’d be starting Kelly Holcomb rather than J.P. Losman at quarterback. And since I’m a dedicated Bills fan, I choose to believe that changes everything. Oh, wait. I’m not a Bills fan. OK, then I guess Holcomb changes very little in my estimation. Because the problem with Buffalo’s offense hasn’t been Losman, it’s been the line, which can’t block for shit. So, you know, maybe Holcomb throws better when he’s getting chased around the backfield than Losman does. But how much better? Not enough. That’s how much. Look, to date, Buffalo’s pass offense has been horrible. It’s 31st in the league, putting up less than 92 yards per game (per game) and having scored all of one touchdown. So it’s hard to believe Holcomb won’t at least appear to make it better. But it’ll only be a matter of degrees. Still, Miami’s pass D is average. That’s a fact. So you do have a bit of an opportunity there. But average still beats poor. What the Bills need to do is run the ball, and they’re pretty good at that. Seventh in the league, in fact, with an average of 4.6 yards per carry and four touchdowns to their credit. That’s nice. Typically helps you set up the passing game (unless your line can’t pass protect and the only reason you’ve gained so many yards on the ground is that the only guy on our offense with any real talent is your running back). But when you come up against a squad like Miami, with the second best run D in the league (which has allowed only 2.9 yards per carry and given up not a single rushing touchdown), you risk hitting some difficulties there, especially if they can bring in a safety on running plays because you can’t throw the damned ball (a fact that, again, has had nothing to do with the quarterback). So you rely on your D, right? Forget Holcomb. Let the D keep you in the game and give Willis McGahee the chance to find a way to carry you to a close victory. Hell, Buffalo’s got the 11th best defense in the league, right? Yeah, that’s true. But it’s a D that’s fourth against the pass (having allowed just 5.68 yards per completion and two TDs) and, get this, 31st against the run (4.9 yards per carry/5 TDs). That ain’t good ever, but it’s extra not good when you’re facing a Miami offense that a) is doing OK, with a 4.5 yards per carry average and four trips to the end zone in three games; and b) features Ronnie Brown, who is one week away from sharing carries with Ricky Williams and no doubt looking to establish himself as unquestionably the man. So what’s it all add up to? This: Kelly Holcomb, my patoot. I’m taking the upset and so should you.

New England (+2.5) at Atlanta
I’m not picking New England to win this game based on faith. Yeah, the Pats are a team one could have faith in. They’ve certainly earned it, finding ways to overcome all kinds of injuries and to win games under the most difficult of circumstances. And there’s every reason to believe they’re still that kind of team. Thing is, I don’t do faith. I do hard cold facts. Thing is, I’m not picking the Pats based on those, either. Because in the end, all the cold, hard facts really tell me is that this is probably a tossup. Yeah, the Pats are hurting on defense. And yeah, they took a beating from San Diego last week. They’re a team that’s ranked 25th against the run and they’re facing the best rushing offense in the league. That’s not good. On the other side of things, however, you’ve got an Atlanta D that hasn’t performed well against the run either going up against a New England running back, Corey Dillon, who’s due to bust out. And while Atlanta’s D has done well against the pass, they’ve done so mostly with their pass rush, and Tom Brady knows how to keep his cool in the face of a big rush. The Falcons’ DBs should have trouble keeping up with the Pats’ receivers, which should give Brady plenty of targets to hit, if he can buy them enough time to get open. That’ll work especially well if the Falcons have to bring a safety up help stop Dillon, which seems likely. All that said, it’s still a wash from a statistical perspective. Lots off offense and not much D all around. Ultimately, that favors the home team. So, as I said, I’m not picking the Pats based on fait or on cold, hard, quantifiable facts. So why am I picking an underdog team that got roughed up at home last week to beat a good team on the road? Because I predicted at the start of the season that New England would be winning games with offense this season rather than D, and I predicted that knowing it would take the Pats four or five games to adjust to the loss of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, who’s off winning games as head coach of Notre Dame. And my gut says this week, against a soft run defense and so-so secondary (except for DeAngelo Hall, who’s a star) is when the Pats O breaks it wide open. I expect both teams to put lots of points on the board, but I expect the Pats to put up three more than the Falcons. So there you go. All gut.

New Orleans (+3) at Green Bay
Bench Brett Favre for Aaron Rodgers? Are you kidding? Seriously, I’ve heard and read that suggested this week. Seriously. As if that were an option. As if Brett Favre were the problem in Green Bay. As if Green Bay, even at 0-4, were out of the running for the NFC North title. Favre isn’t even close to the problem with the Packers. The problem with the Packers is that they have absolutely no offensive line. And a limited receiving corps. And, now, a banged up running back. So how can the solution to that be to bench a guy who’s putting up decent to outstanding numbers in spite of the challenges he faces in favor of a rookie? Are these people who just want to see a guy (Rodgers) get buried? Or are they people who just don’t have any ability to understand the game of football? In the end, I guess it doesn’t matter. The Packers aren’t benching Favre now, or probably ever. And this week will illustrate why as he picks apart a Saints D that can’t stop much of anything. Najeh Davenport, who’ll start at running back as the Pack rests the injured Ahman Green, should have a field day against New Orleans’ soft run D, too. Take the Packers and give the points.

Seattle (+3) at St. Louis
One of these two teams is going to win this game, only because they can’t both lose it. My guess is it’s the team with only one of its starting wide receivers out of the lineup (that’s St. Louis). Shaun Alexander is a great running back, to be sure, but when you know he’s getting the ball on virtually every down, you should be able to stop him. I wouldn’t touch this game with real money, but since there’s nothing being wagered in this spot, I’m taking the Rams and expecting them to cover.

Tampa Bay (-3.5) at NY Jets
Cadillac may be hurting, which is a problem for the Bucs (though with asshole Michael Pittman healthy and as able as ever, not as huge a problem as it could be). But the Jets are starting the aged and recently plucked from retirement Vinny Testaverde at quarterback, and it there’s no kind of trouble like that kind of trouble. Vinny, who’s always been better at throwing picks than completions, has had less than two weeks to learn the Jets’ current system, which isn’t enough even for a veteran. I know this: One of my fantasy teams is in a league in which you use individual defensive players (as opposed to whole Ds) and I will be starting defensive end John Abraham, not because the Jets D is good (though it is), but because I expect it to spend a lot of time on the field, giving Abraham plenty of opportunities to make tackles. I anticipate a big day for the Bucs’ D (will Brian Kelly have one pick or two?), and for Pittman and for Bucs tight end Alex Smith, both of whom will be picking up slack for Cadillac. And to be honest, I’d give twice the points.

Tennessee (+3) at Houston
This is a key early skirmish in the battle for the rights to USC quarterback Matt Leinart. I expect Tennessee to lose by winning.

Indianapolis (-15) at San Francisco
From what I observed Sunday night in Mexico City, I’m guessing the 49ers rookie quarterback, Alex Smith, who’ll get his first start here, is going to turn out to be very much with the number one draft pick it took to get him. Here, though, he gets a baptism of fire, facing an emergent Indianapolis D and the distinct possibility to having to throw on virtually every down by the middle of the second quarter. That is, after all, what happens when a) you can’t run the ball for shit, and b) you’re behind by three touchdowns. And it hurts really bad when you’re throwing behind an offensive line that can’t make its blocks. I must repeat that it is never wise to bet on an NFL game with a double-digit spread, but I also must say that I expect Peyton Manning to throw three touchdowns, Edgerrin James to add a fourth, and the one Smith throws to some Indy DB to put the icing on the cake. Colts 41, 49ers 3.

Carolina (-2.5) at Arizona
The fact that Josh McCown, who showed incredible leadership in rallying the Cards to a come from a 14-point deficit to absolutely pound the 49ers Sunday night, hasn’t landed the starting quarterback job permanently by now (indeed, the fact that it wasn’t awarded to him by the middle of last season) tells me there’s something really wrong in Arizona. And that something, I think, is Dennis Green, who shouldn’t be coaching in the NFL anymore. The Panthers, who have been uneven, should be glad of that. I’m not so sure Arizona wouldn’t be having more success on the field if it were better coached. And the Panthers need all the help they can get. They absolutely have to win this game to get their season back on track. Luckily for the Panthers, if Green can find a way to undermine McCown (as I’m sure he will), they shouldn’t have too difficult a time of it. I’m taking Carolina and giving the points.

Philadelphia (-3) at Dallas
This one, to my mind is simple. The Eagles are playing great football. The Cowboys aren’t. Simple. Need more? The Eagles’ D specializes in the blitz, and Drew Bledsoe has shown over the course of his career that he can neither elude nor victimize blitzes. The Eagles, meanwhile, will put their first-ranked passing offense (all they do is throw) up against a Cowboys defense that’s 22nd in the league against the pass. I expect Dallas safety Roy Williams to end up wishing like hell he hadn’t had his favorite tackle (the horse collar) taken away from him by the rule committee. Williams will probably see a whole lot of Terrell Owens’ back as the Eagles cruise to a win.

Washington (+6.5) at Denver
You know what? Forget the whole bit about the Redskins being undefeated. Both of these teams have three wins. And the fact is, the Broncos have had a much harder time coming by their wins than the Skins have. Clinton Portis is going nowhere against Denver’s run D. And Mark Brunell is going to be brutalized by Denver’s pass rush. This game will be over by halftime. I’m taking the Broncos and giving the points.

Cincinnati (+2.5) at Jacksonville
There’s no question but that the Bengals are a better team than the Jaguars. Both teams have solid defenses (though the Bengals are a bit more even as regards stopping the pass and the run than the Jags, who are deadly against the pass and have some difficult with the run), but the Bengals offense has been producing like crazy while the Jags have failed to get anything done. So one expects Rudi Johnson to have a 100-plus-yard day, Chad Johnson to catch two touchdowns and the Bengals to nail the upset. But I keep thinking about what happened with the Bengals last week, when they barely got by Houston at home. Why? Because their O line took a beating during the game (they lost two centers) and they couldn’t keep Houston’s D out of the backfield. That line isn’t looking much healthier heading into Jacksonville, which I think gives the Jags the chance to slow the Bengals down and steal a victory that they really don’t deserve. I’m taking Jacksonville, but only by a point.

Pittsburgh (+3) at San Diego
This looks like a great game in the making, which means it’ll be a blowout. And I like the team that just blew out New England in Foxborough to blow out Pittsburgh at home a lot more than I like the team that most recently lost to the Patriots in its home stadium to somehow blow out the surging powerhouse Chargers on the road. Know what I mean? The Chargers will take Willie Parker (and the rest of the now mostly healthy Steelers rushing platoon) out of the game and make Ben Roethlisberger throw 20 to 25 times, something he typically doesn’t have to do. One of those passes is gonna find a Chargers DB. San Diego, meanwhile, will stick with its most potent weapon (the most potent weapon in the league right now) LaDainian Tomlinson, who’ll find the same kinds of cracks in the Steelers run D that Corey Dillon found two weeks ago. And that’ll be that. Maybe it’s not a blowout. Maybe it’s a push against the spread. But it’s certainly a Chargers victory.

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