Earlier in the year there were two teams that looked like runaway trains: The Cowboys and the Bengals. Loaded with dysfunction and conflict, bordering on open hostility, I had these two teams marked down as destined for implosion. Now it’s beginning to look like they are both gonna make it through.
Just about every sports movies ever made has been about a group of misguided or despised wrong-side-of-the-tracks players who turn out be merely misunderstood once the right person shows up at the right time to provide salvation. The hero has a tough road; he gets a lot of resistance, but doesn’t give up. Eventually the players become believers and events conspire to put them in a position to demonstrate their character. And whether they win or lose that final game, salvation is at hand in the end.
The Bengals seem to be playing this script out perfectly. At the beginning of the season, it would’ve made sense for about half the players to have mug shots photoshopped into the team picture. They were about to have to mass petition the League was to allow players to wear tracking devices on their ankles. As recently as a couple of weeks ago, they were sniping at each other in the press. Suddenly, they are playing killer defense, their marquee bad boy has toned things down a bit and they are whomping opponents left and right.
What happened? Did they bring in Al Pacino to talk about clawing for that inch? Did Marvin Lewis rip off his mask to reveal Denzel Washington underneath? Did Carson Palmer leap up on the trainer’s table and declare it to be St. Crispin’s day? Whatever happened, nobody has said anything about it. Nothing. Am I the only one who would be curious to know how this came about? In the immortal words of Kevin Bacon in Tremors, “What the hell is going on? I mean, what the HELL is going on?”
This may be the most disappointing development of the season. With the personalities on this team and the tendency toward criminal behavior, I was counting on them being good for at least 15,000 words before the year was out. There’s still time, and maybe a humiliating loss or two will set them off again, but for now, it’s just wasted comedic potential.
The Cowboys also seem under control, but we have a much better idea why: Bill Parcells won. But it wasn’t the kind of victory that ended with a surrender document signed aboard the U.S.S. Missouri. The bomb was never dropped, nobody died at Iwo Jima, there wasn’t even a pivotal battle at Midway. It was as though, after Pearl Harbor, when the U.S. was in the middle of the arming and shipbuilding, the Japanese just decided to sack to whole idea and become a democracy.
Could it be that this is the year T.O. grew up? His skills are clearly down from his heyday. He drops passes at a startling rate and isn’t really Mr. Go-To anymore. Could a newfound appreciation of mortality have knocked the chip off his shoulder?
I hate it when pundits claim to see the thoughts and emotions of players and make grand pronouncements about how their state of mind is affecting their play because it’s nearly always a load of crap. It’s hard enough to understand someone you know intimately, never mind a guy you see on the field once a week and in a five minute public interview. But I’m going to do it anyway.
First he took a fine Super Bowl performance with the Eagles and made it into an ego-scandal. He got kicked off the Eagles and had to sit out half a season in the prime of his career. Then, from the outset Cowboys camp he pissed everyone off over the dubious hamstring injury. Once he finally did start playing, it’s clear he was not where he was back in that Super Bowl game, which must seem like ancient history to him now. This is followed by the non-suicide attempt.
Now, as an armchair psychologist, I would guess two things happened. 1) The decline in his skills forced him to realize how mortal he is and how limited an NFL career is. If he truly knows the end is coming, even if it is still a few years off, how desperately would he want those missed games in Philly back, when he had a great QB and was playing out of his mind? Which leads to 2) Accepting responsibility for his own fate. Even though he may still think it is unfair that he can’t spew out all his emotions to the camera without consequence, he must simply see that as a fact of life. I bet the trade-off of holding his tongue and being a good teammate in exchange for not missing another game due to bad behavior looks like a good one to him now. In other words, I think our little boy may be becoming a man.
[Editor -- please delete the last four paragraphs if, for any reason, T.O. calls a midweek press conference.]
For Parcells’ part, he didn’t really have to do anything except just make it clear that there was a point where he wouldn’t take anymore. He has got to be one of the happiest guys around right now, the disaster seems to have dissipated and he’s found himself an effective QB he doesn’t take his incessant criticisms personally.
No more big laughs at the Cowboys expense either.
There have been other meltdown candidates. The Raiders come to mind, but they were already in a liquid state before the season. The Giants are teetering with a suspect coaching staff, a confused child at QB, and a pack of attention loving loudmouths everywhere else. The Falcons will meltdown once Mike Vick realizes it’s his best shot at being traded.
But the biggest meltdown of the year, well, that honor belongs to…
…Me, versus the spread. Spread picks were 3-6 and I have for all intents and purposes become a negative indicator. That makes me 16-21 for the year for a total loss of $710. Based I my performance, I should stop making fun of every team in the NFL, even the Lions. But I won’t.
The line picks fared better. Only 3-3, but our bias towards underdogs puts us up by $90 for the week and 515.78 for the year.
Here’s the thing: Had Philly lost Monday night, my reserve of money line winnings from the first couple of weeks would have been pretty much depleted, and you know my state of mind since the Vegas beatdown of last week. So on Monday night, before the game even started, I wrote up this section as if Philly lost, just to save time. I even closed with this line, “This is probably the last we see of anything on the plus side this year.”
So what happens? The Eagles win on a last minute interception. Can you believe it? I actually caught a break! Lucky I’m such a rationalist or I would be writing entire columns as if every pick was wrong before the games even start, just in the hopes of extending this little bit of good mojo.
There is no clear favorite in the NFL anymore. Last week, Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders identified six teams with a realistic shot at the Lombardi trophy: Ravens, Cowboys, Colts, Bears, Chargers, and Pats. To wit: “I would give 100:1 odds against any other team winning it all, maybe more.” Of those six, the Bears and Pats won, but stank like dead skunks in the middle of the road; the Cowboys and Chargers won, but failed to cover. The Ravens lost nobly and the Colts lost ignominiously. I have ask, do the Seahawks and Saints now figure into the mix now? What about the Bengals who seem to be cruisin’ easy these days? I’d take Aaron’s 100-1 on the field any day. (More on this next week.)
But how could the Colts lose? Could the Titans actually be that good? We are talking about a team that lost it’s first five and was battling it out with the Raiders for the worst team in the League early in the season, and now they seem to be beating everybody. However, there is lingering doubt. Would they have beaten the Eagles with McNabb? They had an amazing comeback against the Giants, but really, didn’t the Giants kind of hand them that game? And they needed that 60-yarder to beat the Colts. The most impressive thing they have done is hold the Colts to 17 points. Don’t get me wrong, that is impressive as hell, but I would like to see a dominating win against a quality opponent before I declare them for real. That counts for the team as well as Vince Young.
Still, for their final four games the Titans are at Houston (certainly winnable), home versus Jacksonville (either an easy win or a beat down, depending on which Jags team shows up), at Buffalo (should only be a test in bad weather), and finally home against New England (only a test if the Pats playoff picture is not set). There is an outside chance that they win out the year: beat Houston, bad Jags appear, nice day in Buffalo and the Pats with nothing to play for. That would put them at 9-7, a possible wild card team (although even a long shot then), and turn Jeff Fisher from lame duck to Coach of the Year candidate. That would be the story of the year. They are already a mortal lock to be everybody’s AFC dark horse in 2007.
How could the Bears win by 10 points when being out-gained by nearly 250 yards? How could the Bears win when their QB had 34 passing yards and a rating lower than Johan Santana’s ERA. Wow. Put a neck beard on Rex Grossman and I would have guessed Kyle Orton was playing. The defense has been dominant and their record is stellar, but somebody is going to bitch-slap these guys in the playoffs when Rex drops a nice fat dookie like that. Then you know what will happen? Nothing. Considering how Lovie Smith stuck to his game plan even after Steve Smith was pantsing him in the playoffs last year, I’m guessing he will be unaffected by a Grossman dookie of any size, shape or color.
How bad did the Giants hose me? Well, the formula for the money line kicked out the Giants as a pick, so I would have got some benefit if they won. On the other hand, I just didn’t see them winning after the previous week’s debacle and considering how well Dallas was playing, so for the spread I took Dallas and gave the Giants 4 points. If they lost by more than four, I would get a win in against the spread. Cruelly, they lost by 3, thereby hosing me on both the money line and point spread.
The Giants are pure, concentrated evil. Last year Jay Feely’s missed field goal ruined my Thanksgiving weekend picks. This year on Thanksgiving weekend, 24 4th quarter points served on a silver platter to the Titans ruined my picks. Now they double hose me last week. Clearly, this has gotten personal. It’s a shame the Giants fans have to put up with all the disappointment just so I will suffer.
This just in: Archie Manning is arrested for suspicion of hiring Buddy Ryan to punch Kevin Gilbride. Developing…
The Pats, playing one of their worst games in years, needed a 4th quarter touchdown to beat the Lions. The Detroit press, instead of praising the overmatched Lions for actually battling the mighty Pats so heroically, is all up in arms about the use of Josh McCown, the Lions back-up QB, as a wide receiver, and not just as a decoy and what that must say about WR Mike Williams, the first round draft pick from a couple years back. He is sitting on the bench while the back-up QB becomes a wide-out project.
So let’s see if I have this straight. We have Kitna at QB. He’s not doing terribly well, and the season is lost anyway, but we don’t want to take a look at the younger, more mobile McCown behind center. Instead, will make him into a part time wide-out thereby passing on a chance to look at our highly drafted wide-out from a couple of years back. I’m sure Millen and Marinelli have a reason for this. Although that reason may be abject stupidity.
Note to Florio over at ProFootballTalk.com: You owe me a new keyboard for referring to Mike Vick as the Birdman of Valcatrex.
Monday Night Football capsule review
Rocky paid a visit this week, in preparation for the release of Rocky 17 or something.
Stallone — who has got to be about 60 years old, 5’6″, 230lbs. — has jowls so thick that he could play Vito Corleone without the mouth props.
Theismann keeps calling him “Sly,” because he’s so on the inside with celebs since his stellar performance in Cannonball Run 2 and that episode of B.J. and the Bear.
Kornhorny makes him say “Yo Adrian!” like some kind of blithering fanboy and asks him about beating meat. Then he makes him say “Yo Tony!” I guess we’re lucky he didn’t ask him to autograph his breasts.
On to the picks. Click the headings for the spreadsheets.
Games with the wrong favorite
Baltimore is getting 3 from KC (I had to do a double take on that one). The Ravens are even better after KCs home adjustment. Pick: Ravens +3
Minnesota is getting 2 from the Lions and similarly, they have a higher rating even after the home adjustment. The Lions, as it turns out, have the worst defense in the League, but Minnesota’s offense is almost equally bad and they seem to be in QB experimentation mode, so it’s questionable how well they’ll capitalize on it. Plus, the Vikes are abysmal against the pass and the Lions have their new hot shot receiver Josh McCown. Think I’ll pass.
Atlanta is giving 3 to Tampa Bay when the Bucs are superior after the home adjustment. Again, considering recent performances it’s hard to go with the Bucs, especially since Atlanta still has playoff hopes but this year is a silently acknowledged write off for Tampa Bay. Pass.
Indy is giving 2 to Jacksonville. The schizoid Jags are superior after the home adjustment. This is another tough one to take. Indy’s D is certainly in the toilet. But what about Peyton and what about Joseph Addai? In last week’s loss to the Titans, everyone was focused on Vince Young, but the real story was how the Titans limited what is one of the best offenses in history to 17 points. And the question for this week is whether the Jags to perform similarly. I have no confidence that they can. Pass.
Games where the spread is too high
It’s tempting to take the 7.5 points the Steelers are giving the Browns in Pittsburgh. The Browns are showing signs of life. The Steelers are hammered and will be without Troy Polamalu, safety Ryan Clark, and both starting wide receivers. Can they win by more than a TD in that situation? I’ll give in to temptation. Pick: Browns +7.5
The ‘Niners are giving 5 to the Pack in the San Fran. The Pack have hosed me the last two weeks straight. Why would I suppose they can cover against the ‘Niners? Because it’s the ‘Niners. And besides the Packers D should be well rested after taking last week off. Pick: Packers +5
In another improbable spread, the Texans are giving 2 to the Titans in Houston. DVOA says that Houston is slightly better after the home adjustment which is statistically conceivable, but the fact that Vegas is going along with it is surprising. Sometime perception is clear enough that it has to override the numbers. Pick: Titans +2
The Giants are getting 3 from Carolina, who need the home adjustment to be statistically superior. Both these teams are trapped in the seething cauldron of mediocrity that is the NFC wild card race, but the once beat up Giants are getting healthier and they seemed much more poised in their loss to Dallas than Carolina did in losing to the Eagles. Gotta take the points. Pick: Giants +3
Games where the spread is too low
Seattle is giving 3 to Arizona in the desert. Remarkably, after the home adjustment, the Cards are the higher rated team. But not only am I not taking the Cards, I’m pulling a reverse and giving the points, mostly because the ratings are still incorporating the Hasselbeck-less games. I sense the ‘Hawks are out to prove something whereas the Cards are just living out the last days of Dennis Green. Pick: Seahawks -3
The Pats are only giving 3.5 to the Fins in Miami. Presumably this is partly due to the pathetic game they played against the Lions last week, and partly due to Miami having actually won a few games in the second half of the season. The Pats are better than they played in Detroit. And I have been saying that the Fins have seriously problems all through their recent victories. Time to put up or shut up on that. Pick: Patriots -3.5
The Jets are giving the Bills 3.5 in the Meadowlands. Not much to say here except the Jets are on a nice roll and if they can slam the Pack in Lambeau they should be able to take the Bills at home by more than a field goal. Pick: Jets -3.5
The Chargers are giving a touchdown to the Broncos in San Diego. When their deadly plug-and-play running game slipped a bit (although it is still decent) and Bad Jake made his return, I think Shanahan saw that there would be no Super Bowl for them this year, and decided to treat the rest of the season as prep for next year. Conversly, the Chargers are convinced that this year belongs to them. And it may just. Pick: Chargers -7
We have a mixed message on Tennessee v. Houston, so we’ll let that one go. And I couldn’t find a line on Carolina v. the Giants. That leaves Minnesota, Jacksonville, Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Philadelphia, Arizona and Green Bay.
We don’t mess with the money line formula because it has been our lifeline to success this season, but this week there is very little overlap between the money line and the spread. That’s a little worrisome.
And we stagger into yet another week. Lots of spread picks again, because we’re getting close to hail mary time. And I’ve picked the Giants again. Hail Mary, full of grace…