I've been riding the Buccaneers for four straight weeks, and if I were a handicapper without a heart, I'd say that now's the time to get off them. What? At home against Arizona, a notoriously weak road team? Surely the fellow must be mad. Just hear me out.
Tampa Bay has been up for every game so far: the 49ers, followed by two division matchups, followed by Sunday night's intrastate extravaganza against the Dolphins. It's time for a letdown, in a game everyone will be handing the Bucs before the ball is kicked. Could you blame Tampa Bay for looking ahead to the Packers the next week? Also, Arizona will have had two weeks to prepare.
So after making a spirited case for a Cardinals upset, I'll do an about-face and stick with the Bucs to win a tight one, and the only reason I'm copping out is that I saw the Bucs-Dolphins game. Tampa Bay had seven possessions, not counting a one-play kneeldown to end the first half. Five were decent-sized drives that ended in scores, one ended with a tipped-ball interception, the final one was a clock-killer to close out the game. Trent Dilfer, throwing on rhythm or off balance, was putting the ball into his receivers' hands, and not a pass was dropped. The running game was a combination of passion and execution. And the team didn't commit a penalty until the fourth quarter.
Tony Dungy's Bucs don't do dumb things. They are beautifully coached, and they deserve everything they've gotten so far.
The 49ers to beat Carolina, a team that's had the Niners' number in three of their four meetings. Maybe I'm making too much of the last two San Francisco wins over the dregs of the NFL, and the Panthers' weird letdown against the Chiefs, who had five sacks and forced five turnovers. But there's something seriously out of whack with a Carolina team that commits more penalties than the enemy and that can no longer count on the home field magic. I don't think quarterback Kerry Collins has looked right since he came back from his broken jaw, either. Yes, the Panthers' defense will be stoked, playing on Monday night for the first time, in front of the home folks, and I think it'll put a lot of heat on Steve Young, but the Niners have a formidable defense, too, No. 1 in the league the last time I looked, and that's what'll decide it.
Washington over Jacksonville on a hunch. I like the team that's had a week off against the one coming off an emotional Monday-nighter. Jim Fassel & Co. may still be in shock after their offensive disaster in St. Louis, but I like the Giants to bounce back hard at home against the Saints, who aren't fooling me with that frenzied victory over the Lions. You'll see, a story will break late in the week that New Orleans put a different bunch of guys in its jerseys on Sunday.
I like Philadelphia on the road against Minnesota on Sunday night for two reasons. Number 1, the Eagles will run the ball. O.K., Minnesota held Green Bay to less than 100 rushing yards, but the Packers averaged 4.2 yards a shot, and they didn't run more only because that weird Vikings zone defense, which doesn't believe in covering slot receivers, was such easy pickings. That leads to reason No. 2. The Minnesota safeties were spectators, but the scheme deserves most of the blame, and I think the Eagles' innovative offensive coordinator, Jon Gruden, will pick it apart.
You put two receivers over 100 yards, your running back goes over the century mark, your quarterback throws for almost 400, you commit no turnovers, and it's all overshadowed by the fact that the snap-hold-and-kick part of the operation is a mess. Give the Raiders credit. They are constantly coming up with new ways to lose, this time to the Jets, a team that couldn't stop them—until Oakland lined up for a field goal. Will the misery continue at home against St. Louis this Sunday? I think not. The Rams have a spirited defense, innovatively coached by that old master, Bud Carson, but I think it'll wear down under a steady run of three-and-outs by the Rams' offense, which is still nowhere. Oakland's the pick on superior firepower.
The Jets are even on should-haves. They lost one in New England that they should have won, and they pulled a vice-versa against Oakland. Now they travel to Cincinnati to face a team that had Denver in trouble for a while but got overrun by the hoof-beats of Terrell Davis. If Bill Parcells were more committed to the running game, I'd like the Jets in this one, but he's not relentless with it the way he used to be. I think too much Drew Bledsoe in New England changed his values, just as Dan Marino changed Don Shula's thinking in Miami.
Oh, yes, Parcells's game plan will have a lot of running built into it, but this isn't something hatched overnight. If right tackle David Williams is out (sprained left foot), things will be even tougher for the Jets. Add to that the facts that Cincinnati head man Bruce Coslet is still another fired Jets coach seeking revenge, quarterback Jeff Blake is getting his first crack at the team that turned him loose, and the Jets, with Hugh Douglas hampered by a groin pull, couldn't put consistent pressure on Jeff George last weekend, and you've got a rather iffy pick for Cincinnati.