Even though the Rams keep blowing people out week after week, they still haven't convinced everyone that they're for real. The Oct. 10 game against the 49ers was going to be their big show-and-tell, but even after a 42-20 St. Louis win you still heard, "Who have they beaten?" After all, it was just the poor old Niners, who can't stop anybody. It's as if the Rams are a mirage, and all you'd have to do to make their 6-0 record disappear would be to slap yourself hard, and they'd be back to something like 1-5, quarterback Kurt Warner would still be an Iowa Barnstormer, and Tony Banks would still be running the offense.
But here we are with the NFL's last unbeaten team gearing up for the 5-1 Titans in, dare we say, the biggest game of the season so far. I've even heard it called a preview of Super Bowl XXXIV, which is ridiculous because it's too early to tell which team will successfully negotiate the tangled web of AFC contenders.
In the NFC it's more clear-cut. No team has come close to the Rams, but we'll learn a lot more about them after they travel to Tennessee. It's the toughest game left on St. Louis's schedule. The Titans are coached by Jeff Fisher, one of Buddy Ryan's old defensive backs on the Bears. Fisher witnessed firsthand the birth of the 46 defense. He was on the field when its wild blitzes unhinged all sorts of fancy offenses. Now, coming off a bye, he has had two weeks to cook up something to control an offense that initially showcased Warner's long-range gun but in the past two weeks has gone to the ground game behind Marshall Faulk.
Do I see Fisher blitzing the Rams like crazy? No, that's not the Titans' style, and Warner's release is too quick. He gets to his hot reads too rapidly. I see something more cerebral, such as a three-man line at times and a rapidly changing spectrum of coverage schemes. I see quarterback Neil O'Donnell and running back Eddie George putting points on the board for Tennessee, but I see the Rams with big numbers as well. The pick: St. Louis in a shootout.
I'll give you a very simple formula for handicapping Seattle-Green Bay, which marks Mike Holmgren's return to Lambeau Field. The game means more to the Packers, who have a chance to beat their old coach, than it does to the Sea-hawks. Let's go with the Pack on emotion.
For two years I've favored Detroit against division foes at home, so I'll give the Lions a slight edge over the Buccaneers. The odds are pretty good that the Giants will run for more yards than they pass for against the Eagles. At least the numbers will be close. So will the game, which I give to the Giants. Now that Dan Marino is out, Jimmy Johnson is working especially hard to keep the running game going. Because the Jets hurt Oakland on the ground, I'll take the Dolphins over the Raiders, even with Marino out.
Here's a major upset that could turn into a major embarrassment, but I like it only on a hunch: the Browns over the Saints. Do you believe in Minnesota's rebirth under Jeff George? Me neither, but I do believe the Vikings' offense is more functional and the receivers are happier than they were with Randall Cunningham at the helm. While the temptation is great to pick the Broncos, who nearly beat the Patriots, I just don't see them outscoring Minnesota. In the next world I'm going to replay the Cowboys-Redskins game, this time with the officials correctly calling the illegal block in the back that sprung Deion on his punt return for a touchdown. Dallas probably would have won anyway, but that noncall sure left a bad taste. Just to remind people that I don't forget things like that, I'm picking the Colts over the Cowboys. That'll show 'em.