How long can a good defense carry a shaky offense before things fall apart? It depends on the team.
Last season 5-11 San Diego, with an offense that was nowhere, led the NFL in defense. Amazing. There was a heroic quality about the Chargers that you had to admire, but this year their defense finally cracked. Then there was that ugly on-the-field exchange between free safety Michael Dumas and quarterback Jim Harbaugh a couple of weeks ago, remember?
Defense has been carrying the Giants ever since Phil Simms retired after the 1993 season. That's just the way it is sometimes, and players have to live with it. Except that Pro Bowl linebacker Jessie Armstead finally had his fill of the imbalance and made his feelings known with some harsh words two weeks ago. The one-big-happy-family facade lasts only so long.
Now we come to Tampa Bay, which might have the toughest defense in the league, an outfit that bailed out a struggling offense on Sunday with a ferocious pass rush that produced five interceptions against Seattle. So far no rumbles of discontent. That wouldn't do right now, with the Bucs riding a four-game winning streak and playing host to the Vikings on Monday night with a share of the NFC Central lead on the line. Now, with quarterback Trent Dilfer lost (broken clavicle), the Bucs must rally around rookie Shaun King, who has taken 30 snaps in his NFL career.
Minnesota has won five straight behind quarterback Jeff George, averaging better than 30 points a game. He's got the long ball working again. Randy Moss, Cris Carter, Robert Smith—everyone's putting up big numbers these days. It'll be up to the Tampa Bay defense to stop the Vikings, because the Bucs aren't going to outscore them.
It will be a severe test for George, facing a hysterical crowd in Tampa Bay's biggest game of the year. The key will be whether the Bucs can sustain a rush, and how effective their blitz package will be. If they can come up with a batch of exotics, if they can devise a rush to assault George with unblocked blitzers and knock the ball loose a couple of times to set up some easy scores, they'll be in it.
I think the Bucs will get to George a few times and that Tampa Bay will get some mileage out of its running game. But I see the Vikings pulling it out in the fourth quarter. Ditto the Lions over the Redskins, who let the Eagles back into the game with a pair of 91-yard fourth-quarter drives.
Indianapolis, slowly distancing itself from the rest of the AFC East, visits Miami in the division's weekly Chiller Theater. Will the extra layoff after a Thanksgiving game allow Dan Marino to get his arm working right? I say yes. I like the Dolphins.
The Patriots are desperate. Their discipline seems to be cracking. Wideout Terry Glenn was benched for the first quarter of Sunday's game against the Bills because he showed up late for Thursday's practice. The trouble was, that was the quarter in which New England had the stiff wind at its back. The Patriots should have waited till the second period to sit him down. Dallas arrives in Foxboro with a 7-0 lifetime record against New England. A hunch: Desperation prevails. Give the win to the Patriots.
The Giants, miraculously, are still in the hunt in the NFC East, the division no one wants to win. The Jets are going nowhere. So naturally I favor the Jets. I just don't like the Giants' offense against Bill Belichick's defense, which picked off Peyton Manning twice and held him to his lowest yardage total of the year.