They rise up every December, and they take their place in history. They are spoilers, teams that have no chance at postseason glory—many of them don't even have a shot at a winning record—yet they make their reputation by ruining it for the good teams. Happens every year. It'll happen this year, too. Don't say I didn't warn you.
What do the classic spoilers look like? Nasty customers. They play hard when all logic says they should be packing it in. Usually they've got one well-developed weapon, such as a tenacious defense or a quarterback who can suddenly light it up. But spoilers are unpredictable. No one knows whether they're going to play with a fury or revert to the habits that got them a losing record in the first place. This year I have six of them.
Jets (4-8): They beat the Patriots and the Bills on back-to-back weeks, then took Indy down to the wire, holding the Colts' flashy offense in check. But the defense went belly-up against the Giants on Sunday. Now they have a chance to spoil things for Miami, in the Meadowlands this weekend, and if they don't spring the upset then, they get another shot at the Dolphins two weeks later. Plus, the Jets can still mess things up for the Cowboys and the Seahawks. I guarantee that they'll beat one of these teams; I just don't think it'll happen this weekend. Miami is too angry about blowing the game against the Colts. The Dolphins will beat the Jets in a squeaker, as the Miami defense makes up for all the missed tackles against Indy.
Ravens (5-7): After that whipping they handed the Titans, the secret is out. We knew the defense was sturdy when it went toe-to-toe with Jacksonville on Nov. 14, but who ever expected quarterback Tony Banks to have a breakout game against a respectable Tennessee defense? I think the Ravens will beat the Steelers, which doesn't classify them as spoilers. But in Week 17 Baltimore will have a chance to ruin things for the Patriots, assuming New England is still alive.
Chargers (5-7): They won three in a row over playoff hopefuls Kansas City, Detroit and Seattle, and they get a shot at three more of them. Can San Diego upset the Seahawks? Nope. The Chargers defense is too banged up. But the Dolphins and the Raiders had better beware.
Eagles (3-10): They've already tightened the NFC East race by beating the Cowboys and the Redskins, and games against St. Louis and New England are down the road. This week they have Dallas again, a team Philly usually saves its best efforts for. Do I have the courage to pick an upset? Why not? The Eagles beat the Cowboys with defense, turnovers and the X-factor, namely quarterback Donovan McNabb.
Bears (5-8): They've beaten three playoff contenders: the Chiefs, Vikings and Packers. They're off this week but games against the Lions, Rams and Bucs loom. Stay tuned.
Broncos (4-8): They've swept the Raiders and knocked off the Packers. With four extra days to prepare, the Jaguars will beat the Broncos on Monday night, but Denver still has a shot at the Lions and the Seahawks, and at least one of them will fall.
Now for this week's keynote matchups. Historically, Detroit has done pretty well in Tampa Bay, and I look for the Lions to pull a mini-upset over the Bucs. Detroit quarterback Gus Frerotte hasn't cooled off. The multiple wideout sets, which the Lions used so effectively against Washington, allow him to get to his hot reads quickly, and that's what he'll have to do on Sunday because he'll be under intense pressure.
Arizona to upset the Redskins. The Washington defense remains suspect, and now the offense is starting to wobble (four turnovers, five sacks, 11 penalties, including five holds, in the loss to Detroit). Plus, Brad Johnson has already thrown 400 passes this season. It looks as if his arm is tiring.