A week ago Tampa Bay figured to be a mortal lock over this Sunday's opponent, the Redskins. The Bucs were rampaging, averaging a gaudy 31 points a game to go with their crushing defense. All they had to do was get by the Jets, a gutty team but hardly a match for them on their own field, and they'd travel to Washington unbeaten.
The Redskins? They were a depressing 1-2 and heading into a dandy quarterback controversy: the coach's guy, Brad Johnson, versus the owner's guy, Jeff George.
Tear up the script. The Bucs blew it against the Jets. The Skins, setting up the Giants with the run and then putting them away with Johnson's deep strikes, had a magnificent night. Now, with both teams coming off dramatic role reversals, they face each other.
I like the Bucs, and I'll tell you why: their pass rush late in the game, which Bill Walsh called "the key to NFL football." He compared the situation to the final rounds of a heavyweight fight, when one boxer is coming on and the other one's groggy.
Let's go back a couple of weeks. Tampa Bay wore down Detroit's offensive line and buried Charlie Batch in a flurry of fourth-quarter sacks and pressures. The Redskins, in a Monday-night loss to the Cowboys, were done in when Johnson's protection crumbled around him. On Washington's last futile drive, Dallas was getting pressure and sacks from whatever rush it wanted to use. If things are going the Redskins' way against the Bucs and if young Tampa Bay quarterback Shaun King has to win it with his arm, then I've got to favor Washington, but I don't think we'll see that. It will be a low-scoring slugfest, just as last year's divisional playoff was, and I see die Bucs' pass rush finally turning the game their way.
How do you control the Giants' ground game, which ranks No. 1 in the league and is the springboard from which their offense is launched? One of two ways. You bring up a safety and load eight in the box, or you jump ahead early, making the Giants play catch-up and taking their running game out of the picture, as Washington did.
Tennessee doesn't jump to early leads. But the Titans have a tough little safety named Blaine Bishop, so they'll use him to load up against the run and make Kerry Collins try to beat them with his arm. The Titans will play the Giants tough, but I don't like their banged-up quarterback situation. I say the Giants win on defense, yes, the same one that Johnson feasted on.
The Vikings, better at this point than anyone figured they'd be, travel to Detroit and get their fourth win. The Packers, a different team now that Dorsey Levens is back, hang one on the Bears. Atlanta visits Philly, and we saw what the Falcons looked like last year without Jamal Anderson. He's nicked up, so I'm going with the Eagles. Kansas City, which can do everything but run the ball, once its trademark, squeaks one out over Seattle in the Monday-nighter. The 49ers take one at home against the Cardinals, and finally Dallas, the Jekyll and Hyde of the NFL this year, loses to Carolina, coming off its bye week.