I see three games heavy with playoff implications this week—Baltimore at Jacksonville, Tampa Bay at Minnesota and Buffalo at Miami—and a weirdly similar pattern runs through all three. Each match-up involves a once proud team (the Jaguars, the Bucs and the Bills) that has lost two straight, is questioning itself and is going against a club that's on a rampage.
The strangest thing is, I favor the troubled club in two of the three games. Not because of teeth-gritting and stern resolve. Jacksonville, Tampa Bay and Buffalo went through all that last week, and it didn't do any good. "All the rah-rah about how we're going to bounce back doesn't mean anything once you get on the field," says Jaguars tackle Tony Boselli, whose team suffered the worst loss of the three.
I'm trying hard to find a reason to pick Jacksonville over Baltimore, which has pitched two straight shutouts, but I can't see how that banged-up Jaguars offensive line, which was overrun by the Steelers, is going to hold up against the onslaught of Ravens defenders. Add to that the fact that two of Jacksonville's most important defensive players, middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson (hamstring) and tackle Gary Walker (knee), are nicked up, and you've got me on record for a grudging vote for Baltimore. The Jaguars will regroup and right the ship, but not this week.
Unbeaten Minnesota, coming off a terrific victory in Detroit, which was fired up and played hard all day, hosts a Tampa Bay team that has been nipped at the wire twice and is exhausted or furious or both. The Vikings have something few teams in the NFL have, and that is an unchartable element, a guy who can make the freak play anywhere, anytime—wideout Randy Moss. He never should have been able to make the last of his three touchdown catches against the Lions, in which he snatched the ball from two defensive backs who had him in tight bracket coverage, but each week he seems to come up with one of those kinds of plays.
But Tampa Bay has something I like even better, the kind of defense young quarterback Daunte Culpepper has never seen. So I'm going with the Bucs, but I've ridden this horse in two straight losers.
The last of the staggering trio is Buffalo, which visits the new darling of the AFC East, Miami. The Bills spent Sunday afternoon grinding the Colts into the ground with their running game, piling up a great statistical advantage in time of possession and number of plays. Surely the Indy defense had to crack, but let's not forget that while a defense can get worn down from being on the field too long, so can an offense. And the Bills' attack was a very tired-looking outfit down the stretch, as the Indy pass rush finally got to Rob Johnson.
The same thing could happen to Johnson again this week, but I don't think it will. Again, I favor a big league defense against a young quarterback. Buffalo's my third straight upset choice.
Quickie picks: New England will upset Indy, on home cooking and a hunch. Detroit, which found a running game on Sunday, will handle Green Bay. The Giants, who are crumbling fast, will get back on track against Atlanta, another team going through rough times. The Redskins could have a letdown in Philly, but they used up their quota of letdowns in September, so I'll give Washington the win. Finally, Oakland will nail San Francisco in the Battle by the Bay, a game that looks easy to handicap but is the kind of neighborhood war that sets West Coast emotions aflame.