When the NFL went to the 16-game schedule in 1978, a veteran scout told me, "They've turned it into a survival contest. The teams that are smart are the ones that spend big money on backups."
It made sense, but that was before the salary-cap era. These days the big bucks go toward making sure you keep your superstars or sign the other guys'. Except for aberrations like the Trent Green-Kurt Warner parlay in St. Louis, the backups get what money's left over.
Right now, if you're a contending team, you'd better have your backups ready. Who can remember such a run of injuries to keynote performers on teams fighting to get into the playoffs? Miami lost its quarterback, Jay Fiedler, and its top runner, Lamar Smith, in a game in which the Jets lost Curtis Martin, the heart of their ground attack. New Orleans nursed some serious playoff hopes, then in successive weekends lost its star runner, Ricky Williams, and its quarterback, Jeff Blake, for the season. The St. Louis-Washington Monday-nighter was a battle of backup quarterbacks. Denver won its thriller against San Diego without quarterback Brian Griese or running back Terrell Davis. Oakland running back Tyrone Wheatley has been out for a couple of weeks, and now the muscle in the Bucs' rushing attack, Mike Alstott, is sidelined with a sprained knee. Titans running back Eddie George has been slowed by rib and ankle injuries, while Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre gutted it out on a badly sprained foot in a win over Indy. Is anybody healthy?
Well, yeah, a few contenders, like Minnesota and Baltimore, are in fairly good shape. So is Indianapolis, which faces Miami at home with first place in the AFC East on the line. The Colts have lost two of their last three, both in the same way. Their defense got manhandled in the first half, then Peyton Manning brought them back and almost pulled it out. The Dolphins operate a more modest show, working behind a stout defense and trying not to mess things up when they have the ball. Without Fiedler and Smith, they were shut down by the Jets.
I smell an upset, though. I like the sturdy defense so, assuming Fiedler is back, I'll take the Dolphins. If not, Indy's the pick.
Buffalo at Tampa Bay is going to be one of those nasty affairs in which every yard is dearly won. The Bucs' defense will be without its hitting machine, strong safety John Lynch, who's out with a dislocated shoulder, but I see the front four putting a lot of heat on Rob Johnson, who has felt his share this season. I also see the Tampa Bay offense, which could manage only 60 net yards passing against Chicago and will be missing Alstott, struggling. The Bucs have the tougher struggle. The Bills are my choice in upset No. 2.
Remember the final weekend of the regular season last year, when Carolina and Green Bay were running up the score on New Orleans and Arizona, respectively, to try to sneak into the playoffs on point differential? Well, the Panthers and the Packers will be pushing the scoring buttons against each other this week in one of the rare Monday-nighters matching teams with losing records. The game's in Carolina, but I still like the Favre magic. That makes Green Bay the pick.
The Jets will overcome that sturdy Chicago defense, but it won't be easy. The Giants bounced back from their humiliation against the Rams only to get humiliated by Detroit. Is there a humiliation hat trick in store for them in Arizona? No. I like the Giants. Jacksonville is rebounding, and Tennessee has gone turnover crazy (seven against Cleveland), but even when the Jaguars were riding highest, the Titans had their number. Tennessee is the pick. Denver, with quarterback Gus Frerotte minding the store, will win in Seattle. I like Washington over Philly in a squeaker, and here's my Super Upset Special: San Diego to get its first win, over fading Kansas City.