Quick now, name the three contending teams that won on Sunday despite having lost their quarterback and featured runner to injuries. Time's up: Denver, New Orleans, Miami.
The Dolphins are in the best shape of the three because they figure to get passer Jay Fiedler and rusher Lamar Smith back in a week or so, maybe sooner. Besides, there isn't a huge drop-off in talent with Damon Huard at quarterback and J.J. Johnson and Autry Denson at running back. No one knows for sure when Brian Griese and Terrell Davis will return for the Broncos, but Denver isn't in desperate shape, either, because it has an established veteran, Gus Frerotte, standing in for Griese, and its assembly line of runners has cranked out still another, Mike Anderson, who looks as if he's headed for a 1,000-yard season.
But how about the Saints? Jeff Blake and Ricky Williams are gone for the year. Their quarterback, Aaron Brooks, had never taken a meaningful NFL snap until two weeks ago. Their running is handled by rookie Chad Morton and Jerald Moore, who's been cut by two teams. Yet on Sunday this patchwork outfit beat the Super Bowl-champion Rams, on the road, no less, to move into a first-place tie with St. Louis in the NFC West.
Late in the first quarter of the game, New Orleans cornerback Fred Weary was lost with a sprained knee. St. Louis is one team you don't want to play when you're shorthanded in the secondary. But every time you turned around, guys like Alex Molden and Fred Thomas and Chris Oldham and rookie sixth-round draft pick Michael Hawthorne were making plays in the secondary, and the line was rising up in a fury whenever the defense was backed up, stuffing Marshall Faulk, knocking the ball loose from Trent Green. The defensive calls were on the money, mixing blitzes with eight-man coverage schemes at just the right time, setting traps for receivers and then pouncing. It was a masterly show.
Now the Saints meet Denver in the Superdome. The Broncos have done it differently, bailing out their defense in the last two weeks with 42 points in a pair of wild fourth quarters, scoring a total of 76 points and piling up 1,074 yards in the two games. But that was against San Diego and Seattle. I don't think New Orleans's defense is going to tolerate such foolishness. The Saints are the pick.
Upset special: It really isn't much of an upset, because I wouldn't have the Bills favored over Miami, not with all of Buffalo's injuries on defense, but the Dolphins travel as underdogs, and they get my vote. I feel obliged to pick every Monday-night game, but K.C.- New England is really making it tough, giving us a second straight game featuring two losers. How about this? I like the Patriots if Chiefs quarterback Elvis Grbac is out. If he plays, well, I guess I like the Pats anyway.
The Jets get Indy at home in an AFC East biggie, and now the secret is out on the Colts: They can be pounded. Their offense can go sour for stretches. They are not invincible. The Jets are the pick.
Before last week's game against Arizona, Giants coach Jim Fassel stated that his team is going to the playoffs and he's "taking full responsibility," which is the kind of prediction you make when you're facing a 3-8 team without its quarterback. This week it will be different: a rematch against the Redskins, who murdered the Giants in September. Washington is the choice.
Quick picks: Packers to beat the Bears in Chicago; 49ers, on the road, to end the Chargers' winning streak; another roadie, the Raiders, to knock off the Steelers; and the Titans to cool off the red-hot Eagles in Philly.