The old rivalries hardly exist anymore. Bears-Packers doesn't quicken pulses the way it used to. Chiefs-Raiders no longer conjures up those old visions of AFL mayhem. The league has undergone too many changes. Teams get good overnight, then fade, then get good again. Things have become too complicated. Identities are lost. So when you think of Jets-Raiders this Monday night, you don't dwell on the classic battles of years ago—the Heidi Game, or the brutal afternoon when Oakland defensive end Ben Davidson fractured Joe Namath's cheekbone but couldn't put him out of action. Now it's just a game between two of the league's hotter teams.
Last year they met twice in two weeks, both times in Oakland. The first game was the regular-season finale. The Jets needed a win to secure a playoff spot. The Raiders had already clinched the AFC West, but they needed a win to wrap up a first-round bye and the chance to avoid a trip to snowy New England in the second round. The Jets won a wild one—the lead changed hands six times—and they earned the right to return to Oakland six days later.
But in the rematch New York's best pass rusher, John Abraham, was slowed by the flu. Rich Gannon had huge amounts of time to find his receivers. The Raiders' O-line punched big holes in the Jets' front, and when it was over, Oakland had 502 yards of offense and a 38-24 victory.
Well, the Raiders are on a roll again offensively, and New York looks like easy pickins. But the Jets are a strange, unpredictable team, and they've put together a four-game winning streak. Who would have figured them to murder the Chargers, in San Diego, the way they did, then out-tough Miami in a nasty slugfest a week later? Their young quarterback, Chad Pennington, has changed the complexion of the team, and now the offense is capable of putting together long, sustained drives. Running back Curtis Martin, having slowly recovered from an ankle injury, is almost all the way back. Santana Moss, the flashy little wideout and return man, provides excitement, and Laveranues Coles has turned into one of the league's most dependable receivers.
But can New York's defense, which hasn't allowed a 300-yard game in a month, control an offense that's wearing out defenses to the tune of 412.6 yards a game? Yes, if it can come up with an exotic pass-rush scheme and force turnovers, if it can present something innovative to foil Oakland's Gnat Attack, Gannon's barrage of short, timed passes. It could happen, but I'm afraid the Jets are overmatched. The Raiders are the pick.
The Saints beat the Bucs in the season opener but have since fallen on hard times, losing three of their last four. Now New Orleans is home, and it gets Tampa Bay in a classic sandwich game, between Green Bay and the current darling of the league, the Falcons. My pick: The Saints catch the Bucs napping.
Ralph Wilson Stadium used to be a house of horrors for the Dolphins, but not lately. Miami has won its last two in Buffalo, and I say the Dolphins make it number 3. Here are a pair of quickie upsets—the Titans to beat the Giants, and the Bengals, yes, the Bengals, to take the Ravens. The Chargers will get themselves together and outlast the Broncos, the Falcons get a scare from the Vikings in the Metrodome but win, the Steelers beat the Jaguars, and no matter what kind of problems they have, I have to go with the Rams over Philly as Kurt Warner or Marc Bulger (pick one) matches up against A.J. Feeley.