Here is my favorite statistic in football, and one reason I like it so much is that we'll never see anything like it again: From 1972 through '79, when the Steelers appeared in eight straight playoffs and won four Super Bowls, their record against teams that would finish the season below .500 was (get ready for this) 50-1.
The Steelers simply did not lose to bad teams. They suffered only one major upset in eight seasons, losing to the Bengals 34-10 in 1979. They were aristocratic bullies, and they stayed together, which is now impossible for a team to do.
Free agency has leveled the field. Every week there are two or three games that have you gasping when you hear the results. On Sunday there were four such games, the hopeless and helpless refusing to know their place and fouling up other teams' playoff plans.
San Diego, with a 41-year-old quarterback who has spent the better part of the last season and a half on the bench, beat Minnesota, one of the hot teams this season. The Falcons, who had lost seven straight, went on the road and stunned the Giants, who were coming off two wins and gathering steam for their playoff run. Hopeless Jacksonville toppled mighty Indianapolis, and the Redskins, a team in turmoil, upended the leader of the NFC West, the Seahawks.
O.K., I understand that no team's really that good anymore. But what I'd like to know is, what are the telltale signs that a shocking upset is on the horizon? Is there a distant rumbling, like a volcano, or do these things just come from nowhere? I'm looking at the schedule, and I know that some of the games that should be laughers this Sunday won't be. They are major upsets disguised as handicapping ho-hummers. I have dedicated myself to exposing one of them this week from among the following matchups.
How about the Bears, coming off a loss to the Lions, beating the Rams, who might be the NFC's best team? I won't even bother with that one because I don't pad my record with puppies. Detroit at Seattle? Jacksonville at Tennessee? Those would be major upsets. Yeah, just right for someone else to pick. Unbeaten Kansas City at 4-5 Cincinnati, which ran for 240 yards against the Texans? The following week the Chiefs play the Raiders, shadows of their former selves but still a division matchup and a traditional rivalry. Cincy is a look-ahead game, a trap.
Ladies and gentlemen, I've found my major upset. The Bengals will end the Chiefs' unbeaten run and bring K.C. back down to earth. Elsewhere things are not quite as dramatic. The Panthers, hoping Stephen Davis will be back from his sore ankle, will put out the Redskins' fire. The Dolphins will beat the Ravens if Zach Thomas, out on Sunday with a groin injury, returns. If not, then I'll pass on this one. Without Thomas to keep things tidy in the middle, Miami's defense was a rudderless ship against the Titans.
Maybe the Giants were looking ahead to Philadelphia last week, but when they see the Eagles face-to-face, Philly gets the win. Oakland would not be a ridiculous pick over Minnesota, which is trying to figure out what happened to its defense. But I think the Vikings, losers of three straight, are scared now, so they'll win this one. I like Tampa Bay over Green Bay, only because it's traditional for the Bucs to win when these teams meet in Florida. The Patriots beat the Cowboys in Foxboro, and the 49ers outlast the Steelers in the Monday-nighter.