Monday, October 01, 2007

Week 4: Wipeout!

In the three years that I've been picking games in competition with other websites, rarely have I had a weekend in which I didn't pick more winners than losers. The worst I had ever done was 6-8. But this weekend, I didn't just beat that mark; I utterly blew it away, going an astounding 4-10 as one underdog after another rose up to topple their insect overlords. Detroit over Chicago. Kansas City over San Diego. Cleveland over Baltimore. Arizona over Pittsburgh. When I wasn't finding myself on the wrong side of an upset, I was ruing the picks that I had made in haste without thinking them through. Now, exactly why did I pick the David Carr-led Panthers over the Buccaneers? Or the Trent Green-led Dolphins over the Raiders? All in all, it was an ugly, ugly weekend that made me quite glad I'm not a betting man.

(Actually, if I were a betting man, I'd have cleaned up this weekend, because college football offered the surest thing I'd seen in quite some time: the Tulane Green Wave, playing at home in New Orleans against the No. 2-ranked Louisiana State Tigers. LSU came into the game as a 40-point favorite, and even Tulane coach Bob Toledo all but conceded that the Tigers were going to roll to victory. But there was no way that Louisiana State -- Louisiana state -- was going to run up the score on Tulane -- New Orleans-based Tulane -- to that extent. Not with all the Tulane students who wound up on the LSU campus after Katrina. Not with the Tulane campus still struggling to recover two years later. To go out and lay 50 points on a clearly inferior team from within your own state that had suffered so much would have been beyond the pale. The final score indicated a rout -- LSU 34, Tulane 7 -- but it could have been much worse. LSU didn't take a dive. No, not at all. It just followed a game plan that ensured decisive victory without unnecessarily humiliating an opponent.)


Green Bay 23, Minnesota 16
You may think you know what's killing newspapers -- and, to an extent, magazines, television news and other "old media" -- but you don't. It isn't the Internet. Really. Rather, it's the old media's continued adherence to the concept of the "news cycle." They believe that news occurs, and therefore can be reported, in discrete chunks. For newspapers, those chunks are one day long. For most magazines, one week. For TV news operations, maybe one hour. When a news event happens -- say, Brett Favre setting the career record for touchdown passes -- media outlets pursue it and report it on their various cycles. Thus, CBS and Fox cut into their games to show the record-setting TD pass almost as soon as it happened. Then they showed it on their halftime reports. Then they showed it on their postgame reports. Then NBC showed it on Football Night in America. Then ESPN led every hour of SportsCenter with it. Then your local news did the same. Then it was the lead segment on SportsCenter's NFL "Blitz." By bedtime Sunday, every football fan in America had seen the pass a dozen times, watched Favre be interviewed a dozen times, and heard a dozen commentators run down how much Favre means to us all with his longevity and childlike enthusiasm and blah blah blah. (Chris Berman topped them all with his nausea-inducing opinion that "rooting for Brett Favre is like rooting for America." So, if you think Berman is an ass-kissing blowhard whose act grew stale more than twenty years ago, I guess you just hate America.) And then, on top of all that, you get your morning paper, and the headline is some crappy pun informing you that yesterday Brett Favre set the career record for touchdown passes. And a few days later, Sports Illustrated shows up, and Peter King has gotten his lipstick smeared all over Brett's pole.

This all helps explain why, no matter how much you admire Favre and respect his accomplishments, you are so sick of hearing from him and about him that you are ready to scream. At some point, the media would be well-served to understand that everybody -- everybody -- had seen the touchdown and that the audience would like to see, hear or read about something else. And it's not like there weren't angles that could have been covered. Like, how long will it be before Peyton Manning breaks the record? Or, who else (Carson Palmer) might threaten the record? You don't see too much of that kind of stuff because it's hard to produce. Well, not really, but it's certainly harder that just rerunning the video of the TD for the umptwelfth time and throwing yourself to the floor in front of Holy Brett Father of God.

The worst part, however, was that amid all the celebration, what went totally unrecognized was that the Minnesota Vikings were wearing "throwback" uniforms. After less than a season and a half in their stupid new uniforms, the Vikings put on the beautiful duds of their glory years in honor of running back Chuck Foreman, whom the team was inducting into its hall of fame, or ring of honor, or whatever they call it. Oh, and the Packers are 4-0! I bet that if you asked Favre, he'd tell you that that's more important than the record!

Dallas 35, St. Louis 7
Speaking of "having heard more than enough about Brett Favre," I'll take this opportunity to say that I've heard more than enough about how Tony Romo is the new Brett Favre. It seems Romo grew up in Wisconsin idolizing Favre. Well, there's one thing Favre didn't do. Yes, Romo is a playmaker, a QB with incredible pocket presence, and a whole lot of fun to watch. The botched snap on which he turned a 35-yard loss into a four-yard gain and a first down was the second-most-replayed moment of the weekend, and probably will be of the 2007 season. But Romo just isn't the "new Favre" -- can't be the new Favre -- and it has less to do with how he plays than where he plays.

Favre plays in Green Bay, which is ostensibly the league's smallest market but, when you consider that the team represents all of Wisconsin, is really somewhere in the middle. (Now, Jacksonville? There's a tiny market unable to support a team.) However, that perception of "tiny Green Bay" allows the Packers, no matter how good they are or how much they're paid, to project the image of scrappy underdogs. The fact that the team is "publicly owned," as opposed to the property of a rapacious billionaire like Dan Snyder or Jerry Jones, only reinforces the little-guy image, even though that public ownership means the team is under no pressure to return anything like a profit and can therefore pour all revenue back into operations. I'm not saying the ownership structure gives the Packers a leg up on the rest of the NFL, but it does provide an advantage over teams in similar-size markets. (Think about how cheaply the Vikings were run under Red McCombs.)

What does this have to do with Favre? He stars for a franchise whose entire media-generated ethos is that of the scrappy Little Team That Could. When Favre does good things, he's praised because he's David taking on Goliath. When he makes poor decisions, he's excused because he's David taking on Goliath. Romo, meanwhile, plays for the Dallas Cowboys, aka Goliath. Had Sunday's botched snap turned out badly for the Cowboys, Romo would have been roasted for not just falling on the ball. Plus, he doesn't have 15 years' worth of things-like-that-working-out-OK that would silence his critics. Of course, Favre has learned that being David rather than Goliath cuts both ways. Favre's work ethic -- be it offseason conditioning, film study, or just the way he pushes his teammates -- also gets short shrift because that's not the sort of thing a "gunslinger" is supposed to require. (On this score, Romo and Favre do have something in common.)

Then there's the legacy factor. Favre was instrumental in reviving the Packers after a quarter-century in the toilet. (Well ... Favre and Mike Holmgren and free agency and the salary cap and revenue sharing.) For this he is beloved, not only by the people of Wisconsin but also by Berman and King and others in the sports media who pine for the days when Lombardi roamed the earth and no one wore their hair long or had cornrows. Romo plays for a storied franchise, too, but the Cowboys' time in the wilderness in the late 1990s is nothing like what the Packers endured. And while there's a huge gap between Bart Starr and Favre on the continuum of Packers QBs, Romo is just the latest in a line that extends, with only brief breaks, from Don Meredith to Craig Morton to Roger Staubach to Danny White to Troy Aikman -- not all superstars, of course, but all of whom were capable of carrying the team to 10-win seasons and into the playoffs.

The point is not to denigrate Romo. Like I said, he's a joy to watch, and it's clear that his teammates admire and respect him -- even Terrell Owens(!) says he's happy to just clear out coverage for other receivers if it means the Cowboys will keep winning. The point is that in their frantic rush to find the next Good Ol' Gunslinger before the current one hangs it up for good, the sports media is determined to pound a Romo-shaped peg into a Favre-shaped hole. That's not fair to Romo.

Oh yeah, the Rams. They suck. Any team whose coach refuses to sit his starting quarterback, even though that quarterback has broken ribs that are obviously hurting his game, pretty much sucks by definition. Coach Scott Linehan, in explaining why Marc Bulger will start next Sunday despite those broken ribs, said, "He's won a lot of games for us. He played extremely well for us last year, and we haven't got him off and running yet this year. I take responsibility for that." Off and running? He can't run. He has broken ribs! At this point, I pray for the Rams to finish 3-13 so we can finally stop hearing about that high-powered Rams offense that isn't.

Indianapolis 38, Denver 20
After two humiliating playoff losses to the Colts earlier this decade, the Broncos invested heavily in their secondary, to the point that today they have the best cornerback tandem in the league -- and maybe the best ever -- in Champ Bailey and Dre' Bly. Sunday, it all paid off as the Broncos, who surrendered 41 points to the Colts in the 2003 playoffs and 49 in the 2004 playoffs, held the high-powered Indianapolis offense to just 38. Excellent work!

New England 34, Cincinnati 13
I'm back to feeling sorry for Carson Palmer again. That such a fine quarterback has to wear such stupid clothing and play for an organization that appears to have lost its way is a damn shame. But this game wasn't about the Bengals, who somehow held New England to 17 fewer points than they gave up to Browns. It was about the Patriots. For all the ink spilled over the fact that the Cowboys are averaging 37.75 points a game, the Pats are averaging an even 37 -- and have surrendered just 48 points compared with 72 for the Cowboys. The real highlight of this game came when Matt Light was called on to "introduce" the Patriots offense for the ESPN broadcast. Aside from anything Kornheiser says, these intros are among the most annoying elements of the new Monday Night Football, as players stumble their way through a bunch of stupid nicknames ("And playing sheriff on the end is Javon Kearse, aka the Stone Cold Freak"). Light didn't even bother; he just described what the offense thought it was going to have to accomplish to beat the Bengals. It was awesome, and I was totally disappointed a little later when Adalius Thomas, introducing the Pats defense, pulled out the same old "aka" shit. I'd hoped this was another subversive Belichick maneuver, like having the Patriots introduced as a team at the Super Bowl, rather than one by one.


Oakland 35, Miami 17
Remember last year, when the Dolphins visited Detroit on Thanksgiving, and quarterback Joey Harrington, who had been unfairly blamed for the Lions' chronic problems, led Miami to a convingcing victory? Vindication! This week it was Miami's turn in the barrel as one of their own maligned former quarterbacks, Daunte Culpepper, led his new team, the Oakland Raiders, into Dolphins Stadium. Culpepper, in case you hadn't heard "had a hand in five touchdowns," two passing and three rushing, on Sunday. What you didn't hear is that he was 5-of-12 passing for only 75 yards. What you didn't hear is that Justin Fargas did all the work. What you didn't hear is how those five touchdowns came about:

1. After an interception, Raiders begin drive on the Miami 11 yard line. Culpepper throws 7-yard TD pass.
2. Raiders begin drive on their own 42. Culpepper attempts only one pass on the drive (incomplete) and gains 4 yards on a scramble. Running backs gain the other 52 yards before Culpepper scores on a 2-yard run.
3. Raiders begin drive on their own 30. Culpepper attempts only one pass on the drive (incomplete). Fargas gains 65 yards, including a 48-yard run with a 9-yard, half-the-distance penalty tacked-on, before Culpepper scores on a 5-yard run.
4. Raiders begin drive on their own 27. Culpepper gains 11 yards on two runs. Running backs gain all the other yardage before Culpepper throws 27-yard TD pass.
5. Raiders begin drive on their own 18. Fargas gains every single inch as Oakland goes 79 yards before Culpepper scores on a 3-yard run.

It must have felt good for Culpepper to stick it to the Dolphins, but what really killed Miami was its own run defense. With perhaps the exception of the fourth TD, there isn't anything here that Josh McNown couldn't have done. Or Marques Tuiasosopo or Andrew Walter, for that matter. Or JaMarcus Russell. Culpepper should pay special attention to that last one, because that's who'll be starting for the Raiders by the end of the year, and Culpepper will be on the pavement, again, looking for a new team, preferably one with Oakland on the schedule in 2008.

Atlanta 26, Houston 16
Interesting that we just talked about Harrington in regard to "revenge games," because Culpepper wasn't the only QB the Dolphins tossed over the side last offseason in order to appeal to Florida's immense senior population by bringing in Trent Green. Harrington, despite that fine revenge-game showing in Detroit, was also cut loose, winding up the accidental starter in Atlanta because of some unpleasantness with dogs and "rape stands." Falcons fans, I gather, would have preferred that the team had held onto Matt Schaub for one more year rather than trade him to the Texans, but there he was on Sunday, playing in the Georgia Dome in a Houston uniform. There was some talk in the press that this might turn out to be a revenge game for Schaub, though I can't image what for. Surely not because the Falcons traded him; that's what allowed him to finally become a starter. Maybe because they didn't trade him sooner. Whatever. Anyway, Harrington looked Georgia peachy against the Texans, while Schaub soiled his own otherwise fine numbers by fumbling twice inside his team's 25 yard line. So, are the Falcons now Joey's team? Don't look now, but that's Byron Leftwich sitting behind him on the bench. At least Atlanta has already played the Jaguars this season.

Detroit 37, Chicago 27
I'm pretty sure that's not what the fans had in mind when they were calling for the Bears to replace Rex Grossman with Brian Griese. Chicago could have gotten three interceptions, including one that came back for a touchdown, even without the switch. And what's beautiful is, if they go with Kyle Orton next week, they can still get it! I was rather surprised to see more than one football commentator say, rightly, that this bad outing by Griese isn't necessarily indicative of his ability. First of all, it's been a couple years since the guy played at game speed. Second, the Chicago Bears, regardless of who's at quarterback, have no business throwing the ball 52 times. Third, they had to throw so much because their defense and their running game, supposedly strengths, are getting worse by the week. I expect Griese to improve, but unless the rest of the team does, too, it won't really matter.

Cleveland 27, Baltimore 13
Buffalo 17, N.Y. Jets 14
Seattle 23, San Francisco 3
Tampa Bay 20, Carolina 7
Kansas City 30, San Diego 16
Arizona 21, Pittsburgh 14
N.Y. Giants 16, Philadelphia 3

SEASON: 38-24 (61.3%)
(2006 through Week 4: 37-23, 61.7%)
(2005 through Week 4: 38-22, 63.3%)

Down and Distance's exclusive KA-POWER RANKINGS are back for their third year. The product of a simple formula, the rankings have predicted 10 of the last 17 Super Bowl winners. Further, 14 of the last 17 Super Bowl winners finished the regular season No. 1 or No. 2 in the KA-POWER RANKINGS system. Unlike with other, lesser rating systems, no opinion is involved in formulating these rankings. None. Teams are ranked on a centigrade scale, with 100 representing the NFL's strongest team and 0 its weakest. Don't like where your team is ranked? Blame science. (Key: WK4 = This week's ranking. WK3 = Last week's ranking. POW = KA-POWER centigrade score)
12 Patriots100.001719Lions 44.40
21 Steelers 89.171821Browns 43.38
33 Cowboys 83.941923Giants 40.89
45 Bucs 77.942015Ravens 40.76
54 Colts 76.102128Chiefs 39.03
612Seahawks 72.472216Bengals 37.39
76 Packers 70.952318Broncos 33.29
810Titans 64.322430Falcons 29.30
911Jaguars 62.912526Jets 29.23
107 Texans 55.752625Chargers26.87
118 Eagles 54.682724Dolphins26.04
129 Vikings 54.002827Bears 24.22
1314Redskins 51.50292249ers 21.90
1417Cardinals49.983032Billls 7.51
1520Raiders 48.493129Rams 1.06
1613Panthers 44.423231Saints 0.00

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