We're at the "quarter-pole," or so Chris Berman tells me. I'm not even sure which sport this refers to, and wikipedia is of no help. It sounds like a racing term. But football these days, with 17 grueling weeks, isn't a race. It's Mortal Kombat. The team who has the fewest star players suffer debilitating injuries -- or finds the most future star players waiting among its reserves and rookies -- wins. An up-and-coming Green Bay team gets taken down at Tampa Bay (sidenote: Berman's pun of calling this game the Bay of Pigskin is among the best foreign policy/sports puns I've ever heard) and its quarterback of the future suffers a separated shoulder. Season over, right? Oh wait, it's not separated... it's just strained. Huzzah! March on, Green Bay! Pittsburgh rallies to defeat Baltimore... but loses its second and third running backs Rashard Mendenhall and Carey Davis, Mendenhall for the year. Top runner Willie Parker was already on the DL. The entire season of a team that many thought was Super Bowl-ready after its week 1 shellacking of Houston now turns to fourth-stringer and special teams whiz Mewelde Moore. How many Steelers fans had even heard of Moore before the fourth quarter on Monday night?
Which brings us to our picks. So many of the top contenders from recent years are suffering key injuries to top players -- New England, Indy, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Philadelphia, and a near miss in Green Bay -- that it's becoming increasingly difficult to pick the weekly slate, even without the spread factored in. That said, I've taken this upon myself, and I'll do my best. My picks:
GREEN BAY over Atlanta: Well, of all the things Green Bay brass could have feared in the fallout of the Brett Favre trade, Aaron Rodgers getting knocked out of the Pack's fourth game while Favre -- he of 257 straight starts -- throws a career-high six TDs for the Jets against Arizona probably tops the list. Packers fans have to wonder... we had the second-best record in the NFC last year and we trade our Hall of Fame quarterback so that... Matt Flynn can run the offense?! Fortunately, Rodgers's injury doesn't appear that it will keep him out of the starting lineup, so I'm willing to take the Pack at home against Atlanta. If I hear Flynn is starting this game, however, I reserve the right to change my mind.
San Diego over MIAMI: My buddy Erick who plays fantasy football tells me he's given up Derek Anderson as his #2 QB and is going with Chad Pennington instead. Browns fans can collectively throw up now. To think, Cleveland could have dealt Anderson to some QB-needy team (my Bears come to mind) for a high pick last spring and had Brady Quinn ready to go. Now they have a starting quarterback who gets into screaming matches with his top wide receiver while playing the Bengals, a signal-caller who fantasy guys are dumping in favor of Pennington, the New York Jets castoff who can't get the ball more than 20 yards downfield anymore and who is playing for a team that's lost 17 of its last 19 games.
The worst part is, my buddy is right to make the move, at least this week. Granted, Anderson's not playing because Cleveland has a bye, but even if he was, with Miami's ferocious running game and San Diego's amazingly uninspiring defense, Pennington could have a pretty good day, statistically speaking. Heck, I might put Ronny Brown as my backup quarterback over Anderson, if he's available. No matter: I say the Chargers are too good to lose this game, and the Fish have blown any element of surprise they may have had after plastering New England two weeks back.
DENVER over Tampa: The Broncos got humiliated on the road at Kansas City. I should have gone with my gut. Denver never wins at Arrowhead, no matter how much they ought to. Now we get another team that has reason to take revenge on Brian Griese. Chicago blew a fourth-quarter lead and couldn't do it. Now Denver has its chance. Their defense is worse than Chicago's but their offense is miles better. I just can't imagine the Bucs winning a shootout at Mile High.
ARIZONA over Buffalo: I'm going with the home team that needs it more. Two weeks ago we were ready to crown the Cardinals kings of the pathetic NFC West. Then they blow a winnable game in Washington and give up 56 to the Jets. If they're to make a playoff run, they MUST have this game. The latter half of their schedule is brutal. Buffalo, meanwhile, is flying high at 4-0 in a battered division, Trent Edwards is playing like a Pro Bowler, and they've won a couple of games they had no business winning (the Oakland game comes to mind). Long commute, desperate opponent... They're due for a letdown. Cards in an upset.
New England over SAN FRANCISCO: Let's see, a Bill Belichick team, off a bye-week with extra time to prepare, its previous game having been a humiliation at home by a winless Dolphins outfit... think the Patriots will be playing hard in this game?
DALLAS over Cincinnati: There are two ways to respond to a tough defeat. The first is to get mad and beat the tar out of the next middling also-ran who crosses your path. The second is to collapse. Which do we think is more likely for this Dallas team when it gets creampuff Cincinnati at home? The Bengals threw their hearts and souls into the Giants game at the Meadowlands and still lost. If I had to bet the farm on one game on the slate this week, this would be it.
Indianapolis over HOUSTON: A very difficult game to call, to be honest. Indy's been upset here before, and the Colts look more vulnerable than they have since the Ted Marchibroda days. Indy's descent this season really highlights the importance of offensive lineman. The Colts have lost most of their line for the bulk of the first half of the year, and it's cost them badly on offense. 52 points in three games is deeply worrying. Back in the salad days, they'd get more than that in a home game against Denver alone. And yet... I just can't pick against them against the division's weakest team, following their bye week. I'm riding Indy this week, but if they drop this game it's officially time to panic.
NY GIANTS over Seattle
PHILADELPHIA over Washington
BALTIMORE over Tennessee
CAROLINA over Kansas City
Chicago over DETROIT
JACKSONVILLE over Pittsburgh
NEW ORLEANS over Minnesota
Last week: 10-3
Season: 40-20 (66.7%)