San Francisco @ Buffalo (-6)
After dropping 54 points on the Chiefs last week, the Bills finally won after a miserable four-game losing streak that saw them go from the AFC East lead to last place in the division. Now 6-5, the Bills will need a win over the 49ers to keep their slim playoff hopes alive.
"It's a rarity for the Bills seeing 50-plus points on the scoreboard," says Dick Jauron, "and not seeing the word 'Dallas' above it. Believe me, we don't want to get into many 54-31 shootouts. Seeing a scoreboard light up like that makes one's head spin. Which reminds me of my favorite Goo Goo Dolls album, 1998's Dizzy Up the Girl, not to be confused with Sebastian Janikowski's devious dating modus operandi."
San Francisco head coach Mike Singletary looks to lead the 49ers to their fourth win this year, and first against an AFC opponent.
"I've got something in common with every man on that Buffalo roster," says Singletary. "While they follow a 'Dick,' I followed one. Dick Nolan, that is. I'm proud of what I've accomplished since taking over the coaching job. What have I done that Dick didn't? Well, I've made losing fun. With Nolan, it was always a chore."
"All I ask of my guys is effort. If I don't get it, they'll soon find out why they call me 'Samurai' Mike. I won't chop a head off, but I'll chew one out. And also because I make players who have been sent off the field for acting a fool, like Vernon Davis, dress up like Giesha girls, complete with kimono robes and chopsticks in their hair."
With five Super Bowl wins for the 49ers, and four Super Bowl losses for the Bills, one would think their paths would have crossed in the big game at least once. It never happened, but that doesn't mean the Bills can take revenge anyway for the greedy 49ers hoarding all those Lombardi trophies. Buffalo wins, 23-20.
Carolina @ Green Bay (-3)
Are the Panthers the most perplexing team in the NFL? With sole possession of first place on the line, the Panthers didn't get a first down until they were already down 17-0 before eventually falling 45-28 in Atlanta. Carolina is now tied for first in the NFC South with Tampa Bay, and while they're a perfect 6-0 at home, they're 2-3 on the road, with a game at fabled Lambeau Field upcoming.
"Obviously," says John Fox, "our skills in the cities of visiting teams are not as impressive as those of our cheerleaders. First downs are not an issue for them. In fact, with the Top Cats, it's a race to see who can be 'first down.' From my perspective, there are no losers in that situation. And speaking of 'lip service,' we can say we're one of the NFC's better teams, but until we back that up on the road, it has very little credence."
The Packers suffered a demoralizing 51-29 defeat in New Orleans, succumbing to Drew Brees' 323 passing yards and four touchdowns. Aaron Rodgers tossed 3 interceptions, and the Packers fell to 5-6 in the NFC North, which is no disaster considering it leaves them only one game out of first.
"We're still in good shape as far as the playoffs go," says Mike McCarthy. "Thank goodness Detroit is in our division. Otherwise, we could be bringing up the rear in the North, which would give our detractors reason to call us the 'Fanny Pack.'"
"As far as Rodger's performance goes, he is still this team's quarterback for now and the foreseeable future. He's no Superman, and neither am I. It's even beyond my powers to get rid of two rocket-armed, interception-throwing quarterbacks in the span of less than a year."
Carolina wins, 26-24.
Miami @ St. Louis (+10)
While the 6-5 Dolphins are looking to rebound from their 48-28 loss to the Patriots, the 2-9 Rams are simply trying to make it through the year. The Rams suffered their fourth straight blowout loss, falling 27-3 to the Bears after lopsided losses to the Cardinals, Jets, and 49ers.
"Obviously, with a 2-9 record and no hope for the playoffs," says Jim Haslett, "motivation is a problem. 'Fired up' is not a word you hear around here very often, although 'fired' has certainly been making the rounds. It seems that the Rams' front office is calling itself the 'Firing Squad' now. I'll have to check with my agent, but I don't recall negotiating a blindfold and a cigarette as part of my severance package. Luckily, if that situation arises, quarterback Marc Bulger can finally make himself useful and interchange the 'l' and 'g' is his last name, thereby becoming a 'bugler' to play 'Taps.'"
In Miami, the Dolphins were handled 48-28 by the Patriots, a far cry from the Fins 38-13 win over New England earlier this year. The loss left the Dolphins two games out in the AFC East race.
"The Patriots did a good job of taking Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams out of our offense," says Tony Sparano. "Without those two, our offense isn't running on all eight cylinders. And, as you know, no engine, or offense, can run properly unless all eight cylinders are working."
"I understand what Coach Sparano is saying," says Williams, peering from behind the polyester curtains that adorn the bubble window in his 1974 Volkswagen van. "But I discovered, long ago, on my many travels to the mystical corners of the earth, where marijuana laws are loosely, if at all, enforced, that some things, in fact, run efficiently and smoothly with fewer than eight, and often with just one, cylinder working. I'm referring to water bongs, of course."
St. Louis averages only 13 points per game, and that's mainly because their offense usually scores in increments of three, while their opponents score in increments of seven. That Gateway Arch looks an awful lot like half of the McDonald's golden arches. So add the Dolphins to the list of the many that the Rams have "served" with easy victories this year. Brown rushes for 101 yards and a score, while Williams registers 95 total yards. Miami wins, 30-16.
NY Giants @ Washington (+3)
Without bruising tailback Brandon Jacobs anchoring their rushing attack, the Giants turned to the passing game to repel the upset bid of the Cardinals last week. With the G-Men held to 87 yards on the ground, Eli Manning picked up the slack with 240 passing yards and 3 touchdown passes as the New York won 37-29. On Sunday, New York will look for the season sweep over the Redskins.
"I think we've proven that we can't be stopped," says Jacobs, "and we'll do whatever it takes to win, whether that be running, passing, or having a Pittsburgh linebacker long-snapping the ball over the punters head and through the end zone, to grandmother's house we go. Oh sorry, I'm already looking forward to Christmas, a first-round bye, and the Super Bowl. I really don't see a scenario in which we don't win the NFC, which this year must be short for 'No Freaking Contest.'"
If the season ended right now, the Redskins would qualify for the playoffs as the No. 6 seed. However, much to the surprise of Donovan McNabb, the season doesn't end now. It ends on December 28, and Washington is likely to be in a dogfight for a wild card spot. An upset win over the G-Men would certainly boost their cause.
"It's not a time to be complacent," says Jim Zorn. "Everyone needs to step up their game and follow the example of Clinton Portis, who's not afraid to play hurt. His actions have made him a team leader. I'd like for Jason Campbell to show a little fire and emotion of his own, because we need our quarterback to be a leader. Jason is a little too mild-mannered for his own good. Just once I'd like him to be less like Jason Campbell and more like Naomi Campbell going berserk at an airport baggage terminal."
Let's be real for a minute. What's more important for the Redskins? A win, or losses by the Cowboys, Bucs, Panthers, Falcons, Saints, Bears, Vikings, and Packers? The latter is more likely. Heck, they're shooting for a wild card, not the division crown. New York wins, 22-17.
New Orleans @ Tampa Bay (-3)
After his 323-yard, 4-touchdown explosion on Monday night, Drew Brees is ahead of the pace to break Dan Marino's 1984 record of 5,084 passing yards in a season. But Brees has made it clear that he prefers a playoff berth more than individual glory. Standing in the way of the 6-5 Saints playoff hopes are the Buccaneers, who lead the NFC South.
"Like a summer breeze," says Sean Payton, "Drew Brees, makes me feel fine. If Drew can lead this team to 51 points per game for the rest of the year, I have no doubts that he'll shatter Marino's record, and we might even make the playoffs. Drew is driven to succeed, and if you've seen him lead the Saints in their pre-game rah-rah session, you get an understanding of his excitability, and the dangers of a brain aneurism. When Drew is in the zone, you see more fist-pumping than in a Billy Idol concert. If we're going to the post-season, it will be on his coattails."
Tampa is doubly motivated to beat the Saints. First, to maintain their division lead and set up a monster game at Carolina next Monday. Second, to avenge a 24-20 Week 1 loss to the Saints.
"I've challenged defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin to conceive a game plan to stop Brees," says Jon Gruden. "Because I've got no clue. As they say, 'age before beauty.' If Monte fails, it's on his conscious; if he succeeds, it's on my resume, and that old geezer Monte will be rewarded with a souped-up 1945 Indian motorcycle we like to call the 'crotch'-ety rocket."
It's hard to pick against a team that scored 51 points the previous week. So I won't. Saints win, 27-24.
Baltimore @ Cincinnati (+6½)
After arriving for a meeting late, then falling asleep in the meeting, Cincinnati's Chad Ocho Cinco was deactivated for last Thursday's 27-10 loss to the Steelers. While public sentiment called for coach Marvin Lewis to cut ties with his troublesome wide receiver, Ocho Cinco was back at practice the following Friday and is expected to start against the Ravens.
"I think Jack Twist of Brokeback Mountain fame put it best," says Lewis, "when he said 'I wish I knew how to quit you.' Well, I don't know how to quit Ocho Cinco. We obviously have a special bond. You know, like when you Crazy Glue one finger to another. And it would be hard getting rid of Ocho Cinco just when I'm getting used to calling him 'Ocho Cinco.' But if he's looking for another name, I have a few suggestions. He could call himself 'Deactivate-5.' Or, better yet, he could change his name to 'Former Bengal.'"
Ravens win, 27-13.
Indianapolis @ Cleveland (+4½)
Adam Vinatieri's 51-yard field goal as time expired gave the Colts a huge 23-20 win over the Chargers, and helped avenge two losses to San Diego last year. With a 7-4 record, the Colts are in solid position for a wild card berth, and have head-to-head edges over the AFC's two other 7-4 teams, Baltimore and New England. Indy will try to win their fifth straight with a victory over the Browns in the Dawg Pound.
"It's an interesting time to be a quarterback," says Peyton Manning. "There's all this talk of quarterbacks with broken fingers, and quarterbacks getting benched, and quarterbacks who don't know that games can end in ties. Not that I need to feel any better about myself, but I do anyway. And that doesn't just apply to quarterbacking. It also applies to my endorsement decisions. I feel absolutely fantastic about the choices I've made in the advertising arena. Hearing the words 'I'm Lee Corso for Hooters' will do that."
"As for the Browns, I now understand that Brady Quinn is out for the season with a broken finger. He must have South 'Bent' it. Just when we had game-planned for Quinn, now we have to regroup and plan for Derek Anderson. 3-2-1. Okay, we're done. You know, the Browns have spent loads of cash on those two quarterbacks. Anderson signed a huge extension last year, and Quinn has a pretty large rookie contract. Talk about money 'shot.'"
The Colts are in great position for a wild card spot, especially considering their upcoming schedule includes Cincinnati, Detroit, and Jacksonville. But they have to be careful not to slip into that No. 6 seed, lest they have to play at the AFC's No. 3 seed, which is shaping up to be the Jets or Steelers. The No. 4 seed is likely to be the AFC West winner, making the No. 4 seed the place to be.
Manning throws for 3 touchdowns and Indianapolis wins, 31-14.
Atlanta @ San Diego (-5½)
Atlanta's Michael Turner has 13 rushing touchdowns this year, which dwarfs LaDainian Tomlinson's total of five. Turner was Tomlinson's backup for four years before signing with the Falcons as a free agent this offseason. The two go head-to-head as the 7-4 Falcons visit the 4-7 Chargers, with both teams needing wins to stay in the playoff hunt.
"I'm sure the Chargers are wishing they would have reconsidered not resigning Turner," says Matt Ryan. "By letting Michael go, it was a case of 'Turn' a,nd Burn.' Maybe Campbell's should throw some Chunky Soup Michael's way. Not many people are buying what L.T.'s selling. Of course, San Diego is a team known for making decisions, then questioning those very decisions. Such as hiring Marty Schottenheimer, or firing Marty Schottenheimer, or hiring Norv Turner, or drafting Ryan Leaf, or agreeing to a game in Denver refereed by Ed Hochuli."
Falcons win, 30-28.
Pittsburgh @ New England (-1)
Matt Cassel's 415-yard, 3-touchdown performance last Sunday in Miami certainly had heads turning, most notably those of Dolphin defensive backs who were covering Randy Moss, who caught all three of Cassel's scoring passes. Moss described Cassel's play as "hellified," which falls somewhere on the jive scale between "funkified" and "skankafied."
"Matt's playing his **** off," says Moss. "I call that 'rectified.' Now, his lady friends don't turn me on like Tom Brady's squeeze, Giselle Bundchen. In other words, they're not 'bonified.'"
"I'm sure you've all heard the rumors that the Patriots may re-sign Cassel and trade Tom Brady. I think that could be beneficial to all parties involved. The Pats would have their quarterback of the future, and they could get a load of draft picks for Brady. Who knows? Maybe the Pats could trade Brady to the Jets next year. Of course, that's all pending Brett Favre's announcement in late August concerning his plans for the upcoming year."
With Willie Parker likely out for Sunday's game, the burden of Pittsburgh's hopes once again fall on the broad shoulders of Ben Roethlisberger. Lately, the Steeler running attack has been a non-factor, so Big Ben and the Steelers receiving corps will have to pick up the slack.
"You know," says Roethlisberger. "Pittsburgh quarterbacks throughout the years have had their favorite receivers. Terry Bradshaw had Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. Neil O'Donnell had Dallas cornerback Larry Brown. And I've got Hines Ward. He's not only a popular target with me, but with bounty collectors throughout the NFL, although they've never collected."
Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin has a habit of making questionable decisions, but his decision prior to Sunday's game may be his most perplexing. To deliver the game plan, Tomlin shows up in spandex workout gear and a headband, as Olivia Newton-John's "Let's Get Physical" plays in the background.
"OMG!" texts Larry Foote to fellow linebacker James Farrior.
"No. ON-J," texts Farrior back to Foote.
Despite the odd manner of delivery, with Tomlin performing a number of stretches and high kicks while handing out assignments, it's a solid game plan, and most of the Steelers get the message.
The Pittsburgh defense slows down the Patriot offense, forcing Cassel to make risky throws, and Roethlisberger throws for three scores. Pittsburgh wins, 24-19.
Denver @ NY Jets (-9)
After a convincing 34-13 dismantling of the previously unbeaten Titans, the Jets have to be considered a threat to win the Super Bowl in what could possibly be a New York versus New York title game. On Sunday, the Jets host the Broncos and quarterback Jay Cutler, one of the NFL's hardest-throwing quarterbacks.
"I don't think Denver strikes fear into anyone," says Brett Favre. "Heck, I think John Denver was even more intimidating than the Broncos. But the words of Denver, John, resonate with me when I'm strolling down the City's concrete jungle, sidestepping the homeless, burning trash cans, fans asking for autographs, or Joe Namath asking for a kiss, and I remind myself that 'Thank God I'm a Country Boy.'"
"But after such an emotional win last Sunday, we have to avoid a letdown. The Broncos can strike in a hurry. But so can we. But why rush things? If there's one thing I've learned, it's to be patient. That applies to taking what the defense gives you, as well as making decisions to retire."
The Broncos had a perfect opportunity to extend their AFC West lead to three games, but were ambushed by the Raiders at Invesco Field in a 31-10 loss. With the loss, Denver still holds a two-game cushion over the Chargers.
"Sure, we blew our chance to extend our lead," says Mike Shanahan. "But we really came through in opening up the debate as to whether a division winner with a lesser record than a wild card team should have home-field advantage in the playoffs. And what if there's two wild card teams with better records than the division winner. Or three, even. The possibilities are endless, and likely, this year. In this time of giving thanks, I'm thankful we're in the AFC West and not in any other division in the AFC, where we'd be no better than third."
"I can tell you this, though. We may not intimidate people, but we won't be intimidated either. I've handled much tougher issues in the past than a defense that makes JaMarcus Russell look like John Elway. I handled devastating injuries, disgruntled players, drug problems, and probably the most challenging issue of my career - the day last year when we hosted 'Bring Your Kids to Work Day' and Travis Henry showed up."
New York wins, 33-24.
Kansas City @ Oakland (-3)
With a surprising 31-10 win in Denver last week, the Raiders not only ended a 15-quarter offensive touchdown drought, but also avenged Week 1's 41-14 loss to Denver. Darren McFadden's one-yard touchdown run in the third quarter was the Raiders first offensive TD since October 26 against Baltimore.
"I'm proud of this team's resilience in trying to find the end zone," says Al Davis, who's so old, he remembers having not turkey on his first few Thanksgivings, but smallpox. "You know, a few more quarters without an offensive touchdown, and we soon would have had to resort to drastic measures. By that, I mean I would have brought in Kenny Stabler and Dave Casper to diagram a special play that's guaranteed to result in a touchdown."
The 1-10 Chiefs are making a case for themselves as the AFC's worst team, particularly after suffering a 54-31 beating at the hands of the Bills. Herman Edwards is treading on shaky ground as the Chiefs head coach, but as always, views things through rose-colored glasses.
"Hey, you've always got to remain positive," says Edwards. "Even if life throws you a curveball, or a wobbly Tyler Thigpen pass, you've got to look on the bright side. You just never know when life will present you with a Joe Pisarcik fumble to be returned for a touchdown, giving you your one, and only, defining moment as a professional."
After Edwards has his Thanksgiving meal, you could say that "Herman ate." Which rhymes with "terminate."
Oakland wins, 26-17.
Chicago @ Minnesota (-3½)
With a two-way tie in the NFC North, nothing is for sure except that one of these two teams, or Green Bay, will be heading to the playoffs as the division winner, while the other two will be sitting at home. Luckily for the Bears and Vikings, who are both 6-5, their six wins have qualified them for a bowl game.
"There's still very much up in the air concerning this division," says Brad Childress. "We, along with the Bears, and Packers, for that matter, are steeling ourselves for a five-game race to the playoffs. It will be an arduous journey, and the winner will be bruised and worn, and hardened for an early playoff exit."
"Hopefully, our offense can make as many trips to the end zone as our defensive line has made to Roger Goodell's office."
Vikings win, 28-21.
Jacksonville @ Houston (-3)
Apparently, the schedule-makers for "Monday Night Football" thought the Jaguars/Texans matchup would be something more than a battle between two 4-7 teams. As it is, the winner is going nowhere further than out of the AFC South cellar. Jacksonville, picked by many as a sure playoff team, has been the NFL's biggest disappointment.
"Sure, we're going nowhere fast," says Jack Del Rio. "But the important thing is these guys have learned a valuable life lesson: don't back-sass Jack Del Rio. The tension in our locker room is so thick you can cut it with a knife, or a credit card if you're Matt Jones."
Texans win, 29-20.