They rise up every December, and they take their place in
history. They are spoilers, teams that have no chance at
post-season glory--many of them don't even have a shot at a
winning record--yet they make their reputation by ruining it for
the good teams. Happens every year. It'll happen this year, too.
Don't say I didn't warn you.
What do the classic spoilers look like? Nasty customers. They
play hard when all logic says they should be packing it in.
Usually they've got one well-developed weapon, such as a
tenacious defense or a quarterback who can suddenly light it up.
But spoilers are unpredictable. No one knows whether they're
going to play with a fury or revert to the habits that got them
a losing record in the first place. This year I have six of them.
Jets (4-8): They beat the Patriots and the Bills on back-to-back
weeks, then took Indy down to the wire, holding the Colts'
flashy offense in check. But the defense went belly-up against
the Giants on Sunday. Now they have a chance to spoil things for
Miami, in the Meadowlands this weekend, and if they don't spring
the upset then, they get another shot at the Dolphins two weeks
later. Plus, the Jets can still mess things up for the Cowboys
and the Seahawks. I guarantee that they'll beat one of these
teams; I just don't think it'll happen this weekend. Miami is
too angry about blowing the game against the Colts. The Dolphins
will beat the Jets in a squeaker, as the Miami defense makes up
for all the missed tackles against Indy.
Ravens (5-7): After that whipping they handed the Titans, the
secret is out. We knew the defense was sturdy when it went
toe-to-toe with Jacksonville on Nov. 14, but who ever expected
quarterback Tony Banks to have a breakout game against a
respectable Tennessee defense? I think the Ravens will beat the
Steelers, which doesn't classify them as spoilers. But in Week
17 Baltimore will have a chance to ruin things for the Patriots,
assuming New England is still alive.
Chargers (5-7): They won three in a row over playoff hopefuls
Kansas City, Detroit and Seattle, and they get a shot at three
more of them. Can San Diego upset the Seahawks? Nope. The
Chargers defense is too banged up. But the Dolphins and the
Raiders had better beware.
Eagles (3-10): They've already tightened the NFC East race by
beating the Cowboys and the Redskins, and games against St.
Louis and New England are down the road. This week they have
Dallas again, a team Philly usually saves its best efforts for.
Do I have the courage to pick an upset? Why not? The Eagles beat
the Cowboys with defense, turnovers and the X-factor, namely
quarterback Donovan McNabb.
Bears (5-8): They've beaten three playoff contenders: the
Chiefs, Vikings and Packers. They're off this week but games
against the Lions, Rams and Bucs loom. Stay tuned.
Broncos (4-8): They've swept the Raiders and knocked off the
Packers. With four extra days to prepare, the Jaguars will beat
the Broncos on Monday night, but Denver still has a shot at the
Lions and the Seahawks, and at least one of them will fall.
Now for this week's keynote matchups. Historically, Detroit has
done pretty well in Tampa Bay, and I look for the Lions to pull
a mini-upset over the Bucs. Detroit quarterback Gus Frerotte
hasn't cooled off. The multiple wideout sets, which the Lions
used so effectively against Washington, allow him to get to his
hot reads quickly, and that's what he'll have to do on Sunday
because he'll be under intense pressure.
Arizona to upset the Redskins. The Washington defense remains
suspect, and now the offense is starting to wobble (four
turnovers, five sacks, 11 penalties, including five holds, in
the loss to Detroit). Plus, Brad Johnson has already thrown 400
passes this season. It looks as if his arm is tiring.
The Bills and the December winds will topple the Giants and
their newfound offensive fireworks. Kerry Collins has never
tried to throw deep in a gale. If the Hawk isn't out, though, I
give New York a shot.
Quickie picks: The Colts, at home, to beat the Patriots, who
showed a formidable defense against Dallas but looked fitful
when they had the ball; and the Vikings, visiting Arrowhead, a
nasty place to play, for the first time in nine years, to squeak
one out against the Chiefs.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER The Ravens could be a real spoiler if Banks continues to play as he did on Sunday.