When the NFL went to the 16-game schedule in 1978, a veteran
scout told me, "They've turned it into a survival contest. The
teams that are smart are the ones that spend big money on
It made sense, but that was before the salary-cap era. These days
the big bucks go toward making sure you keep your superstars or
sign the other guys'. Except for aberrations like the Trent
Green-Kurt Warner parlay in St. Louis, the backups get what
money's left over.
Right now, if you're a contending team, you'd better have your
backups ready. Who can remember such a run of injuries to
keynote performers on teams fighting to get into the playoffs?
Miami lost its quarterback, Jay Fiedler, and its top runner,
Lamar Smith, in a game in which the Jets lost Curtis Martin, the
heart of their ground attack. New Orleans nursed some serious
playoff hopes, then in successive weekends lost its star runner,
Ricky Williams, and its quarterback, Jeff Blake, for the season.
The St. Louis-Washington Monday-nighter was a battle of backup
quarterbacks. Denver won its thriller against San Diego without
quarterback Brian Griese or running back Terrell Davis. Oakland
running back Tyrone Wheatley has been out for a couple of weeks,
and now the muscle in the Bucs' rushing attack, Mike Alstott, is
sidelined with a sprained knee. Titans running back Eddie George
has been slowed by rib and ankle injuries, while Green Bay
quarterback Brett Favre gutted it out on a badly sprained foot
in a win over Indy. Is anybody healthy?
Well, yeah, a few contenders, like Minnesota and Baltimore, are
in fairly good shape. So is Indianapolis, which faces Miami at
home with first place in the AFC East on the line. The Colts have
lost two of their last three, both in the same way. Their defense
got manhandled in the first half, then Peyton Manning brought
them back and almost pulled it out. The Dolphins operate a more
modest show, working behind a stout defense and trying not to
mess things up when they have the ball. Without Fiedler and
Smith, they were shut down by the Jets.
I smell an upset, though. I like the sturdy defense so, assuming
Fiedler is back, I'll take the Dolphins. If not, Indy's the pick.
Buffalo at Tampa Bay is going to be one of those nasty affairs in
which every yard is dearly won. The Bucs' defense will be without
its hitting machine, strong safety John Lynch, who's out with a
dislocated shoulder, but I see the front four putting a lot of
heat on Rob Johnson, who has felt his share this season. I also
see the Tampa Bay offense, which could manage only 60 net yards
passing against Chicago and will be missing Alstott, struggling.
The Bucs have the tougher struggle. The Bills are my choice in
upset No. 2.
Remember the final weekend of the regular season last year, when
Carolina and Green Bay were running up the score on New Orleans
and Arizona, respectively, to try to sneak into the playoffs on
point differential? Well, the Panthers and the Packers will be
pushing the scoring buttons against each other this week in one
of the rare Monday-nighters matching teams with losing records.
The game's in Carolina, but I still like the Favre magic. That
makes Green Bay the pick.
The Jets will overcome that sturdy Chicago defense, but it won't
be easy. The Giants bounced back from their humiliation against
the Rams only to get humiliated by Detroit. Is there a
humiliation hat trick in store for them in Arizona? No. I like
the Giants. Jacksonville is rebounding, and Tennessee has gone
turnover crazy (seven against Cleveland), but even when the
Jaguars were riding highest, the Titans had their number.
Tennessee is the pick. Denver, with quarterback Gus Frerotte
minding the store, will win in Seattle. I like Washington over
Philly in a squeaker, and here's my Super Upset Special: San
Diego to get its first win, over fading Kansas City.
COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON Johnson, who has often been under siege, will have to contend with a fearsome Tampa Bay pass rush.