THESE ARE THE VOICES OF DECEMBER:
"We've got to stay focused." Coaches of teams that clinch their
divisions early worry about this, because they have to worry
about something. They're playing for home field in the
postseason, for the bye, for a smoother ride to the Super Bowl,
and this should be a serious motivator. But for some reason it
seldom is. There's a natural letdown after a team clinches a
division title. Are you listening, 49ers and Packers?
"We control our own destiny." In other words, win the rest of
your games and you win the division. The Steelers, Bucs,
Patriots, Raiders and Titans are in this category, and the Eagles
need only one victory to wrap up the NFC East. But the NFL is
littered with the wreckage of teams that got derailed while
controlling their destiny. Could what happened on Sunday to the
Steelers, who lost to the Texans 24--6 despite a 422--47 margin
in total yards, be an omen?
"We need help." These teams usually get it, because the most
inexplicable upsets (see Steelers-Texans) happen around this time
of year. The trick is to avoid being upset yourself. That's you,
Broncos, Chiefs and Jets.
"We need lots of help." These clubs are long shots, but sneaking
into the playoffs wouldn't be unheard-of. These guys have to win
them all while the other guys are losing them all. This is where
the Giants fit in.
"We're playing for pride." Well, maybe. Players say that when
they can't think of anything else to say. Take the Cardinals,
Cowboys, Panthers and Redskins, for instance.
"You hear anything about the coach?" This is the most desperate
of all comments, implying as it does that the dismissal
announcement could come any day. The Bengals, Jaguars, Lions and
Seahawks fit the profile.
Green Bay versus San Francisco is now just a matter of which team
is focusing better. The Packers looked desperate for three
quarters against the Vikings. The 49ers got a scare from the
Cowboys. I'll go with the scared team and focus in on a Niners
--Only one team could be controlling its destiny after the
Patriots meet the Titans on Monday night. Tennessee quarterback
Steve McNair, battling injuries that kept him off the practice
field for two weeks, performs heroically when the bell rings.
The Titans aren't just a muscle team anymore. They're spreading
the field, but I don't think they'll do much of that against New
England, which matches up well against the exotic packages. The
Patriots, with three straight wins, are on the rise, just as
they were last year at this time. Logic says the Titans at home
in a Monday-nighter, but strictly on a hunch, I'll take the
Patriots in an upset.
--The Giants need lots of help. They'll get some from the
Cowboys, whom they host at the Meadowlands. The Jets need help
too, but if they look ahead to the Dec. 22 game against the
Patriots, Sunday's road game against the Bears will be one of
those heartbreakers. O.K., I'll give the Jets the nod, but scary
things could happen. The Colts controlled their destiny--until
losing to the Titans on Sunday. Now Indy visits another of those
teams that needs help, the Browns, and I'll give the Colts the
--Oakland's on a roll, but Miami faces the specter of playoff
elimination with a loss to the Raiders and another one at New
England in the finale. I'll ride with the desperate team and go
with the Dolphins. The Chargers are a serious contender, the
Bills are just about out of it. This is a classic spoiler game.
San Diego quarterback Drew Brees has never faced those terrible
Buffalo winds. The Bills are the pick.
Let's close with one more upset. The Chiefs will derail the
Broncos in Denver.
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COLOR PHOTO: BRIAN BAHR/GETTY IMAGES Niners wideout Terrell Owens will have reason to celebrateagainst Green Bay, as he did in Dallas.