FOR THE LAST few weeks, when you'd listen to those talk shows that ranked the teams or picked a top five, someone would always add, "Wait a minute, you're forgetting the Chargers." San Diego has become one of the better-heeled teams in football, nicely represented in all categories, with a fine young quarterback in Philip Rivers, arguably the league's best runner in LaDainian Tomlinson, good young linemen on both sides of the ball, rough guys on defense. Oh, yes, this is a team that will nicely fill out a spot on your sister's dance card. When things were grimmest against Cincinnati—the Bengals threatening to score every time they handled the ball and the writers checking the San Diego press guide to find out its worst beating in history—the Chargers all of a sudden stepped on the accelerator. The result was a scoring show so dazzling it reminded us old AFL followers of Sid Gillman's Lightning Bolts.
Why the slow start against Cincy? The Chargers had to have been taking a peek toward this week's game at Denver. Whatever firepower San Diego pours on, the Broncos are used to it after the test Indianapolis put them to a few weeks ago. Denver has always been known as a quick-striking defensive team, but the Broncos showed they could also match Indy's offense punch for punch and take the fight down to the wire. So Denver--San Diego, one of the top AFC attractions in 2006, could turn into a point machine.
Or it could be something else. I think the Broncos know how to play Tomlinson and Antonio Gates, the All-Pro tight end. Neither of them has had really big days against Denver over the last three years. And I think the way Cincy's Carson Palmer stood tall in the pocket against San Diego and ran up amazing numbers shows that the Chargers' pass rush severely misses the suspended Shawne Merriman. I like Denver.
O.K., the Colts have to lose sometime, right? And what kind of a game did we all feel it would be? A game on the road against a good defensive team with plenty of IQ points in the coaching department, and one with multiple forms of attack. Folks, I give you... Dallas! Cowboys to upset Indy.
No one knows the colors that will flash across Mike Vick's palette from week to week, so Falcons games are no pleasure to pick, but against Baltimore the colors usually are purple tinged with prison gray. Ravens to win it. Giants at Jacksonville on Monday night makes you wonder which of all of New York's injuries was most hurtful against the Bears. I'll tell you: It was the loss in the first quarter of left tackle Luke Petitgout. Putting backup Bob Whitfield out there to block Bears defensive end Alex Brown without any help was just asking for trouble. I don't think New York makes that mistake again. Every instinct says they're too worn out, but I still like the Giants over the Jaguars—with one proviso: If something is seriously wrong with Tiki Barber's thumb and he can't play, I go the other way.
Carolina will take the measure of St. Louis, Cincinnati (I am not getting off this team until it wins one for me) will edge the Saints, New England comes back against Green Bay, and Miami keeps it going against Minnesota.
Last week 3--3
Dr. Z writes for the Web every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at SI.com/nfl.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
CRUSHING Denver's D has hard hits in store for San Diego.