Is it my imagination, or will 1998 go down as the Year of the Quarterback Controversy? Maybe controversy is too strong a word. How about dilemma? Or puzzlement? I can't seem to remember a season in which so many coaches were trying to figure out which guy deserves to run the show.
Philadelphia and Washington have played musical chairs with their quarterbacks. Ask the fans in Buffalo whom they'd like to see starting and they'd tell you Doug Flutie, who has merely been great in relief of Rob Johnson. In Detroit, Scott Mitchell was benched for rookie Charlie Batch. The Glenn Foley—Vinny Testaverde soap opera plays out every week for the Jets, and in New Orleans the fans are in love with Danny Wuerffel—well, at least they were before Sunday's game against the 49ers—but where would he be if Heath Shuler hadn't gone down with his foot injury and Billy Joe Hobert hadn't torn his Achilles tendon in the opener? And on and on.
It sure is weird, isn't it? Speaking of weird, here are my picks for this week:
Until the Saints' offensive line can figure out how to stand up to a big league rush, I can't see this team beating anyone who seriously gets after the passer. Atlanta certainly does; the Falcons pressure the quarterback in the purest fashion, with a nicely coordinated rush from their front four. If the Saints could slow those guys down with a running game it would be different, but who knows which New Orleans rushing attack will show up, the one that hammered the Panthers and the Colts, or the one that produced no more than 39 yards on three occasions, including a season-low 32 yards against the 49ers. I've got Atlanta winning this one with another flurry of sacks, but what scares me is that the pick looks too easy.
The Giants felt the wrath of the Falcons' rush on Sunday night, and now they face another team whose front four is really coming together—Arizona. History says the Cardinals, who have lost 13 of their last 14 to the Giants in the Meadowlands, have no shot. Never liked historical handicapping, though, so let's go with the upset: Cardinals in a squeaker. For those of you who are worried about home field advantage, New York—make that New Jersey—is one of the few places where the crowd noise doesn't really kick in consistently. Once the enemy gets a touchdown ahead, the fans get really quiet.
On paper the Jets-Patriots Monday-nighter looks like a blowout, based on what happened last weekend, but the Jets are an emotional yo-yo of a team who save their best efforts for division foes. The Jets' strongest game this year? The 20-9 win over the Dolphins. Second best? The 44-6 victory over Indianapolis, a team that New York usually overlooks while it's concentrating on the big picture. I guarantee you the Jets will be ready for Bill Parcells' old team. Parcells wouldn't stand for a repeat of the effort they turned in against the Rams on Sunday. Only the locale leads me to the Patriots. In the Meadowlands I'd go the other way.
The most impressive win last weekend was the Bengals' defeat of the Steelers. Best play I've seen all year: the Neil O'Donnell to Carl Pickens fake-spike touchdown pass, which mystified even Cincinnati's linemen, who had not been informed. This opens up a whole new can of possibilities. Why not run a series that way? The quarterback keeps the play to himself—O.K., maybe he tells one other guy—and just lets everybody else on the offense figure out what's going to happen. The ultimate in deception. Naked bootlegs, the hidden-ball play, the Fumblerooskie. It would be an offense straight out of Mad magazine, and I, for one, would pay big money to see it. But back to reality. The Bengals gave up 257 yards on the ground to the Steelers, and Tennessee seems to have rediscovered its running game. Look for the Oilers to win behind Eddie George and the infantry.
The quick-pick counter: The Vikings will hand the Redskins loss number seven. The Ravens will make it much closer than the Steelers would like, but I still like a tight win for home-team Pittsburgh. Finally, in the day's biggie, the rampaging Eagles will recapture the verve and swagger of the old NFC East with an upset of the Chargers on the West Coast.