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Gruden awakening


The Glazer family, which owns the Bucs, did the right thing last week when it allowed general manager Rich McKay to take the Atlanta Falcons' GM job. Why let him go now, with two games left? Why not? You know he's going to leave, so why keep a man whose heart and newfound loyalty is with a division rival?

I met separately with Gruden and McKay at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday, and I can understand the frustration on the part of both men. McKay feels like he and his staff -- and the previous coaching regime under Tony Dungy -- set the stage for Gruden's success last year. And while the GM acknowledges gratefully that the franchise probably wouldn't have won the Super Bowl without Gruden, he became frustrated with the coach's intransigent demands. Gruden was often irked that when he'd identify a need, and have a player in mind to fill it, he'd ask McKay to sign the guy and the GM would say no. Just "no." Not, "Well, let's go for John Doe instead of Darrell Russell, because he's not a guy I trust, on or off the field.''

I sense that Gruden is annoyed by a couple of other things. He didn't tell me this outright, but I can sense it when I'm talking to him. One is the overrated reputation of McKay as a franchise architect. The other is the current state of the Bucs in the talent and cap departments, which sort of go hand in hand.

Let's look at the last three major deals of the McKay administration and the impact they had on the recent drafts.

1. The 2000 Draft: The Bucs dealt their two first-round picks, the 13th and 27th overall selections, to the Jets for wideout Keyshawn Johnson. He gave Tampa Bay 298 catches in three and a half years, and Gruden basically fired him a month ago for insubordination. In retrospect: Very bad deal -- especially considering Shaun Alexander (19th) and Keith Bulluck (30th), who each could've filled a Bucs need, were picked after 13 and 27.

2. The 2001 Draft: Tampa Bay held the 21st pick overall, and traded that plus its second-rounder (51st overall) to move up to 14. The Bucs picked tackle Kenyatta Walker, who has been an OK starting tackle. Just OK. In retrospect: Bad deal.

3. The 2002, '03, '04 Drafts: To acquire Gruden, the Bucs traded $8 million plus first-round picks in '02 and '03 and second-round picks in '02 and '04. In retrospect: Incredibly excessive, but you can't complain about a trade that wins you a Super Bowl, and there is no question that Gruden's arrival was the key to last year's championship.

So, in total, Tampa Bay traded five first-round picks, three second-round picks and $8 million for Johnson, Walker and Gruden.


Now, let's look at the last four drafts of the McKay era. Of the 28 overall picks, 13 players are still with the Bucs, and five are starters. "Our drafts have been a joke lately,'' a Bucs veteran told me after the team fell out of the playoff race Saturday. "Marquise Walker? Travis Stephens? [The two top picks in 2002.] And this year, what did we get?'' Not much yet, but the jury has to be out on the third-round quarterback, Chris Simms, because he hasn't played yet, and because second-round pass rusher Dewayne White obviously hasn't made his mark.

This team just has to draft better. Period. However, in the hullabaloo of the Gruden/McKay feud, that point has been ignored here, as the locals are more concerned with taking sides. "We need to recoup some of the picks we lost,'' a raspy Gruden said Saturday. "When you lose guys like Hardy Nickerson, Jeff Gooch and Al Singleton from your linebacker group over time, and then you don't draft one in the last three or four years, it not only takes a toll on the linebacker unit, but it takes a toll on your special teams, because linebackers are always good special-teams guys. So it's a domino effect.''

Gruden says taking the GM reins "is not my deal, not something I want. I want to do what I've done -- coach.'' But he also wants to be able to get a player when he believes he needs one.

The next interesting decision by this team will be what do about the GM job. The logical in-house choice, director of player personnel Tim Ruskell, was interviewed last year by Washington and Atlanta but not hired. McKay would like to take Ruskell to Atlanta in either the same capacity or one with more authority. Ruskell's contract expires June 1. But if he stays, he's not going to want to be Gruden's waterboy. My guess is he's going to desire real authority. Like drafting authority.

Whether Ruskell gets it, or Gruden goes after his old Raiders and Eagles scouting buddy Mike Lombardi instead, the most important thing the Bucs need to do is replenish the guts of their roster.This team has thrived on the star system, but the players, and the concept, are getting old. Look at Philadelphia, 11-4 with backups playing big roles all over the roster. Look at New England, 13-2 while playing 64 players, more than all but two teams in the NFL this year. You know why New England's good? Because the Pats' 48th player is better than most teams' 35th. Depth wins today. Huge cap numbers don't. Gruden has to whack down John Lynch (2004 cap: $6.0 million) and Derrick Brooks ($8.7 million), while managing the cap damage of Johnson's massive hit.

What's the best thing Gruden could do (and this is nothing he doesn't know already)?

Hit on the sixth-round picks. Stop paying stars; develop some new ones. And try to acquire multiple picks for that first-rounder in the 2004 draft.

Offensive Player of the Week

Atlanta QB Michael Vick. With apologies to Jamal Lewis, this week's award isn't about stats. Vick's were downright pedestrian (8 of 15, 199 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions; 12 rushes, 39 yards) in Atlanta's 30-28 upset of the Bucs, a game that knocked Tampa Bay from the playoff race. This is about control over a game. Vick has it. With nine minutes left in regulation, and Atlanta up 30-14, the Falcons decided to go for it on fourth-and-one from the Tampa 35. Vick dropped back from center to hand off to running back T.J. Duckett. They collided and stopped, Duckett with the ball. With the defense swooping in for the kill, Vick grabbed the ball from Duckett, dodged two Bucs tacklers, and sprinted around right end for the first down. Tampa didn't touch the ball again until 3:45 remained in the game.

Defensive Player of the Week

San Francisco S Tony Parrish, who, after an early interception in Philadelphia, made one of the great individual defensive plays of the season. Todd Pinkston caught a deep ball over him, and Parrish caught up to the wideout at about the Niners five-yard line and punched the ball loose. Instead of being down 14-7, the 49ers, because the ball scooted out of the end zone, had the ball at their 20 with the game tied at 7. Then, early in overtime, Parrish picked off his second McNabb pass of the day and rambled to the four, setting up the winning field goal.

Special Teams Player of the Week

New York Giants WR David Tyree, who made two textbook stops in punt coverage in the first half of the Cowboys' win over the Giants. Now, it'd be pretty easy for any Giants player to mail it in considering the hopeless situation they're in. But Tyree tackled Zuriel Smith for a four-yard loss midway through the second quarter, and, later, while double-teamed as the left gunner, broke through and smothered Smith after a two-yard gain late in the half. Tyree's got a fearless slitheriness to him.

Coach of the Week

Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio. The Jags were 2-9 four weeks ago, and Del Rio had the tightest rear end in the league. He still does, but his emphasis on the traditional things -- strong running game, punishing defense -- has paid off. Pretty unusual when a team with nothing to play for comes out so strong every week.

Goat of the Week

(tie) New Orleans K John Carney and Tampa Bay K Martin Gramatica. Did Carney, whose missed extra point sent the Saints home for the winter, get on the plane with his teammates? I wonder if New Orleans can bring this man to camp next summer. I say no way.

Gramatica had his troubles, too. With 27 seconds left in the Bucs' playoff hopes, the team's only chance to survive was a successful onside kick. What does Gramatica do? He pops it up 28 yards downfield. "That right there,'' Warren Sapp said with disgust after the game, "is a perfect way for our season to go down.''

Stat of the Week

Two in the same vein:

1. In two 2003 games against Cleveland, Jamal Lewis had 500 rushing yards.

2. In two 2003 games against the Giants, Billy Cundiff was 11 for 11 in field goals.

Reuters reported last week that 42 percent of all residents of Kentucky and West Virginia 65 and older have none of their natural teeth. The New York Daily News reported this news Saturday, headlined thusly:

Tooth of the matter: Ky., W.Va. lack bite

"Can you get it fixed in a week, two weeks? I don't see how.''

--CBS analyst Phil Simms, noting the impossible situation the Chiefs defense is in on the verge of the playoffs.

Last Tuesday I made a one-day trip to Houston to do a story for Inside the NFL on a pro draft choice-turned-astronaut -- it will air Jan. 28 -- and I just want to warn all you going to this fine city for the Super Bowl next month: Put your walking shoes on at George Bush International (formerly Intercontinental) Airport. Slightly late for my return flight to Newark, I made the walk, and briskly, from the Continental ticket counter deep into Gate E territory. It took 16 minutes. I am not a slow walker. I must've walked a little more than a mile.

New England defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, 56, who should be on lots of teams' Christmas shopping list this year.

MMQB: You're sitting across from an owner, interviewing for a head-coaching job. What do you want him to know about you?

Crennel: I have experience in this league. I have a personality that will come out. My track record will speak for itself -- 23 years in the league with a lot of winning programs. I will highlight my experience in getting players ready to play.

MMQB: What's your defensive philosophy?

Crennel: Not to sound too general, but you need to be fundamentally sound whatever you do, and you've got to coach to the strength of your players, especially these days, when your roster changes so much every year. You can play the 3-4, 4-3, the 46, then you need to look at what your opponent does, and what your abilities are. In 2001, we were a 4-3 team, even though we had the 3-4 in our back pocket. Now we're 3-4 with the 4-3 in our back pocket. Sometimes you get a feel for how the game is going when you're calling the defense. You might play zone, zone, zone, and you just get a feeling, you anticipate, and then you call man.''

MMQB: Is the league doing enough to help minority candidates by mandating that at least one minority coach is interviewed for each opening?

Crennel: "You don't really know me. Owners don't really know me. If I get an interview with one owner, he's going to talk to another owner. Even if I don't get that job, I get the exposure. I truly believe that. The NFL is taking a positive step with the diversity committee. And I really do believe there are some good minority coaches that, given the exposure, will do a really good job in the interview. An owner who might not have thought of that coach now could be impressed by him.

Some of you really dislike the Sunday night ESPN crew. Others really took me to task for not respecting the NFC North.

SUNDAY NIGHT'S ALL RIGHT FOR FIGHTING. From Norm Goddard of Ottawa: "I just wanted to comment on ESPN's Sunday night crew. You are not picking on them. They are horrible. And from the sounds of their comments they must talk to everyone on the team before the game, including the equipment manager, the bus driver and the water boy. I don't know why ESPN doesn't replace some or all of the trio. I know the network will say ratings are good, but it's the only game on Sunday night and if it's good, a football fan will watch it anyway.''

Hey, Mike Patrick, Paul Maguire and Joe Theisman know football. I just think they could be a little more critical and not put every guy who makes a play into the Hall of Fame.

I STILL SAY IT'S A MOCKERY. From David Barr of Chicago: "You talk about the length of the NCAA football schedule, and claim that adding a playoff would make a further 'mockery of student athletes.' As a distance runner at University of Chicago, my season lasts from the first meet in late August to the final meet in early June, with competitions nearly every week. Despite this schedule, my team's average GPA is above average. I'm not sure changing the football schedule will have much effect on the players.''

Thanks for writing, David. Intelligent comment. I'm not certain how long the running season lasts, but it seems like you are talking about three seasons -- cross country, indoor track, outdoor track. Am I right? So I'm not sure we're talking about like situations. Also, I feel pretty confident that the average distance runner at the University of Chicago is better at handling his academics than is the average football player at Ohio State. In fact, I feel pretty sure that the average distance runner at the University of Chicago is better at handling practically anything than the average anybody.

A MANNING FAN CHECKS IN. From James Bailey of Columbus, Miss.: "Which NFL team would be a good match for Eli Manning next year?''

Seems to me that three of the top 10 teams in next April's draft -- Arizona, San Diego, Cleveland -- could pick a quarterback in the first round. It also seems to me that it's not definite Manning will be the first QB taken, because of Miami (Ohio)'s Ben Roethlisberger's emergence as a top-half-of-the-first-round pick. I don't know who will coach Arizona or San Diego next year, so it's hard to say what those clubs will do. Knowing Butch Davis, I think he'll try to solve the Browns' quarterback problem with either Kelly Holcomb or a veteran free agent. I think the best place for Manning would be Pittsburgh, which is expected to pick a few spots behind Cleveland. Steelers quarterbacks coach Tom Clements is a hidden gem, a really good teacher of the fundamentals, and offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey is excellent at designing things to take advantage of his quarterback's strengths. Of course, there's a chance the Steelers could acquire Drew Henson in a trade with Houston.

YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT RE: THE CLOSERS. From Brett Freimauer of New York City: "How can you compare Keith Foulke and Mariano Rivera? Look at their postseason stats and then get back to me.''

Hold on, now. Nowhere did I say that Foulke is better. All I said was that at least it's good competition now. And that's right. Foulke has had five postseason outings. Rivera has had 5,000. No one can compete with the Yankees' closer in terms of experience.

GET GIBBS FOR VICK. From Alex Taylor of Chevy Chase, Md.: "I realize Joe Gibbs has repeatedly denied that he'd ever return to the NFL and seems content as a NASCAR owner, but others have said the same thing and come back to the sidelines. So my question is, as a part-owner of the Falcons who lives in the South, wouldn't Gibbs at least consider the possibility of coaching Michael Vick?"

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I would be stunned if Gibbs returns to coach football again, because he loves NASCAR, and he enjoys being be able to have his extended family around. Family can't go with you to work at the football office every day.

1. I think these are my quick-hit thoughts of the NFL weekend:

a. Were those alligator arms I saw you sprout late in the third quarter Saturday night against the Vikings, Tony Gonzalez? And you, Santana Moss, facing the Patriots later that same night?

b. Since Walter Payton, has there has been a better cutback runner in the NFL than Priest Holmes? After watching Holmes for awhile you start to expect him to cut back, even when it looks like there's an open space in the direction he's running. Brilliant, just brilliant. I know Gale Sayers was better, because I've seen enough clips of him doing it. But I don't think I've seen anyone since 1970 (about the time I started watching the game consistently) run against the grain better than Holmes, unless it was Payton.

c. Was it my imagination, or did Terrell Owens look happier after he left the Niners-Eagles game with a fractured left collarbone than he did when he was still playing?

d. Was the Vikings-Chiefs contest an NFL game or a WAC one?

e. You know, Richard Seymour is more of an end than a tackle. He's started nine games at end for the Patriots this year, four at tackle, and Crennel tells me Seymour has played about 55 percent of the snaps outside and 45 percent inside. I don't want to give away too much about my all-pro team, but Seymour is looking pretty strong as one of my choices at end.

f. Why is Jeremy Shockey, who will have missed seven of 16 games and plays for a 4-11 Giants team, in the Pro Bowl?

g. Why is Rodney Harrison, who has been the glue of a 13-2 New England defense, not?

h. Brian Dawkins is one great football player.

i. Fred Taylor has 1,451 rushing yards with a game left, and has to be having about the quietest 1,500-yard rushing season I've ever seen.

j. Warren Sapp, Terrell Owens and Keyshawn Johnson are going to be brutally disappointed in the free-agent market that awaits them for them. None will make big dough.

k. What a career Jerome Bettis has had. He needs 14 yards Sunday against Baltimore to pass Jim Brown and move into sixth place on the all-time rushing list. I just hope yesterday wasn't Bettis' last 100-yard game.

l. I bet Bill Parcells wishes he had Reggie Swinton back.

2. I think I don't mean to pile on Owens the day after he broke his collarbone, but if I were an NFL coach or GM I would never have him on my team. I don't care how good he is at times; he plays only when he wants to play. He dogs it on too many routes, and drops too many balls. It seems like Owens misses one or two catchable throws every week. FOX did a great job during the 49ers-Eagles game of showing how uninterested Owens can be at times. When's the last good block you've seen Owens throw? When's the last block you've seen Owens throw, period?

3. I think the best note I heard during Sunday's NFL broadcasts was Cris Collinsworth's story on FOX about what a strong team concept the Eagles have built. He told the story of how Duce Staley, when he was introduced with the starting offense before Philadelphia's game against San Francisco, brought all-purpose weapon Brian Westbrook with him out onto the field. That sums up the Eagles right there.

4. I think I have no clue how you choose from among Holmes, Tomlinson, Portis and Jamal Lewis to select this season's All-Pro running back. (Fifty media folk, including me, are asked to select two backs for the AP All-Pro team. I vote for one running back and one fullback, which many of my peers do not do. I believe you should try to simulate an actual team as much as you can, and a team would very, very rarely play two running backs at once. It would play either one back, or a running back and a fullback.) The four backs I mentioned above are the best in the league, with Deuce McAllister and Ahman Green very close behind them. Please tell me which of the six should be my all-pro choice this year. Right now I'm leaning toward Lewis or Holmes, with the last week of the season still likely to help me make up my mind. Holmes is on the verge of breaking the record for rushing touchdowns (he's tied with Emmitt Smith, with 25) in a season, while Lewis is 48 yards from 2,000 on the ground.

5. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:

a. What is this epidemic of yappy dogs on airplanes? Anyone else notice it? Why are dogs not sedated and checked as luggage anymore?

b. Coffeenerdness: If I had one ridiculously selfish wish for a happy New Year, it would be for drive-thru Starbucks places to pop up all over the country. There's one on Westshore Boulevard here in Tampa, a few long spirals from Raymond James Stadium. Now if they'd only let me bring a latte into the stadium. That's on my 2004 preseason to-do list.

c. I'm not much of a VH1 guy, and I haven't listened to much Warren Zevon the past couple of decades. But see if you can catch the network's hour-long special about how Zevon, while dying, put together his final album, The Wind. Touching and human. Then I went out and bought the CD, and it's tremendous. "Disorder in the House" is a keeper.

d. Temperature in Tampa early Sunday morning: 39 degrees. Later that same morning in Newark, N.J.: 34 degrees.

6. I think the Saints have to be the least clutch team in recent NFC history. Last year, they fell out of playoff contention in December by losing to 6-10 Minnesota, 2-14 Cincinnati and 7-9 Carolina. This December, they've fallen to 7-8 Tampa and 5-10 Jacksonville and missed out on the postseason again.

7. I think the Texans might be really good next year. What a division the AFC South will be in 2004: the Colts will be better yet with more defensive improvements; the Titans will continue being the Titans; the Jags are finishing this year really strong and Byron Leftwich is gaining all this experience; and the Texans will have a good back (Domanick Davis) and great aerial connection (David Carr-to-Andre Johnson).

8. I think I would be the first to say Joe Horn did a stupid thing, a selfish thing, a taunting thing when he used a cell phone after scoring a touchdown in New Orleans. But the coverage that act got was beyond belief. It basically shared the top of the front page the next day in the New Orleans Times-Picayune. The New York Times had two stories on it last Tuesday. I must have heard five talk show hosts talk about Horn's antics as if it was the end of civilization. Three opinions:

a. For as tough as Jim Haslett is with his team, I'm shocked that after one of his players cost his club a 15-yard penalty all the coach did was scold Horn as he came off the field and then upbraid him in a press conference.

b. I like Horn a lot. Breath-of-fresh-air kind of guy. But even an honest guy like Horn should realize a 15-yard penalty for doing something selfish brands you an idiot.

c. If ESPN didn't show the replay of Horn's cellphone stunt 5,000 times, and if the SportsCenter announcers didn't debate it so much, we wouldn't be awaiting the next copycat version so breathlessly. TV has stopped showing fans who run onto the field during baseball games. Maybe the NFL should talk to the networks about not showing pre-determined individual crap like this -- or at least only airing it once.

9. I think I'd be remiss if I didn't pay my respects to Otto Graham in the week following his passing. I wrote a book about pro football history for Sports Illustrated in 1993, and I remember getting guff for two things I wrote in the book: I named Don Hutson the greatest player of all time and called Graham the greatest quarterback of all time. "How can any quarterback be better than Otto Graham?'' the late Giants GM George Young once asked me. "All he did was quarterback his team to the championship game of his league every year he played.'' True. Graham played from 1946-49 with the old All-American Football Conference's Cleveland Browns, then from 1950-55 with the Browns after the NFL admitted them. With the AAFC Browns, Graham's teams were 47-4-3, but everyone thought the AAFC was a minor league. When the Browns entered the NFL, the league scheduled them to open the season at defending champion Philadelphia, which had the stingiest defense in the league. A howling mob of 71,000 came to the game. Graham threw for a touchdown in each of the first, second and third quarters. He ran for one in the fourth. Final score: Cleveland 38, Philadelphia 10. In the NFL title game that year, Graham threw four touchdown passes to beat the Rams, 30-28. Ten years, 10 championship games, seven titles. Graham, in my book, is still the best ever.

10. I think you're a great audience, and I'm reminded how much I like doing this column by both your praise and your rip jobs. I'd like to wish everyone in the Internet audience Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and Happy Kwanzaa.

1. New England (13-2). Every week someone new, and someone very unfamous, steps up for this team. Saturday night, it was David Givens with two touchdown catches, and Eugene Wilson with a last-minute pick to save the 21-16 win over the Jets. Before this season, the Pats had been alive 43 years and never won more than 11 games in any regular season. Now they've won 11 in a row.

2. St. Louis (12-3). Pity the fool who has to journey to Ed Jones for the divisional round of the playoffs.

3. Philadelphia (11-4). I was not impressed with Donovan McNabb in the loss to San Francisco. He threw an awful interception in overtime, and he missed a wide-open second-half touchdown to James Thrash that would have prevented the game from going to OT.

4. Denver (10-5). How terrific and in control was Jake Plummer during the win at Indy? Add another running back to the Broncos' pipeline. Unbelievable. Quentin Griffin, who started because Clinton Portis was on the sideline because of his bad ankle, gave Mike Shanahan a clock-chewing 136 yards.

5. Indianapolis (11-4). That defense needs another offseason of Dungy tuning.

6. Tennessee (11-4). That was an MVP throw to win that game yesterday by Steve McNair. It's a good thing for the Titans that they don't need Sunday's game against the Bucs to clinch a playoff spot. Rest him, Jeff Fisher.

7. Baltimore (9-6). Do I love this team? I have my doubts. But any team that can play defense as well as the Ravens can, and any team that can run the ball the way this team can ... well, that's the kind of team that will be in every January game. "They're playing over their heads right now, but they're playing well,'' Tony Siragusa said cryptically on FOX yesterday.

8. Dallas (10-5). Quincy Carter to an angry Parcells last week after a Carter turnover: "I was just trying to make a play.'' Parcells to Carter: "If you want to make a play, go to the Arena League!'' Some would say that the reason Carter is a better QB this year because he's playing well under pressure for the first time in his NFL career. I wonder why.

9. Minnesota (9-6). Last eight home quarters: 79 points.

10. Kansas City (12-3). This isn't a knee-jerk reaction to what we all saw Saturday evening. But that is the worst run defense I can EVER remember seeing. The only way the Chiefs can hope to win in January is, quite literally, to score 38 a game plus force a few turnovers at the same time. I did some math on these Chiefs Sunday night. In the six games since they were 9-0, Kansas City has:

a. Allowed 24, 24, 24, 45, 17 and 45 points.

b. Gone 3-3 against six foes, none of which have 10 wins or more.

c. Given up 413.7 yards per game, which is 27 yards a game worse than the 32nd-rated NFL defense, Atlanta, right now.

d. Allowed 5.9 yards per carry.

e. Did you read that? Over a six-game span, the Chiefs are giving up six yards EVERY TIME THE OTHER TEAM RUNS THE BALL! THIS IS UNPRECEDENTED IN ITS BADNESS.

11. Miami (9-6). Another non-playoff year. Time for the coaches to refine the resumes.

12. Cincinnati (8-7). Win with Kitna, lose with Kitna. He gave it his best shot.

13. Green Bay (8-6). Irvin Favre, Brett's dad, died yesterday. A good man. Really was proud of his boy, and he gave him the gift of being comfortable with just sitting around and talking, enjoying the simple things.

14. Seattle (9-6). It all comes down to Saturday afternoon at San Francisco. I have my doubts.

15. (tie) Jacksonville (5-10). Jags are 3-1 in their last four, the only loss coming in New England eight days ago, and they kayoed Saints from the playoff race. With an assist from John (I Must Go Into Therapy Right Now) Carney.

Chicago (7-8). Ted Phillips and Jerry Angelo are nuts if they fire Dick Jauron.

San Francisco (7-8). Nice time for the 49ers first road win of the year.

I know Al Davis is going to fire Bill Callahan -- I'm pulling for Dan Snyder to make Callahan his $1.5 million-a-year offensive coordinator and knock some run-the-ball sense into Steve Spurrier -- but before Oakland's lame duck hits the road, I think he could make a mockery of the NFC North pennant race. The Raiders are not mailing it in, and Rick Mirer is making some plays. I don't like Green Bay on the road, in a Monday-nighter into the Den of Weirdness. My pick: Resurgent Raiders 24, Pack 21.