The glory of the AFC is slain upon thy high places. How are the mighty fallen? (Samuel II, almost).
Having trouble finding an AFC Super Bowl team after last weekend's carnage? Join the mob. San Diego, everybody's smart pick, got nipped at the wire by Carolina. Indianapolis, which just about has a lock on the playoffs every year, was beaten to the punch by Chicago. The dark horse Jaguars were so dark they were almost invisible, after Tennessee did them in. The Browns, whose fans have been proclaiming that this is the year in which everything finally comes together, were humiliated in their own stadium by the Cowboys.
The Patriots won one, but paid a terrible price fof the victory, Tom Brady, their quarterback. And now that the king of the pack is wounded, everybody is gathering around, like greedy relatives at the reading of the will. So what if we lost. At least one team is in worse shape than we are.
One proud old warrior is still holding on to its noble tradition, however. The Steelers, hardly a sexy pick to reach the Super Bowl, went about their business and handed Houston a thorough whipping, in a game that was decided very early. They seem to be the only one of the AFC's major powers that didn't stumble. And this week they'll spend Sunday night in Cleveland, in a game that seems to have almost Super Bowl proportions for the Browns.
It's a very bitter rivalry if you're a Browns fan. Pittsburgh has won the last nine, but even more humiliating is the fact that they seemed to have dished out their worst whippings under the eyes of the Cleveland fans. They beat the Browns, 41-0, in Cleveland three years ago, the game marked by linebacker James Harrison body-slamming a fan who ran on the field.
Cleveland was the site of the opening game last year, and again, the fans watched a blowout, this time 34-7, but the game was memorable because it marked the end of Charlie Frye as Browns QB and the beginning of Derek Anderson. Next time they met, in Pittsburgh in November, the Browns blew a 21-9 halftime lead, but at least the score was a respectable 31-28.
Well, the book on Cleveland was that this will finally be the year they challenge Pittsburgh in the division. And it's a book that will close pretty fast if they put on another show like last week's against Dallas. Their pass rush was a joke. Tony Romo stood back in the pocket and dialed up whatever receiver to whom he owed a favor. The Cowboys smacked them on the ground, and defensively they kept Anderson from getting comfortable in the pocket.
Well, maybe now with the stakes higher, the Browns will show a little life. Anderson is a streak thrower. He can get hot and worry anybody, but he can look awfully bad, too, if his protection breaks down. The Browns' best downfield receiver, Braylon Edwards, dropped four against Dallas. That's as good a way as any to blow it against a solid team, such as the Steelers.
I see a lot of early emotion by the Browns, and then the game settling into a slugfest in which they get outslugged. Pitsburgh's good at these. Good enough to make it 10 straight, covering the spread, of course.
Why does Houston-Baltimore intrigue me so much? The Ravens' defense squashed Cincinnati, the Texans lost by three touchdowns to Pittsburgh, yet Houston is favored by 4 1/2 points. When in doubt, go with the guys who call the shots in Vegas. It's a formula pick, The Texans to win it, in a very fluky game.
I've got another one like that, then I'll get off this formula madness and into real football. Cincinnati, which got undressed by the Ravens, is a slight favorite at home over victorious Tennessee, with Kerry Collins in for Vince Young. Last year their meeting at the same site produced a 35-6 Bengal victory, with Ocho catching doce, also known as una docena, a.k.a. 12 passes. Yes, I like the Bengals, but I don't like the fact that I seem to be drifting into too many plays on the favorite. Ten of them covered last week, which means they'll be overpriced this week and vulnerable to the wagering gods.
The game of the week is the Monday nighter, Philly at Dallas, both of whom won big last weekend. No, I'm not picking this for the record because I can't get a clear reading on the Eagles, based on their blowout of the helpless Rams. The Cowboys were effective in all phases against Cleveland, so if I had to make a pick, I'd take the Cowboys to win, under the number, but not for the record-my record.
Jets to beat the Patriots by more than three. Matt Cassell had been schooled in a very good system, but his baptism last week came against one of the league's doggiest teams. Still fresh is the array of crazy defenses Eric Mangini has thrown at the Boys of Belichick, pulling off a victory in the game at Foxboro two years ago.
Cassell will be schooled to face an afternoon of weirdness. Two linemen, no down linemen, linebackers who shuffle around like derelicts looking for a handout, 350-pound nose tackles lining up at cornerback...no, just kidding ... Mangini hasn't gone that route yet. I think the Belichicks will have something special cooked up for Brett Favre as well, and a couple of picks wouldn't surprise me, but it's in Jersey, where the fans like to brutalize enemy quarterbacks on their maiden voyage. In sum: If Mangini's cockamamie alignments could confuse Tom Brady, imagine what they'll do to Brady, Jr.
San Diego to get back on track against the Broncos, riding high after they blew out Mike Shanahan's favorite enemy, Oakland. Denver's defense was suspect last year, and I don't see a dramatic change. You couldn't tell Monday night because JaMarcus Russell was just trying to stay alive out there, but the Chargers know how to put points on the board, especially against Denver. Their last four meetings have gone 4-0, San Diego, with the Chargers averaging 37.3 points per contest.
Washington, backed mightily by the home crowd, to beat New Orleans. And now, here's my strangest play of the day, a play that's so strange that I won't venture a pick on the game. Until the Colts get some of their wounded linemen back, they're very soft up front, very vulnerable to aggressive front fours. Chicago blew 'em apart Monday night and the Vikings, with plenty of mean people who wear 90's on their backs, could do the same.
Yet Indy, crippled and bleeding, comes up a slight favorite-at Minnesota yet. My special trap formula says to play the Colts hard because I had the Vikes favored by 3 in my Sunday night line, but this one is just so illogical that I'm laying off it. Yeah, I'm chicken. I just got through preaching that this is exactly the time when the formula works best, when all logic is against it, but I just can't do it this time. Forgive me.
One more quickpick. Miami to get in under the 7-point spread at Arizona. Chad Pennington started off in shaky fashion against the Jets, but he had his game together by the fourth period. And he'll have it together in the desert Sunday. Arizona heat? Well, it's been hot in Miami, too. So we'll see who gets hotter.
Last week-2-2 on formula games. I hedged on Cincy-Baltimore when made my pick, didn't count it, sort of. None of that, I say. I'll take a loss there, just to show you I don't cut corners.