I see three games heavy with playoff implications this
week--Baltimore at Jacksonville, Tampa Bay at Minnesota and
Buffalo at Miami--and a weirdly similar pattern runs through all
three. Each matchup involves a once proud team (the Jaguars, the
Bucs and the Bills) that has lost two straight, is questioning
itself and is going against a club that's on a rampage.
The strangest thing is, I favor the troubled club in two of the
three games. Not because of teeth-gritting and stern resolve.
Jacksonville, Tampa Bay and Buffalo went through all that last
week, and it didn't do any good. "All the rah-rah about how we're
going to bounce back doesn't mean anything once you get on the
field," says Jaguars tackle Tony Boselli, whose team suffered the
worst loss of the three.
I'm trying hard to find a reason to pick Jacksonville over
Baltimore, which has pitched two straight shutouts, but I can't
see how that banged-up Jaguars offensive line, which was overrun
by the Steelers, is going to hold up against the onslaught of
Ravens defenders. Add to that the fact that two of Jacksonville's
most important defensive players, middle linebacker Hardy
Nickerson (hamstring) and tackle Gary Walker (knee), are nicked
up, and you've got me on record for a grudging vote for
Baltimore. The Jaguars will regroup and right the ship, but not
Unbeaten Minnesota, coming off a terrific victory in Detroit,
which was fired up and played hard all day, hosts a Tampa Bay
team that has been nipped at the wire twice and is exhausted or
furious or both. The Vikings have something few teams in the NFL
have, and that is an unchartable element, a guy who can make the
freak play anywhere, anytime--wideout Randy Moss. He never
should have been able to make the last of his three touchdown
catches against the Lions, in which he snatched the ball from
two defensive backs who had him in tight bracket coverage, but
each week he seems to come up with one of those kinds of plays.
But Tampa Bay has something I like even better, the kind of
defense young quarterback Daunte Culpepper has never seen. So
I'm going with the Bucs, but I've ridden this horse in two
The last of the staggering trio is Buffalo, which visits the new
darling of the AFC East, Miami. The Bills spent Sunday afternoon
grinding the Colts into the ground with their running game,
piling up a great statistical advantage in time of possession and
number of plays. Surely the Indy defense had to crack, but let's
not forget that while a defense can get worn down from being on
the field too long, so can an offense. And the Bills' attack was
a very tired-looking outfit down the stretch, as the Indy pass
rush finally got to Rob Johnson.
The same thing could happen to Johnson again this week, but I
don't think it will. Again, I favor a big league defense against
a young quarterback. Buffalo's my third straight upset choice.
Quickie picks: New England will upset Indy, on home cooking and a
hunch. Detroit, which found a running game on Sunday, will handle
Green Bay. The Giants, who are crumbling fast, will get back on
track against Atlanta, another team going through rough times.
The Redskins could have a letdown in Philly, but they used up
their quota of letdowns in September, so I'll give Washington the
win. Finally, Oakland will nail San Francisco in the Battle by
the Bay, a game that looks easy to handicap but is the kind of
neighborhood war that sets West Coast emotions aflame.
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read more from Paul Zimmerman at cnnsi.com/football.