The old rivalries hardly exist anymore. Bears-Packers doesn't
quicken pulses the way it used to. Chiefs-Raiders no longer
conjures up those old visions of AFL mayhem. The league has
undergone too many changes. Teams get good overnight, then fade,
then get good again. Things have become too complicated.
Identities are lost. So when you think of Jets-Raiders this
Monday night, you don't dwell on the classic battles of years
ago--the Heidi Game, or the brutal afternoon when Oakland
defensive end Ben Davidson fractured Joe Namath's cheekbone but
couldn't put him out of action. Now it's just a game between two
of the league's hotter teams.
Last year they met twice in two weeks, both times in Oakland. The
first game was the regular-season finale. The Jets needed a win
to secure a playoff spot. The Raiders had already clinched the
AFC West, but they needed a win to wrap up a first-round bye and
the chance to avoid a trip to snowy New England in the second
round. The Jets won a wild one--the lead changed hands six
times--and they earned the right to return to Oakland six days
But in the rematch New York's best pass rusher, John Abraham, was
slowed by the flu. Rich Gannon had huge amounts of time to find
his receivers. The Raiders' O-line punched big holes in the Jets'
front, and when it was over, Oakland had 502 yards of offense and
a 38--24 victory.
Well, the Raiders are on a roll again offensively, and New York
looks like easy pickins. But the Jets are a strange,
unpredictable team, and they've put together a four-game winning
streak. Who would have figured them to murder the Chargers, in
San Diego, the way they did, then out-tough Miami in a nasty
slugfest a week later? Their young quarterback, Chad Pennington,
has changed the complexion of the team, and now the offense is
capable of putting together long, sustained drives. Running back
Curtis Martin, having slowly recovered from an ankle injury, is
almost all the way back. Santana Moss, the flashy little wideout
and return man, provides excitement, and Laveranues Coles has
turned into one of the league's most dependable receivers.
But can New York's defense, which hasn't allowed a 300-yard game
in a month, control an offense that's wearing out defenses to the
tune of 412.6 yards a game? Yes, if it can come up with an exotic
pass-rush scheme and force turnovers, if it can present something
innovative to foil Oakland's Gnat Attack, Gannon's barrage of
short, timed passes. It could happen, but I'm afraid the Jets are
overmatched. The Raiders are the pick.
The Saints beat the Bucs in the season opener but have since
fallen on hard times, losing three of their last four. Now New
Orleans is home, and it gets Tampa Bay in a classic sandwich
game, between Green Bay and the current darling of the league,
the Falcons. My pick: The Saints catch the Bucs napping.
Ralph Wilson Stadium used to be a house of horrors for the
Dolphins, but not lately. Miami has won its last two in Buffalo,
and I say the Dolphins make it number 3. Here are a pair of
quickie upsets--the Titans to beat the Giants, and the Bengals,
yes, the Bengals, to take the Ravens. The Chargers will get
themselves together and outlast the Broncos, the Falcons get a
scare from the Vikings in the Metrodome but win, the Steelers
beat the Jaguars, and no matter what kind of problems they have,
I have to go with the Rams over Philly as Kurt Warner or Marc
Bulger (pick one) matches up against Koy Detmer. --Paul
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