Since the Patriots got good, they've developed their own set of rivalries, and each matchup has its own particular mythology. When the Patriots meet the Colts, the story line always seems to be the same: high fliers meet their match in the blue-collar, albeit very cleverly coached New England defense. When Pittsburgh shows up, the story becomes the heavy-armed slugger whaling away at the boxer.
The interesting thing about these rivalries is that the teams usually meet when the stakes are high. Twice now the Patriots have defeated Pittsburgh for the AFC championship, including in last season's title match, when they got revenge for a regular-season beating. They stood firm against the run and made Ben Roethlisberger try to beat them, and he wasn't quite ready for that. Offensively, they max-protected with seven blockers and sent two receivers deep, and they scored often. It was a convincing victory.
Well, now they meet again, and the Patriots are coming off a bad one in Carolina. They found themselves in an error-filled game. Their running attack was stuffed. Tom Brady was off target. Passion seemed to be on the side of the victorious Panthers. Worst of all, the Patriots left Charlotte with a depleted secondary, the same thing that plagued them last year.
The Steelers, meanwhile, have been on a rampage, doling out merciless beatings to the downtrodden of the league, Tennessee and Houston. Can we believe that the cerebral combination of Bill Belichick and his brilliant young defensive coordinator, Eric Mangini, can put together a game plan that can stifle Big Ben and his new weapon, Fast Willie Parker, a gifted runner? Yeah, I think so--the champion Patriots in an upset.
I figured out why I had such a miserable time of it last weekend: I spent too much time discussing the games. Brief and to the point, that's the new order of the day. Carolina looked like its old self against the Pats, so we'll take the Panthers to keep it going in Miami. I think Atlanta's defense will be a bit too quick for Buffalo, so the Falcons triumph in a place where they haven't won in 24 years. If Michael Vick is out, though, switch the pick, please.
Until last weekend I had trouble believing how seriously flawed both the Packers and the Vikings are, but the penny has finally dropped and now it's a visitors' parlay--Tampa Bay to win in Green Bay, New Orleans to do likewise in Minnesota. This might be my dumbest pick of the day, but I have a feeling that Chicago will pull one out against Cincinnati. The Jaguars over the Jets, the Chargers over the Giants. And finally, the Monday-nighter: Denver beats Kansas City, which has better players on its defense but still the same old scheme. --Paul Zimmerman
Last week: 3-7 Season: 9-10
Expect safety Rodney Harrison and the rest of the Patriots' battered secondary to leave Pittsburgh with a victory.