Seems that I make the same mistake every time. I look at the Patriots' lineup, and I say, "It's impossible. This time they just don't have the personnel to match up with the Colts." I pick Indianapolis. And New England always figures out a way to win.
You'd think I'd learn. I haven't. I'm picking Indy again. The Patriots' secondary was a shambles when the teams met in the divisional playoffs last season, but the Colts didn't test it with anything deep. They came out strangely passive. Their receivers got steered out of their routes.
All that will change on Monday night. You think New England's secondary was banged up last year? It's more desperate now. At least last year Rodney Harrison was at strong safety to keep order. Now he's gone, and the new guy is Arturo Freeman, a street pickup a few weeks ago. Randall Gay was the right corner--not great but active. He's out with an ankle injury, and his replacement, 31-year-old Duane Starks, has been getting worked over by opposing QBs.
Last year's secondary had a touch of the miraculous with Troy Brown, plucked from his wideout spot, filling in nobly at nickelback. And nickel is a serious position when you're facing the Colts, because if they smell weakness there, Peyton Manning will belabor the position unmercifully with the third wideout, Brandon Stokley, as Brown found out last year.
Monday night's nickel? Brown has been out with a foot injury, and if he's not ready, it'll probably be rookie Ellis Hobbs or mid-October pickup Hank Poteat, who split the role Sunday against the Bills. I think Manning will try to go to work on Starks with Reggie Wayne. Starks undoubtedly will get help, so Manning's next prey will be the nickelback on Stokley. I don't see Manning going heavily to Marvin Harrison, probably covered by Asante Samuel, who had a terrific game against Buffalo, one of the few Pats defensive players who did. The Bills went into the Sunday-night game ranked 30th offensively, but they ran off 74 plays and almost 400 yards against New England. On paper everything favors Indy, but the Patriots always seem to win these games, especially in Foxborough. I just think the mountain is too high for them to climb this time.
Philly-Washington and Carolina--Tampa Bay are two games the guys who set the prices can't quite figure out, so I can't tell you whether my picks are upsets. The Eagles and the Skins got hammered on Sunday, and the loser of that game will drop to the NFC East cellar. Philly has won five straight in Washington, so I'll ride with the Eagles. And I'll go with the road team in the other game, too, and stick with the Panthers. I thought the Titans would be slightly favored over Cleveland. They're not. The Browns thus become my formula pick. There is no home edge for the poor Saints, because they have no home, so Chicago wins it. Cincinnati--and this makes five road teams I've picked out of six games--wins in Baltimore. Finally, here's a home winner and my upset special: Miami, which has been either very bad or very good, goes the latter route and hangs one on Atlanta.
Last week: 5-2
Dr. Z writes for the Web every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at SI.com/nfl.
Stokley could be the key against a weak nickel.
Look for TO and the Eagles to bounce back in D.C.