IS IT MY imagination, or have division races gone the way of the dodo bird? There just don't seem to be any battles left at the top.
All eight division leaders have at least a two-game lead. Denver was supposed to give San Diego a lively fight for the AFC West, but the Broncos are three games back and fading fast behind Jay Cutler, a quarterback who clearly isn't ready. The NFC East was supposed to be a rousing four-team tussle, but who is left to challenge Dallas? The Bears played a miserable game against the Vikings and still clinched the NFC North. The Patriots rolled over against the Lions and almost blew the game, but New England has a hammerlock on the AFC East. Indianapolis lost, and its lead in the AFC South dropped to a mere three games. And so on.
No, the battle these days is for wild-card spots, the only exception being the NFC South, where Carolina still has a chance to unseat division-leading New Orleans. So let's look at this week's action in that division. The Panthers have never lost to the Giants. The margin of their three victories has never been fewer than 10 points. So why do I like New York in this upset, coming on the heels of a painful loss to the Cowboys? Balance, defense, an attack that can get hot. The Giants are my pick.
Meanwhile, after virtually locking up their division last week, the Cowboys can be expected to have a letdown against the Saints, but I don't see it that way. I think the difference in the quality of these two teams, particularly in the defense, is greater than it would appear. Dallas to stay hot.
The first Denver--San Diego game had real significance in the AFC West. The rematch is merely an echo. The Broncos' defensive leader, middle linebacker Al Wilson, was carted off the field on Sunday night. Their leading runner, Tatum Bell, and their kicker, Jason Elam, were limping severely. And Mike Shanahan's handpicked passer, the rookie Cutler, might be good someday, but the game seems too swift for him at this point. The Chargers to win, unless they decide to take the afternoon off.
The New York tabloids will spend the week gushing over the Jets after they undressed the Packers at Lambeau last week. But the players will be in trouble if they take all that stuff seriously, because Buffalo is the sort of nasty team that enjoys embarrassing the aristocrats. I'll stick with the Jets, though, because they really seem to have it all together.
I just can't get the picture from two years ago out of my head, how the Chiefs absolutely buried the Ravens with their big, thundering ground game. I know, different personnel, different situation, but I just think they might have Baltimore's number. Chiefs to win it. Was Tennessee's victory over Indy an aberration, or is any heavily ground-oriented team a threat to do that to the Colts if things fall right? We'll see in Jacksonville. What the hell, Jags to win it in my upset number 2.
Ordinarily I'd say another attractive upset is home-team Miami over a New England club that has serious self-doubts at this point, but with Ronnie Brown dinged up, I just don't think the Dolphins have enough offense to pull it off. A shaky vote for New England. Finally, the Monday-nighter, featuring another flawed giant, Chicago. One more case for Dr. Phil: a highly regarded power that shows serious flaws. The Bears will take the game out of Rex Grossman's shaky hands and put it in the care of a running attack that isn't wonderful but will be too much for a lethargic Rams defense. The Bears are the pick.
Last week 3--3 Season 49--47
Dr. Z writes for the Web every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at SI.com/nfl.
LaDainian Tomlinson & Co. are poised to prevail in the West.