This is the week that the top teams begin to separate themselves from the pack. There are a whole lot of 6-2 and 5-3 teams that can cement their status as legit playoff contenders. At the same time, teams sitting at 4-4 or 3-5 are thinking about upsetting teams in the first group and setting themselves up for wild card competition or, in the weaker divisions, possibly a division title. I'll include the respective records with the teams this week to show these exact matchups and tell who I think will separate themselve, who will climb into the playoff picture, and who will begin seriously ranking next spring's college draft picks.
On a personal note, I want to send a shout-out of "Congratulations" to long-time friend and regular Sandlot contributor "Tuck" on the birth of his son this week. Mom and baby are doing fine, but Dad reportedly could use a stiff drink. Best wishes to Tuck and his whole family on the new addition. I couldn't be happier for you!
On to the picks...
Houston (1-7) at Indianapolis (8-0)
For Houston, the question is whether you keep David Carr or draft Matt Leinert if you manage to end up with the #1 pick in the draft. For Indy, it's how to avoid the post-Patriot letdown and how to stay focused week-to-week now that the talk is about "undefeated season." Tough games lie ahead next week at Cincy and the following Monday at home against the Steelers, who will be a much more telling test than the wounded Pats were last week.
Minnesota (3-5) at New York Giants (6-2)
This is about the worst possible game for the Vikings to face after an encouraging win at home against Detroit. Minnesota has always played horribly at the Meadowlands (remember the shellacking they took in the NFC title game a few years ago?), and Eli Manning and the vicious Giants defense look like juggernauts at home. This one's gonna be ugly. The Giants will find separation in the NFC East, while the Vikings will miss their chance to stay with the Bears in the NFC Central.
Baltimore (2-6) at Jacksonville (5-3)
What I don't understand about Baltimore is how their offense has remained consistently bad under Brian Billick, who was a masterful offensive coordinator at Minnesota. With the core of the Ravens defense out with injury, Jacksonville should be able to keep their wild card hopes alive, which is all they have, because they're not catching the Colts in their division. Billick might consider updating his resume; I hear there might be openings in St. Louis and Green Bay...
San Francisco (2-6) at Chicago (5-3)
How did SF win two games? Chicago finds separation in the NFC Central, but Lovie Smith better find an offense that can score more consistently if he has any hopes of getting past the wild card weekend in the playoffs. He should have signed Kurt Warner; he would have been a better fit in Chicago than Arizona.
Arizona (2-6) at Detroit (3-5)
I don't know where to go on this one. I don't like Joey Harrington at all, but Arizona's got serious offensive line problems, which have led directly to all their QB problems. Warner or McCown either one would have more success if they weren't getting hit like pinatas by opposing defenses. I suppose I should go with the home team, but my gut tells me that Arizona bounces back this week. Denny Green is well familiar with playing at Detroit, Warner thrives on playing indoors, and Joey Harrington is the worst QB in the NFL. Okay, I talked myself into it.
Kansas City (5-3) at Buffalo (3-5)
Wow, was that a great finish last week in the KC-Oakland game? I loved that Vermeil went for the win when it was all-or-nothing at the end. Part of that was the recognition that their defense hadn't stopped Oakland at all in the second half. But Buffalo has screwed me week in and week out with picks this season, so I'm taking Vermeil's guts and KC's momentum to keep them on pace in the AFC West, and for Buffalo to fall further behind New England.
New England (4-4) at Miami (3-5)
If New England loses this game, they could be in a potential three-way tie for the division lead with Miami and Buffalo (if the Bills win at home, which I don't think they will), and it will also mean the Pats will have suffered their first 3-game losing streak since—oh, I don't know, what, the days of Steve Grogan? Does anyone really think that Bill Belicheck is going to allow that to happen? I don't. This is do-or-die for New England. They will separate.
Denver (6-2) at Oakland (3-5)
The more I see Denver play, the more inexplicable their opening-day trouncing at the hands of Miami becomes. Jake Plummer has actually become a smart QB as opposed to a dangerous gunslinger. In a bizarre way, he has become Brett Favre, and Brett has become like Jake Plummer—liable to win or lose games by taking spectacular risks. Oakland's gut-punching loss at KC last week should send them into a season-ending death spiral. Denver asserts dominance in the AFC West.
New York Jets (2-6) at Carolina (6-2)
Carolina's everyone's darling right now for coming out of the NFC, and it's easy to see why. Every aspect of their team is clicking together right now; the only question is whether they can win on the road in the playoffs if they don't secure home field advantage, which is, as we all know, the name of the game in the NFL. The name of the game for the Jets, however, is "Let's draft a QB in 2006."
Green Bay (1-7) at Atlanta (6-2)
Green Bay's dilemma is what to do with Brett Favre. Is is retiring after this season? Would he be willing to play, let's say half a season as a tutor to Matt Leinert? Atlanta must win as many games as they can to keep pace with Carolina for home field in the playoffs.
Washington (5-3) at Tampa Bay (5-3)
Perfect example of two teams going in different directions. Washington saved their season with a gut-check win over the wounded Eagles last week, while Tampa continues its death-spiral with the excreble Chris Simms filling in for much-missed (can you freakin' believe it?) Brian Griese. Mark Brunell should feel right at home back in the Florida sun.
St. Louis (4-4) at Seattle (6-2)
Perfect example of a separation game. St. Louis has managed to get back to .500 despite a dismal start from their defense, Martz's illness and injuries to QB Marc Bulger and top two wideouts Bruce and Holt. Their running game, featuring Stephen Jackson, has Pro Bowl potential, their special teams are improving, and their defense is starting to gain traction. In spite of all these factors, they have to play on the road against division leaders Seattle, who have at times looked like Superbowl contenders; at other times, they've struggled to win games that should have been much easier. But now they look to gain separation in the division and keep pace with the elite in the conference. So who will prevail? Unfortunately for Rams fans (like me), Seattle is simply the better team this time around. A Rams win would put them just one game behind Seattle; a loss leaves them struggling in the wild card race. It's a must-win for both teams.
Cleveland (3-5) at Pittsburgh (6-2)
Funny, isn't it, how you've heard absolutely nothing about Romeo Crennel in his first year as head coach in Cleveland despite the dismal quality of their team. I guess all his success in New England has given him a free pass this year, similar to Marvin Lewis' tenure in Cincinnati. He'll probably have until his third year, as well, to produce results. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, is the only legitimate condtender left in the AFC to challenge Indy for the conference championship. They'll assert their power this week, even without Ben Rothlisberger.
Dallas (5-3) at Philadelphia (4-4)
Another huge separation game. Can Dallas separate themselves from the other wild card contenders and try to keep pace with the Giants? Can Philly climb back into the playoff picture? This is what espn.com's Bill Simmons (a.k.a. "The Sports Guy") calls a "kitchen sink" game—a must-win game for the Eagles in which they will bring everything they have, including the kitchen sink, in order to win. McNabb's due to have a great game passing and running; he's got a giant chip on his shoulder to prove he can win without that loudmouth ex-wide receiver.