This Much Is Clear: If the playoffs were to start today, Baltimore, San Diego, Arizona, and New Orleans would all be in. The Steelers and Rams are a combined 1-8…..While the Chiefs defense is far from championship caliber right now, they have the league's most prolific offense and are starting to finally get improved play from their defensive line, which features 1st and 2nd round picks Ryan Sims and Eddie Freeman. If they can correct the flaws in their pass defense, we could have our 4th straight long shot Super Bowl winner…..Speaking of teams not expected to do much that are now turning heads, the Jaguars are a week one nail biting last second loss to Indy away from being 4-0. Their 3 wins? At KC, and home wins over the Jets and Eagles……The Raiders are simply impaling opponents, and look scarily good. These guys are the Rolling Stones of the NFL. Gannon-36 yrs old, Garner-30, Wheatley-30, Kirby-35, Brown-36, Rice-39, and Woodson-38. Whatever Al Davis has in the water, can we please get a case of it for William Green here in Cleveland?…..Thanks to the breakout debut of Patrick Ramsey, we've all finally seen the last of the Wuerffel/Matthews Project in the nation's capital…..Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison are well on their way to shattering every QB/WR duo record in the books. Seeing that Indy will never let either leave and also that they play in that pass happy dome, they have a chance to set some unbreakable marks…..And lastly, has anyone heard TV's worst analyst, Merril Hoge, talk about his 11 win/playoff season predictions for the Bengals lately? Hmmm, me either…..
Looking Ahead: A couple of big games loom ahead in this coming Sunday's NFL board, highlighted by Miami's Sunday night visit to Denver. Both teams stand at 4-1 on the young season, and the winner of that game will join Oakland as the early favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. The Monday nighter is a battle of new division rivals, and features San Francisco playing at Seattle. The best of the rest see Green Bay play at New England, Kansas City visit San Diego, and Cleveland at Tampa Bay. Also, Oakland looks to remain the leagues only unbeaten when they visit the reeling Rams, who have lost 11 straight football games counting the Super Bowl and the pre-season. The Vikings and the Bengals are the only other teams yet to win this season. In the last game of note, the old Colts meet the new Colts when the rejuvenated Ravens take on the Indianapolis Colts in the RCA Dome. The Jets, Cardinals, Eagles, and Bears are all on their bye weeks.
Fair Weather Fans: Frankly, I'm downright embarrassed by the fans that booed Couch and then cheered his concussion, and it disturbed me more as a Clevelander than the "bottlegate" incident of a year ago. Paying fans most certainly have the right to boo and cheer as they like, but Couch was right on the money in his feeling that it was not justified Sunday night. This guy has busted his ass to improve during his tenure here, staying local in the off-seasons to work out and dissect film. He has been surrounded with zero talent offensively and a joke of an offensive line for three seasons, and has used none of that as an excuse. The only thing he cares about is bringing a winner to this city. Just 2 weeks ago, he orchestrated a brilliant second half comeback on the road at Tennessee. And now, just a little over a game and a half removed from that performance, which was his first game back from elbow troubles, our fair weather fan base is so disenchanted with him as our QB that they are willing to applaud his bodily harm? I never thought our fan base was as stupid as your typical caller to WKNR, but Sunday night affirmed that fact to me. Those of you who think, in the long run, that Kelly Holcomb is the better QB than Tim Couch are as off as each of the 5 INT's (threw 2, 1 overturned, 2 dropped) were that Holcomb should have thrown in his 23 attempts against the Ravens prevent defense. I'm nauseated.
It's Getting Hot In Here: The post-game tirade delivered by Tim Couch on the heels of many of the fans (I use that word loosely) at Cleveland Browns Stadium cheering when he was not able to get to his feet after suffering a mild concussion with 10 minutes remaining, was the latest controversial moment for this team in a season that started with such promise. Now just 5 weeks in, Browns fans have been subjected to having many of their tailgating liberties taken away, a media-fueled QB controversy, and three very tough losses by a total of 8 points. There is growing discontent with Carmen Policy over his corporatization (is that a word?) of the franchise and his behind the scenes involvement with the tailgating issue, as well as with Butch Davis and his staff over play calling, a perceived lack of team discipline, and his insistence on using an ineffective William Green. And now, our franchise quarterback is clearly disgusted, and for good reason, with the fans and city that he has laid it on the line for us over the past four seasons. All are subtle reminders that nothing comes easy in the NFL, and just how right Butch was when talking about how going from 7 to 10 wins would be much harder than the jump we made going from 3 wins to 7 wins a season ago.
Battle in the Bay: Next up for the reeling Browns is one of the tougher games on their '02 schedule, a visit to face the 4-1 Tampa Bay Buccaneers and new head coach Jon Gruden. The Browns have not played Tampa since returning to the league in 1999, and lead the all-time series against them 5-0. The Bucs have looked very impressive thus far, especially on the defensive side of the ball, where they have allowed only a league low 53 points scored. They are an incredibly quick defensive unit that features six players who have made Pro Bowl appearances. Against the run, they are also near the top of the league, surrendering just 80 yards per game on the ground…bad news for a Browns team that so desperately needs to begin to establish some sort of running attack. Clearly the Browns offense, which has been completely inept for 7 of the 8 quarters of the past two games, is in for a monumental challenge this weekend. Things lighten up a bit for the Browns after this game, as 3 of their next 4 games are against the Texans, Jets, and Bengals…who have a combined record of 2-12.
Around the NCAA…
The Week That Was: The top 7 teams (Miami Fla., Texas, Oklahoma, Virginia Tech, Ohio St., Georgia, and Oregon) in the coach's poll remained unchanged despite serious scares that were fought off by the Sooners, Longhorns, and Bulldogs. Add in Notre Dame, N.C. St, Air Force, and Bowling Green…and you have the 11 remaining legitimate Division I programs that remain undefeated. The two best games of the week saw a pair of one-loss teams that still have national championship hopes press on via thrilling overtime victories. Tennessee, in a game that went into 6 overtimes, defeated Arkansas…and Washington St. knocked off rival USC 30-27 in a game that was decided in the first overtime period. Also, Penn St. and Iowa, another pair of talented one-loss squads, held off Wisconsin and Purdue in two of the other more entertaining games this past Saturday. As far as the biggest upsets of this past week are concerned, we start with Ole Miss's 17-14 win over Florida that shattered the Gator's national championship hopes and derailed Rex Grossman's Heisman campaign. In one of the more amusing after game occurrences in the recent history of college football, the Ole Miss fans first rushed the field with still a second left on the clock, and then proceeded to tear down the goalposts and take them right out of the stadium before parading them down the streets just outside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Washington and Kansas St. were also sent careening down the polls after losses to Cal (Cal's 1st win over Washington in 20 years) and Colorado.
Heisman Watch: Little changed this week in the Heisman race, due in large part to the fact that several of the serious contenders (C.Rogers, S.Wallace, P.Rivers, C.Williams) were on bye weeks. Three of the other top candidates (M.Clarett, K.Dorsey, W.McGahee) faced off against very weak competition. Rex Grossman's 17-43/4 INT effort ended any hopes he still had, but no one else really hurt their chances this past weekend. As it presently stands, here's the way I see the race currently shaping up:
Serious Contenders: Ken Dorsey, Willis McGahee, Maurice Clarett, Seneca Wallace, and Charlie Rogers
On the Brink: Byron Leftwich, Phillip Rivers, Chris Simms, and Jason Gesser
Other Possibilities: Kliff Kingsbury, Eli Manning, Onterrio Smith, Carnell Williams, Avon Cobourne, Cedric Benson, and Greg Jones.
The Games That Matter: If you had anything planned this Saturday, work on getting out of it now. The college football slate is absolutely loaded this week. There are a total of 6 contests, all bitter rivalry games, that feature match-ups between top 25 teams. We'll start in the Big 12, where Texas and Oklahoma, the #2 and #3 ranked teams in the country, face off this weekend in Austin in a game that will heavily shape both the national championship picture and the Heisman trophy race. In the SEC, #6 Georgia hosts #9 Tennessee and Florida and LSU meet in "The Swamp" in Gainesville. In the PAC-10, #7 Oregon looks to remain flawless in a visit to #25 UCLA. Moving over to the Big 10, #17 Penn St. travels to "The Big House" to play #10 Michigan. And oh yeah, #1 Miami Fla. hosts #12 Florida St. Almost forgot. Even the next tier of games provides some very intriguing contests this week. #5 Virginia Tech travels to Chestnut Hill to play Boston College, #8 Notre Dame hosts the surging Pitt Panthers, Seneca Wallace and Kliff Kingsbury face off when Iowa St. hosts Texas Tech, Cal looks to continue their Cinderella season in a visit to USC, and the undefeated Falcons of Air Force play BYU. Wow.
Back at you with another installment of the handicapping portion of ‘Da Blurbs, coming off a week that saw me go 1-1-1 in the NFL and a disappointing 1-3 in the NCAA. In the NFL, I hit on Tampa, lost on New England, and pushed on my New Orleans pick. While Steelers money did push the line on that game down to 2 ½, the line did swing back to New Orleans –3 by Sunday morning. As I predicted last week, it was the difference between a New Orleans cover. In college, I cashed in on Texas A&M, and lost on Florida, Illinois, and Navy. I still stand at .500 in my NFL selections, but am now a disappointing 3-7-2 in my early college plays…a number I am fully intent on improving in the coming weeks.
The Saturday morning newsletter was profitable once again, as I went 3-2 in the NCAA and 2-2-1 in the NFL. Three weeks into it, I am now 9-6 in college, and 9-5-1 in the NCAA. 45 people have now signed up, and the number is growing each week. Each Saturday morning, I release my 5 top plays in college and the pros via e-mail, as a free little perk to the readers of this portion if my weekly column. Clearly, having a whole week to analyze the board has proved fruitful for me thus far. I'd love to add you to the group of people I send it out to every weekend. To be added, simply drop me a quick line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Road teams and overs ruled the roost this weekend in the NFL, as 10 of the 14 games on the board went over and road teams went 9-4-1 ATS. To date, the over has hit 41 times as opposed to 33 unders cashing in. Road teams improved their record against the number to 43-29-2. Underdogs went 7-6-1 this week and have covered an astounding 62.5% (45-27-2) of the NFL games played so far this year. In match-ups between AFC and NFC teams, the conferences split this week, with each going 1-1-1 in those 3 games. For the year, the AFC is 10-6-1 ATS in those contests. And the inaugural "Sucker Bet of the Week", a new feature I'm going to add to this column, gets awarded to Indianapolis Colts this week. The number opened at 12 ½ at the beginning of the week before a glut of Indy $$$ bought it up to at least 14 at nearly every outlet Sunday. The hapless Bungles actually decided to let their best player run the ball this week and moved the ball well enough to sneak in the back door and cover the number, making bookmakers everywhere very happy. On to this week's selections…
Indianapolis –6 vs. Baltimore
The Ravens have played way over their heads in their last 2 contests, both night games on national television, due in large part to the motivational tactics of Brian Billick and Ray Lewis. In both games, they steamrolled to early leads and held on despite getting outscored 45-3 in the second halves of those games. This is still a team with 34 players drafted in the 6th rd or lower or not even drafted at all. This team still has some serious issues, and they will get demoralized by the Colts offense in the RCA Dome this week. Take the Colts.
Detroit +4 ½ at Minnesota
Minnesota is a horrible football team clearly in disarray right now, and they should not be giving more than a field goal to anyone in the league. Detroit has it's own issues, but has been sparked a bit by Joey Harrington, who should be able to succeed against the porous Viking secondary. Take the Lions plus the points.
Dallas –2 vs. Carolina
Carolina has really came a long way since last season, and has played defense as well as about anyone in the league so far this season. Offensively, the Panthers are very limited and the Cowboy defense, which consists of several players new to the team this year, has been getting better each week. Quincy Carter has also made strides behind center for them and in my opinion, the Cowboys will be a game you do not want on your schedule as we move deeper into the season. The Cowboys will win this game by at least a FG, and the number will not climb that high. Take Dallas laying the deuce.
Michigan St. +6 @ Iowa
Iowa got thoroughly outplayed by Purdue last week, and used a couple of big special teams plays to escape with a tight win. Kyle Orton and crew simply did whatever they wanted through the air against the weak Hawkeye secondary. This one could be a shootout, and I like the over here as well. Michigan St. has underachieved and generally plays to the level of their competition. I'm looking for Jeff Smoker, Dawan Moss, and Charlie Rogers to have a huge day in an outright Spartan win. Take Michigan St.
North Carolina +7 vs. North Carolina St.
NC St. has covered every game they have played this year and travel to Chapel Hill laying a TD in a rivalry game to a Tarheel team playing pretty damn good ball over the last couple weeks. I love home dogs, especially in rivalries. NC St. is due for a clunker. They may win, but I like a close game here. Take North Carolina getting the TD at home.
BYU + 4 ½ @ Air Force
Just like NC St, Air Force is undefeated on the season and has not lost a game against the number going into a tough rivalry game this week. After opening strong with wins against Syracuse and Hawaii, BYU has labored a bit in 3 straight road games against Nevada, Georgia Tech, and Utah St. Bret Engemann, Marcus Whelan and crew should be back to full health for this game, and I fully expect coach Gary Crowton to have the Cougars very prepared for this huge open to their conference schedule against a team that may be feeling a bit too good about themselves right now. Take BYU.
Tennessee +3 @ Georgia
Having had a chance to watch both teams play a couple times this year, including last week, I simply feel Tennessee is the better team in this match-up. Both teams played emotionally draining games last week, and I just feel better about where the Tennessee mindset will be in this one. The Vols know they are lucky to have escaped their home contest against heavy underdog Arkansas with a win last week, and I expect a much crisper and very solid performance from them this week. The ‘Dawgs survived a battle with ‘Bama last week, a contest the team was very up for. My gut tells me that Tennessee wins this game outright, and looks very impressive in doing so. They have one loss already and cannot afford another if they want to have any chance to be factor into the national championship race. Take the Vols.