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Friday, October 13, 2006
Updated: October 25, 1:15 PM ET
Putting the sleeper to bed

By Bill Simmons
Page 2

After five weeks of the 2006 NFL season, we've learned only 10 things:

1. If you're a QB, and you blow out a knee or smack your body up in a motorcycle accident, definitely take your time coming back. No rush. Seriously.

2. The Bears have a chance to be historically good.

3. The Raiders have a chance to be historically bad.

4. Drew Bledsoe has added a degree of difficulty for blowing big games. In the old days, he'd just throw a backbreaking interception at the worst possible time. But because everyone knows that's coming now, he added a fascinating wrinkle: An improbable play to throw us off and make us forget he's about to blow the game (like last week's fourth-and-18 bomb to Glenn), followed by the backbreaking interception that becomes doubly backbreaking because of the preceding events.

WEEK 5 REDUX
Last week's picks found me on the wrong side of three killer gambling moments:

1. With the Pats giving 10 and headed for a push, Maroney gets a game-clinching first down inside Miami's 20, only nobody tackles him, so he keeps going and it looks as though he's going to score ... No! He gets pushed out at the 4-yard line. That's followed by three Brady kneels.

2. The Browns are getting 8.5 points and trailing by 11. Fourth down, 15 seconds left. Instead of taking one more crack at the end zone, Romeo Crennel sends out the FG team for the cover. This actually happened.

3. The killer of killers: Getting 6.5 points, the Lions are trailing by two at midfield and it's fourth-and-10 with less than 90 seconds to play. Kitna scrambles, two guys pull him down ... and as he's falling, he flips it right to a Vikings lineman, who scrambles untouched for a clinching TD and the cover. I hate gambling.

5. You're not winning a Super Bowl with Brett Favre or Steve McNair. They're both washed up. Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it's true.

6. San Diego has the most talent in the AFC. Unfortunately, the Chargers also have an uptight coach who runs his team about as loosely as Ted Knight handled his daughters in "Too Close For Comfort."

(Note: Sadly, that show was canceled 21 years ago, making the reference Bermanian for everyone younger than 30. Normally, I avoid doing this, but I have two defenses: First, it's the perfect comparison. You really had to see the show. And second, Ted Knight was a comedic genius. So I'm standing by the reference. Now if I only had a clip of me and Glenn Frey standing outside the Hotel California. Back to the column.)

7. If you're getting points with the Lions on the road and covering in the final minute, and the Lions have the ball, and they're driving, and the only way you could ever lose is if Jon Kitna fumbles a touchdown, throws an interception for a TD or decides to toss the ball to the other team as he's getting sacked on fourth down -- just for the hell of it, for s---- and giggles -- well, you shouldn't feel even remotely safe.

8. If you're broadcasting a game with Terrell Owens involved, it's important to blame him at all times for whatever bad things are happening to his team, even if his QB and secondary are the ones blowing the game. And it's imperative that the production crew shows every possible replay of T.O. yelling at someone on the bench without anyone wondering whether he's yelling because it's so deafening in the stadium that nobody can hear. Keep playing it this way until we can CGI fake footage of him punching teammates. He's clearly the Antichrist.

9. Everyone who jumped on the bandwagon and picked Miami, Arizona or Detroit as preseason sleepers feels pretty freaking dumb.

10. Everyone who picked New Orleans or St. Louis as preseason sleepers feels pretty freaking good.

It's the last two items that intrigue me. In five-plus years writing this column, I picked an NFL sleeper each September by using the following guidelines: Can't be a team everyone else was picking; has to be a team with a relatively easy schedule; has to be a team that stunk the previous season; and has to be a team that could start off hot and spark a run of "Where the hell did these guys come from?" articles after Week 4 or Week 5. My accuracy has been pretty good: Three direct hits (the '02 Falcons, '04 Jets and '05 Bears) and two near misses (the '01 Seahawks and '03 Vikings, both of which finished 9-7). This year's pick was the 4-1 Rams, who face the Seahawks this week in an NFC West showdown that I boldly predicted before the season. In fact, let's run the exact excerpt so I can feel good about myself, given that I'm three games under .500 and getting my ass kicked by my wife and all:

"The Rams have a fairly easy schedule that includes San Fran, Arizona, Detroit and Green Bay in the first five weeks, followed by a clash against rival Seattle at home in Week 6 (and Alexander's ACL should have exploded by then)."

Ha! You have to admit, that's pretty good. And sure, the Rams might get killed this week and finish 6-10. You never know. But given my success picking sleepers -- and remember, I'm an idiot -- after reading Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker feature this week, I wondered whether someone smarter than me could create a formula to determine sleepers and pretenders before every NFL season. Gladwell wrote about a company that predicts the success of record albums and movies using a complicated (but accurate) statistical engine that ties in multiple variables (just read the piece, takes too long to explain). It should be just as easy to figure out the "Where the hell did these guys come from?" NFL team, right? Just create a similar engine that factors in records, coaching changes, personnel additions, expectations (high and low), luck (good and bad) from the previous year, strength of schedule, volume of positive/negative predictions, and any other relevant variables, then determine which teams were falsely hyped and which doormats could sneak up on everyone else.

When I picked the Rams, my process was a simpler formula: Easy sked, easy division, new coach, talented guys on both sides of the ball, everyone counting them out. Bingo, I had my team. Fast-forward to my man Michael Smith's ESPN.com column about the Rams on Wednesday, which included this sentence: "Along with the New Orleans Saints, the Rams, with their 4-1 record and first-place standing under rookie head coach Scott Linehan, stand as the biggest surprise of the season's early going."

So here's my first question: Can we really call it a surprise?

History tells us -- emphatically, actually -- that one "lousy" team makes a leap to 10-plus wins every season. Wouldn't it have been more surprising if none of those teams made that leap? And how many years in a row do we have to watch consensus sleepers fall short? For instance, this year's "sleepers" (Arizona, Detroit and Miami) stumbled out of the gate, with Arizona's situation becoming so bleak so quickly that Regis Philbin announced last week that he was changing his "Surprise Super Bowl pick" from Arizona to Baltimore, adding simply, "the Cardinals have won one and lost three." Oh. But was anyone truly surprised that Arizona and Detroit, two of the worst sports franchises of the past 30 years, bombed out of the gate? Or that Miami struggled so mightily with shaky QBs?

Anyway, I was thinking about it and thinking about it, and something struck me: Whenever teams win a big game, invariably, they play the whole "Nobody believed in us!" card. Happens all the time. Hell, the Tigers did it last week. Just in this decade, nobody believed in the 2004 Red Sox, the 2002/'04/'05 Patriots, the 2001 D-Backs, the 2000 Lakers, the 2004 Pistons, the 2006 Steelers, the 2003 Marlins and the 2001 Ravens. Yup, we didn't believe in them, they fed off this negative energy, and that's one of the reasons they won. Or so they said.

SPORTS GUY REWIND
Here's what you missed this week from the Sports Guy:

The Tysonic Era
Bill Simmons has a few rules to live by in an era defined by the crazy.

Virtually Unstoppable
The greatest golfer (Tiger Woods) does battle with the greatest video game golfer (Bill Simmons) in an epic battle on Hollywood Boulevard.

• Beat The Sports Guy
Week 6: Bears at Cardinals

So here's my second question: What happens when a team doesn't have anything to prove?

Look at the Yankees. Everyone handed the World Series to them before the playoffs started, to the point it became a no-win situation, no different from any of the Team USA basketball collapses the past few years. The Yankees were a peculiar mix of All-Stars, washed-up veterans and nobodies who weren't as collectively good as we thought, a team with some fundamental flaws (defense, chemistry and pitching), a team that easily could be taken down by some live bats and a couple of good arms. As soon as they started struggling, they self-imploded and that was that. Everyone was shocked.

But was it really that shocking?

This particular Yankee team didn't even seem to like one another -- the players carried themselves with the warmth of 25 commuters cramming themselves into the same car on a 5 p.m. subway train. By Game 4, they clearly didn't want to be there anymore. You could see them checking out as the game went on. They had no fight in them. Did the gushing stream of "greatest lineup ever!" angles soften them in the end? Sure seemed like it -- they didn't seem to be like a team that was battling for anything. As soon as the Tigers pulled a Buster Douglas in Game 2 and punched them in the chops, they were never the same. Torre panicked and started switching his lineup around. The bats went silent. Guys started screwing up. A-Rod peed on himself against Zumaya. The Tigers smelled the kill and finished them off. And that was that.

We watched something similar happen in the NFL. Like the Yankees, the Dolphins/Cards/Lions succumbed to the weight of artificial expectations (on a smaller scale, of course). On the flip side, everyone wrote off the 2006 Eagles as an NFC contender and they've channeled that negativity into a rallying cry. McNabb needed to prove he can thrive without Owens. The defense needed to prove the Eagles were just as good as the other NFC "juggernauts." Westbrook needed to prove he was a big-time back. The receivers needed to prove they could replace T.O. Andy Reid needed to prove he hasn't been mildly overrated this whole time. Now they're 4-1 and everyone's still raving about the Bears, leading us to the semi-inevitable scenario of Philly winning the NFC in Chicago in January, followed by every Eagle whining about how nobody believed in the team all season. I can't wait.

So here's my advice to the coaches of next summer's potential sleepers: Lower everyone's expectations as much as you can. You want to sneak up on people. You want to be able to play the "Nobody believed in us but ourselves" card someday. For instance, poor Nick Saban (who looks so distraught at this point, it's almost as if he has been captured by The Others) should have spent the summer saying things like, "I have no idea whether Culpepper will be able to run without a limp again, much less play QB for us" and "Look, I can't say anything about our running game; I don't want to say anything more until Ronnie Brown's second hepatitis B test comes back." He should have made a concerted effort to clear everyone off the bandwagon, no matter how much fibbing it took. Next summer, I bet he handles it differently. And he should.

As for our 2006 sleeper, we're down to the Saints and Rams. Nobody believed in either team ... and maybe that's all that matters anymore.

On to the Week 6 slate ...

(HOME TEAMS IN CAPS)

COWBOYS (-13) over Texans
This nonfeud has to be No. 1 on the list of "teams that seem as though they should be natural enemies but aren't." No heat at all. It's amazing. The Texans are clearly the second-class NFL team in Texas in every conceivable way. Why wouldn't they try to feud with the Cowboys? If you were Gary Kubiak, wouldn't you be making little passive-aggressive digs to get Dallas people riled up, like: "We have all the respect in the world for Bill Parcells, he was one of the greatest coaches ever," and "We're nervous about playing Drew Bledsoe. We've been dropping easy interceptions all season. This will be a big test for us." They really need to work on this.

Three other points:

1. There was a funny stretch in my reader mailbox that coincided with Bledsoe's final drive in Philly: A few e-mails from people predicting the impending INT, followed by a few instant "HA!" and "he did it again" e-mails when it happened, then another 30-40 right afterward from people telling stories like, "I called my buddy just to tell him I knew it was coming" and "My roommate and I were arguing about which Eagle would run it back right before it happened." I think Dallas needs to make a QB change.

2. My favorite random Bledsoe e-mail of the week, from Eugene in Madison, Wis.: "Did you see Bledsoe getting up after he ran that touchdown in against Philly? His teammates were helping him up like they thought his spine was broken. The celebration looked like something you would see at a company softball game, where the fat, uncoordinated boss that nobody really likes nearly kills himself trying to beat a throw to home, and everyone kinda awkwardly celebrates the fact that he scored, but they don't really like him, and they kinda wish he was a little more hurt than he was, but they pretend to kind of care that he might be hurt. Right?"

Again, I think Dallas needs to make a QB change.

3. Why wouldn't someone sell framed pictures online of Vanderjagt consoling T.O. on the Philly sidelines last week? It's the perfect joke Xmas present for any friend who likes the Cowboys, right? I would absolutely buy this for my buddy Sal. Then he'd probably smash it over my head.

REDSKINS (-10.5) over Titans
I'm not taking any bad teams on the road this week. No, really. Stop enticing me.

(Random note of the week: You know what the biggest difference is between baseball and football, other than the ferocious hitting and the fact that you don't actually have to be in shape to play baseball? TV networks are allowed to interview baseball managers as the game is going on. And we're supposed to take this sport seriously? Can you imagine if the Redskins were driving against the Texans in the second quarter and Gus Johnson said, "Right now we have Joe Gibbs live on the sidelines ... Joe, you must be feeling pretty good with your team driving right now!" Ridiculous.)

BUCS (+5.5) over Bengals
I'm giving this one the "upset special" tag: Bucs 24, Bengals 21.

Hey, you know what the worst NFL trend of 2006 is? Guys rupturing or lacerating their internal organs. I'm not a big fan. You know what the second-worst development is? The new celebration penalty, which is like this season's version of the horse-collar tackle -- there seems to be no rhyme or reason to when they call it, but it's 15 yards every time. Why not make it 5 yards? Why can't the yardage be arbitrary?

For instance, Antrel Rolle committed the single-worst facemask penalty since Warren Sapp blew out Jerry Rice's knee nine years ago -- bringing down Larry Johnson from behind (when L.J. was running for a game-winning TD, no less) by diving forward, grabbing his facemask and yanking his head backward as if he was pulling open a giant can of beer. I'm not kidding; if L.J. had ended up getting paralyzed, this would have ranked up there with the Kermit Washington punch. So guess what happens? He gets a 15-yard facemask penalty and that's it. I've said it before, I'll say it again: We shouldn't stop at 15 yards for certain penalties (the Rolle facemask should have been an 80-yard penalty), and players should be banished for a quarter or a half for certain infractions (almost like a penalty box). Right now, you can get the same amount of yards for dancing after a sack as for deliberately trying to break someone's neck. It's illogical. And just for the record, if Larry Johnson had broken his neck, Al Michaels eventually would have told us that Johnson was "out with a neck."

Bills (-1) over LIONS
I've had it with Jon Kitna. We're breaking up. Even Robin Williams didn't kill Bill Maher's show last Friday as badly as Kitna killed the Lions in Minnesota. Had to be seen to be believed.

(E-mail of the week, courtesy of Mark in Lansing, Mich.: "As a lifelong Michigander, I am downright insulted that you called the Lions the worst team of the decade. They are the worst team of the half-century and I would appreciate it if you refer to them as such." You got it, Mark.)

NFL By The Numbers
Through five weeks, against the spread:

Favorites: 33-36-5
Home teams: 39-30-5
Road favorites: 9-13-3
Dogs covering + winning outright: 22 of 36
Home teams the past two weeks: 19-6-3

RAMS (+3) over Seahawks
This isn't even one of those "I feel obligated to take them because they're my sleeper team" picks. I truly like the Rams in this one; the crowd will show up, and Seattle can't run the ball. I'm feeling something in the 30-17 range.

Which reminds me, after I mentioned STATS' old football books two Friday ago, someone from STATS directed me to its subscription-only Web site and gave me a free pass. Good times! I'm not kidding. I spent about two hours surfing around this site Tuesday finding out things like "Minnesota's Antoine Winfield and Fred Smoot are 1-2 on the list of burned defenders right now with a combined 49 times." Anyway, if you ever watched a Rams game and thought, "Wow, nobody can block Leonard Little," your eyes weren't deceiving you. He leads the league in knockdown/hurries with 18.5, and he's third in sacks with five. I don't see the Seahawks blocking him Sunday.

New England (-10) over BYE
Sorry, this is a convoluted excuse to mention something that needs to be mentioned as soon as humanly possible: I gave you Jonathan Papelbon, I gave you Laurence Maroney, and now, I'm giving you Rajon Rondo. And without giving away too much -- I want to write about him in detail at some point -- I'm going to put this in print right now, and we're going to leave it right here, in this column, in my archives, forever and ever, then we're going to come back to it in mid-January when everyone in New York starts bitching about it, and you'll say to yourself, "Wait, I think I remember Simmons mentioning it in a football column back in mid-October." So here it is. And it's not a prediction. It's not even a premonition. It's a fact that simply hasn't become a fact yet.

Here it is: Three months from now, Knicks fans will be dealing with the fact that taking Renaldo Balkman at No. 20 over Rajon Rondo, as crazy as this sounds, was the single biggest mistake of Isiah's entire tenure, the one misfire that will end up haunting that franchise for the next decade. And that's saying something. But Balkman/Rondo will trump everything else Isiah inflicted. Just you wait. That's all I'm saying for now.

SAINTS (+3) over Eagles
Two words: Letdown Game. And because I have nothing else to add, let's welcome the new annoying announcer trend of the season: Every other play-by-play guy adopting Al Michaels' tendency to describe someone's injury just by naming the body part involved, as in, "The Eagles will miss Brian Westbrook, who's out with a knee today." So we're making time for sideline reporters and their boring anecdotes every game, but play-by-play guys can't take 1.3 extra seconds to detail a relevant injury to a relevant player? Really?

Panthers (+3) over RAVENS
Tough one: I don't trust Jake Delhomme on the road against a good defense, but I don't trust McNair against anyone. Anyway, here's my favorite quote of the week, courtesy of washed-up Ravens back Jamal Lewis: "The one thing I can say [is] a 2,000-yard rusher doesn't forget how to run the football." Umm, that was three seasons ago, Jamal. You couldn't burst through the defensive line with a chainsaw at this point. Seriously, does anyone take longer to cut the cord with veterans than Brian Billick? Imagine him trying to decide whether to put the family dog to sleep.

JETS (-2) over Dolphins
"Coming up on the 'E! True Hollywood Story': Daunte loses his starting job to Joey Harrington and officially hits rock bottom. And coming up later: Daunte finally finds redemption with the Toronto Argonauts!"

The Sports Gal Speaks
I can't watch "The Bachelor" anymore because they keep selecting guys who shouldn't need a reality show to find a wife. I liked the first two seasons when they were just nice-looking guys who had normal jobs and seemed normal. Now the bachelors come on to become famous; they don't care about finding a soul mate. They want to break up with whoever they picked in the Final Rose episode and hook up with Kristin Cavalleri at a Sunset Strip club the next week. It's so easy to see through them. Like, this year's Bachelor is a rich Italian prince who can't speak Italian and went to Rollins College. It's like Joe Millionaire, only without the twist at the end. Why would I root for a fake prince to fall in love?

Instead of picking princes and quarterbacks, I think ABC should go in the other direction. My friend Melissa thinks we have hot homeless guys out here in L.A.; she calls them "the hot homeless." We can't figure out why there are so many good-looking ones. Maybe they're failed actors, I don't know. But since it's practically hopeless for single women over 30 in L.A., Melissa thinks they'd have a better chance by taking in a hot homeless guy, cleaning him up, getting him a job and trying to turn his life around. I agree. I'd like to see ABC pick a hot homeless guy as the next Bachelor. They could clean him up and introduce him to 25 girls at once. His whole life could change, right? Although he'd probably fall for three of them at the same time, settle on the slut with the biggest rack, give her a promise ring, then dump her the next week to hook up with Cavalleri. Forget it, this could never work.

Here are my picks for Week 6: Bengals -5.5, Titans +10.5, Texans +13, Lions +1, Seahawks -3, Giants +3, Saints +3, Ravens -3, Dolphins +2, 49ers +10, Chiefs +6.5, Raiders +15, Bears -10.5.

Last week's record: 5-6-3
Season record: 40-29-5

FALCONS (-3) over Giants
Have we ever figured out what's happening with that bizarre Briscoe High commercial Nike runs? Jill Arrington and Jillian Barberie are in it. Deion Sanders is in it. Don Shula is the coach. The team has all these recognizable NFL players, including Mike Vick, but needs a Hail Mary to win a high school game. Everything about it is confusing. Why would I buy Nike products because of this commercial? It's almost as though the entire company had an "I'm Keith Hernandez!" moment. As if the Nike folks decided, "Let's make the weirdest, most incomprehensible commercial possible just for the hell of it, and nobody will say anything because we're Nike." I never thought I'd long for the days of Mars Blackmon.

49ERS (+10) over Chargers
You know, we can spin this thing all we want, but these are the facts: LaDainian Tomlinson and Michael Turner are platooning. I'm sorry you had to find out this way.

(And speaking of disturbing revelations, what was more jarring this week: the sight of all those washed-up stars from the '80s in that new Trivial Pursuit commercial -- including Kareem, Philip Michael Thomas, Cyndi Lauper and an almost unrecognizably heavy Kelly LeBrock -- or Howard Stern watching the Screech sex tape during his Sirius show and revealing that Dustin Diamond is hung like a camera tripod? At gunpoint, I'd have to go with the Trivial Pursuit commercial because it can pop up at any time. I don't have to worry about randomly seeing Screech's anaconda, but a 200-pound Kelly LeBrock dressed in her "Weird Science" outfit is a constant concern. Let's just move on.)

STEELERS (-6.5) over Chiefs
This has all the makings of a "When Damon Huard is your starting QB, that means Damon Huard is your starting QB" game. We've been waiting for it for four weeks. Pittsburgh seems like the right place. By the way, did you see that Sienna Miller got in trouble for bashing the 'Burgh last week? How can someone not like the 'Burgh? They don't come any better than people from the 'Burgh. That's like bashing Milwaukee. Now I'm glad Jude Law cheated on her. You can't diss the 'Burgh.

BRONCOS (-15) over Raiders
The Art Shell Face hits prime time again, this time on NBC! I'll let the readers carry this one:

Dave from Washington: "The Raiders suck so bad that they are 15-point underdogs to a team that scores 12.2 points a game. This has to be a sports first. The sickest part? The Broncos are a mortal lock to cover."

Craig from Santa Monica: "The NFL no longer shows sideline shots of Art Shell. Believe me, I watched most of the CLE-OAK game hoping to see Shell doodle on his clipboard as the Raiders were blowing a 21-3 lead. Instead I got shots of other Raider coaching staff, including defensive coordinator 'Joe Eszterhas.' "

Jonathan from San Fran: "Is there a bigger success disparity between two teams who play in the same city right now than with the A's and Raiders? It's like having divorced parents, and your mom is a high-powered executive who lives in the penthouse, and your dad is unemployed, living under the freeway overpass, and cleaning himself up at the bathroom at Starbucks."

(Random question: What's your favorite part of NBC's Sunday telecasts so far? Is it Pink belting out the theme song and looking like a trannie? Is it the halftime show where five guys break down three minutes of highlights as Sterling Sharpe sits quietly in the right corner with one of those confused "I still get paid if I don't say anything, right?" looks on his face? Or the fact that we have to go online for stats during the game because they won't show us any?)

Bears (-10.5) over CARDS
I tackled the key points of this game in this week's edition of "Beat the Sports Guy." Just remember, we won't know about the Bears until we see how they handle that five-game stretch starting in mid-November that goes "at N.Y. Giants, at N.Y. Jets, at New England, home for Minnesota, at St. Louis." Until then, to paraphrase the great Winston Wolfe, let's not start sucking each other's popsicles yet.

Last Week: 4-7-3
Season: 33-36-5

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His new book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.