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Friday, December 29, 2006
The season of the underdog

By Bill Simmons
Page 2

Before we get to the Week 17 picks, some amazing statistics for you:

1. Underdogs went 13-3 last week, bringing their record to 136-97-6 on the season.

2. Out of those 136 underdogs that covered, an astonishing 100 won their games outright (including 11 of 13 last week). I can't even rationally discuss this anymore.

3. Through 16 weeks, my wife (who knows absolutely nothing about football) is beating me by four games and stands nine games above .500. And in the process, she's proving my point from Week 1, when I explained why I was having this little "contest" in the first place: Sometimes, the less you know, the better. The perfect example happened last week, when I knew that the Colts-Texans game contained some major red flags, even writing, "Letdown Game + Milton Berle Game + Obvious Pick + Favorite As An Obvious 3-Team Teaser Candidate + Underdog Coming off a Terrible Performance ... and even with all this information at my disposal, I still can't take the Texans."

What happened? Houston covered the 9.5-point spread and beat Indy outright.

Which team did the Sports Gal pick? Houston.

What was her explanation afterward?

"I dunno ... they were the home team and they were getting points, they just seemed like the logical pick. Isn't it better to play at home?"

Actually, yeah ... it is.

And that's why she's beating me. It's a triumph of common sense over intuition. Is it even remotely surprising that she's leading me by four games right now? Of course not -- especially when I did such a crappy job during the middle of the season. Does the whole thing make me feel embarrassed in any way? Not really. The Sports Gal was what I thought she was. OK? I picked against her in the preseason, she did fine ... she was what I thought she was. All right? SHE WAS WHAT I THOUGHT SHE WAS! And that's why I gave her that damned sidebar! If you want to crown her, then crown her ass! But she was who I thought she was! And I let her off the hook!

On to the Week 17 picks ...

(HOME TEAMS IN CAPS)

REDSKINS (+2.5) over Giants
Isn't it funny that so many people were bitching back in October and early November that their cable system didn't carry the NFL Network ... and then they ended up missing an atrocious slate of Thursday/Saturday games called by one of the most woefully miscast play-by-play guys in the history of televised sports? They should re-release those telecasts on an eight-DVD set and call it "Trust Me, You Didn't Miss Much."

(Pertinent playoff note: There are approximately 345,672 different playoff scenarios involving the NFC this weekend. If the Giants win on Saturday night, all of them except one are rendered moot. But this is the same team that's currently being coached by a guy who constantly looks like he's being robbed at gunpoint. So I'm banking on one of those other 345,672 scenarios coming into play. We'll get to it in three paragraphs.)

Steelers (+6) over BENGALS
Hard to say which team is more depressed heading into this game, but everyone who had Denver giving 3 last Sunday trumps both of them. For the next "Top 50" special countdown show that "Best Damn Sports Show" does, they need to have a "Top 50 Gut-Wrenching Covers that Happened Because of A Missed Kick or A Botched Extra Point." Like you wouldn't watch that.

(And by the way, is there a better solution for a failing, irrelevant sports show than to just start counting down the top-50 of every conceivable subject? Wild horses couldn't have dragged me away from the "Top 50 Greatest Dunks" episode, even if some of the choices were absolutely unconscionable. How do you have five Vince Carter dunks, five Kobe dunks and one Dominique dunk? How does Darryl Dawkins not crack the top-10 for the Robinzine dunk? How was Pippen's dunk over Ewing "honorable mention"? Where was Doc's tomahawk dunk over Bill Walton in the '77 Finals? And why isn't ESPN doing shows like this? I'd watch a "Top-50 Gatorade Baths" show, for God's sake. Why are we conceding this franchise to Chris Rose? Arrrrrrrrrrgh.)

Rams (-2) over VIKINGS
Look, we can argue the semantics until we're blue in the face, but all I know is this: I'm one more Rams victory and Giants/Falcons/Panthers losses away from NAILING my Rams Bandwagon pick. So there.

Lions (+13) over COWBOYS
The way this T.O. saga is ending, we're inching closer to the pipe dream (elucidated in a reader e-mail last season) of T.O. becoming so poisonous that he transforms into the real-life version of the fantasy receiver who keeps landing on the waiver wire and ends up on seven teams in one year (like Braylon Edwards this season). Every time an NFL team loses a couple of receivers, they'd roll the dice with T.O. for one or two weeks, then dump him as soon as possible. And he'd just bounce around the league, catch a few passes, rile up some announcers and receive way too much attention wherever he goes. I really think this could work.

(T.O.-related e-mail of the week, courtesy of Brett in Camp Hill, Pa.: "Did you see the shot in the fourth quarter of the Xmas game of T.O. sitting alone on the Cowboys' bench with an absolutely insane grin on his face? It was an evil, crazy grin on par with Jack Nicholson in 'The Shining.' At this point, who would you most fear having to share the Overlook Hotel with for a winter: Jack Torrance or T.O.?" Seriously, you know a free agent isn't working out when people are comparing him to a movie character who tried to kill his whole family with an ax.)

Panthers (-3) over SAINTS
Well, Chris Weinke snapped his 17-game losing streak as a starter, but it happened in a game in which he threw for 34 yards, his team scored 10 points, and it benched him for eight different third downs so it could directly snap the ball to its running back. Oh, and he's NOT the worst QB of all time? Even Ryan Leaf never got benched eight times in one game for a direct snap to a running back. Fortunately for the Panthers, they're getting Jake Delhomme back this week and the Saints already clinched the second seed in the NFC. This is the most confident I've ever felt picking the Panthers in the past three years ... and I'm not even remotely confident."

CHIEFS (-2) over Jaguars
One of those games when you talk yourself into the Jags and then Sunday rolls around, you're down 10-0 in the second quarter, you're shaking your head, and you keep muttering, "My God, I have money on David Garrard on a 20-degree day in Arrowhead Stadium right now" before reenacting Scotty J's "I'm a f------ idiot!" routine from "Boogie Nights." Bad times.

(Random note: Congrats to Herm Edwards for turning Larry Johnson into the modern-day Earl Campbell. Four hundred carries in one season?!?!?!?!?!?!?? Did you know he's 27 carries away from breaking Jamal Anderson's record of 410? Here's how many carries Jamal had the following season: 19. I can't get over this. Let's say John Gibbons switched to a four-man rotation this spring and Roy Halladay cracked the 300-inning mark by Labor Day. Would an hour go by without somebody on "Baseball Tonight" or ESPN.com or Baseball Prospectus mentioning how absolutely insane this was? Meanwhile, we have Herm running poor LJ into the ground and everything's cool. Even if they end up making the playoffs, he's going to be a carcass by mid-January. Ridiculous. Why does this stuff make me so angry?)

Bills (+9) over RAVENS
Come on, somebody's gotta screw up the obvious three-team tease with Indy, Denver and Baltimore this weekend, right?

TEXANS (-4) over Browns
The perfect game for a gimmick broadcasting team. Couldn't they have the cast of "How I Met Your Mother" announcing? What about Jon Cryer and a completely sauced Charlie Sheen? Or David Caruso in full-fledged Horatio Crane mode? A dubious pass interference call penalty there ... but all I know ... is this ... (removes sunglasses) ... first and goal for the Texans.

TITANS (-3) over Pats
Tom Brady is playing hurt. And I don't mean emotionally. You don't sail throws over the heads of open receivers for four straight months unless (A) you're Jake Plummer or (B) something is physically wrong with you. There's no other explanation. He's hurt. The season is going to end in Baltimore in two or three weeks, and three days later, the Patriots will quietly announce that Tom Brady just had a successful surgery at Mass General for a broken left clavicle or a fractured right wrist or something. Anyway, the Titans have covered 10 of their past 11. And you know why? BECAUSE VINCE YOUNG JUST WINS FOOTBALL GAMES! That's why.

BUCS (-3) over Seahawks
Matt Vasgersian and J.C. Pearson ... welcome to Tampa! We hope you enjoy your stay. Hey, did anyone else hear that Gerald Ford passed away and immediately think of that SNL sketch where Dana Carvey (as Tom Brokaw) has to keep recording takes of various crazy scenarios involving Gerald Ford's death? I couldn't stop thinking about that all day on Wednesday. Stunning news from Yorba Linda today, as Richard Nixon's corpse climbed out of his grave and strangled Gerald Ford to death. Now he's actually dead. Can we still laugh at that sketch? Doesn't it seem 100 times more morbid now?

JETS (-12.5) over Raiders
I'm a little emotional ... that's right, it's our last chance to make money off the Art Shell era. Any time Aaron Brooks is calling out teammates for openly not giving a crap, you know you've accomplished something substantial. Thank you, Art Shell, thank you. On an unrelated note, if there's a hell -- and I'm pretty sure there is -- part of the eternal sentence of damnation should involve an ongoing conversation between Joe Theismann and Tony Kornheiser about Chad Pennington's arm strength. Good golly. The only person who enjoyed that Christmas night broadcast was Tiki Barber's TV agent.

The Sports Gal Speaks
I have a bone to pick with the NFL: It's totally unfair to play Sunday and Monday games when they fall on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. How is it right to give every man in the country a free pass on two of the most hectic days of the year? Aren't they aware that Christmas Eve is the day that most men decide it's time to do their Christmas shopping? Or that their significant others are most likely running around and picking up their holiday slack while they watch eight football games at once?

I spent my Christmas Eve cooking the side dishes for Christmas dinner, making last-minute trips to the grocery store, taking care of our baby, walking the dogs, getting the turkey ready, etc. Meanwhile, Bill was parked in front of the TV watching the Patriots and making annoying phone calls (in the annoying voice he saves just for those calls) to his buddy Tony, the same guy who yelled at Bill the previous night at a Christmas party because Bill was too negative about the playoff hopes for their fake football team. I swear to God, Bill watched football for seven straight hours on Christmas Eve. If there had been a Sunday night game, I probably would have attacked him like Lionel Richie's wife.

Then, the next day, their League of Dorks championship game came down to T.O. against some guy on the Dolphins who apparently stinks because Bill kept swearing every time he dropped a pass. This guy ruined Bill's whole Christmas. It's so sad that the Patriots and the League of Dorks commanded most of his attention on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. And I'm sure there were millions of other guys just like him. So thanks, NFL, for ruining the 2006 holiday season. Maybe next year you can schedule the Super Bowl on my birthday or Valentine's Day.

Here are my Week 17 picks: Giants -2.5, Pitt +6, Cowboys -13, Texans -4, Jags +2, Vikings +1.5, Saints +3, Raiders +12.5, Seahawks +3, Pats +3, Bills +9, Colts -9, Eagles -8, Niners +10.5, Chargers -13.5, Bears -2.5.

Last week: 9-7
Season: 123-112-6

Falcons (+8) over EAGLES
Should any NFC team be favored by more than 4 points over any other NFC team? I say no. Anyway, congrats to Donovan McNabb -- any time you can fall victim to the Madden Curse and win the Ewing Theory MVP in a three-year span, you've really accomplished something. Well done.

(Speaking of Madden, I've had multiple readers imploring me to start a "Save Tomlinson from appearing on the Madden 2008 cover" campaign. Intriguing. Part of me wants to save him; part of me can't forgive him for stealing Lawrence Taylor's nickname and boning me over in my fantasy title game last week. Couldn't we just convince EA Sports to stick Larry Johnson on there? We already know he's breaking down next season. He's the logical guy. It even could be a picture of LJ being tackled by nine guys as Herm Edwards looks on nonchalantly in the background.

COLTS (-9) over Dolphins
I have three for this one:

1. The Dungy/Manning era can be summed up with one anecdote: The Colts have an "AFC Finalists" banner hanging up in the Hoosier Dome. That ranks right up there with the Washington Mystics putting up "WNBA attendance leaders" banners and the city of Hartford throwing a parade for the Whalers after they took the Canadiens to seven games in a Round 2 playoff series.

2. Can anyone else feel Manning slowly moving into that "Marino in the mid-'90s" portion of his career? He has the crappy defense, the lack of a third receiver, the mediocre running game and the overrated coach, as well as the gaudy stats ... all he's missing is the bulky knee brace, the perpetual scowl and the Juan Epstein afro. We're about 12 years away from Peyton working on one of the Sunday pregame shows and bristling every time some inferior ex-QB/co-host (like Pennington or Delhomme) busts his chops about never winning a Super Bowl. And frankly, I can't wait.

3. As for the Dolphins, reader Anthony Hurd sums it up best: "Whoever thought we'd see a Dolphins QB running around with the name 'Lemon' on his back and it wouldn't be Joey Harrington or Daunte Culpepper?"

CHARGERS (-13.5) over Cards
Everyone knows someone who's married with three daughters. When you ask them what it's like to live in a house with all women, they all make that same face -- the one where they tilt their head to the left, roll their eyes and exhale, as if to say, "You have no idea, I'm honestly hoping just to make it out of this alive." In a related story, that's how every Chargers fan looked after Phil Rivers' salvaged that epic stink bomb in Seattle last weekend with the Vince Jackson TD pass. Can you win a Super Bowl with Rivers at this stage of his career? It's eminently debatable. Can you win a Super Bowl with Marty Schottenheimer? Even more debatable. Well, what about Phil AND Marty?

(Tilt the head to the left, roll the eyes, exhale ...)

BRONCOS (-10.5) over Niners
In John Clayton's column this week, Jay Cutler explained the progress of Broncos tight end Tony Scheffler by saying, "I roomed with Tony during the preseason and he has great hands." Don't you love when athletes get quoted out of context? Poor Cutler sounded like he's about 20 years away from hanging Tony's game-worn jersey on his closet door along with a picture of a mountain. Anyway, I'm anxious to bet against him in a playoff game -- let's see him boost Vegas' confidence with a blowout win against a banged-up Niners team. That would be dandy.

Packers (+3) over BEARS
For all you college kids reading this, we implore you, do not play ANY form of the "Let's drink every time Brett Favre gets mentioned" game on Sunday night. You will die.

Last week: 9-7
Season: 119-116-6

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available in paperback.