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Friday, October 5, 2007
Separating the teasers from the pleasers

By Bill Simmons
Page 2

This Sunday, the Titans are laying eight points to the visiting Falcons. If gambling were legal, you could tease that line down to two in a two-team teaser. But would you trust Tennessee to take care of business against a mediocre team at home? Do you hesitate even for a split-second? If you do, then deep down, you don't think the Titans are a good team. They fail the Teaser Test for you.

Back in the old days, the two-team teaser was the easiest way to make money. In 2007? Only seven teams can pass the Teaser Test -- yes, the Titans are one of them -- in an era when perpetual putridity is thriving like never before. Two-thirds of this year's teams could be described as "mediocre," "not good" or "terrible," which leads to rampant unpredictability from week to week, which leads to unfathomably fathomable gambling numbers. Over the past three weeks, underdogs went 28-14-4; road favorites went 5-11-1; and nine Week 4 underdogs won games outright. These days, the NFL is more top heavy than Morganna the Kissing Bandit.

To prove this point, I blew out my Weekly Power Poll into a full-fledged column. Here's how the league shakes out from No. 32 to No. 1:

BRUCE COSLET DIVISION

32. St. Louis
Just when you thought the demise of the "Greatest Show On Turf" couldn't get any sadder, Marc Bulger was benched for Gus Frerotte one week after the Rams started the first white NFL halfback in four years. Wow. At the rate the Rams are going, they might lose custody of Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce to Kevin Federline soon.

31. Miami
The good news for Dolphins fans: Ronnie Brown turned out to be a better pick than Ced Benson and Cadillac Williams.

WEEK 5 PICKS

(Home teams in caps)

SAINTS (-3) over Panthers
CHIEFS (+2) over Jaguars
Lions (+3.5) over REDSKINS
Falcons (+8) over TITANS
TEXANS (-5.5) over Dolphins
Seahawks (+6) over STEELERS
PATRIOTS (-16.5) over Browns
Cardinals (-3.5) over RAMS
Jets (+3.5) over GIANTS
Bucs (+9.5) over COLTS
Chargers (+1) over BRONCOS
Ravens (-3) over NINERS
PACKERS (-3) over Bears
Cowboys (-10) over BILLS

Last week: 8-6
Season: 31-25-6
The bad news for Dolphins fans: Their defense got old; they have a lousy QB for the umpteenth time in the post-Marino era; they gave up on Daunte Culpepper too soon; they're getting nothing out of the No. 9 pick of the 2007 draft (Ted Ginn Jr.), while the No. 10 pick (Amobi Okoye) has been thriving in Houston's defense; we're about five days away from Jason Taylor's first trade demand; and the guy responsible for most of this mess (Nick Saban) gets to sneak away and coach a college powerhouse without suffering at all. I don't find that fair. We have laws that penalize deadbeat dads; why don't we have laws that penalize deadbeat coaches?

30. San Francisco
It has been awhile, but one of my cockamamie theories actually worked: The Winston Wolf "Let's Not Start Sucking Each Other's Popsicles Yet" Test that eliminates the bandwagon playoff pick (as applied to the Niners in this year's NFL Preview). Maybe it lacks the historical success of the Ewing Theory -- currently thriving in the English Premier League with Arsenal, by the way -- but we're off to a good start. In other news, you know the Patriots own San Fran's 2008 first-round pick, right? After losing their own first-rounder with CameraGate, how funny would it be if the Niners' pick ended up being first overall? Don't count this out. They're terrible.

That reminds me, some eerie similarities have developed between the '86 Celtics and '07 Patriots, right down to the thriving Boston sports scene and the fact the Celtics owned floundering Seattle's No. 1 pick that season, so not only were we Celtics fans watching a 67-win team, we were rooting against the Sonics every game and scouting college prospects such as Brad Daugherty, Lenny Bias, Johnny Dawkins and John Salley. Twenty-one years later, the Pats look invincible, Brady and Moss have assumed the Bird/Walton roles, and on top of everything else, Patriots fans are rooting for a top-five pick and scouting college guys. It's like sports déjà vu. If the Patriots win the Super Bowl and land the No. 2 pick, I'm leaving the country for four days after the draft, just to be safe.

29. New Orleans
A reader from Brooklyn named Eric asks, "Did you watch Peter King's Saints feature on 'Inside the NFL' this week? I feel like I gained incredible insight into the Saints' chances this week against Carolina. To start with, Sean Payton staged a mock funeral for their 2006 year, complete with a priest (not to mention Drew Brees also was symbolically buried -- in a city that still believes in voodoo, is this something you want to do to your quarterback?), and King tells us later that for this week's practice, Payton brought out a wagon and filled it with empty chairs. The message was meant to be that no one is on the Saints bandwagon anymore. Something about these blatant symbolic motivational techniques unnerved me. And then I realized the problem: Sean Payton is a sorority girl trapped in a coach's body. I might have lost enough confidence to even take David Carr on the road."

Eric, I wouldn't go THAT far, but I agree with your Payton analogy -- he's one more blowout loss away from inviting his players over for a slumber party and making each of them mix tapes. Maybe he needs to embrace Doc Rivers' philosophy of ubuntu.

28. Minnesota
Kelly Holcomb stunk out the joint against Green Bay last week ... and he's still a more palatable option than Brooks Bollinger or Tarvaris Jackson. Kelly gives you a solid "D" performance every game, whereas Tarvaris is more of a "D-minus" and Brooks is an "F-minus." Shouldn't the Vikings be calling Drew Bledsoe and Jake Plummer 20 times a day? At least they'd give them a "C-plus," right?

(Random fantasy note: Keep an eye on Sidney Rice, Minnesota's rookie receiver. Looked like a young Plax in the Packers game. Also, that's a fantastic name. When you're a talented receiver named "Sidney Rice," something has to go seriously wrong for you NOT to make it.)

SIGNS OF A PULSE

27. Buffalo
Trent Edwards! Who knew? I'd play the Lou Gehrig/Wally Pipp card here, but I wouldn't want to offend Pipp's family by comparing him to J.P. Losman.

26. Kansas City
The biggest shocker of the year: The Chiefs might not be one of the worst teams in the NFL. The second-biggest shocker: Dwayne Bowe is the reason the Chiefs might not be one of the worst teams in the NFL. The third-biggest shocker: Dwayne Bowe is the best rookie receiver in the NFL (and not Calvin Johnson). Seriously, did a single person watch Bowe on "Hard Knocks" and think, "That guy looks great, he's gonna be a star in this league?" You're lying if you saw this coming. All I know is D-Bowe single-handedly destroyed the Chargers last Sunday, to the degree that I felt obligated to put the word "destroyed" in italics. There might be daylight for Larry Johnson fantasy owners yet.

QUITE POSSIBLY LOUSY

25. N.Y. Jets
It's all Eric Mangini's fault for pulling a Larry Zbyszko on Bill Belichick (fast-forward to the 5:50 mark of this clip) and killing the Jets' karma in the process. Nobody wants a fink for a head coach. With that said, the Jets have five straight winnable games coming up (at the Giants, home for Philly, at Cincy, home for Buffalo and Washington), and it should take only nine wins to get that sixth AFC playoff spot. We can't cross them off yet.

24. Cincinnati
On the heels of Tony Dungy's best-selling book, Marvin Lewis announced he's releasing one called, "What Do I Have To Do To Get Fired?"

23. Denver
The Broncos are two plays away from being 0-4 right now, with a monster schedule coming up -- home games against Pittsburgh, Tennessee and Green Bay, road games at Kansas City, Detroit, Chicago, Oakland and Houston, and a home-and-home against San Diego -- and if that's not enough, they were just blown off the local sports map by the Rockies and might have lost their big-money halfback for the next 12 months. The good news is Shanahan made a fork move at a team breakfast this week just by staring at it.

(Random question on the Travis Henry thing: I thought pot killed sperm cells? How many kids would this guy have sired if he wasn't a fan of the Mary Jane? Twenty? Thirty? And did you ever think the same person could potentially shatter Shawn Kemp's fertility records and Ricky Williams' drug test records? Put it this way: You are making a STRONG statement when you purchase a Henry jersey right now. You're basically saying, "I love pot, I love sex, and your dad would have a heart attack if he knew I was dating you.")

VAGUELY INTRIGUING

22. Atlanta
The stats for John Joseph Harrington through four games: 983 passing yards, four touchdowns, two picks, a 71.2 completion percentage and a 98.2 QB rating. Also, the Bucs lost their starting running back and left tackle last weekend, Jake Delhomme might need elbow surgery and the Saints have completely fallen apart. Hmmmmmm. The Ewing Theory is like my man Kelly Pavlik -- you shouldn't ever count it out, not even when it's stumbling around the ring and holding on for dear life.

21. Cleveland
The Browns' offense is productive enough that this week's 16½-point spread in New England seemed too high at first glance ... well, until you remembered the Patriots made a pact to win every 2007 game by 20-plus points and run up the score in every fourth quarter, and only because it's a much more subtle way of saying "[BLEEP] YOU!!!!" to the rest of the league than just having all 53 guys and the coaching staff hold their middle fingers in their air as they walk off the field. You might see Romeo Crennel break Art Shell's record for "most blank stares out onto the field" this week.

(Speaking of Cleveland, how 'bout LeBron wearing a Yankees cap to the Yanks-Tribe game last night? Why not just hold a news conference to say, "I'm signing with the Knicks in two years?" Has there ever been a bigger and more random slap in the face to an entire city of sports fans? Even if you're a Yankees fan, don't you have to hide this in a PLAYOFF GAME THAT'S IN CLEVELAND???? I'm still speechless. I'm without speech. We're within three years of Knicks GM Anucha Browne Sanders introducing Bron-Bron to the New York media as Spike Lee sobs happily in the background.

THE ENIGMATIC ENIGMAS

20. Philly
Does anyone know when Andy Reid's leave of absence ends? Can we get an update on this? It has been seven months, right?

SPORTS GAL'S PICKS

The Sports Gal took the week off. Here are her Week 5 picks: Saints -3, Chiefs +2, Lions +3.5, Falcons +8, Texans -5.5, Steelers -6, Pats -16.5, Cards -3.5, Giants -3.5, Bucs +9.5, Broncos +1, Ravens -3, Bears +3, Cowboys -10

Last week: 5-9
Season: 32-24-6
19. N.Y. Giants
The G-Men remind me of the classic "Seinfeld" episode in which George loses his glasses and bites into an onion that he thought was an apple, but somehow notices a dime on the floor from 25 feet away and picks it up, leading to this exchange in Jerry's apartment after George keeps claiming to have seen Jerry's cousin kissing his girlfriend:

-- ELAINE: "He couldn't tell an apple from an onion and he's your eyewitness?"

-- GEORGE (still eating the onion): "I saw them making out, you can believe it!"

-- JERRY (snapping): "I don't know what to believe! You're eating onions, you're spotting dimes, I don't know what the hell is going on!"

18. Carolina
The Panthers are doomed for every week that involves the words "David" and "Carr." Still, I enjoyed when Kris Jenkins channeled his inner Pacino to reporters after Sunday's embarrassing loss to Tampa: "As a team, collectively, we have no heart, we have no energy, we have no drive. The pride and passion that you have for this game makes you want to win. It's not about the money. It's not about looking the part. It's not about standing on the field so everybody can see you on TV and you look good. It's about pride and passion. If you have those two, if you win or if you lose, you're going to look like a football team. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to wrap this up so I can electrocute David Carr in the shower."

(Note: I made the last sentence up, but Jenkins did say everything else.)

NAPPING, NOT SLEEPING

15c. Houston
15b. Washington,
15a. Oakland

The Texans need Andre Johnson and Ahman Green back; the Redskins need Jason Campbell to mature into something beyond a hot-and-cold QB; and the Raiders need to prove that it's possible to compete for a playoff spot even after (A) giving away a receiver who might amass 2,000 yards and 25 TDs, and (B) botching the previous draft to smithereens (they had picks Nos. 1, 38, 65, 91, 99, 100 and 110 and only No. 38 has played a meaningful minute for them). Any of these teams could win between five and 10 games and I wouldn't be shocked, surprised or even mildly taken aback.

Speaking of the Raiders, check out this May 13 Boston Globe feature about Randy Moss for the "Moss is washed up" quotes from Tom Walsh and Art Shell. Highest of high comedy. We'll never see a coach/coordinator duo as inept as Walsh and Shell in this lifetime. It's impossible.

UNEQUIVOCALLY OVERRATED

14. San Diego
Whoops, I forgot about Norv Turner and Ted Cottrell! Sorry about that. Poor Norv rendered the "Norv Turner Second-Half Collapse Checklist" obsolete (as described last week) and forced me to create a brand-spanking-new "Norv Turner First-Half Collapse Checklist" from scratch. Let's see how he looks through four weeks:

• Players arguing on the sidelines? (CHECK)
• Fans chanting the previous coach's name after an embarrassing home loss? (CHECK)
• QB getting sacked and throwing the ball up for grabs? (CHECK)
• Just an ungodly amount of penalties? (NO)
• Steady stream of excuses? (CHECK)
• Players taking veiled shots at the coaching staff? (NO)
• Players telling reporters things like "we need to stick together right now" and "we need to show some urgency"? (CHECK)
• General malaise and dissatisfaction within the fan base? (CHECK)
• Local columnists taking shots at him? (CHECK)
• Big coaching name (Bill Cowher, Pete Carroll) looming as a replacement? (CHECK)
• Star player breaking down in tears during a postgame news conference? (CHECK)

(That's right, we're a penalty-filled loss in Denver and a few veiled postgame barbs away from finishing this checklist before Week 6. I couldn't be happier. By the way, the Chargers underachieved with a Tomlinson-Gates-Merriman nucleus two years ago, when they finished 9-7 with a better QB, better receivers, a better offensive line and an infinitely better coaching staff. Don't rule out 6-10 for them this season. Stranger things have happened.)

13. Baltimore
When the Ravens' defense takes on the Rams' offense in Week 6, it's going to be like watching Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone getting it on in "Basic Instinct 3."

12. Chicago
A quick recap of the first three minutes of "Inside the NFL" this week: Cris Carter started things off by babbling about how we couldn't blame all the Bears' problems on their QBs or something. As he was droning on and on, you could see Bob Costas zoning out and trying to calculate his salary-per-show and figure out if he could quit and still have enough money to buy the summer house he has been eyeing in the Hamptons. Eventually, the producers implored Dan Marino to interrupt Carter and say, "It's the quarterback," which he did -- followed by their quickly cutting Carter's mike off. Unfortunately, Marino couldn't elaborate beyond "It's the quarterback" because it's unclear if he watches football on Sundays or not. By the time Cris Collinsworth was allowed to speak and make the first salient point of the show (basically, that it took so long for the Bears to bench Grossman because Griese sucks even more than Grossman does), we were two minutes into the show and it was almost time to start showing highlights.

So here's my question: How could it take two full minutes to get to the only relevant point about the Bears -- they're completely screwed because their quarterbacks stink and their defense isn't nearly as good as it was last season? Couldn't they have just edited the Carter/Marino part out? And why didn't anyone mention the easiest possible fix for the Bears' offense, the one that was e-mailed to me 25 times last weekend ... namely, that they should just stick Devin Hester 20 yards behind the center and snap to him on every down?

GOD'S TEAM

11. Detroit
There's a higher power working for these guys, and that's not even a joke: David Fleming's ESPN The Magazine feature about Jon Kitna contained the follow nugget: "Since [Kitna] signed a four-year, $11.5 million deal in March 2006, about 20 Lions have given their lives to Christ."

I thought that number seemed startlingly high, but just to make sure, I called my buddy House to see how many guesses he would make before he reached "20." He started out by guessing three, then five, then seven. Then he yelled, "You're lying!" Then he made four more guesses before getting to "15" and giving up. When I told him the answer, he screamed, "Whaaaaaat??? Jon Kitna needs to be stopped!" I thought that was funny, especially because House was drinking a beer in a bar when I called him to play the game. (He's definitely headed to hell, and not just because he's naming his fantasy hoops team "TRUCK PARTY" after one of the N.Y. Post headlines about the Marbury/Knicks intern sexual escapade.) But clearly, SOMETHING is going on with the Lions here, right? Twenty teammates???? Don't we need more information about this? Did any beat writers convert? What about ball boys and trainers? It's the single most fascinating story of the 2007 season other than Moss' comeback and Turner and Cottrell slowly turning Tomlinson into a serial killer.

THE SLEEPER DU'JOUR

10. Arizona
The Cardinals might be the best gambling bargain in the league right now: A top-10 team (yes, they're a top-10 team) with a swarming defense and a few playmakers, but nobody takes them seriously because they're the Cardinals and their coach is trying to pull off a starting QB platoon (which hasn't worked since the 1870s). Well, I'm taking them seriously. After watching the Clippers reach the second round of the playoffs two years ago, I'll believe anything. With that said, they don't pass the Teaser Test. At least not yet.

THE DARK HORSES

9. Tampa Bay
As you probably remember, I slotted the Bucs at No. 32 before the season. Whoops. One thing I like about them: They have a swagger and a togetherness that most of the other 2007 teams don't have. After Cadillac Williams blew out his knee near Carolina's sideline last week, the entire Bucs team walked across the field to show its support for him. (I loved that.) It's a solid, professional, well-coached team that doesn't beat itself ... which is good enough for 10-11 wins in a crappy division, right? We'll know more after this week's game in Indy. If Dwight Freeney ends up with nine sacks against Tampa's backup tackle in a 41-10 blowout, forget we ever had this conversation.

8. Jacksonville
In Week 1, the Jags gave up 282 rushing yards to the Titans. Heading into Week 5, they're the eighth-best team in the league. Ladies and gentleman, Perpetual Putridity!

LURKING & LOOMING

7. Tennessee
It's just a shame Pacman Jones wasn't good enough to qualify for the Ewing Theory. Meanwhile, has there been a better ongoing football argument than the Williams-Bush-Young debate from the 2007 draft? At the time, everyone (including me) killed the Texans for taking Williams over Bush. If they did the draft over last January, Williams would have gone third and Young/Bush would have been a coin flip. If they did the draft right now, Young would unquestionably go first and Williams would unquestionably go second. Eight weeks from now, if Bush lights it up as New Orleans' starting back, the order could change again. Hell, it might change 10 more times in the next 10 years. I love this stuff.

5b. Seattle
5a. Pittsburgh

I don't see a difference between these two teams. They're both 3-1. They're really good at home. They reached the Super Bowl two years ago. They gave away games to Arizona this season. They're going to win their divisions by 2-3 games. They have up-and-down QBs who are good enough to be fantasy starters, but not good enough to keep their owners from shopping around for Romo, Brady or Palmer. They have quality running backs who were first-round fantasy picks but haven't totally won the confidence of their fans. They have a recognizable Samoan guy on defense. And they hail from cities known for grunge music, great coffee and tons of rain.

(All right, not everything's the same. But you can't tell me Pittsburgh is better than Seattle, or vice-versa. So why would Pittsburgh be favored by six this week? How does that make sense?)

4. Green Bay
During Larry Bird's last two years on the Celtics, when his back was killing him and he was just about cooked, Dee Brown and Brian Shaw showed up, Reggie Lewis was coming into his own, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish were healthy again, Eddie Pinckney was emerging off the bench ... suddenly, they were playing fast-break basketball and Bird's game was completely rejuvenated in the process. The most fascinating dynamic? The respect the young guys held for Bird, Parish and McHale -- because of that respect, the youngsters followed instructions, never took a game off and never stopped busting their butts. You could see the reverence they had for the older guys, just like you could see how much the old guys loved playing with them. Even though they never made the Finals because Bird kept getting hurt, those were meaningful seasons for everyone who cared about the Celtics. Like two generations colliding. Everyone had the right level of urgency, as well as the proper level of appreciation for what was happening.

We're seeing the same thing happen with Favre and the Packers right now. It's not that "he's having fun" and "he's managing the game" and all the crap that the talking heads are spewing. This goes deeper -- it's about a seemingly washed-up superstar who landed in the right situation, realizes it, appreciates it, embraces it and, invariably, his skills regenerated and his team reinvigorated itself in the process. Everyone keeps mentioning how much fun Favre is having; nobody is mentioning his teammates. Each guy looks happier than the next, and if you think these guys aren't killing themselves to make sure Favre succeeds, you're crazy. (NFL Films caught a great moment before the Vikings game when each of his receivers was talking about how much he wanted to catch No. 421.) Most of them are young enough to remember watching Favre in his prime, and most of them are smart enough to appreciate that they've become part of something that's bigger than just a typical 4-0 season. Throw in Lambeau and it's the most amazing sports story in awhile. I just wish the Packers had a running game. Or even the mirage of a running game.

CONTENDERS

3. Dallas
2. Indianapolis

Dallas can't stop the pass, Indy can't stop the run, but both teams can run the ball and score in bunches. In any other season, that would be fine. But here's the problem ...

THE FAVORITE

1. New England
The Patriots can score in bunches, they can run the ball, they can stop the run AND they can stop the pass. They don't have a weakness. During Monday night's thrashing of the Bengals, you almost got the feeling they were screwing around. In one goal-line situation, they tossed out a backfield of Junior Seau and Heath Evans. They threw a TD pass to a linebacker. They kept feeding Moss in garbage time so he could pass 100 yards and get a second TD. At one point, my buddy Bug called me and decided the Pats looked like someone who had just won a ton of money playing blackjack in a casino; now they were wandering around bored and saying things like, "I think I'll play a couple hands of Pai Gow Poker!" Meanwhile, the poor Bengals were so flustered, Justin Smith was "Miked Up" for the telecast, forgot he was miked up and complained, "It's like we're playing seven on five out there, we can't do anything," before remembering that he was miked up and hemming and hawing his way out of it.

However you feel about the Pats, at the very least you have to admit Moss has catapulted them to another level and transformed Brady's career. Even during the three Super Bowl seasons, they never had a closer, a big-play guy who could knock the lead out of reach. Now they do. In all four victories, Moss scored the touchdown that put the game away. He also has given them a swagger that they've never had, an invincibility they desperately needed. If they can keep him on the field for five months, and if they can stay healthy, they're going to be nearly impossible to beat. Yup, it's a top-heavy league and the Patriots are wearing a 55DDDDDDDD bra right now. Needless to say, they pass the Teaser Test.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. You can check out his revamped "Sports Guy's World" site here.