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Friday, December 4, 2009
Time to tempt the Sports Gods

By Bill Simmons
ESPN.com

Has it really been nine weeks since my last NFL Power Poll? I am bowing my head in shame. Back in Week 4, my top two teams were (gulp) Baltimore and (severe double-gulp) the New York Football Giants. Now? Different. To say the least. Let's break down the NFL from No. 32 to No. 1.

THE ROD MARINELLI DIVISION

32. Cleveland
First, the Cavs choke in the 2009 playoffs. Second, the best two starters on the 2008 Indians start Game 1 of the 2009 World Series for two teams not named "Cleveland." Third, the Browns clean house and hire Eric Mangini, who takes that same house and sets it on fire with a flame thrower. Fourth, what could end up being LeBron's final Cavs season is distinguished early by Shaq looking like a bald Aretha Franklin and LeBron's body language occasionally lapsing into "I can't wait to find a new team; I am tired of playing with crap teammates" mode. And fifth, there are two nights of star-studded concerts to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame -- located in Cleveland, as you know -- and those concerts happen at Madison Square Garden.

Here's my question, God: What did Cleveland do to you?

31. Oakland
Let's say you're Shane Lechler. You are the best at what you do. You are your team's single most valuable guy. Through 11 games, you have punted 70 times for 3,633 yards (an astonishing 51.9 yards per kick). Not only are you No. 1 all-time for yards per punt (47.1), but you're also on pace to break the single-season record (51.4, held by Sammy Baugh) and become the first person to pass the 5,000-yard mark for punting yardage in one season. Why is this career year happening for you? Because, over the last six years -- and especially this season -- your franchise's ongoing incompetence allowed you to practice your craft in game situations more times than any other punter. Life is about reps, and you get an inordinate number of no-pressure, just-kick-the-ball-as-far-as-you-can reps.

Here's my question, Shane Lechler: Deep down, you kinda like being a Raider, right?

30. St. Louis
E-mails you send as the 2009 Patriots' season is melting into bubbly acid on national TV: "Steven Jackson looks like Laurence Maroney. They wear the same number, similar bodies and dreads. They even have similar running styles, except for the part where Jackson holds on to the football and makes tacklers miss. What if we paid Jackson $10 million in January to borrow him for the 2009 playoffs in Maroney's place? Nobody would have to know. We'd just have to convince Maroney to go along with it, and Jackson would have to wear a dark face shield. This could work."

29. Tampa Bay
My report card for rookie Bucs coach Raheem Morris: Fired his new offensive coordinator before Week 1 … stripped the power of his new defensive coordinator before Week 12 … changed his starting quarterback and running back six times in all … pooped in the fridge and ate a whole wheel of cheese. Grade: A-plus.

28. Detroit
My defense for Detroit's continuing to host a Thanksgiving game: When the Lions are finally good again, those suddenly competitive Thanksgiving games will be extra sweet. You will appreciate them more. This might not happen until 2053, but still. You will appreciate them more. Ever been to a wedding where the couple waited to have sex until they got married, and when they're slow-dancing late during the reception, the groom looks as though he's going to spontaneously combust? That will be us on Thanksgiving when the Lions are good again. You wait.

27. Kansas City
What fell apart the quickest in 2009: My "Year of Kansas City" prediction, the Cutler/Forte era, Chip Caray's relationship with TBS, Tracy McGrady's Hall of Fame candidacy, NBC's status as a major network, the Ricky Rubio pick, "The Tonight Show," or Tiger's Thanksgiving dinner?

(What? Too soon? Come on! It's been a week! How dare you!)

THE HOPE DEVOIDERS

Jay Cutler
As for the Jay Cutler era in Chicago, let's just say there was a good chance this pass ended up as an interception.

26. Chicago
Would you rather not be a Bears fan, Panthers fan or Knicks fan right now? No hope, no first-round pick, lots of season left … what do you do? And the answer is …

25. Carolina
You would not want to be a Panthers fan. At least the Knicks can hold on to the thin hope of a LeBron era. At least Bears fans can talk themselves into comeback years for Cutler, Forte and Urlacher. What do you do if you're a Panthers fan? What's keeping you sane? How do you handle it when John Clayton writes on Monday morning …

"[Jake] Delhomme threw four more picks to bring his season total to 18. The Panthers quarterback's career is at the crisis stage. He's 34 years old and his confidence is fragile."

… and you're thinking, "The crisis stage? THE CRISIS STAGE? THAT WAS 10 MONTHS AGO, CLAYTON!!!" Even worse, you can't start talking yourself into the Locker/Bradford/Clausen era, because, again, you don't have a first-round pick. I would be going nuts.

THE SHERIFFS OF SUCKVILLE

24. Buffalo
(Somewhere in a $12 million house in Aspen, Vail or Boulder …)

Mike Shanahan: "Good news: I had a great meeting with Buffalo. Seven hours. They're throwing the kitchen sink at me. I really think --"

Mrs. Shanahan (after a pause): "Buffalo … New York?"

(Translation: I don't think you're getting Mike Shanahan, Buffalo. But Herm Edwards? Available. We can build on this!)

23. Seattle
The most boring team of the 2009 season. Ten of their 11 games have been decided by double digits; only one was decided by less than a touchdown (Week 3: Chicago 25, Seattle 19). On the bright side, Seattle gave me one of the funniest moments of my book tour. We had stickies in each book that told me what each person's name was, only because we didn't want a situation where I thought I heard someone say, "Can you make it to Brian?" when he really said "Ryan." In Seattle, I was talking to someone when the guy behind him also put his book on the table. I grabbed what I thought was the first guy's book as he said, "Can you sign it 'F--- HOWARD SCHULTZ?'"

If you didn't know, Howard Schultz is the local Starbucks magnate who sold the Sonics to Oklahoma City businessman Clay Bennett even though everyone knew Bennett would immediately move the franchise. That's why Seattleites blame Schultz more than Bennett. Their feeling is that Bennett may have been a thief, but Schultz was the guy who left their house unlocked with the Sonics gift-wrapped along with a big sign that said "TAKE ME."

Anyway, it turns out that I had mistakenly grabbed the book of the second person in line, saw his stickie, wrote his name, then started writing "F--- Howard ..." The first guy in line noticed and said, "That's not my book; that's the guy behind me."

And the guy behind him goes, "No, no, that's fine; I was gonna ask you to write that, anyway."

Here's the point: If you were going to make a Sports Cities that Hate An Owner Or Former Owner list, Howard Schultz would have to be No. 1. Even still.

THE GLORIFIED JOBBERS

22. N.Y. Jets
21. Washington

The Skins have been a secretly frisky underdog cover ever since they hired a bingo announcer to run their offense. Not sure what this means. Meanwhile, this e-mail from Andrew in New York (sent Sunday) sums up the Jets to a T:

"I have never been more sure of a Jets victory than I was this weekend against the Panthers. Not for one second did I think they would lose and I know for a fact that they will beat the Bills this Thursday. Do you know why I know this? Because this is what they do. They will beat Buffalo and get people talking about possible playoffs and all that BS, and then they will lay an egg against 1-10 Tampa in Week 14. I have never been more sure of something before in my life. This schedule and season has been mapped out for this event from the get-go. It almost makes too much sense. Mark my words, Simmons. This is happening."

(You know what's sad? I picked the Jets on Thursday night solely because of this e-mail.)

DEAD MEN WALKING

20. Houston
After the latest Texans collapse (against Indy on Sunday), Manhattan reader Jon Hoey e-mailed me, "How many points ahead and how little time left would you have been concerned that the Colts wouldn't have beaten the Texans?" My honest answer: 17 points ahead, 3:45 remaining.

Which raises the next question: What was the ratio of "Houston lack of heart and complete crunch-time incompetence" versus "Indianapolis' crunch-time competence, Manning's brilliance and Indy's surreal 'talent' for getting the three biggest officiating gifts in every single game" that affected my answer for the previous question? My honest answer: a 60/40 swing for the Texans. They're that useless. Either Gary Kubiak needs to go or Matt Schaub needs to go. You can't have your coach and your quarterback with dueling "Oh crap, it's gonna happen again; we're gonna mess this up, aren't we?" looks on their faces. Not gonna work.

19. Miami
You know how my basketball book has a chapter about the greatest What-Ifs in NBA history? (What? You didn't know? You haven't gotten the book yet? It's only $12 on Amazon right now!) Pennsylvania reader Thomas Rogers came up with an excellent "What If?" for the NFL:

"What if Drew Brees had gone to Miami instead of New Orleans? The NFL would not be the same. Miami wouldn't run the wildcat, and every other NFL team wouldn't be running a version of it. New Orleans could still be at the bottom of the NFL. Vick may have never gotten a shot with the Eagles …" Also, Miami might be a perennial contender. We'd have "Brady versus Brees" twice a year. Daunte Culpepper would have killed some other team. Heck, what if he stunk for the Saints in that post-Katrina season and the franchise never recovered? Would New Orleans even have a football team right now? Find me a better NFL-related 'What If' this decade. You won't.

PROOF OF LIFE

18. Jacksonville
Hold on.

17. New York Giants
Glass-half-full Giants fan: "We lost to five playoff teams in our last six games. If we can beat Dallas and Philly at home, we have the Skins and Panthers, then we play Minnesota's backups in Week 17. We can still pull this off! It's like 2007 all over again! Regardless, I don't care because I am 10 times more excited about 'Jersey Shore' on MTV."

Glass-half-empty Giants fan: "We suck. The best thing about Giants fans is that we are always realistic about our team. And this team sucks. We can't do anything well anymore. Regardless, I don't care because I am 10 times more excited about 'Jersey Shore' on MTV."

16. Atlanta
15. San Francisco

I'm writing off the 6-5 Falcons because of Matt Ryan's turf toe. I had turf toe in 2007. It's the most secretly debilitating injury other than broken ribs. Just to make sure of this, I e-mailed America's favorite injury expert (Will Carroll) for his take. His response: "Yes, but it's tied with plantar fasciitis." Which, by the way, secretly crippled Eli Manning this season. And just to complete the trifecta, Matt Hasselbeck was never the same this year after he broke two ribs. So there.

Meanwhile, the 5-6 Niners had tight losses to Houston, Indy, Tennessee, Green Bay and Minnesota (that heartbreaker on the pseudo-Hail Mary); the only game someone whupped them was Atlanta in Week 5. So that's a good sign. Their last five games are at Seattle, home for Arizona, at Philly, home for Detroit and at St. Louis; they could easily finish 9-7 or maybe even 10-6. If Arizona loses to Minnesota this week and San Fran next week, the Niners and Cards would be tied at 7-6 … only the Niners would have the tiebreaker by winning both head-to-head games.

(Here's the point: We might have a chance to wager against Alex Smith in a home playoff game. Keep your fingers crossed.)

THE FIVE-WAY INTERSECTION

18. Jacksonville
14. Denver
13. Baltimore
12. Pittsburgh
7. Tennessee

Cheating a little by throwing my No. 18 and No. 8 teams into the 14-13-12 mix, but here's why: Only two of these teams can make the playoffs. A closer look …

Jaguars (6-5): Picking their games is like trying to pick the sausage race during Brewers games: You have a 1-in-4 chance. Which is weird because the odds should be 50/50. I hate them. They'll lose to Indy (Week 15) and New England (Week 16), and hopefully, to someone else. The only reason they'd make for an interesting wild card? To see whether they could become the first NFL team to have a home playoff game blacked out.

Broncos (7-4): Pencil them in for two more losses (Week 14 at Indy, Week 16 at Philly) and don't sleep on Week 13. (They're 1-16 lifetime in December at Arrowhead.) They also lost to the Steelers and Ravens already. Bad for tiebreaker purposes. I'm rooting for them to sneak in -- not because they were my 2009 sleeper, but because I want to parlay The Team Playing Kyle Orton in Round 1 with The Team Playing Alex Smith. I'm getting the shakes just thinking about it.

Ravens (6-5): Underdogs in two games (at Green Bay, at Pittsburgh); the other three (Detroit, Chicago, at Oakland) are gimmes. Feels like 9-7. Regardless, these guys are shaky in tight games, and I blame Joe Flacco. As soon as crunch time rolls around, he starts to look like Russell just blindsided him in a "Survivor" tribal council. For his career, he's 2-7 in games decided by less than a touchdown … and one of those wins was the game Dennis Dixon handed them last Sunday. Thought that was interesting. I'm becoming more and more convinced that the NFL quarterback position is 63 percent about looking like you're a cool customer.

Steelers (6-5): Favorable schedule (Oakland, at Cleveland, Green Bay, Baltimore, at Miami) coupled with a tough defense, a good coach, a solid running game and a proven quarterback. They have all the makings of "The Team That Might Peak At The Perfect Time." As a Pats fan, I do not want to see these guys coming to Foxborough in January as a 5-seed.

(Was that enough of a reverse jinx for you? Should I keep going? Screw it.)

Titans (5-6): Let's say they upset the Colts this weekend. (And I say they will: 30-23. It's my Underdog Lock of the Week.) After that: St. Louis, Miami, San Diego (who may have clinched by then), at Seattle. Translation: 10-6! And even if they finish 9-7, who's to say that can't grab a 6-seed, anyway? Pittsburgh and Tennessee are my wild-card picks. Until next week, when I change my mind again.

THE ENIGMAS

Donovan McNabb
The playoffs won't be complete unless we see Donovan McNabb and Andy Reid one more time.

11. Philly
Banged up and limping toward the finish with a tough schedule (at Atlanta, at Giants, Niners, Broncos, at Dallas), although they caught a monster break with the Matt Ryan-Chris Redman switcheroo this weekend. I have them penciled in for a playoff spot, and here's why: It's the last season of an NFL decade that will be remembered -- at least a little -- by the Reid-McNabb combo torturing the already tortured Philly fans in a variety of macabre ways. This feels like their final act in every respect, much like the last season of "Lost" in that we know it's going to end, we know things will blow up, we know this season will somehow tie up the other seasons, we know all of our questions will be answered, and we know we'll feel sad that it's over.

I'm going to miss Andy Reid's staring at the two-point conversion chart as though it were written in Korean. I'm going to miss Donovan McNabb's casually walking up to the line during a two-minute drill as though he were approaching the counter of an Arby's. I'm going to miss those anguished, "What did I do to deserve this?" e-mails from Eagles fans, as well as that collective, incredulous, "What the hell are we doing?" sound that you can hear on your TV during a home Eagles game. Enjoy these last few episodes, folks. I can't wait for the complete set on DVD.

10. Green Bay
Seven and four with these games looming: Baltimore, at Chicago, at Pittsburgh, Seattle, at Arizona. I can't give them "peaking at the right time" status, but three of their losses were reasonable (Cincy plus both Vikings losses), and if they thrash the Ravens on Monday night, yes, they look playoff-bound. So how cool would the following scenario be?

Part I: Saints lose once, Minnesota gets the 1-seed.

Part II: Pack gets the 5-seed and upsets the 4-seed in Round 1.

Part III: "FAVRE! RODGERS! It's the Packers and the Vikings, Round 2, winner goes home, on Fox!"

(Note: to be continued in Minnesota's section.)

9. New England
A few of my Pats friends reprimanded me for playing the "It's over!" card. As Aaron Schatz from Football Outsiders points out, the 2008 Cards were in a much lower place after their Thanksgiving shellacking in Philly than the Pats after Brees annihilated them … and the Cards nearly won the Super Bowl two months later. Very true. Things swing fast in the NFL, and the Pats have a cream-puff schedule the rest of the way. Don't rule out the No. 2 seed for them. So let's just go with the "Wow, this does not look good right now!" card.

I just have one lingering question …

How is Bill Belichick, the same guy who once figured out how to win a Super Bowl with Troy Brown as a nickelback, now completely ill-equipped to come up with any semblance of a game plan to stop good quarterbacks from throwing on him? Did my Speed Limit Corollary get him? Did he jettison too many smart/cagey veterans? What happened? The 2009 Pats have lost three games (Jets, Broncos, Saints) when he was simply outcoached, and a fourth (Colts) when he was so afraid of Peyton Manning carving up his defense that he went for it on fourth down from his own 28. During the Saints game, he was staring blankly toward the field like Art Shell as Brees did whatever he wanted. Sorry I have to go all-caps on you, but this is THE GREATEST DEFENSIVE MASTERMIND IN THE HISTORY OF PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALL. I knew the Belichick-Brady Gravy Train couldn't last forever, and I knew Belichick would get old eventually, but overnight?

(Just so you don't think I am overreacting, in the team-by-team updates section of Wednesday's USA Today, here's what they had for my beloved Patriots: "The Patriots allowed 480 yards on 50 plays Monday night in New Orleans, with 312 yards coming on eight plays. Said coach Bill Belichick, 'Anytime you give up that much yardage on a handful of plays, it's bad.'" It's bad? It's bad? YOU ARE THE GREATEST DEFENSIVE MASTERMIND IN THE HISTORY OF PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALL! Let's move on before I punch something. Exhale. Short breaths. Easy schedule. Easy schedule. Two-seed still up for grabs. Easy schedule. Exhale.)

8. Arizona
Only because of Warner's post-concussion problems. I'd have them fifth otherwise. If he can recover in time, I like their chances as a Round 2 dog in Minnesota or New Orleans.

That reminds me, I think it's crazy that concussions have become such a hot football topic in 2009 but weren't in 2003 or 2004. It's a little like when Magic Johnson contracted HIV in 1991 and everyone said, "Wow, HIV, we really need to start educating people about this!" when we should have been saying those things in 1983 or 1984. The NFL waited as long as it possibly could to set any concussion ground rules, and because there wasn't a Magic-type moment as a catalyst, everything seems to be happening begrudgingly now. Hey, here's an idea: Once you get a concussion, you can't play for eight quarters (not including overtime). If you get two concussions in one season, you're out for that season. Done and done. Any objections? I didn't think so. Why not just put that in the rule book starting today?

THE MEGA-SLEEPER

Vince Young
He's not always pretty, but Vince Young does find a way to win football games.

7. Tennessee
And why? Because Vince Young just wins football games! As a sports fan, I'm happy to have someone thriving again who was one of the five most entertaining college quarterbacks of my lifetime. As a football fan, I love the mere possibility that someone could go from 0-6 to 10-6 in one season. (We'll be telling our grandkids about that one. OK, not really. But when will that ever happen again?) And as a gambler, I keep watching this Titans team and marveling at the way they chew up clock, keep the chains moving and get one monster play from Chris Johnson each half. Something feels right about this. I am going to keep picking them until they lose. Two other thoughts …

A. Chris Johnson has become this generation's Barry Sanders, only he doesn't seem to be resonating the same way. You know what kills him? Bad name. "Chris Johnson" is boring. He could be anyone. Now, if his name were Crispus Johnson? Home run. He'd have reached Barry status two months ago.

B. From Roger in Tucson: "Do you find it ironic that the 2008 Cardinals' Super Bowl run began after a snow game annihilation at Foxborough, and now the Titans won five straight and are back in the playoff hunt after receiving an even worse white-washing?" Yes. I do.

THE LURKERS

6. Cincinnati
Points scored each week: 7, 31, 23, 23 (OT), 17, 17, 45, 17, 18, 17, 16. Throw out that 45-10 win over Chicago, and their 2009 point differential is 186-164. Even the Football Outsiders guys are concerned: In their weighted DVOA rankings, the Bengals finished just 15th this week.

Cincy's underlying problem: They haven't had a big-play guy since losing Chris Henry for the season (and he wasn't exactly Randy Moss). You'd think it's Ochocinco, but really, he's more of a possession guy at this point: 773 yards, 50 catches, five TDs, only two 40-plus catches all year. And Ced Benson hasn't had a run longer than 28 yards. They're grinding everything out. At some point, they'll have to play from behind when it matters and/or make one or two home run plays in a high-scoring game … and there's no evidence they can do either.

5. Dallas
Last five games for the 8-3 Cowboys: at Giants, San Diego, at New Orleans, at Washington, Philly. Brutal. They have the biggest ceiling/basement of any 2009 team right now except for the Vikings. Too early to say where this goes.

By the way, the fact that no punter has nailed the new Dallas scoreboard yet ranks among my most subtly disappointing moments of 2009. The rest of the list: January Jones' SNL hosting job; only one person flashing me at a book signing (and it was a guy); the Oscars expanding from five nominees to 10 in the best-film category; not being able to get my son to stop watching "Max and Ruby"; not getting a Federer-Nadal rematch at Wimbledon; not being there when Tom Cruise settled the Jeff Ross-Cousin Sal feud; the fact that I write about sports for a living and didn't know the Winter Olympics were in February until two days ago; LeBron's supporting cast not showing up for the 2009 Eastern finals; the hottest mom in TV history (Mrs. Keaton on "Family Ties") supplanting Mike Brady as the most shocking out-of-the-closet sitcom parent; me being dumb enough to tweet "Pats showed as much respect for NO's defense as Mrs. Tiger showed for Tiger's Escalade. That was old-school, we-have-a-plan Pats. I like it!" after the Pats went up 7-3 on Monday night; Phoenix immediately selling "1901" to a car company; and when I see "Invictus" next week. (I just know I'm going to be disappointed.)

4. San Diego
Interesting but true fact: The Chargers haven't yet played any of the other top-10 teams on this list. We'll know a little more after Week 14 (at Dallas), Week 15 (Cincy) and Week 16 (at Tennessee). It's also strange that they're consistently putting up points every week (24, 26, 23, 28, 23, 37, 24, 21, 31, 32 and 43) so far with the worst running game in the league (30th in total yards, 32nd in yards per carry). That's why I can't nudge them into the "Contenders" group yet.

On the flip side, would anyone like to order some Colts Kryptonite? The Chargers played Indy better than anyone these past six seasons …

2004 (at Indy): lost 31-34, OT
2005 (at Indy): won 26-17
2007 (at SD): won 23-21
2007 (at Indy, playoffs): won 28-24
2008 (at SD): lost 23-20
2008 (at SD, playoffs): won 23-17, OT

… and we're probably headed for another nail-biter next month. Trust me: Colts fans are nodding grimly right now.

THE CONTENDERS

3. Minnesota
Combined record of the nine teams they've defeated this season: 39-71. Let's give them 2009 Winston Wolf Memorial "Don't Start Sucking Each Other's Popsicles Yet" status. On the flip side, I like them because they can rush the hell out of the passer and get big plays at any time from three different guys (Peterson, Rice and Harvin). That's a solid formula for indoors, and they might not have to play a playoff game outside until Super Bowl XLIV. On the flip side of the flip side, Favre is 40 years old (and needs to stay healthy for eight more games), Brad Childress is Brad Childress, and the history of the Vikings speaks for itself. Just a lot going on here.

Back to what we started in Green Bay's section: I hate to use the word "victim" with sports, because after all, it's just sports. It's the playground of life. But considering how much Favre meant to everyone in Wisconsin, what happened this season was borderline cruel. He's playing out of his mind. He's an MVP candidate. He's playing so well that I am getting impassioned e-mails from Packers fans pointing out that if an aging, past-his-prime, 40-year-old pitcher were suddenly 19-2 in late August with 225 K's (the baseball equivalent to what Favre has done so far), the HGH jokes and rumors would be flying, but with Favre, the consensus seems to be, "He's having fun out there!"

(Note: I don't agree with this. I think that Minnesota has just had an extraordinarily easy schedule and that Favre has more offensive weapons than he's ever had at any point in his career. But whatever.)

Anyway, if this Pack-Vikes playoff game happens, it's the toughest call for the Sports Gods in years. If Green Bay loses to Favre a third time, they would have to shut down the state for a week so everyone could regroup. If Minnesota blows a home playoff game to Favre's old team Gary Anderson/Darrin Nelson-style, same thing. In other words, the stakes are too high. The last time we were here? 2003. A Red Sox-Cubs World Series looming. The Sports Gods freaked out. They couldn't handle it. Bartman/Alou/Gonzalez and Grady/Pedro/Boone happened. I can see the same thing happening this time. Green Bay falls to the sixth seed (or misses the playoffs), the Saints keep the No. 1 seed, something -- anything! -- to prevent a third Favre-Packers game that would be bigger than all of us. And that's why it can't happen.

2. Indianapolis
Could you even play horseshoes with the giant horseshoe that lives up the butt of the 2009 Colts? How would you even throw it? Teams play them and do the dumbest things at the worst possible times. The Colts get three officiating gifts per game. They get every bounce and every break. This is like the 2001-2004 Pats all over again; I hate being on the other side of it. On the other hand, it's fun to have a pulls-it-out-of-their-butt juggernaut again that everyone can pin for 2.89 seconds but nobody can pin for three. We learned in 2003 and 2004 that it's never a good idea to bet against a Horseshoe Team. Luck, as strange as this sounds, is a football skill.

One more thing: Manning is my MVP pick through 12 weeks. Yes, I know Favre has a better statistical case. Yes, I know Brees has played at a consistently higher level. But let's say you switched any of those three guys with Schaub or Flacco. The Vikes would be 10-1 or 9-2 because of their schedule and playmakers. The Saints would still be contending because of their coach, their skill guys, their defensive speed and their crowd. Where would the Colts be? Would they be 3-8? 4-7? 2-9? No 2009 NFL player is more valuable than Peyton Manning. And by the way, he's the only opponent who could have swayed Belichick into that fourth-and-2 call. I am convinced.

THE FAVORITE

1. New Orleans
Just a staggering performance Monday night: the '99 Rams all over again, only with a crowd that was as good as the team. What an atmosphere. They aren't as good as the '99 Rams simply because they don't have anything remotely resembling Marshall Faulk in his prime. But when that Superdome crowd kicks in? They're in the ballpark. I just can't imagine Minnesota winning there with a 40-year-old quarterback, a fumble-prone running back, young receivers and a shaky head coach. Seems too improbable. I also can't see any AFC defense handling their offense unless Pittsburgh can regroup (and soon).

You know what their biggest obstacle is? 19-0. We saw how that constant pressure and attention wore down a great Patriots team in 2007. Wouldn't that also happen to the Saints? Incredibly, it's Week 13, and we have two teams dealing with that pressure. How will this play out? What if they make it all the way to Miami with dueling 18-0 records?

As Bloomington reader Mike Shawgo points out: "Should this happen, they should give the 1972 Dolphins their own suite so that the broadcast can periodically cut to them looking longingly at the champagne they will never again get to open. Let's start making a big deal out of this to give both the Colts and Saints some incentive to keep it going even after they clinch home-field advantage. You can now bash your head into your desk, because I'm sure I just reminded you of David Tyree."

(Yup. You did.)

Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com. For every Simmons column, as well as podcasts, videos and more, check out Sports Guy's World. His new book, "The Book of Basketball," is now available.