Can't bear not to watch

This directive just in from the Dept. of Masochistic Simple Pleasures: Forget the legitimately good games on the NFL's schedule this weekend. Instead, train your gaze south. Farther. Farther south. Farther still.

Are you down there at the Raiders-Steelers tilt yet? The Redskins-Giants? Chargers-Lions?

Congratulations: You are in the land of bad/good sporting theater. And that must mean we've hit the home stretch of the season.

By December, NFL games essentially divide themselves along brutally unsentimental lines. On one side stand the games with playoff implications, either for qualification or positioning purposes. You might be thinking here of Baltimore-Cincinnati or New England-Miami or Denver-Kansas City or, heavens, Green Bay-Chicago.

Perfectly valid, perfectly watchable. But you want compelling? Come to the land of the endangered coach, the guy fighting for his job security. Come to the land of the man to whom the word "jeopardy" no longer conjures innocent images of Will Ferrell channeling Alex Trebek, the man attempting to win games with either a roster, a set of injuries or a collective team karma that seems to want to prevent him from doing so.

Come to the dark side. The water's warm. (Next stop: A roiling boil.)

  • Redskins at Giants (Morbid Curiosity Rating: 8): A double portion of coaching squirm. A month ago, Jim Fassel's Giants, while not a perfect beast, stood at 4-4 and had as much right to playoff talk as anybody else. Four straight defeats later, the Giants are out of the hunt and Fassel already is being written out of the script in New York.

    Steve Spurrier, meanwhile, has found himself in the position of being able to turn on the TV and have top-level commentators essentially beg him to flee the NFL and get himself back to the college game. We hear there's an opening for a championship-minded self-starter somewhere in Nebraska. Surely that's not Dan Snyder over there, offering to charter the flight.

  • Raiders at Steelers (MCR: 9): OK, you be the one to tell Bill Cowher you're contemplating a change at the top. But Cowher gets a pass here, if only because the mere sight of the imploding Raiders is enough to carry this game as a ghastly fascination. This isn't just any 3-9 entrant, after all; it's the reigning AFC champion, now on a track to deliver the worst record by any team ever defending a conference title. A few weeks ago, Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson said on ESPN that coach Bill Callahan had essentially lost the team. Woodson, though highly entertaining, was dead wrong until last Sunday, when Callahan played the "dumbest team in America" card. Give the man this much: Callahan isn't going down without dragging a few stiffs with him. Repulsive, yet watchable.

  • Panthers at Falcons (MCR: 6): Hard to believe Dan Reeves can ride this one out, pedigree or not. He's got a defense that has allowed 328 points in 12 games, 10 of them losses. The Falcons have given up 45 points, 39, 38, 36. If they hadn't found the Giants on their schedule a few weeks ago, they'd be 1-11, and they've still got the Panthers, Colts and Bucs ahead of them. The better question: Will Reeves be courted by any other NFL team or has the extended career of this former player found its end?

  • Chargers at Lions (MCR: 5): Weird thing is, Marty Schottenheimer might not be in any real danger despite San Diego's 2-10 record, on the grounds that, shoot, in the 20 years the Spanos family has owned the franchise, the Chargers have finished with double-digit losses 10 times. Business as usual, in other words, with one morbidly curious twist: Despite the lost nature of the season, Schottenheimer continues to run out 41-year-old Doug Flutie at quarterback over third-year pro Drew Brees, who lost the job at the midseason turn and can't seem to get it back. Can't get on the field with a dead-last team? That's trouble, brother.

  • Cardinals at 49ers (MCR: 4): Our book on Dave McGinnis: Good coach, bright future, hideous circumstance. You notice Bill Parcells has never, ever taken on a job like the no-winner McGinnis signed up for in Arizona. The Bidwill consortium will dispatch the coach all the same, as it is infinitely preferable to taking the blame itself. McGinnis won't get another head job right away, but he'll shoot quickly to the top of the list of candidates for top assistant positions in next season's new world order.

  • Jets at Bills (MCR: 5): There is no detectable sentiment against Jets coach Herm Edwards, but the same 5-7 record Edwards has managed with the Jets has been enough to put Gregg Williams on the hot-seat in Buffalo. And here's why: All last week's victory over the faded Giants achieved was the end of a four-game losing streak, and desultory, morale-sapping losses they were. The Bills put up a total of 35 points in four games, against the Chiefs, Cowboys, Texans and Colts, losing those last three by a combined total of just nine points. That's the mark either of a team just a smidge away from being playoff-competitive, or a team so inefficient it can't get out of its own way.

    Now Williams is coaching for his future, but look around: The man has got company. They may be lousy games this weekend, this batch, but they'll be lousy in the sort of way that can change careers and alter perceptions.

    It doesn't mean you have to abandon sympathy for the NFL coach with the 900-pound weight on his back. It just means you're inclined to want to see how he carries it. After all, we don't create the morbid curiosity. We simply respond to it.

    Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com