Pancakes In the Age of Enlightenment- Here Child, Finish Your Nothing

LEADING OFF

Thank You White Sox, for 2 months of misery, followed by one day of relief.

Hard to believe, but we’re already coming up on the quarter pole of the NFL season. After four weeks of the season, most teams know where they are, and what they have to do to get better. For some teams, it’s clear that they are going to be in the hunt all year. For others, it’s already time to plan for the 2006 draft. All the action and intrigue is here! WEEK FOUR!

BUFFALO BILLS (1-2) V. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (1-2) AT SAN ANTONIO, TX
1 PM Eastern, CBS, Pick ’em

The Storyline
The Saints play their first “home” game at the Alamodome in San Antonio. Aside from the curiosity factor, it’s a critical game for both teams. The Saints and Bills both enter this game 1-2, and on two game losing streaks. The Bills problems are compounded by the news that star linebacker Takeo Spikes is out for the season with a torn Achilles tendon.

Key Questions
Is this game JP Losman’s last stand?
The Bills are in a weird situation here. If they lose, they are 1-3, and with their best defensive player out for the year, their prospects for 2005 are bleak. Standard operating procedure is to play a young quarterback AFTER a season has gotten out of hand, not before. Losman is the main reason the team is off to the bad start that it is, but even though his play dictates he should be on the bench, letting him get on the job training in a lost season might be the best thing for him and the franchise.

What kind of atmosphere will there be in the Alamodome?
This game is a tryout for San Antonio as an NFL city. The city is working hard to make sure that every seat in the dome is filled, and that the fans loudly support the Saints. 50,000 tickets were sold the day they went on sale, September 14, but as of today there are about 14,000 tickets left. Saints owner Tom Benson has provided 8000 tickets for Katrina evacuees and volunteers. It should be a loud and enthusiastic crowd and I think you will see a home field advantage that is equal to or better what the Saints had in the Superdome. There’s a chance San Antonio could become the permanent home of the Saints, and the first few games in the Alamodome will go a long way toward determining if that will ever come to pass.

Whose seat is the hottest in Buffalo right now?
There’s plenty of heat to go around, but the man sweating the most is President/GM Tom Donahoe. Starting JP Losman this year was his brainchild, and the Bills gave up a lot to draft him. The Bills have gone through a long list of scapegoats during Donahoe’s tenure, from Rob Johnson to Gregg Williams to Drew Bledsoe, but at some point the blame has to fall on the guy running the show, and that time is now.

HERE’S YOUR FORECAST
Last year the Bills were 4-0 against the NFC, and outscored those opponents by a combined 154-47. In the last 2 seasons, they are 3-3 as a visitor on artificial turf, versus 3-7 as a visitor on grass. So they are a much better turf team than natural grass team, and this game is on turf.

The Saints played the AFC tough last year, splitting their 4 games. This year though, the Saints offense has struggled both on the ground and thru the air all year, despite facing the 31st and 28th ranked defenses in the NFL (Minnesota and the Giants). Buffalo’s defense ranks dead last in the NFL against the run, surrendering 174.0 yards per game. This contrasts with a pass defense that ranks 1st with a 106.3 average. You’re going to see both teams try to control the contest with their running game, and both will probably enjoy a measure of success.

As evidenced by the fact that Vegas has this game as a pick’em, this is a very even matchup. What usually decides a close game? Turnovers do. The Bills are +5 in turnover ratio, the Saints are a horrendous -10. That’s going to be the difference in the game.

BILLS 20, SAINTS 17

Time and Punishment- Looking Ahead

Bills Win: The weeping and gnashing of the teeth from Rochester to Toronto ceases for a week. The Bills 2-2 record is disappointing, but they’ve got back to back division games at home coming up.

Bills Lose: The Bills are off to a 1-3 start and the season is pretty much in the toilet. Debate rages over whether to sit Losman and try and salvage the season, or chalk 2005 up as an expensive training program for their supposed QB of the future.

Saints Win: A win before a raucous crowd in their adopted home has given both the Saints and their season a new lease on life. They will bring a 2-2 record to Lambeau Field in Week 5, hoping to go above .500 by beating a reeling Packers team.

Saints Lose: The Saints feel-good story has rapidly devolved into a feel-bad story. They roll their vagabond caravan into Wisconsin in Week 5 hoping to avoid a 1-4 start.


Brooks Will Have to Limit His Mistakes This Week

DETROIT LIONS (1-1) AT TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (3-0)

The Storyline
This game represents a battle of first place teams. “The Lions are in first place??” you ask. Yes, they are. They are just as surprised as you are. With the Vikings and Bears at 1-2, and the Packers at 0-3, the one eyed Lions are king in the land of the blind. The Bucs, on the other hand, have certainly earned their spot on top of the NFC South. They have ridden rookie RB Cadillac Williams to an average of 166 rushing yards per game, and are the second ranked rushing offense in the NFL. The defense is 1st in the league against the run, and 4th overall.

Key Questions
Are the first-place Lions the best team in the NFC North?
Absolutely not. They lost 38-6 to the Bears, and that leaves them as probably the 3rd best football team in the state of Michigan. This division is going to lie around waiting for the Vikings to get it together, and when they do, they’ll win it in a walk.

Are the Bucs for real?
You better believe they’re for real. As I mentioned last week, when Jon Gruden took over the Raiders, he went 8-8 in both of his first two seasons, then 12-4 in his third season. This is Gruden’s third season in Tampa, so it stands to reason that it would take him until his 3rd year to get his program in place, just like it did in Oakland. The Bucs run the ball better than 95% of the teams in the NFL, and are among the best in the league at stopping the run. That translates into a lot of victories.

Is Steve Mariucci the NFC North’s sexiest man?
According to Foxsports.com, he very well could be. If you tune into the Lions’ game hoping to see Kevin Jones score a TD for your fantasy team, only to find yourself mesmerized by his dreamy blue eyes, you may want to log on and vote for him. His competition is Minnesota’s Darren Sharper, the Packer’s Brett Favre, and the Bears’ Jerry Azumah.

HERE’S YOUR FORECAST
After winning on the road for the first time since the Clinton Administration last year, then following that road win up with 2 more, the Lions have since dropped 6 straight away from Ford Field.

Nobody has been able to run on the Bucs’ defense this year, and with the Lions ranked 29th in rushing offense, it’s a pretty safe bet that they won’t be able to run either. That means that Joey Harrington and his fabulous, enchanted young wide receivers will need to carry the load on offense, and that doesn’t work out very well for the Lions. The Bucs have already picked off 6 passes this year, and they will add to that total on Sunday.

BUCS 27, LIONS 13

Time and Punishment-Looking Ahead
Lions Win- The Lions shock everyone by going into Tampa and pinning a loss on the previously unbeaten Bucs. They are 2-1 and all alone in first place, and come home for consecutive home games.

Lions Lose- Lions clinch NFC North title despite 1-2 record. They will rest the regulars for the next 14 weeks to prepare for the playoffs, starting with next week’s home game vs. Baltimore.

Bucs Win- Tampa Bay is 4-0, and in a weak NFC, have to be viewed as a Super Bowl contender. They have a great opportunity to make it 5-0 with a visit to a Jets team that is in disarray.

Bucs Lose- A loss at home to Detroit throws water on the excitement of the team’s start. Still, at 3-1 and with 2 winnable games on tap before their bye week, the Bucs are in good shape.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (3-0) AT TENNESSEE TITANS (1-2)
1 PM Eastern, CBS, Colts favored by 7

The Storyline
The Colts are off to a 3-0 start, but they’re not playing very well. They’ve struggled in all three games and their opponents to date have a combined record of 1-7. They travel to Nashville to take on their AFC South division rivals, the Titans. Tennessee lost a tight one at St. Louis last week, and they hope that the Colts offense continues to struggle against their 27th ranked defense.

Key Questions
Why is the Colts offense struggling?
The Washington Redskins rank higher in the NFL than the Colts do right now. So do the Miami Dolphins. You can spin it any way you want, but the Colts’ offense has not played up to expectations this year. They are taking what opposing defenses are giving them though, and so far that has been good enough. The problem is, the Cleveland Browns of the world will concede yards to you, the Patriots won’t. The Colts would not beat the Patriots at this point, playing the way they are offensively.

How much substance is there in the “Billy Volek to the Jets” trade rumors?
With the Jets losing both their first and second string quarterbacks, rumors have been flying that the Jets have been in contact with the Titans regarding Volek, who was impressive in a starting stint last winter. Titans’ GM Floyd Reese denied those rumors in the Nashville Tennessean. Volek played under Jets offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger when Heimerdinger was on the Titans’ staff, so he knows the Jets’ offense. No matter what any GM says, where there is smoke there’s fire. Volek has said that he has been in contact with former teammate Justin McCareins, who is now with the Jets. So if the Vinny thing doesn’t work out for the Jets, and the fans and media start howling for a QB, expect the Volek rumors to heat up again.

Who’s the spotlight on in this game?
The guy to watch is rookie Titans CB Pacman Jones. He is making his first NFL start after a horrendous offseason that included legal troubles and a prolonged holdout. Jones was the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft, and thus far has been a textbook example of how not to begin your NFL career. He will be matched up with Reggie Wayne for most of this game, and it will be interesting to see what the outcome is.

HERE’S YOUR FORECAST
The Colts dominated both meetings with the Titans last year, with a 31-17 win at Adelphia Coliseum, and a 51-24 win in Indy. The Colts were able to control both games because they averaged over 5 yards per rush in both contests. The game in Nashville saw Manning play the way he has for much of this year, conservatively and efficiently. He completed 24 of 33 for 254 yards. However, in that game Chris Brown carried 26 times for 152 yards, and Brown carried 19 times for 104 yards in the game in Indy. The Colts defense has been good this year, but they allowed 5.3 yards per carry in their game against Jacksonville, so it’s very possible Brown could have another big game.

4 out of the last 5 losses the Colts have are on grass, just like this game is. This is a trap game for Indy if I’ve ever saw one. That said, Tennessee has lost 4 in a row to the Colts, was 1-5 against their own division last year (0-3 at home), and have lost 7 of their last 9 games. It’s a dangerous game for the Colts, but they’ll once again grind their way to a victory.

COLTS 23, TITANS 16

Time and Punishment-Looking Ahead
Colts Win- The schedule maker has been kind, and the Colts are off to a 4-0 start. The Colts could and should be 7-0 when they travel to Foxboro in Week 8. Their next 3 games are road games against the Niners and Texans, and a home game vs. the Rams.

Colts Lose- The Colts’ subpar play has finally translated into a loss. They should get well in Week 5 at San Francisco, but they still haven’t found their form.

Titans Win- A huge win at home against the Colts evens the Titans’ record at 2-2. They have another big division game next, traveling to Houston to try and put more distance between themselves and the Texans.

Titans Lose- The Titans stagger to Houston for a battle to avoid last place in the AFC South.


Can McNair Outplay His 2003 Co-MVP?

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (1-2) AT NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (2-1)
1 PM Eastern, CBS, Patriots favored by 5 ½

The Storyline
For the second week in a row, the Patriots find themselves playing a defending division champion. This week it’s the Chargers, who have stumbled out of the box at 1-2 this season, but posted an impressive victory on Sunday Night over the Giants last week. New England reasserted themselves as the top dogs in the AFC last week, beating the Steelers at Heinz Field, and they hope to strengthen that claim with a home win against the Bolts.

Key Questions
What kind of victory was last week’s Patriots win over Pittsburgh?
A pyrrhic one. The Pats have a long casualty list right now. Chief among them is safety Rodney Harrison. The man who is arguably the Pats’ best defensive player suffered a gruesome injury, tearing his ACL, PCL, and MCL. It’s going to be a challenge for him to ever play again. Starting tackle Matt Light has a broken bone in his leg and won’t play this week. Third down back Kevin Faulk has a broken foot and will be replaced by Amos Zereoue this week. These are some big losses, but if any team can overcome them, it’s the Patriots.

Why does the loss of Harrison hurt even more in this game?
Two words: Antonio Gates. Who usually contains the tight end? The safety. That would be Harrison, but he’s injured. The Chargers are a bad team to have to face with your second string safety.

How do the Chargers figure into the Jets’ quarterback quandary?
Chargers backup QB Philip Rivers is one of the obvious names on the short list of backup quarterbacks who could have the ability to step in and start. Trading Rivers to the Jets could give the Chargers an out from the weird situation they find themselves in. They drafted Rivers expecting him to take over the team from Drew Brees, probably last year but at the very least by this year. Brees ruined the plan by becoming good all of a sudden, leaving the Chargers with a very awkward situation. This could be a window out of it.

HERE’S YOUR FORECAST
The Patriots have won 19 in a row in Foxboro. The Chargers won 12 out of the 17 games they played last year, but were 1-5 against teams that finished over .500 last year (9-7 or better). They are a team that can take it to bad teams, but is overmatched against the elite teams. I would say the Patriots fall into that category.

PATRIOTS 31, CHARGERS 20

Time and Punishment- Looking Ahead
Chargers Win- A win in Foxboro completely erases the concerns raised by an 0-2 start. The Chargers have a chance to knock off another member of AFC royalty with the Steelers coming to town in Week Five.

Chargers Lose- Once again, the Chargers get put in their place by one of the big boys. A loss puts them at 1-3, and in a critical situation facing a must win game against the Steelers.

Patriots Win- A team known for its grit displays more of it by continuing to win with a depleted lineup. The Pats are 3-1, but with 2 very difficult road games at Atlanta and Denver on deck.

Patriots Lose- The Pats lose at home for the first time since 2002, are 2-2, banged up, and facing the very real possibility of heading into their Week 7 bye with a 2-4 record.

DENVER BRONCOS (2-1) AT JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (2-1)
1 PM Eastern, CBS, Jaguars favored by 4

The Storyline
The Broncos served notice that they’re a team to deal with in 2005 by dismantling the Chiefs on Monday Night this week. Jacksonville went into New Jersey last week and picked up a huge win over the Jets. Much like that game, this game could turn out to be a huge tiebreaker for two teams that should be in playoff contention come December.

Key Questions
What can you be certain of in this game?
That an old wide receiver with the last name Smith is going to play a big role. It could be the Broncos Rod Smith, or the Jaguars Jimmy Smith, but probably both. The 35 year old Rod Smith leads the AFC in receptions with 22. That’s more than Chad Johnson, more than Marvin Harrison, more than Randy Moss. Jimmy Smith is 36, but he’s in the top 10 in the AFC in receiving yards with 220. Rod Smith suffered a concussion last week against the Chiefs, and his status for this week is not known yet, but the Broncos need him.

Is Byron Leftwich a big time quarterback?
I think he is. The man is playing in pain right now, and to throw a cold-blooded 36 yard TD pass in overtime on the road is something big time quarterbacks do. If he continues to progress, and with the defense the Jaguars have, Jacksonville could be a very interesting team come playoff time.

How significant is this game?
In the overall scheme of the universe, very, very insignificant. But, in the overall scheme of the 2005 NFL season, this game carries a lot of weight. The winner of this game will be 3-1, and will have 2 wins over playoff contenders. A win in this game doesn’t guarantee a playoff spot, but I am going to venture to say, even though this is only Week Four, that the team that wins this game will make the playoffs. The team that loses may not.

HERE’S YOUR FORECAST
Denver has a banged up secondary right now, and Champ Bailey is one of those who are nursing an injury. Mike Shanahan drafted about a million cornerbacks this year, and one or more of those guys is going to need to step up and play well in this game. Denver’s not known for being a good road team, but they actually went 3-1 on the road last year against teams outside their own division (not counting their playoff loss to Indianapolis). Jacksonville doesn’t really have a home field advantage. In fact, the Jaguars have lost 3 in a row at home to AFC opponents dating back to last year.

The Week 2 meeting between these teams last year was an unmitigated snoozefest. The Jaguars won 7-6, due in large part to their holding the Broncos to 3 yards per carry. This year, the Jags actually rank 21st in the NFL in run defense despite being second overall. So there’s a chance the Broncos will be able to run the ball effectively. I’m not going to be shocked if the Broncos win this game, all the trends are pointing in their favor, and they should be able to outrush the Jaguars, which gives them a great chance to win. That said, their only road performance this season was their season opening 34-10 debacle in Miami, so with only that to go by I can’t pick them to win on the road against a good Jacksonville team.

JAGUARS 17, BRONCOS 16

Time and Punishment- Looking Ahead
Broncos Win- With consecutive wins over the Chargers, Chiefs, and Jaguars, playoff contenders all, the Broncos are 3-1 and in great shape. 3 out of their next 4 are home games, beginning with a visit from the Redskins in Week Five.

Broncos Lose- Unable to shake the stigma of being pushovers on the road, the Broncos take a 2-2 record home. They don’t go back on the road until Week Seven.

Jaguars Win- The Jags may not be the most exciting team in the league, but at 3-1 they are one of the best. They gear up for a Sunday Night showdown in Week Five with another member of the AFC’s nouveau riche, the Bengals.

Jaguars Lose- The Jags again fail to defend their home turf, and things won’t get any easier next week against the Bengals. With trips to Pittsburgh and St. Louis sandwiched around a bye week win Weeks 6 and 7, the Bengals game looms as a win or else game.

HOUSTON TEXANS (0-2) AT CINCINNATI BENGALS (3-0)
1 PM Eastern, CBS, Bengals favored by 9 ½
The Storyline
The Bengals have sucked for a long, long, long time. No more. They are undefeated, all alone in first place in the AFC North, and one of the most exciting teams in the league. They look forward to hosting a Texans team that is taking on the stink of a failed 5 year plan. Two games into the season, and the Texans have already fired their offensive coordinator, and Chris Palmer’s head could be the first of many to roll out of Houston when all is said and done if things don’t turn around right away. Dom Capers has benched two defensive starters for this game, most notably high priced free agent corner Philip Buchanon.

Key Questions
How good are the Bengals?
The schedule maker has been very kind to the Bengals so far, so it’s hard to say. The teams they have beaten so far, the Browns, Vikings, and Bears, all have major, major problems. Luckily for the Bengals, the Texans fall into that category too. They’re not better than the Steelers, or the Patriots. I would put them third in the AFC right now, and ask last year’s Chargers where that gets you.

Is the end near for David Carr in Houston?
The Texans rank dead last in the NFL in offense, have replaced their offensive coordinator, and have scored 14 points this season. After this season, David Carr has an $8 million option the Texans can choose to exercise or allow him to become a free agent. Every single NFL scout type guy is totally gay for this guy, but the results just haven’t been there. Will the Texans continue to wait on his “potential”? That’s the 8 million dollar question. Carson Palmer, the number one pick in the 2003 draft, was just named AFC Offensive Player of the Month. Carr was the number one pick in the 2002 draft, which last I checked was longer ago than 2003. Carr is past the point where you can speak of him in terms of potential.

Who has been the steal of the 2005 draft so far?
No contest, it’s Bengals middle linebacker Odell Thurman. Thurman is the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month, and was a second round selection. Somehow the Bengals, the team that brought you epic first round busts Ki Jana Carter, David Klingler, Peter Warrick and Akili Smith, have become draft day geniuses.

HERES YOUR FORECAST
From where we stand in Week Four, no team has looked worse than the Texans have this year. You could also raise the argument that no team has looked better than the Bengals. Even if both teams’ level of play gravitates towards the center this week, the Bengals still should win this game comfortably. Buffalo and Pittsburgh were both able to run at will against the Texans, and neither team has the dangerous passing game that the Bengals do. Barring a comatose performance, the Bengals will roll.

BENGALS 31, TEXANS 17

Time and Punishment- Looking Ahead
Texans Lose- An 0-3 start would be a harbinger of big changes for this franchise. They have a winnable game at home in Week Five against Tennessee. If they drop that one and go to 0-4, those changes could come sooner than expected.

Texans Win- A shocking win on the road over the Bengals would give the Texans a chance to even their record at 2-2 with a win at home over the Titans. With the reset button pushed on their season, the Texans can breathe a sigh of relief, for now.

Bengals Win- For the fourth week in a row the Bengals beat up on a struggling team and run their record to 4-0. They will be tested in the next few weeks though, with road games at Jacksonville and Tennessee, and a huge home game vs. Pittsburgh.

Bengals Lose- A loss at home to the Texans would be a harsh reality check. With 3 difficult games on deck, the 3-1 Bengals would need to refocus in a hurry and get back on track.


Who Can Cover Chad?

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (2-1) AT WASHINGTON REDSKINS (2-0)
1 PM Eastern, FOX, Redskins favored by 2

The Storyline
With the NFC littered with bad teams, there is plenty of opportunity for a team to step up out of the pack and claim a playoff spot. Two teams that have seized that opportunity thus far will meet in Washington, when the Seahawks take on the Redskins. The Skins are coming off a bye week following an unfathomable Monday Night comeback win over their archrivals, the Dallas Cowboys. Seattle has rebounded from an opening week loss to win back to back games at home. Can they get it done on the road?

Key Questions
Is the Redskins 2-0 start a mirage, or will they contend this year?
It all depends on how adequate the offense can be, because we know the defense is one of the best. The Redskins are 6th in the NFL in rushing offense right now, and have done it against a couple of decent defenses in the Bears and Cowboys. If you look at the top 10 rushing teams in the NFL, there’s no riff raff in there. The Falcons, Bucs, Chargers, Seahawks, Bengals, Chiefs, Broncos, and Jags are all in that group, and they’re all good teams. If the Redskins can continue to stay in that group of elite rushing teams, they are going to win some ballgames. With a good offensive line, and a very good back in Clinton Portis, there is no reason they shouldn’t.

Does one of these teams have the others number?
Yes. The Redskins have pinned a loss on the Seahawks in each of their last 3 meetings dating back to 2001.

Where’s the love for Shaun Alexander?
Apparently not in Seattle. Alexander is 2nd in the NFL with 357 rushing yards, and was the 2nd leading rusher in the league last year, but that apparently has not been enough for the Seahawks to try and lock him into a long term deal. He’s a free agent after this season, and if the Seahawks don’t show this guy the money, you can be sure that someone else will.

HERES YOUR FORECAST
As mentioned earlier, the Redskins have been a monkey on the back of Mike Holmgren for the better part of this century. The Seahawks are generally perceived as a team that struggles on the road, but last year they beat the Saints, Bucs, and Vikings away from home, so they can pull out a road win if they have to. The Redskins haven’t had a 3 game winning streak since 2001, and are an uninspiring 7-10 at home in the last 2 seasons. So the moral of all this is that you can throw out the fact that the Redskins are at home.

That said, the Seahawks are clearly the better team, but they faced a team that is very similar to the Redskins on the road in their first game of the season, the Jaguars. The Seahawks were dominated in a 26-14 loss. That’s probably the most applicable comparison here, and because of that, I’ve got to go with the Redskins.

REDSKINS 17, SEAHAWKS 14

Time and Punishment- Looking Ahead
Seahawks Win- A win over the Redskins on the road puts the Hawks at 3-1, and in first place in the NFC West with a HUGE division game at St. Louis, a team that beat them three times last year, in Week Five.

Seahawks Lose- Same old Seahawks, one step forward, one step back, always mediocre. They take a 2-2 record into St. Louis for a game they have to win.

Redskins Win- You wouldn’t have found anyone before the season that would have put the Redskins at 3-0, but here we are. A rude wake up call is coming though, with games at Denver and Kansas City awaiting.

Redskins Lose- The 2-1 Redskins can pretty much resign themselves to being 2-3, but in the NFC that by no means puts them out of playoff contention.

ST. LOUIS RAMS (2-1) AT NEW YORK GIANTS (2-1)
1 PM Eastern, FOX, Giants favored by 3
The Storyline
This game is another in a week full of matchups that could have playoff implications down the road. Both teams are off to good starts, but both have serious weaknesses. Like squirrels storing up nuts for winter, these teams need to sock away wins wherever they can get them, and this is a winnable game for both teams.

Key Questions
Is Eli Manning a full fledged, bona fide, NFL QB?
Yes, I think he is. He hasn’t looked like a guy that has only half a season as a starter under his belt. He is not by any means in the top tier of NFL quarterbacks just yet, although he could be there soon. But I think you would have to say that at this point he is not a liability for the Giants at that position, and you could make a good case for him being an asset already.

What’s the matchup to watch in this game?
Rams rookie tackle Alex Barron, a first round pick, is going to be matched up against the most prolific sack man in NFL history, Michael Strahan. Mark Bulger is a guy that takes a lot of hits, and he’s going to take a lot more on Sunday if Barron is not up to the challenge. The Rams have allowed 3 or more sacks in every game they’ve played this year.

What’s the injury situation?
Both teams have a lot of guys hurt right now. The Rams may be without WR Isaac Bruce. If he can’t go, he will be replaced in the starting lineup by Kevin Curtis. The Giants are going to be without CB Will Peterson, and may also be missing OLB Carlos Emmons. Rams RB Stephen Jackson missed a lot of last week’s game due to a bruised chest, but he’s going to play this week. Jackson told the St. Louis Post Dispatch, “I am the starting running back, and I’m going to go out there and be responsible enough to play.” Okay then.

HERE’S YOUR FORECAST
The Giants rank 30th in the NFL in pass defense, and against the Rams, that spells trouble. If the Rams are able to protect the ball, and not turn it over, they should be able to put up a lot of points in this game. The Rams have also played very well against the run this year, allowing only 3.3 yards a carry, and rank 3rd in the NFL in that department. This is going to put more pressure on Eli Manning to move the offense.

The Giants have won the last two meetings between these teams. In 2003, the Giants won 4 games. One of them was against the Rams. 2002? Yup, they beat the Rams then too. The Rams have lost 6 out of their last 7 road games. Put those two factors together, and I think it’s pretty hard to pick against the Giants in this one.

GIANTS 27, RAMS 23

Time and Punishment- Looking Ahead
Rams Win- A win shows the Rams can do something they haven’t been able to do recently, win on the road. It sets them up at 3-1 as they return home for an NFC West showdown with the Seahawks.

Rams Lose- The Rams continue to muddle along beneath their potential, with a 2-2 start. They go back to their dome in Week Five though, and will be ready for a huge game.

Giants Win- Eli has arrived and in a weak NFC, the sky is the limit. The Giants take a 3-1 record into a bye week, and prepare to go to Texas Stadium for a key division clash with the Cowboys.

Giants Lose- After a 2-0 start, the Giants drop 2 in a row and go into the bye week with plenty to work on.

NEW YORK JETS (1-2) AT BALTIMORE RAVENS (0-2)
4:05 PM Eastern, CBS, Ravens favored by 7 ½
The Storyline
In the AFC, there’s very little margin for error, and both of these supposed playoff contenders have just about used their allowed quota of screw ups. The Jets have lost both their starting and backup quarterbacks to injuries, and have officially entered crisis mode. The Ravens are not in much better shape. They are already on their second quarterback, and have not been able to do anything offensively this year, while being surprisingly ineffective on defense. Both teams desperately need this game.

Key Questions
Who in the name of Ray Lucas is playing quarterback for the Jets this week?
Jets fans, meet your new starting QB….Brooks….Bollinger!!! J….E….T…S!!!

Who in the name of Rick Mirer will be playing quarterback for the Jets 3 weeks from now?
Unless Bollinger sets the world on fire, it will be someone other then him. Let’s throw some names out and see what sticks. Billy Volek? Phillip Rivers? Chris Simms? Patrick Ramsey? Jon Kitna? Vinny Testaverde? All these names have been thrown out there. Vinny is signed and back in the Gotham Green, so he’s the most obvious choice. But you can bet if the Jets remain in contention, you can name any backup QB in the NFL and there’s a chance he could end up with the Jets.

What does Ravens coach Brian Billick have to say about the Jets’ unenviable situation?
Billick told a media audience this week: “Tomorrow, we’re going to take up a donation for the New York Jets’ relief fund. Because based on what I’m reading and hearing, I can’t imagine these guys showing up. Good lord, I can’t turn on the TV without seeing [hurricanes] Katrina, Rita, and oh my God, the Jets. I’m digging in my pockets for money.”

HERE’S YOUR FORECAST
About the only team the Ravens can beat right now is a team with Brooks Bollinger playing quarterback. Lucky for them, that’s exactly what they’ll be getting this week. The Ravens have won 6 out their last 9 at home, versus losing 6 out of nine on the road in that same time.

Jamal Lewis could manage only 71 yards on 30 carries when these teams met last year, and that was when Jamal was good. Now he’s not so good, so imagine how that’s going to work out. The Jets didn’t have Chad Pennington in that game either. Quincy Carter started at QB for them, and the Ravens won on the road, 20-17 in OT. The Jets were able to average 4.3 yards a carry to keep themselves in that game, but their running game has not come close to being what it was last year, and with Bollinger under center what do you think the Ravens will be looking for? Avoid this game at all costs. If you are forced to watch it, remember suicide is an option.

RAVENS 16, JETS 10

Time and Punishment- Looking Ahead
Jets Win- Broadway Brooks Bollinger is the toast of NY. He rides through the gates of Giants Stadium on a donkey next week, as the 2-2 Jets meet up with the Bucs.

Jets Lose- Hoo boy this season has gotten ugly and fast for the Jets. A 1-3 start, with a home game against the Bucs, followed by trips to Buffalo and Atlanta next up.

Ravens Win- Beating the Jets isn’t a great accomplishment right now. But a win is a win, and the Ravens need one badly. They travel to Detroit in Week 5 hoping to even their record.

Ravens Lose- The Ravens may as well go home to their mansions and eat their lobster. If they can’t win this game, they aren’t going to win any other games this year either.


The Pennington Man Won’t Pass For A While

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (2-1) AT KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (2-1)
4:15 PM Eastern, FOX, Chiefs favored by 2
The Storyline
If you’re only going to watch one game this weekend, make this one it. These are two exciting teams, and if the chips fall the right way, you could be seeing them again in February. Probably not though, because the Chiefs just lost 30-10 to the Broncos, so unless they get a lot better the only way they are going to get to the Super Bowl is to buy tickets from Mike Tice.

Key Questions
Was Trent Green throwing with the hand he usually throws with last week?
It sure as hell didn’t look like it. Green was throwing bounce passes to his receivers like he was Jason Kidd in the loss to the Broncos. He’s been bad all year long and needs to be a lot better for the Chiefs to win this game.

Parlez Vous Francais?
The Eagles do, at least this week. After somehow getting 2 field goals out of a crippled David Akers last week, they signed Bucs camp castoff Todd France to kick their field goals this week. In a close game, as this one figures to be, France could end up playing a much bigger role than the Eagles would like.

Just how insane is Brian Westbrook right now?
Crazy as a shithouse rat. Westbrook has carried the Eagles to the 2-1 record they have right now, because the rest of the team has not played very well. Westbrook had 208 yards of total offense and 2 TD’s last week, and has just been so much fun to watch. I think if you were to pick an NFC Offensive MVP for the first quarter of the season, right now it’s a dead heat between Westbrook and Carnell Williams.

HERE’S YOUR FORECAST
The Chiefs could be missing future Hall of Fame tackle Willie Roaf for this game, and against the Eagles’ blitz-happy defense, that loss would be huge. The Eagles got all they could handle from the Raiders last week, at home, so they are far from ready to go into Arrowhead and get a win if they play the way they did last week.

KC didn’t play all that well at home last year, managing only a 4-4 record, so a win at home is far from a sure thing, no matter who they are playing. They did destroy the Falcons when they came to Arrowhead last year, 56-10, so the Eagles know they are walking into a hornet’s nest. If you look at how the Eagles did against the AFC recently, they really have not been all that impressive. They beat the Raiders 23-20 at home last week. Last year, we see a 38-10 loss to the Bengals, in the last game of the season when the Eagles were resting all their regulars, we see a 15-10 win at home against the Ravens, and an OVERTIME win at the Browns!?!?! Then there’s a 27-3 loss at Pittsburgh, and a Super Bowl loss to the Patriots. The Eagles have sleepwalked through much of the first three weeks of the season, they’ll get their wakeup call this week.

CHIEFS 27, EAGLES 17

Time and Punishment- Looking Ahead
Eagles Win- A huge, huge win on the road against the Chiefs sets the Eagles up at 3-1, with another tough game at Dallas in Week 5.

Eagles Lose- The Eagles have not been sharp this year. A 2-2 start with a game at Dallas on deck, and a lot of Eagle fans are going to start reaching for the panic button.

Chiefs Win- The Chiefs bounce back from a bad loss on the road with a big win at home. They take a 3-1 record into their bye week, and will prepare for another home game, against Washington.

Chiefs Lose- A 2-2 start is not the way to reach the playoffs in the AFC. The Chiefs get 6 losses if they want to have a chance, so they will have to turn it up big time after their bye week.

DALLAS COWBOYS (2-1) AT OAKLAND RAIDERS (0-3)
4:15 PM Eastern, FOX, Raiders favored by 3
The Storyline
The best 0-3 team in a long time meets the worst 2-1 team in a long time. How do I know this? The 0-3 team is favored by a healthy 3 points. Terry Glenn and Drew Bledsoe have been partying like it’s 1996 though, so don’t count out the Cowboys.

Key Questions
Why has Sebastian Janikowski been struggling so much?
Probably administering date rape drug to himself before games.

There are rumblings emanating from Raider Nation calling for Kerry Collins to be benched in favor of Marques Tuiasosopo, would that help the Raiders?
No really I’m serious. Actual published column space in major Bay Area newspapers has been dedicated to discussing this issue. So, Oakland Raiders, you mean to tell me, you bring in Randy Moss over the offseason, trade away your middle linebacker, and draft picks, and a partridge in a pear tree to get him, and now you’re clamoring for Marques HutsiTutsiWhateva to come in and be your savior? That just makes absolutely no sense. No wonder you suck.

What has gotten into Terry Glenn and will it continue?
Glenn is averaging 24 yards per catch this year. That’s 24 yards every time he catches the ball, and that’s just silly. Before the Patriots got good, Terry Glenn was all they had on offense, and he was very good. He’s had injury problems, and most people wrote him off, but he and Drew Bledsoe have a great chemistry together, and at this point look like they both have some mileage left. Oakland’s pass defense ranks 31st in the NFL, so conditions are right for another big game this week.

HERE’S YOUR FORECAST
The Raiders have lost 6 out of their last 7 games at home. In my country, that’s considered horrible. The Cowboys are 3-8 on grass under Bill Parcells. Also very, very bad, although one of those wins has come this year at San Diego. Regardless of any trends, I think the Raiders have played better than their 0-3 record indicates, and the Cowboys have played worse than their 2-1 record. The Raiders haven’t allowed a 100 yard rusher this year, and Julius Jones hasn’t rushed for 100 yards yet this year. The Raiders have shown they can hold a balanced offense in check, as they have played three of the best in the Patriots, Chiefs, and Eagles the first three weeks and haven’t embarrassed themselves in any of those games. I think the Raiders win this one.

RAIDERS 30, COWBOYS 27

Time and Punishment- Looking Ahead
Cowboys Win- It hasn’t been pretty, but the Cowboys are 3-1, and in the NFC, that’s called capital, baby. Week Five brings a showdown for first place at home against the Eagles.

Cowboys Lose- The Cowboys are 2-2, but have to be encouraged by the way they’ve played in the first quarter of the season. Their offense is miles ahead of what it was last year, and the defense has the talent to be better than it’s been. They hope to pull off an upset next week against Philly.

Raiders Win- A much needed win alleviates the heat on Norv Turner and Kerry Collins, for now. They are 1-3 going into the bye, and have a critical game at home against the Chargers in Week 6.

Raiders Lose- An 0-4 start means your season is over in the AFC. The Raiders decide to see what they have in Tuiasosopo, and trot him out for the game against the Chargers.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS (1-2) AT ATLANTA FALCONS (2-1)
4:15 PM Eastern, FOX, Falcons favored by 6
The Storyline
The Vikings had about as awful a start as a team could have in losing their first two games. But it’s hard to shake the suspicion that they are a sleeping giant. They looked good in a home win against the Saints, and now hope to even their record. The Falcons picked up an important road win at Buffalo last week, and hope to stay within shouting distance of the Bucs in the NFC South. A loss this week would put them in serious danger of being 2 games back.

Key Questions
Is Daunte Culpepper all better now?
The Saints defense is always good for what ails ya. The Falcons D is a different story. They have allowed less than 200 passing yards per game. The Falcons have struggled against the run though, something that wasn’t a problem for them last year. Atlanta ranks 27th in the league against the run, if the Vikings can exploit that, it will open up the passing game, and give the Vikings a chance.

Is Michael Vick progressing as a real quarterback?
Last week was encouraging. His legs were a little banged up last week, so he was forced to make plays with his arm against a good Buffalo defense. He was up to the challenge, and did a good job spreading the ball around.

What’s wrong with the Falcons D?
Last year the Falcons defense was suffocating, and was the biggest reason why they got the NFC Championship game. This year, not so good. As I mentioned earlier, they are 27th against the run, and the members of the defense has taken notice. Linebacker Ed Hartwell told the Atlanta Journal Constitution, “It’s a mortal sin,” Hartwell said. “You can’t have a ball carrier come out and rush for 100 yards against you. The last couple weeks, we’ve had guys run on us like that. It’s weighing on us.” A lot of that has to do with the guys they’ve been facing, like Shaun Alexander and Willis McGahee. The Vikings’ Mewelde Moore isn’t in that class, the Falcons should be able to improve their performance against the run this week.
HERES YOUR FORECAST
The Falcons are 1st in the NFL in rushing, the Vikings are 29th in the NFL against the run. You can do the math. You no stop the run, you no win.

FALCONS 24, VIKINGS 16

Time and Punishment- Looking Ahead
Vikings Win- The gloom and doom fostered by an 0-2 start has given way to sunshine and optimism after a huge win in the Georgia Dome. The Vikings have a clean slate headed into the bye week, and will go on the road against the Bears in Week 6, hoping to win in Chicago for the first time since 2000.

Vikings Lose- The Vikings are 1-3, but in the woeful NFC North, that puts them right in the thick of the chase. They’ll use the bye week as a reset button for the season, and try to begin anew in Week 6 by beating the Bears.

Falcons Win- The Falcons can’t sneak up on anybody this year, but a 3-1 start puts them on track for the playoffs. They face a huge test in Week 5 when the Patriots come to Atlanta.

Falcons Lose- A 2-2 start puts the Falcons in a hole in the NFC South. They want to get home field advantage for the playoffs, but a slow start means that the road to the Super Bowl will run through Tampa for them.


A Game in Mexico, Without Ron Mexico

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (1-2) V. ARIZONA CARDINALS (0-3) AT MEXICO CITY
8:30 PM Eastern, ESPN, Cardinals favored by 2 ½
The Storyline
A matchup of the 49ers and Cardinals just sucked too much to take place within Amerka’s borders, so the NFL outsourced it to Mexico. Notably absent from this contest will be Mexico’s favorite Futbol Americano star, Ron Mexico.

Key Questions
Who among these 2 teams is the most likely to be kidnapped this weekend and held for ransom?
Alex Smith just got all that money. I’m gonna go ahead and say him.

Could the NFL have picked 2 worse teams for their first regular season outside the US?
No. I think an Amsterdam Admirals vs. Hamburg Sea Devils tilt would be more entertaining.

Who will the Mexican crowd cheer for?
Probably the Cowboys, who aren’t playing in this game. I think they are the only team the Mexican fans know. Not that I’m making fun of them, like any of us here in the US know Pumas from Chivas or Cruz Azul from America.

HERES YOUR FORECAST
All those 400 pound lineman are gonna have a super time trying to suck a drop of oxygen out of the smog laden Mexico City air. Kurt Warner is out for this game and Josh “Punching” McCown will take his place. The Niners have shown some fight and some fire early in the season, the Cardinals have looked like death warmed over. The Niners were 2-0 against the Cards last year, and 0-14 against everyone else. I’ll take the Niners.

49ERS 33, CARDINALS 24

Time and Punishment- Looking Ahead
Niners Win- Mike Nolan’s gotta be your coach of the year so far. He has taken a franchise that was dead, dead, dead, and has them playing hard every week. SF is 2-2, but they brace for a visit from the Colts in Week Five.

Niners Lose- A three game losing streak is sure to become four heading into the bye week. It’s gonna be a long hard slog to rebuild the Niners but they’re making progress.

Cards Win- Beginning the season with 2 losses of 20 points or more sandwiched around another loss isn’t what the Cards had in mind, but they’ve got their first win and that’s the hardest one to get. They’ve got 2 home games coming up and hope to get to 3-3, then go from there.

Cards Lose- A loss puts the Cards at 0-4, and shows that the apparent light at the end of the tunnel for this miserable franchise was just another oncoming train.

PIMPS UP HOS DOWN
Well that should get you ready for a great week of football! Check back on Monday for a full rundown of what went down on Sunday!

Phillip Ciprotti urges you to get your tickets in advance for the 2006 edition of the Stro Show, and fills you in on the other breakout NBA players for the coming season. Przybilla=GODZILLA!!

Slayer is the Beano Cook to my John Clayton.

Oli Porter has five ways to improve soccer. And none of them are “Break Up Chelsea”.

Patrick’s the flagship column here. It’s great. And the man loves his own balls. And he’s right, my job does own, it owns my time and soul.

That’s it until Monday!