Before we get to my Week 1 Picks...
(Quick tangent: I can't tell you how good it felt to type those words in the previous paragraph. Yes, I have a gambling problem. Back to the column.)
...I couldn't resist posting some follow-up thoughts on Thursday night's Raiders-Pats game. Scroll down to the picks if you don't care. Anyway...
• Are the Pats a little worse than we thought, or are the Raiders a little better than we thought? It's one or the other. Any time you're the defending champs, you're playing at home, you throw for over 200 yards in the first half, get a turnover inside the other team's 20, go three quarters without turning the ball over or giving up a sack, and the other team commits a whopping 14 penalties (including three more that were declined) ... and you're still sweating out the game in the final four minutes, that's a little scary.
Three things worried me about the Patriots:
1. The linebackers. Even without the two Teds (Bruschi and Johnson), and even though the situation looked dire in the preseason, every Pats fan was leaning on the old "Belichick will figure something out" approach. But they were using too many gimmicks last night. For instance, Rodney Harrison is a safety. He's always been a safety. If he's cheating up into the linebacker spot and playing the run in lieu of an actual linebacker, that's not a good omen for the next four months. Also, the two Ted replacements (Chad Brown and Monty Beisel) looked a step slow and a second late for much of the game -- the right kind of power running team (like Atlanta or Denver, two road games in Weeks 5 and 6) would have eaten Thursday night's defense alive.
Fortunately for Pats fans, Belichick has four weeks to figure this out. But we all know that you can't win a Super Bowl unless you can stop the run. And while we're on the subject, the running game (both Corey Dillon and the blocking) looked terrible in the first half, at least until the dinosaurs on Oakland's D-line started sucking wind in the second half. Then things opened up. But what will happen next week against a younger, tougher Carolina defense that won't be fading down the stretch? I'm worried. Just like you can't win the Super Bowl without stopping the run, you can't win without running for four yards a pop, either. And yes, I know it's early. Just pointing out some red flags.
2. The play-calling ... yikes. I don't mind that Charlie Weis is gone. If anything, I thought he suffered from a healthy dose of Martzitis -- he wanted to win, but only on his terms, and with as many gimmicks and splashy plays as possible. He overcomplicated things at times. And yes, I realize that I'm complaining about a guy who called plays for a team that finished 34-4 over the past two seasons. At the same time, the new offensive coordinator ... oh, wait, we never hired one. Last night, the QB coach was calling in plays with a "holy crap, Brady actually ran the play I just called in, maybe he really is listening to me!" look on his face. And there were some doozies in the second half -- like the near-catastrophic series before the blocked punt, when the Pats gave Oakland an extra 90 seconds of time when the Raiders didn't have any timeouts left. And yes, I know it's early. Just pointing out some red flags.
3. Seeing Bruschi on the sidelines in a long-sleeved T-shirt was like seeing Robert Horry in street clothes during an NBA Finals game -- sure, the Spurs could probably win without him, but you would rather not find out. That was tough. It's hard to express to the non-Pats fans how much he meant to those Super Bowl teams, and if they end up failing to defend the title, I'm sure Bruschi's absence will be the No. 1 reason why. At the same time, this is football -- guys get hurt, you need to deal with it and that's that. But I found myself thinking about him more than a few times last night.
Here's the thing though: It's tough to judge anyone in Week 1, which is historically a disjointed, goofy week. For instance, during Week 1 last season, the Packers crushed the Panthers in Carolina and looked like a potential 14-2 team -- it turned out to be the best game they played all season. Two years ago, the Pats lost to Buffalo in Week 1 by 31 points ... they ended up losing three more games over the next two years. So you can never take too much stock in this stuff. But I thought that was a very winnable game for the Raiders last night, and if they had a better coach, better discipline and better conditioning, they might even have taken it.
A few other Thursday night thoughts:
• During a commercial in the second quarter, I decided to watch my first Pats game with my baby daughter, who's 4 months old now and enjoys staring at football games because of the cool colors on the field. At least that's what I keep telling myself -- the bottom line is that she could stare at a sock for 15 minutes and be entertained. Anyway, we sat down in front of the TV, they came back from commercial ... and Moss immediately caught his 73-yard TD pass. That was her first Patriots play ever.
(And probably last ... because I immediately gave her back to the Sports Gal. I don't mess around with this stuff. Not even with my own flesh and blood.)
• Here's my annual plea for the "MNF" crew to show fantasy stats once every 15 minutes. Don't listen to naysayers like Jimmy Kimmel, who used his new halftime pulpit on ABC to belittle fantasy owners and inadvertently started a Biggie/Tupac-level feud with me that can only end with both of us being riddled with bullets. Without any statistical evidence to back this up, I would guess that two-thirds of the "MNF" audience is made up of males between the ages of 18 and 45, and of those two-thirds, 65-70 percent participate in some sort of fantasy league. So would it kill you to show stats every so often? What's the problem here? Why did I have to turn on my laptop and hit ESPN.com in the fourth quarter to see how many yards Corey Dillon had? Isn't that a little ridiculous?(And by the way, it's interesting that Kimmel would rank on anyone else's hobbies when the undisputed highlight of his summer was buying a pizza oven.)
• On the flip side, congrats to ABC for hiring Tim McGraw to tailor the lyrics to "I like it, I love it" for every halftime highlight show throughout the "Monday Night Football" season. Just last week, my buddy House and I were discussing Cosell's classic highlight narratives in the '70s, and how nobody had approached them since, and I told House, "Only one thing could ever come close, and I know it's a long shot, but what if ABC hired Tim McGraw to tailor the lyrics to 'I like it, I love it' for each week of NFL highlights throughout the season?" And wouldn't you know, it happened! See, dreams can come true.
• One more "MNF" note, and this doesn't just go for Madden and Michaels, but for anyone announcing a game: At some point in the third or fourth quarter, when it becomes apparent that we're hitting a "this game could go either way" stretch, what's wrong with having the, "Well, it's 23-14 right now, Collins is heating up a little -- John, do you think the Raiders can actually win this game" conversation? Why are announcers so afraid to go out on a limb and say stuff like, "Lemme tell you something, the Pats keep screwing around with this game, and if they're not careful, Oakland can steal it with a couple of big plays?" You never hear that conversation. Come on, we're big boys -- we can handle a conversation that goes beyond, "Isn't Tom Brady great?" and "Isn't Randy Moss great?"
• Highlight of last night's game: Belichick sullenly sitting on the bench waiting for the fireworks and the spotlights to stop while they raised the 2004 banner. He's the best. I think he goes to a hypnotist every March who brainwashes him into thinking, "You went 6-10 last season."
• I know it was only one game, but it looks like the 2005 Raiders will become the first team to employ the "Screw it, four times a half, we're throwing it deep to Moss and seeing what happens." I have been arguing this strategy for six years. Why not? In the average Moss game, he'll catch two of them and maybe even draw a pass interference on a third one. So why not roll the dice? I never understood this.
• Every time the Tuck Rule Game gets mentioned, three other things should also be mentioned: First, Gruden had second-and-3 to close out the game, ran the ball twice up the middle, didn't get the three yards, then punted on fourth-and-inches. If they had gotten those three yards, Brady never gets the ball back. Everyone seems to forget this. And second, on the famous play, WOODSON CHOPPED BRADY IN THE HEAD TO CAUSE THE FUMBLE!!! Not only is that illegal, it's one of the few guaranteed "we're calling that every time" whistles in football. Everyone forgets this, too. And third, not only was the rule interpreted correctly, but they voted on keeping it at the next Rules Committee Meeting.
To recap: Raiders fans have spent the last four years complaining about a play in which (A) their player should have been penalized, (B) the rule was interpreted correctly, and (C) it never should have happened in the first place because their coach choked away a second-and-3 situation and lacked the testicular fortitude to go for it on fourth down. Those are the facts. If you want to keep complaining, so be it.
Before we get to the Week 1 Picks...
(Sorry, I just wanted to write those seven words again.)
...in case you missed yesterday's column, I had the Patriots -7.5 in last night's game, putting me at 1-0 for the season. That's a pace of 256-0 if you're scoring at home. Also, we'll be practicing Simbotics again, my Tom Vu-like seminar which was unveiled in my 9/17 column last year.Cliffs Notes version of Simbotics: The best way to gamble on the first few weeks of games is to decide before the season, "Who's going to be better than we thought, who's going to be worse than we thought, and who's going to be just as good as we thought?" Then put your money where your mouth is. And why? Because September is the easiest time to gamble on football -- it always takes three or four weeks for Vegas to realize who's good, who's mediocre and who's bad (and shift the lines accordingly).
So you have to beat them to the punch. That means separate the 32 NFL teams into seven groups...
Group A. Six playoff teams headed for a fall.
Group B. Six also-rans ready to take their place.
Group C. Five return playoff teams, including at least one ready to make The Leap.
Group D. Four frisky mini-sleepers (teams better than people think).
Group E. Five reverse mini-sleepers (teams worse than people think).
Group F. Five doormats (teams that just plain suck).
Group G. One juggernaut that will rise above everyone else (starting in early November at the latest).
Then you need to stick to your guns and wager on those teams in the first three or four weeks of the season, before Vegas wises up and the lines begin to shift. In case you missed yesterday's NFL preview, here's how my groups shake out this season:
Group A: Pittsburgh, NY Jets, Denver, Green Bay, St. Louis, Seattle.
Group B: Jacksonville, Kansas City, Baltimore, Chicago, Arizona, Carolina.
Group C: San Diego, Indy, Philly, Minnesota, Atlanta (wild card).
Group D: Miami, Tennessee, NY Giants.
Group E: Washington, Cincy, Buffalo, Dallas, Oakland.
Group F: Cleveland, Detroit, San Francisco, Tampa Bay, Houston.
Group G: New England.
(Note: I'm leaving out New Orleans, and only because I have absolutely no idea what will happen with them this season -- they could go 2-14, they could go 12-4, nothing would surprise me. No team has ever been in a situation like this before, in any sport, so how can we pretend to know what will happen?)
Shaking out those groups was the hard part. The easy part? Banging out the Week 1 slate. You want a fancy car? You want beautiful women? Come read my Week 1 picks...
DOLPHINS (+4) over Broncos
Any time Nick Saban has an entire summer to prepare for Jake Plummer, I don't care if he's coaching the Dolphins, the LSU Tigers or Permian High ... I'm going with Nick Saban.
BROWNS (+3.5) over Bengals
When in doubt, take the points. By the way, do you think Trent Dilfer ever brings his Super Bowl ring into work to show his teammates, leading to the following exchange:
Rookie on the team: "That thing is awesome! What team did you win it on?"
Trent (proudly): "The 2000 Ravens."
Rookie: "Cool. Who were you backing up that year?"
Trent (proudly): "Actually, I started every game."
Rookie (breaking up laughing): "C'mon, man -- I know you start for us, but we suck! You didn't start for no Super Bowl champs!"
Trent (grimacing): "No, seriously, I did -- I started that year."
(Awkward silence. Finally...)
Rookie (breaking up again): "Get the hell out of here!"
BILLS (-5.5) over Texans
The Dom Capers Watch begins in 3 ... 2 ... 1 ...
Titans (+7) over STEELERS
Steve McNair and Drew Bennett begin their quest to break the record for "Most cheap touchdowns to cover the spread in the final 90 seconds of a loss." Should be an emotional run.
(By the way, Ben Roethlisberger's number is almost up at Alyssa Milano's Which Athlete Am I Dating Next Deli right now -- he's holding 58 and she's up to 56 and calling out 57. Come on, like she'd pass up the chance to date a QB with the nickname "Big Ben." Please.)
PANTHERS (-7) over Saints
Should we be allowed to gamble, predict or even offer an opinion on any 2005 Saints game without feeling like a degenerate schmuck? Probably not.
Bears (+5.5) over REDSKINS
The good news: Clinton Portis gained 20 pounds to bulk up for another 350-carry beating as a delusional Joe Gibbs continues to think that he's coaching John Riggins again. The bad news: Have you ever watched Portis carry the ball and think to yourself, "Man, if he could only gain another 20 pounds and lose some of his quickness, he might really have something!" Why would this possibly work?
(Note: I'm going with the upset special here -- Bears 13, Redskins 10. And just for the record, it's quiet on the Bears Bandwagon right now with me, L.A. sports radio host Matt "Money" Smith and three 300-pound guys with mustaches and bad Chicago accents who are covered in mustard. We're all just hanging out. Lots of room left. Tons of seats. Feel free to stop by.)
VIKINGS (-6) over Bucs
How many people are going to be teasing this game...
Rams (-5.5) over NINERS
...with this one? And that's the problem. So allow me to do this:
NINERS (+5.5) over Rams
For three reasons. First, you should never tease two of the Mikes together, not under any circumstances! Second, everyone and their brother picked the Rams in their Suicide Pool this week. And third, everyone thinks the Rams are reliable on the road for some reason, when the reality is this: Against the spread in road games over the past three years, they're 7-19. (See, that's why I get the big bucks -- for stats like that.)
CHIEFS (-3) over Jets
Reason No. 75,432 why I enjoy fantasy drafts: During my West Coast draft on Tuesday night, our buddy Hench was on the clock, looked up from his sheet of papers, furrowed his brow and asked, "Trent Green ... what's the deal with his leg?" And that was followed by about three seconds of awkward, "I know the answer, but I'm not telling this loser anything" silence before I finally chimed in, "It's fine, they don't have to amputate it." But that three seconds of silence always kills me. Nothing's more secretly cutthroat than a fantasy draft.
CARDS (+2.5) over Giants
Is anyone else intrigued by the thought of Brandon Jacobs' stealing all of Tiki Barber's short-yardage TDs this season? What about the Giants' being successful enough that Eli Manning could potentially break out the Eli Manning Face in a big game? Will anything be less emotional than Kurt Warner's return to the Meadowlands? And how will the Giants survive without Jesse Palmer's regaling the guys in the locker room with stories about the Maxim Christmas Party and the time he and Johnny Fairplay got thrown out of AstroBurger on Melrose at 3 a.m. because Johnny tried to snort three salt packets off the cash register?
CHARGERS (-4.5) over Cowboys
Don't forget that AFC teams went 44-20 against NFC teams last season...
JAGUARS (-3) over Seahawks
...and if anything, the NFC is even worse this year.
LIONS (-3) over Packers
Stinker game of the week. I was thinking about it -- there are going to be so many bad NFC games this season, Fox needs to break out some sort of gimmick for them. Why couldn't they bring old announcing teams back, like Charlie Jones and Merlin Olsen, or Don Criqui and Bob Trumpy, or even Frank Gifford and O.J. Simpson? Or what's wrong with various cast members of their shows announcing the games every week? What's wrong with a little cross-promotion? Welcome to the Silverdome, I'm Will Arnett from "Arrested Development" ... I'm joined by the guy who plays Dr. Gregory House, Julie Cooper from "The OC" and Tony Siragusa...
Colts (-3) over RAVENS
I don't think Kyle Boller is in the "I'm ready to trade TDs with Manning" stage of his career yet ... well, unless it's Cooper Manning.
Eagles (PK) over FALCONS
Quick preview impression of Michaels and Madden on Monday night:
Michaels: "Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb?"
Madden: "Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb."
Michaels: "Which raises a great point -- Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb."
Madden: "Absolutely. Al, this is what it's all about, right here -- Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb."
Michaels: "Let's go down to Michele Tafoya."
Tafoya: "Al, I just talked to Andy Reid, and he said, 'Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb Terrell Owens Donovan McNabb...'"
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine and his Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday. You can preorder his upcoming book "Now I Can Die In Peace" on Amazon.com