I started making trips to Vegas in 1996, the same year "Swingers" came out, back when every 48-hour blackjack binge felt like walking a financial tightrope with Philippe Petit. These were the days of Rio's $10 buffets, cross-country flights with two connections and four buddies crammed in the same room that smelled like one giant fart by Sunday morning. If you dropped $600 at a cold table, there was no digging into your pocket and rallying back. Every table was carefully chosen. If we had to sit with the blue-hairs and chain-smokers at a $5 table for an entire afternoon to conserve dough for a Saturday night run, so be it.
AP Photo/K.M. Cannon
The world opened up to the Sports Guy at Mandalay Bay then came the ugly black contraptions.
When we headed there for March Madness in 1999, our financial situations had improved a little, but we were still slumming it at Treasure Island and going four to a room. We decided to gamble one night at a new casino called Mandalay Bay. The place turned out to be gorgeous -- tons of light, high ceilings, mammoth sports book, cocktail waitresses everywhere -- and all of us were staggering around in relative disbelief. Vegas was changing. You could see it. You could also see blackjack tables with ugly black contraptions on them. Tons of them. Instead of a traditional eight-deck shoe in which the dealer shuffled cards every 15 minutes, these tables had the dealer feeding spent cards from every hand into that contraption, which then spat out fresh cards for the next hand. The shuffle had been eliminated. So had shuffle breaks. You just grinded out hand after hand after hand.
We tried to battle these evil tables for an hour or so before realizing the cards had no flow. You might see 12 aces in three hands; you might not see an ace for 10 minutes. There were no runs. Each hand had no correlation to the last one. We lost money. We kept losing money. One of us (OK, it was me) joked that Mandalay should put a picture of Ned Beatty in "Deliverance" on its chips. Eventually, we left and ended the night with blue-haired chain-smokers at the Treasure.
And so we learned to despise the ugly black contraptions. Maybe we weren't counting cards like the MIT guys from "Bringing Down The House," but still, blackjack is all about runs, right? You have something like a 44 percent chance of winning each hand. If you're ripping off a marathon blackjack session, you aren't winning money unless you "up" your wagers during those few inevitable good waves and how do you know when you're hitting a hot streak when every hand is arbitrary? In the years that followed The Great Mandalay Beatdown of '99, every Vegas casino shrewdly shifted toward those ugly black contraptions for obvious reasons, and a strange phenomenon took hold: Cagier gamblers would wait for spots at old-school $15 tables in lieu of sitting down at an open, ugly-black-contraption $15 table. The casinos eventually did the math and realized they were losing money because people weren't losing enough money at the new-school tables. Now you see four times as many old-school tables as new-school tables. I don't think the Palms even has a single one.
What does this have to do with gambling on the 2008 NFL season? After the magical year of the three-team parlay in 2004, the NFL spent the next three years quietly entering ugly-black-contraption mode. The 2006 Steelers got hot for a few weeks and won a Super Bowl without playing a home playoff game. The 2007 Colts shored up a miserable run defense for four weeks and won a Super Bowl. The 2008 Giants were nearly eliminated from the playoffs in Week 14 (here's where every Philly fan says, "David Bleeping Akers!"), survived, kept surviving and eventually won the 2008 Super Bowl as double-digit underdogs. In this year's "Pro Football Prospectus," the boys tried to figure out if the Giants were the most improbable Super Bowl champion ever, creating a Pythagorean formula for expected/actual results that made my nose bleed when I tried to comprehend it. In the end, they determined that the '08 Giants were the luckiest champion ever. Five of their 10 most improbable champions came from this decade. Five!
You know what that tells me? Writing an old-school NFL preview makes no sense anymore. Why bother? Predicting the 21st-century NFL is like gambling for 12 straight hours against the ugly black contraption -- you can do it, but you're almost certain to lose. Last year's preview turned out to be a mess: I missed Jacksonville, Washington and Green Bay; really missed the Giants (as well as obvious Ewing Theory implications with Tiki Barber); overrated Baltimore, Chicago, New Orleans and Denver; and horrendously botched my annual sleeper (please re-read the Atlanta section for the single worst moment of my career). My only highlights were seeing through the San Fran hype and forecasting great things for the Patriots. Which, by the way, I do every season.
When I re-read that column this week, what scared me was that every decision was completely defensible except for backing a John Joseph Harrington-led team as my annual sleeper. I probably should have been fired for that, or at the very least, overruled on having Barack Obama on my podcast. (Hey, wait a second.) So I'm skipping a preview this year. I will make 12 predictions and only 12. Here they are.
Prediction No. 1: The "Hard Knocks" will not strike the Cowboys.
I keep hearing the Cowboys have been inordinately lucky with injuries, no depth, too many tough road games (at the Browns, Pack, 'Skins, Eagles, Steelers and Giants) and no regard for chemistry (Pacman, Tank, T.O., etc.) to the point that it's amazing they haven't made a "Godfather" offer for Steve Smith yet. But I like their big guns, love their offense, respect them for employing the Jones Boys (Pacman and Felix) as part-time luxuries in the salary-cap era (an amazing accounting feat) and can't get enough of Jerry Jones, who now looks exactly like what a 70-year-old Austin Powers would look like. I feel better about Dallas winning 11-13 games than I do about anything else this season.
(Only one things worries me: Tony Romo spent a lot of time with Jessica Simpson these past eight months. Remember how dumb she was on "Newlyweds"? I mean, she was historically dumb. I have written before about how unfunny people can learn to become relatively funny just by constantly hanging out with one funny person. Well, when you spend every waking moment with someone who's historically dumb, do you stop using all of your brain as much? How much of your cerebrum would you need? Twenty percent? Couldn't you shut the rest down? What if that happened to Romo this spring and summer? I am keeping my eye on this. If he starts staying on the field for fifth downs or calling six timeouts per half, I am bailing on this Dallas prediction.)
Prediction No. 2: Marvin Lewis will either quit or resign before the first week of the playoffs.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
You have to hand it to Chris Henry, he is quite a character.
When the Bengals re-signed Chris Henry after Lewis spent the spring and summer spouting his "We need to start caring about character" rhetoric I mean, as Larry King would say, if you're looking up the word "undermine" in a dictionary, you see Lewis with a "We did what?" look on his face. This is unbouncebackable. (I just made up that word.) I feel strongly that the Bengals will suck again. Same for the Niners, Dolphins, Chiefs, Raiders, Rams, Lions and Falcons. These are the Excrete Eight.
Prediction No. 3: Everyone will hail Chicago's yearly attempt to breathe life into a passing game that hasn't shown life since the Willie Gault era.
"Wait a second," you're saying, "didn't they let Bernard Berrian and Muhsin Muhammad leave? And didn't they just have a Kyle Orton/Rex Grossman battle for the starting QB spot? And didn't they just make a kick returner their No. 1 receiver? How are these good things?"
OK, let's say you just bought a new house, only you got soaked on your mortgage and had to go with a 75-25 instead of an 80-20. You're short on funds, so you decide, "We're going to spend most of our time in the kitchen, TV room and bedroom" and spend all your remaining funds to make those rooms nice: Maybe a 52-inch plasma, comfy sofa, kitchen table, king-sized bed, a few framed pictures, some homey knick-knacks and so on. By the time you're done, every room in the house looks great except for the dining room. Instead of half-assing it and putting a cheap-looking table and chairs in there, or even worse, splurging on a nice table and crappy chairs, you decided to sacrifice that room for 12 months, leave it empty and use that extra money on the rest of the house. It's the right move. And when friends visit and see an empty dining room, you just explain, "Yeah, we haven't gotten around to that room yet." They will understand, especially when they see the rest of your kick-ass house.
Well, that's exactly what the Bears did. Last year's passing game sucked because their quarterbacks sucked. Instead of spending money to patch together another inevitably disappointing passing game, they basically said, "Screw it, we'll leave the dining room empty and spend money everywhere else!" What's the point of spending 10 to 15 percent of your cap to upgrade your passing game from an "F" to a "D?" If Chicago's defense, running game and special teams can carry them like in 2006, maybe the Bears could play four straight months of ugly, low-scoring games and eke out a 10-6 record or something.
(Would I bet on this? Of course not! Not in a million years! But splurging on the likes of Chad Pennington, Berrian and Donte' Stallworth wouldn't have changed anything other than hurting their cap in 2010. You have to admit.)
Prediction No. 4: Cleveland will stink.
I'm not a big fan of this formula: Artificially high expectations + too many nationally televised games (five in all) + brutal schedule + too much luck last season (what are the odds of them getting 32 games from Kellen Winslow and Braylon Edwards again?) + brewing QB controversy + horrible preseason = Yikes.
Also, their two biggest offseason moves were fundamentally illogical: Trading for Shaun Rogers and keeping Derek Anderson. In the salary-cap era, you can't keep Anderson (who had two good months and tailed off) after dealing a future No. 1 and committing all that money to Brady Quinn. It's like drafting QBs in the first two rounds of a fantasy draft -- yeah, you can do it, but it never works. Why not trade Anderson for two draft picks and back the guy who you loved so much a year before? And why compound the error by trading your 2nd and 3rd round picks plus a valuable cornerback (Leigh Bodden) for expensive and possibly shaky defensive linemen (Corey Williams and Shaun Rogers). That's a swing of four draft picks plus Bodden! Didn't they see what happened with the Giants last year? If you made a "How to win the Super Bowl" formula, would "Pay two quarterbacks big money" and "Don't get anything from your draft" be two of the pieces? OF COURSE NOT!!! On the bright side, "taking the Browns to the Super Bowl" remains my favorite euphemism for making a doody.
Prediction No. 5: By November, you'll be reading articles about the NFL potentially realigning its divisions in 2009 and/or adjusting the scheduling formula.
How could the Patriots finish 16-0 and have the easiest NFL schedule in 2008? Well, they were guaranteed home-and-aways in a weak AFC East (Bills, Dolphins, Jets), then they randomly drew the lousy AFC West (Raiders, Chiefs, Broncos) and lousier NFC West (Niners, Cards, Rams) wait a second, why am I complaining about this? Meanwhile, Jacksonville plays only three '07 playoff teams and Dallas and Philly were treated to a glorious AFC North/NFC West combo. This seems like a good time to mention the Patriots, Cowboys, Eagles and Jaguars might be the four most talented 2008 teams. Anyway, I see those four forming a reliable upper class along the lines of the glorious 2004 gambling season, when New England, Indianapolis, Philly, San Diego and Pittsburgh finished 63-12 in the first 16 weeks and you could throw any three of them into a 10-point teaser without even blinking. It's New England, Jacksonville, Dallas and Philly, then San Diego and maybe Green Bay, and then everyone else.
(What about the Colts? I'm glad you asked!)
Prediction No. 6: The Colts will barely make the playoffs.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
If you're a Peyton Manning fan, you might not want to follow football until about Week 4.
And I mean, barely. As in, "Manning will limp around and look like absolute crap for the first few weeks." As in, "Merril Hoge and Ron Jaworski will spend copious amounts of time showing us replays to prove how much the Colts miss Jeff Saturday." As in, "Everyone who took Marvin Harrison in the third, fourth or fifth round of their fantasy draft will want to fire two gunshots at themselves and then intimidate any potential witness from testifying." As in, "ESPN.com will lead with a 'What's Wrong With The Colts?' headline and a picture of a downcast Peyton Manning on the Monday after Week 5 (a shocking loss in Houston). As in, "Peter King will break the story that the Colts are quietly hoping Tony Dungy will pack it in after the season." And just as we're finally writing them off when they're 5-6 after a Week 12 loss in San Diego, they'll run the rest of the slate, finish 10-6, grab the sixth wild-card spot and immediately become "The First-Round Team Nobody Wants To Play." Sometimes this is too easy.
Prediction No. 7: Minnesota will not make the playoffs
Knowing I was headed to Vegas last July, my buddy Geoff (a die-hard Vikes fan) asked me to put $50 on them to win the Super Bowl. I tried to talk him out of it because, you know, Tarvaris Jackson was involved. He persisted. The last time Geoff sounded that fired up, it was when he visited me in L.A. and forced me take him to the street off Sunset Boulevard where they filmed the last 45 minutes of "Halloween."
(Random tangent: Lauren, Lo and Audrina from "The Hills" moved to this same street last year and nearly destroyed the Irony Scale as we knew it. With the exception of Spencer and Heidi, have any three real-life celebs ever been more in Michael Myers' wheelhouse? I vote for another "Halloween" remake in which Myers becomes famous from the previous killings and lands on "Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew," escapes (but not before brutally murdering Mary Carey and Jeff Conaway), immediately goes to Don Antonio's to kill Spencer and Heidi, then follows Lauren and her friends around Hollywood for a night of club-hopping, finally going back to their street at 2 a.m. to kill Audrina and Justin Bobby as they're hooking up in Audrina's guest house, then Lo as she's plowing into a carton of ice cream in the kitchen, culminating in a 30-minute sequence in which he tries to kill L.C. and repeatedly fails until Dr. Drew shoots him down in the final scene. By the way, I would absolutely watch this movie. I won't apologize, either. Back to the column.)
So what happened? I ended up not making the bet after finding out the odds were 10-to-1. Geoff got mad, I didn't care. Sometimes you have to stick to principles in life and here's one of them: Fifty bucks to win $500 on either 24-year-old Tarvaris Jackson or 37-year-old Gus Frerotte winning a Super Bowl is not a bet that should be made, ever, under any circumstances. Nobody can convince me otherwise. Anyway, I had the Vikes missing the playoffs even before valuable left tackle Bryant McKinnie got suspended for the first four games: at Green Bay (Monday night), Indy, Carolina, at Tennessee. And they're playing in New Orleans on a Monday night for Week 5. Throw in the potential of a sophomore jinx with Adrian Peterson and that's enough for me.
Prediction No. 8: Green Bay will win the NFC North by three games.
Fact: I have been to Wisconsin three times since 1994 and the locals only cared about four things -- Favre, eating, drinking and the Packers. In that exact order.
Fact: For all we know, Aaron Rodgers is the next Kyle Boller.
Fact: Rodgers will have more pressure on him in Week 1 -- Monday night, ESPN, Lambeau Field, Vikings-Packers -- than any American has faced since John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. OK, I'm exaggerating. But not by much.
SPORTS GAL'S RANT
I'm the only American who doesn't blame Brett Favre for changing his mind. I changed my mind 10 times about writing my weekly rant. I had nothing left to prove after beating Bill two years straight. But I returned for the same reason that Favre came back -- I have an itch that needs to be scratched. Favre needs to play football, I need to complain about things. A good example: Bill had two League of Dorks drafts in the past week. I heard him talking to a Boston friend who knows things. The friend told Bill that a certain Patriot was secretly hurt. Bill then avoided picking this Patriot in both drafts.
Well, how is that fair? There should be a fantasy handicap that works like golf handicaps. Bill writes about sports so he should have a minus-5 handicap. Someone unemployed should be a minus-10 (BTW, I have no idea how golf handicaps work). The best example: Bill did a recent podcast with "TMR" and I didn't know who this was. Bill said it stands for "Talented Mr. Roto" and TMR's job is to follow fake sports. That's it? He should be docked like 50 points each week!!!! I just picture TMR blowing a flute and dispensing wisdom like the Pied Piper while thousands of League of Dorkers hang on his every word. And I guarantee those League of Dorkers all have girlfriends currently living in the Niagara Falls area.
If a fantasy handicap worked like golf, girls could research potential boyfriends on the League of Dorks handicap page. "He's a minus-20, time to run for the hills!" That reminds me, Defamer had "The Hills" salaries and it bothered me that Lo makes six times less than Heidi. Lo and her eye rolls and bitchy comments are the key to the show. Lo calls it like she sees it and here's what she sees: Audrina, a wanna-be rocker chick with W.T. friends whose goal in life is to become a Crest Whitestrip. If I shared a house with Audrina, I would make her live in the servant's quarters like Lo did. Anyhoo, Lo is so much more valuable than the humorless, cue-card-reading, seven-hours-of-makeup-wearing, fake-job-having Heidi. I urge MTV to cut Heidi's makeup/hair extensions budget by $20,000 a week and give the extra money to Lo.Now I'm glad I came back. Here are my picks for Week 1: Giants -4; Ravens +1.5; Jets -3; Pats -16.5; Texans +6.5; Titans +3; Lions -3; Bills -1; Saints -3.5; Rams +7.5; Browns +5.5; Panthers -9; 49ers +2.5; Colts -9.5; Vikings +2.5; Raiders +3.
So why do I think the Packers will be fine? Because you can win 11 or 12 games with a below-average QB as long as his supporting cast is really good. (See: Grossman, Rex.) Well, I like this Packers team. It can survive even if Rodgers flounders for a few weeks. Which he probably will. As long as he doesn't have a nervous breakdown -- and I'm not ruling that out -- the Packers can finish 11-5 or 10-6.
Prediction No. 9: The Giants finish either 7-9, 6-10 or 5-11.
Every Giants fan I know is saying the same thing: "I don't even care what happens this season!" And you can't blame them -- they're only eight months removed from watching their team pull off one of the memorable sports upsets of all time. But if the fans are saying that, imagine how the players feel? Everything points to a textbook Rocky Balboa-memorial "Adrian, how did everything that was so good get so bad?" season for the G-Men. Whatever. They just won a Super Bowl in which they toppled an 18-0 team after its quarterback, who famously turtled any time he felt pressure during his entire career, somehow broke away from two potential sacks, bought himself two extra seconds while his offensive line committed a variety of holding infractions that the NFL keeps forgetting to digitally erase from the replay, then heaved a pseudo-Hail Mary to his fourth-string receiver, who had four catches in the regular season, only for this one play, that same receiver somehow found the strength to haul in the game-saving catch even though it was three feet over his head, trap the football against his helmet as he fell backward with a safety molesting him from behind, maintain control of the football even as he was crashing on his back, and somehow avoid ever having the football touch the turf. I think the Giants fans will be fine.
(Important note: I finally snapped after watching the Helmet Catch for the 322nd time on YouTube this summer. It ranks right up there with the clips of Bill Buckner bending over for that grounder and Len Bias smiling in that cream suit. I can't handle it. Let's just move on.)
Prediction No. 10: I'm going to nail my annual sleeper this season.
After a two-year cold streak (St. Louis in 2006, Atlanta in 2007), I shook things up in my front office, fired some magazines, changed my coffee, converted my garage into an office and now I'm ready to reclaim my throne as the King of the Sleeper Pick. And by "sleeper," I mean, "a previously crappy team that somehow goes 10-6 or 11-5 thanks to some much-needed new blood, an easy schedule, a few breaks and everyone looking the other way." I'm bending the rules a little to accommodate this year's sleeper pick
J E T S JETS JETS JETS!!!!!
Maybe they aren't sleeping right now after an underrated finish last year (they hung tough in 10 of their last 11 games), two excellent drafts in a row and a much-needed free-agency splurge (Alan Faneca, Damien Woody, Tony Richardson, Kris Jenkins, etc.). It's a solid team with a solid fink -- er, coach. And regardless of how you feel about Favre at this point of his career, whether he gives them a "B-plus," "B," "B-minus" or "C-plus," it's still going to be better than the "D-minus" they got from the Pennington/Clemens combo last season. It's like replacing Josh Hartnett as the lead of a half-decent action movie with Harrison Ford -- he's a little washed up, but he's still Harrison Ford, and more importantly, he's not Josh Hartnett.
So, how can they be a sleeper? First, their fans put on a phenomenal display of lowering expectations and adamantly maintaining the Jets will suck. Can you blame them? Of course not. They root for the Jets! That's the team that officially replaced the Red Sox in my buddy Blueboy's award-winning 2001 analogy, "Being a Red Sox fan is like being a 120-pound man in a maximum security prison." When your fan base expects the worst at all times, doesn't that qualify you for sleeperdom? More important, the Jets will lose to Miami's Pennington in Week 1 as every Jets fan says, "I knew he'd come back to haunt us!" They'll lose a heartbreaker to the Pats in Week 2 when Favre kills them with an ill-advised pick in the final three minutes. Then they'll go to San Diego for Week 3 and get killed in the first half. And that's when three things will happen: every Jets fan will divest themselves emotionally from the 2008 season, the Chargers will relax like they always do, and the 0-2, trailing-by-17 New York Jets will officially qualify as a sleeper as everyone writes them off.
AFC PLAYOFF TEAMS
1. Jacksonville, 13-3
2. New England, 12-4
3. San Diego, 12-4
4. Pittsburgh, 10-6
5. N.Y. Jets, 11-5
6. Indianapolis, 10-6
7. Tennessee, 10-6
8. Houston, 9-7
9. Buffalo, 9-7
10. Cleveland, 7-9
11. Denver, 6-10
12. Cincinnati, 6-10 13. Baltimore, 6-10
14. Oakland, 5-11
15. Miami, 4-12
16. Kansas City, 2-14
Round 1: Indy over San Diego; NY Jets over Pittsburgh
Round 2: Jacksonville over Indy; New England over NY Jets
AFC Title Game: Jacksonville over New England
And then, boom! The Jets come roaring back and pull off an improbable upset. (Norv Turner Face Alert! Norv Turner Face Alert!) They will finish 11-5, with nine of those wins coming against sub-.500 teams. Any time someone nearly goes into a coma during the first three weeks, improbably survives and bounces back with double-digit wins, that's a sleeper. So there.
Prediction No. 11: The Patriots will not make the Super Bowl.
I'm not feeling it. My Dad disagrees. We argued about it on the phone. He loves our easy schedule. I pointed out that the playoffs won't be so easy. He said I was a fair-weather fan and needed to move back home. I took it personally. Voices were raised. He asked me who I liked more than the Pats. I told him, "If my life depended on it, I'd go with Jacksonville." He pointed out my bipolar behavior during the Celtics' playoff run. I asked him to name three things that have gone right since January other than Belichick getting cheered on the Jumbotron during every big Celtics game. He drew a blank. I asked if there's been a single good sign in the gawd-awful preseason that I missed. He thought rookie middle linebacker Jerod Mayo looked good, and seemed mildly excited about LaMont Jordan. I asked if we could get 16 games out of Randy Moss again. He didn't know. I asked if it worried him that our offensive line gave away Super Bowl XLII and looked even worse in the preseason. He agreed that, yes, this was an awful sign. I asked him to name our starting cornerbacks. He said "Ellis Hobbs and maybe Wheatley, the rookie." I asked if that was the same Ellis Hobbs who he has been complaining about for the past two years. He said yes. We finally ended the conversation because it's much more fun these days to talk about Dustin Pedroia and Jed Lowrie.
Here's the point: I don't know what I'm getting from the Patriots this year. They still have a giant bull's-eye on them every week, only they don't have last season's depth because they didn't get enough from those rookie classes in 2006, 2007 and 2008 (partly because they dealt picks to get Moss and Wes Welker last year, partly because they lost No. 32 in this past draft with Spygate, partly because they uncharacteristically botched a few picks), and again, the offensive line and secondary loom as potential problem areas. Plus, what are the residual emotional effects from last season? Is Brady healthy? Will they wear down from being America's villain for the second straight year? I kept waiting for signs of life from the preseason anything just a glimmer. Nothing. They remind me of the Pistons from 2005 to 2007, a talented team that thinks it can just turn it on whenever it wants, only the Pats aren't quite as talented as they used to be. I am concerned.
Prediction No. 12: Dallas and Jacksonville for Super Bowl XLIII
with the Jaguars winning, 31-24.
Postscript: I nearly picked the Cowboys before remembering that they can't rush the passer. I think "Hard Knocks" nearly brainwashed me into forgetting this; in retrospect, that show might have been the greatest promotional tool since the Dharma Initiative videos. T.O. seems like a helluva guy, I love the plan for the new stadium, Felix Jones might rush for 10 yards a carry, Patrick Crayton might catch 90 balls, Tony Romo loves to win more than he hates to lose and Pacman Jones now makes me think of the guy who caught a sixth straight punt while holding the other five footballs. John McCain should hire the guys who did "Hard Knocks" to follow around Sarah Palin's family for five weeks for a reality show. Combined with Palin's speech last night, McCain could salvage this thing yet!
Onto the quick picks for Week 1
(Home teams in caps)
GIANTS (-4) over Redskins
Reason No. 832 why I love writing a sports column: I wrote about overcrowded NFL pregame shows during the 2007 playoffs, then Fox hired Michael Strahan a few months later and inadvertently validated every argument in that piece. I've never been prouder. In other news, we're exactly five months away from Bill Cowher pretending that he took the Redskins job because he needed a challenge and missed coaching (and not because Daniel Snyder offered him $40 million over seven years).
NFC PLAYOFF TEAMS
1. Dallas, 12-4
2. Green Bay, 11-5
3. New Orleans, 10-6
4. Seattle, 9-7
5. Philly, 11-5
6. Carolina, 10-6
7. Tampa Bay, 9-7
8. Minnesota, 8-8
9. N.Y. Giants, 7-9
10. Chicago, 7-9
11. Detroit, 6-10
12. Washington, 6-10
13. San Francisco, 6-10 14. Arizona, 5-11
15. St. Louis, 5-11
16. Atlanta, 2-14
Round 1: Carolina over New Orleans; Philly over Seattle
Round 2: Dallas over Carolina; Philly over Green Bay
NFC Title Game: Dallas over Philly
Bengals (-1.5) over RAVENS
I can't back a rookie QB starting in Week 1. With that said, everyone keeps worrying about Joe Flacco making the leap from Division I-AA. Look, this guy has dealt with bigger challenges. Have you ever been to Delaware? The entire state smells like somebody tipped over a port-a-john. If you can become a stud quarterback at Delaware fighting that smell for four years, you can do anything.
(Reason No. 324 why I'm going to miss Emmitt Smith this season: All the times he would have called John Harbaugh "Jim." Sigh.)
Lions (-3) over FALCONS
It's a little depressing that the season hasn't even started yet and we're not going to top Rudi Johnson accusing Tatum Bell of stealing his baggage from a comedy standpoint. Rudi, just to be clear -- are we talking about your personal baggage or your actual luggage? That killed me. Also getting killed -- Vegas, by everyone smart enough to realize Matt Ryan will be a disaster this month.
DOLPHINS (+3) over Jets
Just remember, Pennington knows the Jets' entire playbook and the strengths and weaknesses of every player on the team. I see him picking the Jets apart with a variety of wounded ducks, lob passes and pseudo-bombs that die in mid-air. By the way, Tony Sparano is the all-time "name that looks wrong every time you type it" NFL name in the history of this column. I will never stop feeling dyslexic when I type it. It mkaes em want to tpye erevy setnence lkie thsi.
PATRIOTS (-16.5) over Chiefs
Big week for fantasy mega-sleeper Jabar Gaffney: Something like nine catches, 85 yards, one TD and a near-riot on tens of thousands of fantasy football waiver wires next week. I can't think of a better Week 1 opponent for the Pats than Kansas City, the team that recently launched a rebuilding effort by trading its 26-year-old stud defensive end for draft picks. And you thought the Royals were the worst-run team in town? Watch this!
Texans (+6.5) over STEELERS
Jaguars (-3) over TITANS
Bucs (+3.5) over SAINTS
NINERS (+2.5) over Cardinals
I have a few more predictions just for the hell of it. First: Houston becomes this year's Lollipop Team. (Scroll down to No. 21 for the details.) Second: 3,900 yards and 36 TDs for "Ben." Third: Tennessee screws up its playoff hopes because it will wait too long to turn the running game over to Chris Johnson. Fourth: You'll like Mike Lombardi's takes at the National Football Post (especially the "Post-Diner News" blog). Fifth: Reggie Bush will finish with 1,750 all-around yards and 10 TDs. Sixth: You won't realize how bummed out you were by the whole "Isaac Bruce on the Niners" thing until you see him clogging along on grass as J.T. O'Sullivan overthrows him by 20 feet.
BILLS (-1) over Seahawks
The Bills would have been my 2008 sleeper except the whole "we're playing six home games in Toronto over the next three years" thing makes me nervous. If rooting for the Bills is a marriage, then the Toronto experiment (affair? dalliance?) is like having your wife announce, "Hey, I know we've been having problems, and I swear, this has nothing to do with that but for the next three years, I'm going to spend 35 weekends per year flying to Toronto and sleeping with this rich millionaire who really wants to marry me. Don't be alarmed, I just want to expand my presence in Canada." This will not end well.
EAGLES (-7.5) over Rams
If we named a preseason Redeem Team, Donovan McNabb and Jake Delhomme would definitely be the QBs. Meanwhile, DeSean Jackson has been hyped to the point that anything less than a punt return TD, seven catches, 120 receiving yards, one long TD catch and the greatest TD dance unveiled in 30 years since Billy "White Shoes" Johnson will have to be considered a major disappointment. DeSean, you better rock my world.
Panthers (+9) over CHARGERS
Jake Delhomme, Tommy John surgery, feeling no pain for the first time in four years I'm in! Say no more.
(Random stat: I'm 15 games over .500 during seasons when Steve Smith has inexplicably punched out one of his teammates.)
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BROWNS (+5.5) over Cowboys
I understand dropping "Pacman" for image-changing reasons, but how can Adam Jones give up on such a cool nickname altogether? Did Calvin Broadus ever give up "Snoop Dogg" after the murder trial? Did Fiddy Cent ever stop being Fiddy when he went to jail for the 97th time? Why not just switch to a different nickname like Sean Combs?
(Speaking of names, here's my goal for the Chad Ocho Cinco era: The Bengals trade him to a team that already has an established No. 85. Ocho Cinco keeps offering the guy money for his jersey. The guy keeps saying no. Eventually a bitter Ocho Cinco has to either offer him like $500,000, or wear Ocho Seis or Ocho Quatro for the season. Please, Lord, let this happen.)
Bears (+9.5) over COLTS
I'm still disappointed the Bears weren't this year's "Hard Knocks" team. The "Grossman-Orton" battle had Feldman-Haim potential.
PACKERS (-2.5) over Vikings
I'm muting this game.
RAIDERS (+3) over Broncos
Any time "Our QB should be better this year because he's finally treating his Type 1 Diabetes" is your best reason for making the playoffs, I can't pick you to finish higher than 7-9 and I definitely can't pick you to cover as a road favorite on Monday night. I will leave you with this: Shouldn't the JaMarcus Russell/Javon Walker combo have a nickname like "Ja Hookup" or "Ja Bomb Squad?" When will this happen again in our lifetime? I demand a "Ja Bomb Squad" sign in the Oakland stands Monday night. I don't ask for much.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. For every Simmons column, as well as podcasts, videos, favorite links and more, check out the revamped Sports Guy's World.