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Friday, October 14, 2005
The NFL's kitchen sink

By Bill Simmons
Page 2

Sometimes I wonder if the NFL is less complicated than we think.

Last weekend, there were five matchups in which one team needed a victory more than the other team: Jets-Bucs, Steelers-Chargers, Packers-Saints, Cowboys-Eagles and Jags-Bengals. I'm not claiming that the Bucs/Chargers/Saints/Eagles/Bengals didn't care about losing; it's just that the Jets/Steelers/Packers/Cowboys/Jags needed those games just a little bit more, so they basically had to break out the kitchen sink for that extra somethin'-somethin'. That's why they won.

Check out each game...

Jets 14, Bucs 12
The Bucs were already 4-0 and playing an AFC team on the road, and their two best players (Cadillac Williams and Michael Clayton) were banged up. Meanwhile, the Jets were 1-3 and facing a "Buffalo/Atlanta/SAN DIEGO/Carolina/Denver" stretch (with the one home game in caps). They lose that Bucs game and they're finished -- with Vinny Testaverde as their QB, no less. If this were a bad Fox show (like "Head Cases" with Chris O'Donnell), you would just cancel the remaining episodes. Well, you can't do that with football.

Steelers 22, Chargers 21
The Chargers were 2-2 and coming off two straight emotional wins (Pats and Giants) to save their season. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh was 2-1, coming off a bye week and licking its wounds after an agonizing "maybe we just can't beat these guys" loss to the Pats (the same team that thrashed them in January). With a physical JACKSONVILLE/Cincy/BALTIMORE stretch coming up, the Steelers needed a statement win to boost their confidence, one of those games where they come up big on the road and Bill Cowher clenches his fist about 20 times and looks like Sergeant Slaughter right after pinning the Iron Sheik at MSG.

(By the way, I picked San Diego in this game. This is all hindsight, I didn't think through it enough when I made the pick.)

Packers 52, Saints 3
The 0-4 Packers were playing at Lambeau in front of a crowd that had a "Come on, don't lose this game, I'm not emotionally ready to start talking myself into the Andrew Bogut Era yet" vibe going. Plus, six wins is probably taking the NFC North, so it wasn't like they were only playing for pride.

Cowboys 33, Eagles 10
Philly was coming off two emotional wins against Oakland and KC ... and poor McNabb's body was breaking down piece by piece. Meanwhile, the 2-2 Cowboys knew they had no chance of taking the East without winning one Philly game, and they also knew that Bledsoe could go bad at any time (almost like a carton of milk). This was their one big chance to topple Philly; the stars had aligned.

Jags 23, Bengals 20
If the Jags didn't respond in this game (Sunday night, must-win), their fans were turning on them for good -- which is dangerous because there's absolutely nothing to do in Jacksonville, so you don't want to make these people unhappy. Meanwhile, with their schedule, the 4-0 Bengals are guaranteed 11-12 wins as long as Chad Johnson and Carson Palmer don't fly to Haiti to film a Bad Ideas Jeans commercial during their bye week.

Here's the point: In all five of these games, the winning team was ready to use everything but the kitchen sink to come out on top. For instance, the Steelers scored a TD on a delayed QB sneak with Roethlisberger from 14 yards out, the kind of play you run once a year (because it will only work once). That's a kitchen-sink play -- you don't use it until you absolutely need it. On Monday, the Steelers needed it.

Anyway, from now on, I'm dubbing these Kitchen Sink Games. The Week 6 slate includes three of them.

1. Redskins-Chiefs
The Chiefs are coming off two hideous losses (Denver and Philly) as well as a bye week, with road games at Miami and San Diego coming up, and there is literally nothing else going on with the Kansas City sports scene, with Kansas City Star columnist Joe Posnanski the odds-on favorite to become the next Danny Bonaduce unless things turn around. Meanwhile, the Redskins are 3-1 and playing with house money -- they could easily be 0-4 and they know it -- plus, Daniel Snyder lost much of his Trump-like Intimidating Boss Mojo during the Dallas game, when he was hopping around after Santana Moss' game-winning catch like a 13-year-old girl who just found out that Justin Timberlake would be appearing at her bat mitzvah. How could you be afraid of the Wrath of Snyder after seeing that? They're due for a full-fledged stinker.

2. Browns-Ravens
There's a decent chance the Ravens quit on their coach. More on this later in the column.

3. Cowboys-Giants
The Cowboys just played the best possible game they can play against the best possible team ... seven days later, they have to face a hungry Giants team that's ready to take the NFC by storm (after this Dallas game, they have four home games in their next five). Can you peak two weeks in a row? Not with Julius Jones banged up. Which reminds me, between Willie Ponder and Tyson Thompson (both playing in this game), have we officially reached the point where the league auto-generates the names for backup players, the way the "Madden" sim engine creates names for the draft picks every year? There's no way in hell that Tyson Thompson and Willie Ponder are real names. I refuse to believe it.

While we're here, two related notes on the Kitchen Sink Games...

1. You can't qualify if your coach is terrible and/or all hope for the season has already been lost. For instance, the Texans could have qualified last weekend, but I think they quit on Dom Capers about two hours after Houston completed its expansion draft in 2002. Same goes for the Vikings and Mike Tice, the Rams and Mike Martz (who is out indefinitely with a heart infection), and maybe even the Saints and Jim Haslett. I would throw in Mike Sherman and the Packers, as well, but those guys would never lay down with Favre on the team. If/when he gets injured, watch out.

2. There's a flip side to this theory: The Anti-Sink Game. I don't know who invented it, but it's been a Bill Belichick specialty during any regular-season game against an inferior opponent -- you can always count on the Pats to keep everything close to the vest, avoid any gimmick plays or defenses, stick to basic formations and try to win doing the bare minimum (like against the Raiders in Week 1). They're almost like a con artist who keeps passing up small poker pots and playing possum until someone is dumb enough to raise the stakes.

The Colts' organization, to its credit, has finally realized there's no reason to unleash heavy artillery against crappy teams (like the ridiculous 2004 stretch in which they walloped four terrible teams by a combined score of 182-57). Why not control the clock, keep Edgerrin James happy, keep their defense off the field and save the fireworks for big games? Sure, Peyton Manning can't throw for an extra 30 meaningless TDs and win another ESPY for Record-Breaking Performance this way, but it makes them infinitely tougher to scout during the season -- watching them these first five games, I almost feel like they're biding their time until Week 9, when they'll almost certainly be bringing a 500-pound kitchen sink to Foxborough with them.

And for the first time in three years, I'm honestly afraid of the Colts; they're almost like The Others in "Lost." What's going on with them? Why haven't they unleashed the passing game yet? What happens when they drop the hammer? There isn't a more frightening team in the league -- not only does their schedule pretty much guarantee them home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, not only is the Super Bowl in a Dome this year, but they only have to break out kitchen sinks for two games this season (at New England in Week 9, at Cincy in Week 11). Maybe they aren't a mortal lock for the title or anything, but it seems like Manning and the Colts finally realized three things:

1. It's a marathon, not a sprint.

2. This isn't about breaking records and winning ESPYs, it's about winning football games and peaking in January.

3. Great teams break out the kitchen sink only when they absolutely need it. That's why the 2005 season doesn't officially start until Week 9, when both teams bring their respective sinks to Gillette Stadium and pull a Coralles-Castillo on one another.

And honestly? I can't wait.

On to the Week 6 picks (home teams in caps)...

Giants (+3.5) over COWBOYS
One of the few redeeming pieces in the 2005 "Best American Sports Writing" book: Michael Lewis' feature about Eli Manning's rookie season. Not only will you feel infinitely better about the Eli Era (if you didn't already), but you'll feel infinitely worse about the Kurt Warner Era (if you didn't already). I think Eli is for real, personally. Imagine if he won a championship before his brother? Would Peyton end up going Venus Williams on us, or would it play out more like the Klitschko brothers, how they somehow remain united? Aren't you secretly rooting for this?

(By the way, earlier this week, I was talking to my buddy Gus and playing the "If you had to bet your life on it, which NFC team do you think will make the Super Bowl this year?" game, and both of us begrudgingly picked the Giants. Warrants mentioning. They're the scariest NFC team right now, especially with Team Tagliabue giving them an unprecedented nine home games this season. Even David Stern wouldn't dare to pull that with the Knicks -- although there's still time.)

GAMBLING STATS THROUGH FIVE WEEKS
THE BREAKDOWN:
Favorites against the spread -- 36-37-1
Home teams against the spread -- 38-34-1
Games won outright by underdogs -- 26 of 37

Panthers (+1) over LIONS
Joey Harrington's QB rating by the season: 59.9; 63.9; 77.5; 52.7.

Joey Harrington's stats during last week's 35-17 blowout of the Ravens: 23 passes, 10 completions, 97 yards, 1 touchdown, 2 INTs.

The injury report for Joey Harrington's receivers this week: Roy Williams (doubtful); Eddie Drummond (doubtful); Mike Williams (questionable); Charles Rogers (stoned); Scottie Vines (healthy); Kevin Johnson (healthy).

(I guess my point is this: Don't start Joey Harrington in your fantasy league this week.)

E-mail of the week about Harrington, courtesy of Jeremy S. in Alabama: "I read your Week 5 picks column -- the thing that jumped out at me was the line about how Joey Harrington needs to change his name to Joe. My friends and I have agreed on this since he came into the league. Are you kidding me? Joey? For an NFL football player? To test to see just how utterly ridiculous this is, try on the following names: Joey Namath ... Joey Montana ... Mean Joey Greene. I mean, come on, Harrington, this isn't the friggin' sand lot. You aren't allowed to be called Joey unless your mom combs your hair with her saliva and thumb."

STEELERS (-3) over Jaguars
Look, nobody's more excited for a Chaz Batch start than me, but did you see the lead in the AP's column about him on Wednesday? Check this out:

"Not all that long ago, there was debate in the NFL over which quarterback was the best of the rookie class of 1998: Peyton Manning or Charlie Batch."

Ummmmm ... what? People were debating this? Was I trapped in a block of ice? That's like flipping through Entertainment Weekly and reading a lead like this: "Not all that long ago, there was debate in Hollywood over which young actor had the brighter future: Leonardo DiCaprio or Brian Austin Green."

Falcons (-5) over SAINTS
The Saints lose by 49 points in Green Bay, they lose their best player (Deuce McAllister) for the season, and then they have to fly back home to San Antonio, where they don't even live because their houses have been wiped out by the hurricane. Tough weekend. And you know what? I thought Jim Haslett should have been fired two years ago, but he kept hanging around and hanging around, and now he's a bad coach stuck in an impossible situation -- the team is wearing down, Aaron Brooks is playing poorly, there are still three months to go in the season, and poor Haslett was doing everything short of reading "My Pet Goat" on the sideline last weekend. Bad times all around.

CHIEFS (-5.5) over Redskins
I forgot to mention this last week, so I'm sticking it here: After hearing about the passing of the great Nipsey Russell, I called my buddy Gus -- the creator of the "It's a little Nipsey Russell outside right now" joke, as well as the "It's a little Chili Davis out here" joke, although I was the one who came up with, "Yikes, it is John Frieze-ing outside!" -- to break the devastating news, leading to this exchange:

-- Me: You sitting down?
-- Gus: Yeah.
-- Me: Right now, God's in heaven saying, "It's a little Nipsey Russell right now."
-- Gus (after a two-second pause): Nooooooo! No! No!

(The good news: Nipsey lives on as GM of the LA Clippers.)

Bengals (-3) over TITANS
Since I can't think of one interesting thing to say about this game, is there a bigger jerk in the history of sports than Bill Romanowski? The guy pumped God-knows-what into his body for years and years and cheats the system, complete with the Roid Rage beating of Oakland's backup tight end, then he retires from football and immediately writes a tell-all book in which he throws BALCO under the bus and admits that he cheated, just so he can make more money. Shouldn't the Son of Sam laws apply here? How could somebody be allowed to profit this quickly from being a cheater? At least Jose Canseco waited a few years before he was broke. Shame on everyone involved with this book, and I don't care if I sound like Mike Lupica on "The Sports Reporters" right now. This is terrible.

RAVENS (-6) over Browns
In John Feinstein's latest book, he spends the 2004 season behind the scenes with Brian Billick and the Baltimore Ravens. Three years before that, HBO's "Hard Knocks" show spent a training camp behind the scenes with Brian Billick and the Baltimore Ravens (I even did a running diary about it). And I guess my point is this: Instead of agreeing to these all-access gimmicks, Brian Billick might want to start coaching his team. They had, like, 50 penalties last week and two different players made contact with referees -- it was like watching an episode of "Playmakers." Did they quit on their coach last week? Sure seemed like it.

(Still, I can't ignore the overwhelming Kitchen Sink Game potential here ... ugh ... I hate this game...)

BEARS (-3) over Vikings
Please tell me someone's writing a book about this Vikings season: They trade Randy Moss to improve their team chemistry, then their head coach gets into a ticket-scalping scandal, their backup RB tries to smuggle the Whizzinator through a metal detector, and then half the team is accused of improper conduct during a boat orgy that sounds like it was either the greatest or most horrifying bachelor party of all time (maybe both). My favorite excerpt from the news coverage in Thursday's Minnesota Star-Tribune:

"After the boats returned to dock and guests departed, the crew had to clean the boat, [charter company lawyer Stephen Doyle] said, finding 'used condoms, K-Y Jelly, Handi Wipes, wrappers for sex toys -- it was just incredible how it was left. Never in the history of this group of people have they ever had anything like this.'"

Wait, so you're telling me this was the most over-the-top bachelor party in the history of chartered Minnesota cruises? I find this hard to believe -- you're telling me that 20 ice fisherman with Swedish names didn't cross the line at some point? More importantly, what does Mike Tice have to do to get fired? Come out for the second half of Sunday's game with no pants on? Drink Wild Turkey on the sidelines? In fact, I'm no longer accepting odds on the "Which Mike will get fired first?" ongoing wager ... Tice isn't making it through Tuesday. I'm pulling him off the board.

Jets (+3) over BILLS
Holcomb!!! Testaverde!!! It's the NFL on CBS! By the way, Buffalo got five turnovers from Miami last week and still barely won at home. Not a good sign.

Dolphins (+4.5) over BUCS
On the flip side, I think this Dolphins team is for real -- they were one Ronnie Brown fumble away from taking that game last week (and they didn't even play well). But while we're here, what's up with the new trend of running backs splitting carries? We have Ronnie and Ricky Williams in Miami, Tatum Bell and Mike Anderson in Denver, Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson in Kansas City, Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster in Carolina ... I mean, don't these coaches realize that fantasy-football seasons are at stake! How dare they?

(Speaking of fantasy football, Lewis Black defiled "Inside the NFL" with another annoying rant this week -- this time he hilariously tackled the fantasy-football boom, which would have been timely if this were 1998. I'm not sure what's happening here, but between those "comedy" segments and the sudden influx of belly-laughs/yuk-yuks with the four hosts, we may need to stage a collective intervention soon. Can we get back to the old formula please? Whatever happened to knowledgeable, likable football guys arguing about the league, showing cool highlights and pretending to listen to Cris Carter? Why did we shift away from that?)

Patriots (+3) over BRONCOS
Not to pull a Hubie Brown here, but I think Mike Shanahan came to the following conclusion before the season: "I'm not letting Jake Plummer kill us again. I can't do it. My running game is good, my defense is good ... I'm doing the Baltimore/Dilfer routine all season, I'm sticking to it, and that's that. I don't care if he grew a cool 'stache. I'm taking away his car keys."

Which is fine. In fact, I think it was the right move. But Bill Belichick thrives on stuff like this -- he will never play against a Jake Plummer team and not figure out a way to put the game in Jake's hands. He loves this stuff. And speaking of love, two of my favorite players are in this game:

1. Ian Gold -- The most underrated player in the league, as well as Ray Lewis' replacement as the go-to linebacker for NFL Films. You can't make it through Broncos highlights without seeing some sort of enjoyable Ian Gold clip. It's impossible.

2. Tom Brady -- I know, I know, it's all been said at this point. But here's an e-mail I sent to a buddy this week:

"I can't believe I'm saying this, but Brady has reached Bird status for me -- this season has pushed it over the top. If I were 15, my room would be covered in Brady posters and I would be wearing his jersey everywhere. It's the Bird Era all over again. This team should be 1-4, he will just not let them lose. He won't allow it."

SEAHAWKS (-9.5) over Texans
Back in the winter of 2001, I went to Houston for the Galleryfurniture.com Bowl and wrote about how my buddy Stoner and I inadvertently caught a Dom Capers speech at the Kickoff Luncheon. The speech was so uninspiring and ridiculous that I devoted six paragraphs to it, ending with Stoner's quote, "I wouldn't let that guy coach my son's Pop Warner team."

Nine months later, Dom took over the Texans. Fifty-two games later, he's sitting on a career record of 16-36, and he's about to get canned any day. And I guess my question is this: How did Stoner and I know that Dom Capers was doomed to fail, but nobody working for the Texans had any clue? How does this happen?

Rams (+13.5) over COLTS
This line seems too high.

(And yes, I felt bad for Mike Martz this week. Even when I was making the obligatory, "Look at the bright side, he always has a place with the New York Knicks" joke ... I still felt bad for him.)

RAIDERS (+2) over Chargers
Only one thing could make Minnesota's week worse: Randy Moss springing for 195 yards and three TDs in this game, then simulating sex toys and yacht captain movements for his touchdown dances.

(By the way, I got to the bottom of this "LT" thing with Tomlinson -- apparently, Tomlinson asked Lawrence Taylor for permission to use the nickname and Taylor agreed. Well, you know what? I don't care. If LeBron James' name was Mebron, we wouldn't call him MJ, right? So I'm not calling Tomlinson LT. From now on, for the purposes of this column, we're calling him "LDT." And that's that.)

Last week: 8-5-1
Season: 40-32-1

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. His new book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available right now on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.