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Friday, September 28, 2007
Updated: October 12, 3:20 PM ET
Who let the underdogs out?

By Bill Simmons
Page 2

Can you hear it? Can you hear the barking? Can you hear the cacophony of dogs? Can you hear the Baja Men singing in the background? The dogs are about to run wild in the NFL this week, and all I can say is this: Thank God Michael Vick isn't around.

Of the 14 games on the slate for Week 4, a whopping nine of them feature home underdogs. That might be an all-time record. Even better, every one of those dogs has a decent chance to cover. (Yeah, even you, Buffalo.) If you were ever looking for a lazy picks week when you could just say, "Give me all the home teams," this is it. Just for the record, I'm taking 12 home teams and nine 'dogs and banking on the fact that Chris Berman will be turning to Tom Jackson on Sunday night and saying, "T.J., this was a WILD Week 4."

Not to pull a Stu Feiner on you, but here's a rare Friday guarantee: I'm going at least 9-5 this week or your money back. That's right, you're getting a full refund for this column if I don't pick nine winners or more. Let's just get to the Week 4 slate, I'm too excited.

THE WEEKLY POWER POLL

BRUCE COSLET DIVISION
32. St. Louis
31. Buffalo
30. Atlanta
29. Kansas City
28. Miami

OVERSLEEPERS
27. New Orleans

RELIABLY UNRELIABLE
26. Oakland
25. Cleveland
24. NY Giants

INCOMPETENTLY COMPETENT
23. Minnesota
22. San Francisco
21. NY Jets

FANTASY STALWARTS
20. Detroit
19. Cincinnati

THE LOITERERS
18. Arizona
17. Washington
16. Denver

POSSIBLE SLEEPERS
15. Houston
14. Tampa Bay

THE ENIGMAS
13. Philly
12. Carolina
11. Jacksonville
10. Seattle

OFFICIALLY OVERRATED
9. Chicago
8. Baltimore

THE X-FACTOR
7. San Diego

THE NON-FLUKES
6. Tennessee
5. Green Bay

THE CONTENDERS
4. Dallas
3. Pittsburgh
2. Indianapolis

THE PROHIBITIVE FAVORITE
1. New England
(HOME TEAMS IN CAPS)

BILLS (+3.5) over Jets
Forget that this has Obvious Game written all over it for a second. Here's Buffalo's schedule after Week 4: DALL, bye, BALT, jets, CINCY, miami, PATS, jags, wash, MIAMI, browns, GIANTS, philly. Other than the two home games against Miami and the Giants, the Bills won't be getting less than four points for the rest of the season and they're a legitimate 0-16 threat if they lose on Sunday. If there's ever a time for urgency from an NFL team, it's this week with the Bills ... so I'm backing them even if Presidential candidate Trent Edwards is involved. Besides, since when did the words "J.P. Losman isn't playing" mean that you should be jumping on the other team?

(Random question from Kevin T. in Rockford, Ill.: "Your Ewing Theory sleeper pick is 0-3. Your 'Obvious Game' picks went 1-1 in Week 3. I have a new theory called the 'Sports Guy Theory Theory' -- see which team you throw into your 'theory of the week' section of the article, then go with the opposite team." Hmmmmmm ... what if I adopted this theory? If I came up with a theory for every week, then went against the same team in that theory, wouldn't that become its own Theory of the Week, so I'd have to go back the other way against the team I already went the other way on? My head hurts.)

DOLPHINS (-4) over Raiders
After last week's column about the Obvious Game (which went 1-1 instead of 2-0 last week, thanks to that trash-talking idiot DeAngelo Hall), a few professional gamblers e-mailed me to take issue with my "we have a 50 percent chance to cover every football game" comment. And they were right -- when Vegas is setting the lines, their only goal is to make sure an equal number of bettors are wagering on each side. For certain games, if they feel like the majority of bettors will be backing one side (like the Pats this week, or the Colts every week), they'll bump the line by 1-3 points and make you pay a tax for backing that team. Basically, they're saying, "You like these guys, huh? Well, do you like them when they're giving 5 instead of 3 1/2?

Again, the betting public determines each line. Which explains occasional head-scratchers like this Dolphins game: An 0-3 team giving four at home to a 1-2 team when both teams are even on paper. The home team gets three points for playing at home, so if you have two even teams, the home team is favored by three. Not this time. Vegas is making us pay a 1-point tax because they know that we know four things: The Dolphins desperately need a win; the Raiders are coming off a big win; Miami will probably be smart enough to make the Raiders wear their black uniforms so they'll be baking in the South Florida sun/humidity on Sunday; and, if that's not enough, the Raiders were probably dumb enough to stay in South Beach. So I'm paying the tax on this one.

(Random question: Since this is Daunte Culpepper's return to Miami, shouldn't they have a moment of silence before the game for all the fantasy teams he murdered last season?)

BROWNS (+4.5) Ravens
We always hear the phrase "he's gonna be seeking a little revenge" in sports for situations when a player wants to make his old team feel dumb for getting rid of him ... but in Jamal Lewis' case, I feel like there could be some genuine revenge. Like, he's going to have 45 carries for 195 yards and try to take out Brian Billick's legs running out of bounds on a sweep. Jamal Lewis is crazy. If he wants revenge, I'm backing him. More importantly, the Ravens aren't that good. Hate to break it to you. They made Kurt Warner look like it was 1999 last week.

FALCONS (+2.5) over Texans
I'm gonna keep picking the Falcons because, eventually, they're going to cover a 2007 spread. I feel confident about this. Plus, the Texans have Obvious Game written all over them (seen any Falcons picks this week?), which is strange because Samkon Gado, Ron Dayne and Andre Davis are prominently involved in their offense this week. But here's the big question, courtesy of Chris in Detroit:

"You have pondered several times about why Joey Harrington doesn't simply go by Joe. I just thought I'd share a little piece of information with you; his first name isn't really even Joseph. He was born John Joseph Harrington. He could be John Harrington or Johnny Harrington right now. Wouldn't that instantly make him 10 times better? Or, he could be J.J. Harrington, grow his hair long and become a gunslinger, a la Brett Favre. The possibilities are endless, yet he continues to go by Joey. I personally always refer to him as John Joseph Harrington because I think it has the most gravitas, and I think if people started using it on a normal basis, he would see the light."

I like it! Let's see what John Joseph Harrington has in store for us this week. By the way, as far as emotional comebacks go, let's hope Matt Schaub's return to Atlanta goes better than Lo returning to "The Hills" as a 40-year-old woman.

LIONS (+3) over Bears
Put it this way: When your own fans are chanting "Griese! Griese!" for your backup, only it's 2007 and they're chanting for Brian instead of Bob, then you know you've colossally failed as a starting QB. Is Brian Griese the worst athlete who ever had his name chanted at a professional sporting event? He has to be right up there, correct? This was like 19,000 NBA fans chanting "Madsen! Madsen!" at the same time. Anyway, you beat this Lions team by throwing the ball on them and outscoring them ... and I'm not backing Brian Griese in a shootout. No, thanks.

VIKINGS (+2) over Packers
Like everyone else, I'm delighted that Brett Favre hooked himself up to the Juvenation Machine. This is a great thing. With that said, the Packers fans can't be defiantly angry about the fact that people (like me) wrote off Favre heading into this season. He hasn't been good for a couple of years. These are the facts. For whatever reason, he's been good in 2007. Everyone's playing up the whole "he's not trying to do too much, he's just managing the game" angle, which sounds great on paper but doesn't happen to be true. He's not playing any differently. He's not. Stop saying this. He's just playing well. That could change this week; it might not change all season. We don't know.

Here's the interesting wrinkle: A relatively washed-up quarterback has a resurgence at the end of his career, and everyone happily decides, "He's managing the game now!" with no real evidence to support that statement (apparently you didn't see him winging the ball into traffic on the failed fourth down midway through the fourth quarter against San Diego). If Favre were a baseball player, we'd be making HGH jokes and wondering if he trained in the offseason with Barry Bonds. I mention this not to accuse Favre (he's as clean as a whistle), but to point out how much baseball has fallen as an American sport. It would be absolutely impossible for a baseball player to accomplish what Favre accomplished over these past three weeks without someone wondering, "Hold on, hold on, what's this guy taking?" Kind of a bummer.

(Random note: My Page 2 colleague, Jemele Hill, is playing fantasy for the first time and has Adrian Peterson. Every week, she e-mails me because some jerk in her league made her a lame offer for Peterson and hoped she'd take it because she's a woman and she's never played fantasy before. Every week, I tell her not to trade Peterson and not to e-mail me about this again. Anyway, this will be the week when Peterson has a monster fantasy week and the sleazeballs in Jemele's league realize that she's not trading him for Wes Welker or Vincent Jackson. I'm excited.)

COWBOYS (-13) over Rams
It's kinda sad seeing the Rams like this -- it's weird to see a Rams score flash across the ticker and learn that they have three points in the fourth quarter. Anyway, I stubbed my big toe two weeks ago so violently that I actually heard a crack; I've been limping around ever since. It's incredibly painful. I hate walking around, I can't work out, I'm basically crippled. I've been complaining about it nonstop for two weeks. Then I received my new issue of the underrated USA Today Sports Weekly and Marc Bulger and his broken ribs were on the cover with the headline, "GUTS." And I felt like a wimp for about 10 minutes. Then I went back to limping around and complaining about my toe.

(But seriously ... broken ribs???? How do you play QB with broken ribs? I broke three ribs once in high school -- you can't even sneeze when you have broken ribs. They could make this line 25 and I wouldn't bite.)

PANTHERS (-3) over Bucs
Good God, that's David Carr's music! What the hell is he doing here? This Panthers season was going so well! And why am I still taking them when they haven't covered as favorites at home since 1957?

Well, the Panthers are good this year because they're running the crap out of the ball. Maybe it doesn't totally translate to fantasy success because of the Foster/Williams thing, but 92 carries for 427 yards is pretty damned good, and I can't remember Foster ever running the ball this violently before. He's like a man possessed. Throw in two big Steve Smith plays per game and they should be able to get to 21 points every week no matter who's playing QB for them. Also, should we be sold on this Bucs team when their two big wins came against a depleted Rams team and a we-had-no-idea-at-the-time-that-they-stunk Saints team? I say no.

(So if you're scoring at home, I'm willingly backing Trent Edwards, David Carr, Derek Anderson, John Joseph Harrington and Kelly Holcomb so far this week. Told you Week 4 had a chance to be crazy.)

NINERS (+2) over Seahawks
One of the strangest lines this week: I don't like the Niners that much, but it's not like the Seahawks have looked good, either. I wondered what was wrong with them in this week's podcast, leading to an illuminating e-mail from Mike in Emeryville, Calif.:

"Listening to your latest podcast right now, where you say something seems wrong about Seattle. As a longtime, die-hard 'Hawks fan, I'm telling you, the problem is Shaun Alexander. Think about how important RBs have been to 'pure' West Coast offenses -- ideally, they block, catch passes and get gritty yards. Shaun does none of those things, and you can't use the broken hand as an excuse because he's been this way since Day 1. He can't catch, won't block and (watch this one closely next time you watch them play) if he doesn't smell a huge gain, he turns south and sits down. Literally, he tries backing into the defenders and then just takes a squat. It's pitiful. Any real Hawks fan will tell you that Shaun's big year in 2005 was nothing more than the product of Jones, Hutchinson and Strong blocking, as well as Hasselbeck making smart audibles."

(Does Shaun Alexander secretly suck? I haven't watched him closely enough to have an opinion on this, but I'll be watching this weekend. Stay tuned.)

Kelly Pavlik (+110) over Jermain Taylor
The most intriguing non-PPV fight since Corralles-Castillo II! Taylor is too soft to handle someone like Pavlik, who will keep coming and coming and throwing bomb after bomb ... eventually, Taylor will fold. I'm going with a Pavlik knockout in Round 8. Poor Pavlik. Had he come along 25 years ago, he'd be a household name.

CARDS (+6) over Steelers
My favorite pick of the week: I love when coaches go against their old teams, only the line never seems to reflect all the inside information they have on player weaknesses, signals and audibles and everything else. Imagine you worked in a close-knit company for 6-7 years like Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm did. Would you know the strengths and weaknesses of everyone around you? You would, right? Now, imagine you left the company to work somewhere else, then you had to use your extensive knowledge of your old company to beat them on a particular task. Wouldn't you have an enormous advantage for that task? Look at the way Parcells' Jets teams used to play the Pats in the late '90s -- they had half the talent, but those games were always close because the Tuna knew exactly how to beat them. Same for this game: Cards 27, Steelers 20.

(Random note: You know it's been a kooky fantasy season when Matt Leinart gets benched in Week 3, only he can't crack the top-10 list for "Biggest Fantasy Disappointments" this year. Drew Brees, you're riding pole position right now. Feel free to wake up. It's almost October.)

CHARGERS (-12) over Chiefs
The 2007 Chargers have clearly given away their "Super Bowl contender" status and become this year's test case for the time-proven phrase, "Coaching matters." Which reminds me ...

1. A few readers e-mailed me about this: When Norv Turner was coaching the Raiders in 2005, I created a Norv Turner Second-Half Collapse Checklist. Three games into Norv's tenure with the Chargers, we already have six of the nine categories checked.

• Guys arguing on the sidelines? (CHECK)
• Embarrassing losses at home? (NO)
• QB getting sacked and throwing the ball up for grabs? (CHECK)
• Just an ungodly amount of penalties? (NO)
• Steady stream of excuses? (CHECK)
• Players taking veiled shots at the coaching staff? (CHECK)
• General malaise and dissatisfaction within the fan base? (CHECK)
• Local columnists taking shots at him? (CHECK)
• Big coaching name looming in the background as a replacement? (NO)

(Basically, we're a penalty-filled upset loss to the Chiefs, followed by rumors of Bill Cowher taking over the Chargers, from the entire Norv Turner Second-Half Collapse Checklist getting filled before the baseball playoffs start. I think this is amazing.)

2. A longtime reader named Jason created a Norv-related blog called The Coach is Killing Me, named after the story when my buddy Hopper drove Norv from a blackjack table in Vegas back in May '01 because Norv kept staying on 16 against a 10. He's been hired as a head coach not once but TWICE since I retold this story on ESPN.com. As Herm Edwards would say, clearly, more NFL owners need to have the Internet.

3. Everyone keeps blaming Norv (and with reason), but for whatever reason, defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell hasn't been treated with the same level of scorn. Remember what the Guy Who Knows Things said before the season (in my NFL Preview)?

"[San Diego] is the perfect storm for bad -- Norv as a head coach and Ted Cottrell as the [defensive coordinator]. You cannot get any worse than that. Consider how Laveranues Coles described Belichick and Mangini this week and you'll feel like Bobby Knight felt every time he faced Dale Brown by not picking Norv and the Chargers: 'They have a very smart coaching staff and we have a very smart coaching staff. They basically use us as chess pieces. How they position us to play this game, that's the main thing now. Whoever can make the adjustments the best and the fastest will probably have the edge.' With Norv and Ted, they cannot beat enough of the good chess players. The game is in the details and they leave too many untouched."

So what happens to this Chargers team the rest of the way? I see them rebounding with a 4-1 run over the next six weeks (KC, Broncos, OAK, bye, HOUS, minny) before the annual second-half Norv collapse kicks off in November (INDY, jags, BALT, kc, tenn) and we can break out the checklist again. We'll have all the checkmarks filled before Week 15. I promise you.

Broncos (+9.5) over COLTS
Come on, this line shouldn't be higher than 7. I'm not paying the Colts Tax because Denver has two quality CBs to handle Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, which means Joe Addai has to run all over them for Indy to cover this spread. (I'm not ruling it out, but it seems like a stretch.) More importantly, Denver was embarrassed in last week's Jags game; you never want to go against a team with a good coach that was embarrassed the week before. And if that's not enough, everyone and their degenerate brother will be throwing the Chargers, Cowboys and Colts into a three-team teaser on Sunday. That's never good. Out of those three, the Colts seem like the shakiest link, don't they?

(Random fantasy note: On my 3-0 West Coast team that's morphing into the 2007 Pats of fantasy teams, I have Kenton Keith and Selvin Young stocked on my bench just in case Addai or Travis Henry get injured and I can trade Keith or Young to the teams that have Addai or Henry. That means I'll be watching this game rooting for the starting running backs to get injured every time they touch the ball. Can you think of another avenue in life when you'd openly and shamelessly root for two human beings to pull a hamstring, sprain a knee or break a foot for three straight hours? Me neither. I love fantasy football.)

SPORTS GAL'S RANT

If I were a single woman who wanted to start a family, I can't think of a better sperm donor than Tom Brady. That's what bugs me about this whole Bridget Moynahan thing. She's wealthy and beautiful and famous (I'd throw talented in there, but I saw "I Robot"), and now, she has a super-baby. But she doesn't have dignity. I was aghast when I saw the OK Magazine cover with Bridget's sad face and the headline "Life Without Daddy." I'm not sure if she remembers reading the paper when it announced that she and Tom broke up because he wasn't interested in starting a family and she was. Or that she miraculously got pregnant a few weeks later. I don't like to think the worst of people, but yeeeesh.

How could anyone think Tom is the "bad guy" here? Let's say I didn't want to start trying for Baby No. 2 until after July '07 because I was in a friend's wedding that month, and I didn't want to be the potbellied, can't-drink-booze bridesmaid who pees every 45 minutes because she's drinking water to stay hydrated during a 90-degree outdoor ceremony. And let's say I wanted to have the kid during a non-busy sports time when Bill wasn't overwhelmed by NBA playoffs, March Madness or Red Sox-Yankees. And let's say Bill screwed up the timetable, so I carried a fetus during the hot L.A. summer and had the baby during the baseball playoffs. And let's say I stayed mad at Bill the whole time, even in the delivery room, so Bill showed up on OK Magazine holding our baby sadly with the cover, "My Wife Hates Me." Would that make me the bad guy? No!!!

Back to Bridget: I'd have more sympathy if Bill hadn't predicted back in February, "Watch what happens, she'll be in US holding her bump every week, then she'll sell the baby photos and play up the single Mom thing." Bingo and bingo. I hate when Bill's right. What makes me mad is that I defended her at the time because she's a woman and women defend other women with these things. Now I feel like a dummy. Look, Bridget, you are lucky to have a healthy, beautiful son. Just don't ask us to feel sympathetic when you used your pregnancy to make money and advance your own career. I'm surprised the baby's cord blood didn't end up on eBay. Uh-oh, I just gave you an idea.

Here are my Week 4 Picks: Mia -4, Hou -2.5, Cleve +4.5, Lions +3, Minny +2, Rams +13, Buff +3.5, SF +2, Pitt -6, Carolina -3, SD -13, Denv +9.5, NYG +3, NE -7.5

Last Week: 7-6-3
Season: 27-15-6
GIANTS (+3) over Eagles
Here's the crazy thing about this game: Everything's set up for Sunday, potentially, to be one of the most devastating sports days of the decade for Mets fans or Phillies fans. By the time this football game starts, the NL East will probably have been decided. ... Potentially, we're headed for a Philly sports apocalypse if the Eagles and Phillies blow their games. It just seems too realistic. I'm terrified. Can we send the National Guard to Philly this weekend just to be safe?

Patriots (-7.5) over BENGALS
Belichick and Brady against Chuck Bresnahan. Please. Three e-mails and then we're done. ...

1. From Matt in Arlington, Mass.: "I was watching ESPN2's showing of the '98 wild-card game between the Packers and 49ers where Young connects with T.O. to win the game. On Green Bay's last drive, Favre called a dummy audible on his TD pass to Freeman because (his words) he knew the 49ers had decoded all of their signals since they had played so many times in the last few years. Watching this, I was confused, since certain writers had convinced me that Belichick's attempt to steal signals was the first time this ever occurred in football and potentially threatened to ruin not just the Patriots, not just the NFL, not just sports, but according to Gregg Easterbrook, the very fabric of American society. Now we know it's been going on since 1998, at least. So I guess we'll be OK."

2. From Ryan C. in Charlotte, N.C.: "I noticed Brady threw a TD bomb to Moss in the fourth quarter with a 24-point lead on the Bills. Was he running up the score or padding his stats? You were all about criticizing these moves by Peyton Manning in 2004 when he broke the TD record, so I am just wondering if we can expect these same comments now about Brady?"

My answer: In case you didn't notice, the Patriots have been in Screws-You Mode ever since the Mangini thing happened. In Week 2, they went for it on fourth-and-goal in the last few minutes of the Chargers game, leading by 17 (and scored). In Week 3, they threw the bomb to Moss (and scored). Those are two plays that NEVER would have happened with this team in any other Belichick season. Manning was running up the score to break the TD record; the Pats are running up the score because it's the most effective way to wave both middle fingers at the rest of the league and prove that they didn't need to cheat to win three Super Bowls. I don't support either tactic, but as a Pats fan, it's been strangely enjoyable to watch them embrace a more villainous role. They have a nasty edge to them that they've never had before. It's like watching David Hasselhoff's evil twin brother show up on an old episode of "Knight Rider" or something.

So yeah, it's wrong to run up the score. I'd be the first one to admit it. But it's a natural reaction to the way they were vilified for two straight weeks. The rest of the nation turned them into a mutant cross between Cobra Kai and the Yankees, so screw it, they're acting like the Cobra Kai Yankees. Can you blame them? I can't answer that one objectively, so I won't try. But if you don't think they'll be running up the score in Cincinnati on Monday night, you're crazy.

3. Rick S. in Amman, Jordan: "This is a painful e-mail to write. As a Dolphins fan for 35 plus years, I ought to root for the Phins and everyone who plays New England. But I have to tell you, I stand in awe of the Patriots. Over the past three weeks, I have seen the most beautiful display of football ever and, honestly, I want it to continue -- this may be the best offensive team ever. The touchdown passes (especially the long ones to Randy Moss) were things of beauty. In the '90s, we had Michael Jordan and the Bulls and so many people rooted for them because they knew they were seeing history being made. I feel that way when I watch the Patriots. They are amazing. Now, I don't want them to go undefeated, but I am excited to watch them set the bar for greatness as they dismantle team after team this season."

The rest of the country? Not as excited. And that's the real shame of CameraGate -- it's going to completely overshadow the Federer/Tiger/M.J. dynamic of this '07 Pats season. I don't blame non-Pats fans for pooh-poohing everything that happened and making the cheater jokes, only because I'd be gleefully doing the same thing if this were the Colts. But you have to admit, it's almost inconceivable that an NFL team could be this good when everyone's operating under the same hard cap. Hell, the league specifically constructed its salary/free agency rules to ensure that no team could ever be truly dominant again.

Right now, it doesn't look like anyone else even has a snowball's chance in hell against the 2007 Pats. These are the facts. Eventually, we'll have to start talking about them. In the meantime, for the purposes of this column, I'm going to keep laying the points when the greatest team in 15 years is involved. Seems like a good idea.

LAST WEEK: 6-7-3
SEASON: 23-19-6

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. You can check out his revamped "Sports Guy's World" site here.