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Friday, October 19, 2007
Can a team go undefeated?

By Bill Simmons
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Question: When should you start seriously thinking about your football team going undefeated?

Answer: Right after Week 6.

That's when it starts to feel real. You can't stop glancing at the "6-0-0" next to your team's name in the standings. You click on your schedule and every remaining matchup seems winnable. Your friends stop trash-talking you because they can't think of anything to say. You feel so good about your team, you want to tell everybody about it -- friends, family members, coffee baristas, cab drivers, homeless people, you name it. You almost turn into an overbearing Little League parent. Hey, did you hear my team is undefeated? Yeah, I have an undefeated team!

"Come on!" you're screaming. "Not another Patriots column! We get it, they're great! JUST SHOOT ME IN THE HEAD!"

Settle down, this isn't a Pats column. It's much, much worse. For the next 25 paragraphs or so, I'm about to turn into That Guy.

See, I have a 6-0 fantasy team in my West Coast league right now: the Double Deuce (Double D's for short). In a 10-team league where we start one QB, two RBs, four WRs, a kicker and a defense every week, I have Carson Palmer and Tony Romo. I have LaDainian Tomlinson and Adrian Peterson. I have Larry Fitzgerald, Jerricho Cotchery, Wes Welker and Brandon Marshall. I have Stephen Gostkowski and the Pats' defense. I have Thomas Jones, Ronald Curry, James Jones, Owen Daniels and Michael Turner (for LDT insurance) on my bench. I'm covered for every possible scenario. It's the most loaded team of my fantasy career. I'm practically trotting out a Pro Bowl team every week.

As far as I can tell, nobody has gone undefeated in fantasy football history. I asked my friends, I asked my co-workers, I asked complete strangers ... nobody can remember it happening. Dot-com colleague Matthew Berry can't remember it happening, and this is a guy who introduces himself to single women in the Hartford area by telling them, "Hi, I'm the Talented Mr. Roto." My boss John Walsh (a longtime fantasy veteran) can't remember it happening, and he once won a league with Bronco Nagurski and Slinging Sammy Baugh. My buddy Sal can't remember it happening, and he's the guy who writes out 10-round mock drafts for upcoming fantasy drafts.

"I went 14-0 in a league in 2001 or 2002," Sal recalls. "Had a bye in Week 15, got killed in the semifinals in Week 16. That's the closest I've ever seen anyone come."

Hmmmmmm. An undefeated season couldn't happen in a 12-team league because it would be too difficult to stack your team. You would probably need a 10-team league with one informed guy and nine complete idiots. And even then, as Berry joked, one of the idiots would probably foil the undefeated season with a 155-point week when he mistakenly left in Frank Gore on a bye week, but Ahman Green rushed for 230 yards and four TDs and Cleo Lemon threw for five TDs and 455 yards to pace an improbable upset. That's just the way fantasy football works. Nothing makes sense and you always get crushed when you're least expecting it.

Which brings us to my second question: What's more improbable -- an undefeated fantasy season or an undefeated NFL season?

The answer: As crazy as this sounds, the fantasy season.

By my calculations, you would need to avoid eight different land mines and other issues over the course of a fantasy season. Here they are:

1. Bye weeks
I don't mean to pull a Theismann here, but NFL teams can't lose on their bye weeks. In fantasy, the bye weeks are your mortal enemies -- you have to grind out victories on depleted weeks with some of your best guys sitting out. There's no way around it. And yes, everyone with Tomlinson and Steve Smith on their bench this week just nodded sadly.

2. The evil waiver wire
In fantasy, the best team gets punished for being the best team thanks to the waiver wire, maybe the dumbest running idea that's allowed to continue other than the "Our Country" commercials. So wait ... if you did a good job picking your team, you get penalized, and if you did a terrible job picking your team, you get rewarded? AWESOME! What a great system! If only the rest of America worked this way -- George Bush could have won the Nobel Peace Prize instead of Al Gore.

So what happens if you're 6-0 through Week 6? In the words of Norman Dale, this is your team. You get to watch the Matt Millens of your league load up with the likes of Sammy Morris, Brandon Marshall, Kevin Curtis, Selvin Young and other quality free agents every week; meanwhile, you're stuck picking 10th and talking yourself into add/drops like, "If LJ gets hurt and Priest can come back from that serious spine injury, he could be a steal" and "I don't even know how to pronounce 'Obomanu,' but he had a TD last week!" Basically, you can't improve your team for four straight months without a trade or getting lucky with the 10th-best free agent du' jour. Again, AWESOME! Nothing like adding a degree of difficulty for no real reason.

3. The No Effing Way Week
You can't finish a fantasy season without suffering one "No Effing Way Week" (a distant cousin of the "No Effing Way Game" in video games), where every break goes the other way and you end up losing by three because Plax got tackled on the 1-yard line after a 49-yard bomb. You can always count on one screw job from the Fantasy Gods. Always. For the Double D's, my time is coming. The odds of actually winning the No Effing Way Week are about 10-to-1.

4. Staying healthy
If Kurt Warner gets knocked out early like he did last week, the Cards can replace him with Tim Rattay and have a chance to win. If your fantasy team loses Warner in the first quarter, you're done for the week. End of story. Same for those inevitable weeks when Tomlinson finishes with 47 yards and no scores, or Manning has an off week and finishes with 230 yards and 1 TD pass. It's not like these things MIGHT happen a few times per year. They're going to happen. To even think about going undefeated, you need a fair amount of luck on off weeks from your key guys -- maybe other guys on your team have huge weeks, or maybe you go against someone who tosses up a dud across the board. But you need some serious luck here. You also need your key guys to stay healthy, stay out of jail, and stay away from strip joints, drag races, bong parties, Whizzinators, off-duty police officers and Pacman Jones.

5. The mega-monster week
Once per year, you'll slap up a monster week and end up losing to somebody else's mega-monster week. That's just the way fantasy works. I lucked out in Week 6 the other way -- my opponents (the Eddy Brads) finished with a whopping 124 points, but if you wagered on the Eddy Brads +47.5, you would have lost because I slapped a 172-point week on them. Could they have done anything differently? Nope. They were like a warm stick of butter fighting a hot knife. As Berry points out, you can't play defense in fantasy football. There's no way to slow the other team down, no strategy that can be unearthed. You just take your lumps, write that week off and silently hate the other owner for the next few days and refuse to acknowledge their e-mails.

THE WEEKLY POWER POLL

BRUCE COSLET DIVISION
32. St. Louis
31. Atlanta
30. Miami
29. NY Jets
28. Denver
27. San Fran
26. Cincinnati

PINING FOR 2008
25. Buffalo
24. Oakland
23. Houston

FORK IN THE ROAD
22. Detroit
21. Seattle
20. New Orleans
19. Chicago

HEADLESS HORSEMEN
18. Carolina
17. Arizona

FUNCTIONALLY FRISKY
16. Kansas City
15. Cleveland
14. Minnesota

THE ENIGMATIC ENIGMAS
13. Philly
12. Tennessee

FIRST ROUND FODDER
11. Tampa Bay
10. Baltimore

LOOMING, NOT LURKING
9. N.Y. Giants
8. Washington
7. Green Bay

THE X-FACTOR
6. San Diego

THE CONTENDERS
5. Jacksonville
4. Dallas
3. Pittsburgh
2. Indianapolis

THE FAVORITE
1. New England
6. Screw-job trades
Here's a wrinkle that the NFL doesn't offer: One of your buddies telling another buddy at work or during the wee hours of a keg party, "We can't let him go undefeated, we just can't, he'll be insufferable, and my team isn't going anywhere, anyway ... what if I gave you Housh and Romo for Vince Young, Chris Cooley and Ted Ginn Jr.?" (Note: 23 percent of the time, that's quickly followed by 72 hours of angry e-mails, a couple of screaming matches and maybe even a fistfight, followed by somebody dropping out of somebody else's wedding party.) Those screw-job trades NEVER happen in the NFL.

For instance, 0-6 Miami knows the '07 Pats could knock the '72 Dolphins out of the record books in three months. But what could they do to stop them? They're not beating them in a game. If they made a fishy trade to help out one of New England's rivals -- like, giving away Chris Chambers to San Diego for a late second-round pick, for example -- everyone would find it fishy and the league would crack down, because, after all, you're not supposed to cheat in the National Football League. They're helpless to stop it. In fantasy, fishy trades happen all the time and you can't stop them unless you have a commissioner who's stronger and more powerful than David Stern at his peak. Unfortunately, 98 percent of fantasy football leagues have a Gary Bettman type.

(Note: Thank God the NFL doesn't work like fantasy and San Diego couldn't steal Chambers away for a measly second-round pick simply because Miami wanted to take a dump on their fans, tank their season and preserve the legacy of the '72 Dolphins. Because that would suck.)

7. You need a frightening amount of luck
I mean, you need "Jamie Gold winning the 2006 World Series of Poker by sending home 170,932 straight guys who went all-in"-level luck. By my calculations, you need six or seven ginormous breaks during the course of a season (including playoffs). The Double D's caught three in six weeks. In Week 1, Darrell Jackson dropped a 50-yard TD near the end of the Cards-Niners Monday nighter that would have beaten me. In Week 4, I prevailed on an off-week because the Henchmen started Laurence Maroney and Rudi Johnson (both late scratches). And in Week 5, trailing the Jenny Cereghettis by 20 going into Monday night -- I had Romo, they had Lee Evans -- I pulled out an improbable two-point victory on a last-minute Romo TD pass that might have been even more improbable than Dallas' win over Buffalo. Special thanks to Evans for finishing with one catch and 12 yards against Dallas' crappy secondary. I'm cutting him a playoff share just out of principle.

8. No resting superstars in Week 16 or 17
Most leagues don't count Week 17 and have title games in Week 16 -- my league works this way -- but even so, look how the 2007 season is shaping up. There's a contender in my league (the Bar Owls) that has Brady and Moss. What happens if the Pats have home field locked up heading into Week 16 and play those guys for a combined 20 minutes? How could the Bar Owls possibly compete? What if the Colts are locked into No. 2 and rest Manning, Addai and their receivers like they always do? Do you really want to start the likes of Jay Cutler and Jerious Norwood in your league's title game? What kind of championship battle is that?

Now ...

Look at New England's quest to finish 19-0. The Pats have four tough games remaining -- Week 9 in Indy, Week 12 at home against Pittsburgh, Week 13 in Baltimore on Monday night, and Week 17 in New York against the Giants -- and another three battles looming in the playoffs. It's unrealistic for any NFL team to go undefeated in the Salary Cap Era, but I'd give the Pats a better chance than any fantasy team avoiding the eight pitfalls described above. There's luck involved in the NFL, but nearly as much as with fantasy.

The reality is this: The Double D's are going to lose soon. Something will happen. Someone will get injured. Somebody will get tackled at the 2-yard line when I need those last six points. Somebody will disappear when I need them most. Some random guy on another team will kill me at the worst possible time. This is how fantasy football works. I know this.

Which leads me to my third question: If you had to choose one, would you rather finish the season with an undefeated fantasy team or an undefeated NFL team?

I've been thinking about this lately because, well, you know. Here's the answer: You should pick the NFL team. It's the right thing to do. But the whole "taking credit" thing screws it up. If the Pats finish 19-0, it's not like I did anything to help them -- I just watched the games like everyone else. But if the Double D's finish 16-0? I did everything! I made it happen! I was a one-man show! So it really depends on how selfish you are. I'd rather have the Pats finish 19-0 only because of the way everyone raked them through the coals after Week 1, but it was a closer decision than I thought.

See, I took a ton of crap for drafting McNabb at No. 41 and Welker at No. 61. I was the whipping boy of the draft. Everyone piled on. I just kept nodding my head and saying, "You'll see, you'll see." That night, I even bought a Welker jersey online and rush-ordered it so I could wear it when we were all watching football together. Six weeks later, everything worked out. McNabb even saved me in Week 3 (I started him over Palmer for the week when McNabb lit up Detroit) before I traded him with Selvin Young for Romo, who saved me in Week 5. It's been that kind of season. I'm like Adam Duritz during that year when he was tearing through the cast of "Friends." And the fact that everyone doubted my team on draft day made it even better.

With that said, I'd always choose a 19-0 Pats season over a 16-0 fantasy season. Here's a good indicator for where you'd stand in the same situation: When you're watching a game and your fantasy team and real-life team come into conflict -- say you're a Cowboys fan and a Plax owner, and Plax scores a 50-yard TD to give the Giants a fourth-quarter lead -- as it's happening, you'll either root for them to tackle Plax, or you'll root for him to score under the twisted "maybe I can get the points and Dallas can still win the game" logic. It's one or the other. It's one of the most black-and-white moments you'll have as a sports fan. I love fantasy as much as anyone, but I could never root for something fantasy-related that would screw over the Pats. If you'd root for Plax to score in that situation, either you're not really a Cowboys fan, or you care a little too much about your fantasy team and might need an intervention.

I would pick the Pats simply because I have in every other similar situation. In Week 15, they're playing the Jets and I have Cotchery. That will be a nice test. I hate the Jets now because of Mangini. I want the Pats to win that game 75-0. Hell, I might even fly back for that game. If Cotchery breaks open for a big play, I will be rooting for them to tackle him. I promise you. But I'll be more amazed that I was stuck in the predicament in the first place. An undefeated fantasy team and an undefeated NFL team? Good golly.

(Now watch the Double D's get crushed this week without Tomlinson. Why did I write this column again?)

PICKS BY THE NUMBERS

Favorites against spread: 36-45-8
Home teams against spread: 42-39-8
Road favorites: 11-19-1
Underdogs covering & winning: 30 of 45
Onto the Week 7 picks ...

(Home teams in caps)

Vikings (+9.5) over COWBOYS
Adrian Peterson!!!!!!!!!!! Wow!!!!!!!!!!!!! That was a 20-exclamation point game last week as he seized his name and relegated the other Adrian Peterson to permanent "Chicago's Adrian Peterson" status. I don't even know what back we should be comparing him to -- he doesn't have any running quirks like Peyton or OJ, he doesn't have crazy balance like Payton or Sanders, he's not shifty like Faulk or LDT, there's not much going on other than him just running through holes, blowing past everyone and easily juking anyone in his way. It's like watching a 12-year-old running amok in a 9-year-old Pop Warner game. Watching him eviscerate the Bears in real time was simply incredible. I can't get over it. Three follow-up e-mails:

Chris F. from Chicago: "Who got the better deal, the Minnesota Vikings getting Adrian Peterson with the 7th pick in the draft, or the Seibu Lions getting $51.1 million for Dice K?"

Rick in NYC: "I think Adrian Peterson answered your question about who'd go No. 9 if we did our fantasy drafts over again. He also answered the question of who'd go No. 2."

Tim in Saint Paul, MN: "Did you see Peterson's breakout game for the Vikes? How long until he's traded to the Patriots? I hate you."

(Follow-up Cowboys e-mail from David P. about Dallas' future as a Super Bowl contender: "I read your Monday article about the Eff You TD and don't understand how you and others are not POINTING OUT THAT THE COWBOYS QUIT!! They laid down like dogs. It was pathetic.The Patriots 5th string fullback, fresh out of Navy, ran up the middle like he was Earl Campbell in '78. The Cowboys should have been ashamed.")

BILLS (+3) over Ravens
Let's keep backing the Bills at home until they stop covering. Hey, how 'bout Baltimore's schedule this season -- Cincy, the Jets, Arizona, Cleveland, San Fran, St. Louis and Buffalo through seven weeks??? By my calculations, they've played five of the worst eight teams and nobody in the top-14. Mr. Billick, would you like some coffee with your creampuff?

LIONS (-2) over Bucs
Come on, God's team! On an unrelated note, Fox play-by-play guy Ron Pitts used the word "trickeration" in a sentence last Sunday, which would have been the broadcasting highlight of the 2007 season if Emmitt Smith hadn't mangled the Jimmy V quote after the Dallas-Buffalo game: Don't quit ... don't even quit. We might need to team these guys together to host Season 4 of "The Contender" or something.

Patriots (-16.5) over DOLPHINS
You're not supposed to take Tom Brady in Miami. You're just not. It's a house of horrors for him. But since the Pats are on a bigger mission than Jake and Elwood Blues right now, and since the Dolphins have literally killed their fan base ... I'm making an exception.

(Speaking of fan bases, the fans from a certain New England college are outraged that I refuse to acknowledge a particular undefeated college season that's happening right now and resulted in an especially high ranking last weekend. And you know what? You're right. I need to be the bigger man here. So let's acknowledge it ... congratulations to the Tufts Jumbos on your 4-0 start!)

Falcons (+9) over SAINTS
Just a ridiculous line. Hey, the next time I pick a sleeper for the season and one of my arguments is that "Joey Harrington might be better than you think," could you fly to Los Angeles and bludgeon me with a nine-iron? Thanks.

GIANTS (-9) over Niners
Speaking of sleepers, I'd like to apologize to everyone for picking the wrong Ewing Theory team. Here's what I wrote about the Giants right in my 2007 Preview:

"Tiki Barber's Ewing Theory potential can't overpower everything else going on here: Eli Manning's evolving into the Don Swayze/Frank Stallone of QBs, Michael Strahan's bitter holdout that threatened to divide the nation, the gaping hole at left tackle, Tom Coughlin's pursuing the record for "most times a coach convinced the same team to quit on him," and the least inspirational training camp T-shirts in recent memory ("TALK IS CHEAP, PLAY THE GAME"). You know a team has chemistry problems when you draft one of its players in a fantasy draft, then worry your fantasy clubhouse has been somehow contaminated."

So what happened? Tiki's Ewing Theory potential overpowered everything else. I'm kicking myself. Didn't Tiki make more sense as a Ewing Theory guy than Vick, anyway? Hyped constantly by the media, never won a title, not as valuable to his team as everyone, everyone lowered their expectations for his team when he left ... seriously, every component was there. And I missed it. Damn it all. I'm riding the Giants all the way to Scottsdale in January.

Cardinals (+9) over REDSKINS
Two-word counter to every Redskins fan who was furious that I didn't include the '91 Skins in my "greatest teams of the last 25 years" section on Monday: Mark Rypien. I know everything fell into place for him that season, but he hangs over the greatness of that team the same way Ray Liotta inadvertently hurts "Goodfellas" in the "greatest movies of the past 25 years" discussion. Liotta was great in "Goodfellas," but the fact that he carried so much of the movie undermined it in some way because the rest of his career didn't hold up. On the flip side, "The Godfather" and "The Godfather II" became greater and greater over the years partly because of what happened to Pacino, DeNiro and Duvall as the years passed. If Ray Liotta was Michael Corleone, you would NOT feel the same way about the two Godfather movies. You wouldn't.

TEXANS (+1) over Titans
Love this pick -- the Texans will be a different team with Andre Johnson back. In fact, I guarantee at least eight wins in Week 7 or your money back.

Jets (+6) over BENGALS
Love this pick as well -- the Jets aren't as bad as people think (they blew an easy chance to send last week's Eagles game to OT) and the Bengals are actually worse than people think. They can't block for Palmer at all, they can't stop anyone and they have the worst body language of anyone other than the Falcons. They're awful. You're getting three free points in this game. Use them.

(Funny e-mail from Mitch in Chicago: "Let me sum up the AFC East for you. When the Patriots wanted to trade a draft pick for a WR, they gave a fourth-rounder for Randy Moss. When the Jets wanted to trade a draft pick for a WR, they gave a second-rounder for Justin McCareins.")

SPORTS GAL'S RANT

In the words of Al Michaels, the Sports Gal is out with a stomach this week. Here were her Week 7 picks: Bills +3, Dall -9.5, Det -2, NE -16.5, Atl +9, NYG -9, Zona +9, Tenn -1, NYJ +6, Oak -3, Philly +5, STL +8, Den +3.5, Colts -3.5

Last week: 5-6-2
Season: 42-39-8
RAIDERS (-3) over Chiefs
Cousin Sal and I talked about this in our Week 7 podcast, but it's worth mentioning again: Was Herm Edwards deceiving us on "Hard Knocks" this summer by pretending to be overmatched and incompetent for five straight episodes? Was he lowering everyone's expectations for the Chiefs so they can sneak up on everyone, a little like Kevin Spacey pretending to be a cripple in "The Usual Suspects" when he was really Keyser Soze? If this DID happen, I'm not even mad at him -- that was very well-played, and he didn't even have to poop in the fridge and eat a wheel of cheese. But something tells me it didn't happen and he'll be exposed this week with one of those classic Herm Edwards moments when he screws up the clock in crunch-time and the Chiefs lose by four. We haven't had one of those Herm moments yet. It's coming. You know it's coming.

(Funnier e-mail from Joel B. in Cincinnati: "Let me sum up the Bengals-Chiefs game in case you missed it: Saying Kansas City won is like saying Kevin Federline triumphed in his child custody case.)

Rams (+8) over SEAHAWKS
I continue to hate the Seahawks, which gives me something in common with everyone in Seattle. Should Mike Holmgren have been fired last Sunday night after screwing up the proven video game scenario -- when a team is trailing by two scores and needs an onside kick to win, anyway, only they stubbornly go for it on fourth-and-long when they should kick a field goal -- about as egregiously as it's ever been screwed up? I say yes. Your average NFL fan should not be smarter than an NFL head coach.

Bears (+5) over EAGLES
Here's how John Kreese would tell the Eagles to stop Devin Hester: Instead of kicking it away from him, they should be kicking him sky-high punts, hoping he fair-catches one of them, then telling Reno Mahe to clock him at 30 miles-an-hour and pretend afterward that he didn't see the fair catch signal. For a 15-yard penalty, you'd be knocking Hester out of the game and removing Chicago's only real weapon. Not a bad plan. By the way, what's Hester's return rating going to be in "Madden" next season? 110? 115?

Steelers (-3.5) over BRONCOS
They can't make this line high enough. Put a fork in the Broncos ... then stick a salad fork and a pitchfork in them. Is there a single person in the Denver area who even cares with Rocktober going on? Probably not.

(Speaking of Rocktober, I refuse to pick a result for the Indians-Red Sox series this weekend because the mere chance that Dice-K might be involved just made me throw up a little in my mouth. Please, Lord, let the real Red Sox fans show up for Game 6 and Game 7 at Fenway. Please ... please ... )

Colts (-3) over JAGUARS
If this wasn't a Monday night game, I'd take the Jags. You can't go against Manning on Monday night. It's just a bad idea. Let's close with a correction from Bill in Athens, Ga: "Not sure you can say the Pats-Colts matchup in Week 9 is the most anticipated regular season game in 22 years. Remember the '90 season when the 49ers and Giants both started 10-0 and had a Monday Night clash set for Week 12? In classic looking-ahead/letdown game fashion, both teams lost the week before the big Monday Night game, which the Niners won 7-3. I'm pretty sure that was the most anticipated regular season game in the past 20 years, no?"

Thanks for reminding me about this. You couldn't be more right. I was a junior in college that year and remember having a big political science paper due the next morning that I hadn't even started yet, so I decided to try and write the paper while watching the game. Didn't work. I watched the whole game, started the paper at 12:30 a.m., finished it at 5 a.m. and got a crappy grade on it. And you know what? I'd do it again.

(That's right, college ... $21,000 a year at the time.)

Last week: 4-7-2 Season: 38-43-8

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available in paperback.