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Friday, December 19, 2008
Updated: December 21, 1:32 PM ET
Poll position entering the homestretch

By Bill Simmons
Page 2

Due to the struggling economy, we were forced to reduce my number of 2008 NFL Power Polls from four to three. All right, that's not true. I just screwed up. We did one in Week 4, we did one in Week 10 … and now it's Week 16. Really, only one Power Poll over a 12-week span? That's just me failing at my job. No different than Dick Jauron deciding it would be a good idea to allow his 6-month-old, overly energetic puppy out his front door to pee, then watching that puppy dash across the street and get bowled over by a Hyundai with a Jets bumper sticker.

But hey, in the words of Mark McGwire, I'm not here to talk about the past. Let's break down the NFL from No. 32 to No. 1, and if we learn a little about ourselves in the process, so be it:

THE ROD MARINELLI DIVISION

Rod Marinelli
You've done it, Rod Marinelli: You've been immortalized with your own division of the Power Poll.
32. Detroit Lions
For years and years, stretching back to my old Web site, this "Dregs of the NFL" division was named after Rod Rust, the beleaguered coach who led my beloved 1991 Patriots to a 1-15 mark. There were a ton of problems with Rust as a coach, the most basic being that he wasn't alive. In fact, the Patriots didn't fire him; they cremated him. (In their defense, they didn't realize Rust was dead until Week 10. At that point, the season was effectively over, so they decided not to waste money on promoting another coach. They just propped up Rust's lifeless body for the last six weeks. I was fine with it because we were going for the No. 1 pick.) I'm not sure whether you could call Rust the worst football coach ever because, again, he wasn't alive. In some ways, it's unfair. But he certainly was the least effective coach of the past 30 years, and so it's with some sadness and even a little disbelief that we're handing over this division to Lions coach Marinelli. The good news: We get to stay in the family of Rods.

(One silver lining in the Rust era: The Patriots bottomed out so badly that I broke my gambling cherry to maintain my interest in the '89 season. A future degenerate was born. Right now, somewhere in America, there's at least one Lions fan on a college campus who owes $2,000 to a bookie. And he's nodding. By the way, Pete in Virginia wonders, "Can we just make 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' the official holiday theme song of the overfeated 2008 Detroit Lions? Well, tonight, thank God it's them instead of yooooouuuuuu!!!")

THE BRUCE COSLET DIVISION

31. St. Louis Rams
Headline for the Rams' section in this week's USA Today Sports Weekly: "NEXT SEASON CAN'T COME FAST ENOUGH." It always sucks when your team gets that headline. I've been there. Although technically, I'd argue it should read, "THIS SEASON CAN'T END FAST ENOUGH," because the other headline insinuates St. Louis fans are looking forward to next season. And that can't possibly be true. Some good news: The House of Representatives convenes next week to discuss bailout plans for the Rams and Marc Bulger's contract.

30. Cincinnati Bengals
During last week's anti-gifts column, I wondered why Bengals fans hadn't sent in any suggestions and worried whether they were still alive. Cincy reader Andy Collins quelled my fears: "We Bengals fans are still here. We just don't care anymore." Oh.

29. Cleveland Browns
There are five open secrets in the NFL right now. The first is that LaDainian Tomlinson, for whatever reason, is washed up. (Running backs are like NBA big men, porn stars, singers, wrestlers and female sideline reporters in HD: When it goes, it goes. You can't stop it.) The second is that Al Davis can no longer competently run an NFL team because he might have turned into a sea monster. The third is that every pregame show has too many guys and the networks know this, only they won't do anything about it because they all have made one of those Randolph and Mortimer Duke $1 wagers to torment us. The fourth is that anyone dating one of Visanthe Shiancoe's ex-girlfriends now is being ridiculed endlessly by his friends and forced to change his fantasy team's name to "Hallway Hot Dogs." And the fifth? Romeo Crennel is getting fired after the season. Like, right after it ends. Quite possibly as he's walking off the field in Week 17. They might not even let him get into the locker room; they might just have his stuff waiting outside in a box.

So here's my question: Why not do it right now? Why was the decision made that it's OK to fire your coach within the first two months of the season, but after that, you have to let him suck the life out of your players and your fan base until the bitter end, no matter how depressing those last few weeks might be? Couldn't the Browns have fun with this? Why not let Browns legend Jim Brown coach the team these last two weeks? Or LeBron? Or Grady Sizemore? Or make Willie McGinest the player-coach? Or, even better, replace Crennel with Art Shell and see whether anyone notices? We need to work on the whole "Dead Man Walking" routine. While we're here, thanks to Justin K. in Seattle for taking my "Weekend at Cromeos" joke to another level.

(From JP in Cleveland: "As a depressed Browns fan, it is hard to find enjoyment out of watching them being led by their incompetent coach. After getting embarrassed on 'MNF' against the Eagles, the only enjoyment I got out of it was trying to figure out what Romeo Crennel and Andy Reid were talking about while shaking hands. I can only imagine it's about the specials at Applebees or T.G.I. Friday's.")

28. Oakland Raiders
Good news: Tom Cable's résumé is now available in PDF, Word, Excel and Final Draft.

27. Kansas City Chiefs
Every Sunday, when something horrible happens with the Chiefs, I text my friend Mike Lombardi, "We can build on this!!!!!!!!" and he texts back, "Let's build something together!" It's our little running joke. Three reasons I'm telling you this: First, I think I've sent that text on eight Sundays this season (and none of them were forces; there was a legitimate reason each time). Second, I had never sent two "We can build on this!!!!!" texts in the same game until Week 15's ubercollapse against San Diego. And third, usually the only variation of the joke is the number of exclamation points … but after watching Herm Edwards' team blow two timeouts with an 11-point lead, give up a score, blow the onside kick, give up the go-ahead TD, drive back to field-goal range before running out of timeouts and then hook the potential game-winning field goal in the blink of an eye, I actually changed my second text to, "For God's sake, we can build on this!!!!!!"

I thought it demanded a little improvisation. I hope Edwards doesn't mind. But then I realized something: There was a lesson there. See, we can build on this. Whether it's football, the "we can build on this" joke or anything else, we can always build on this. I'm starting to think Edwards is a genius.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD

26. Buffalo Bills
Put it this way: If the Bills' fans were Ralph Wilson's children, and Wilson did the everyday-life equivalent of giving Jauron a three-year extension after that Jets game -- whether it was giving a Buffalo real estate developer $30 million for a condo project downtown, backing Vincent Gallo for "Buffalo 66 II: Electric Boogaloo," spending $10 million on a backyard stage so the Goo Goo Dolls could come over and rehearse, or announcing at dinner, "Good news, I just bought eight courtside seats for the Buffalo Braves!" -- the Bills' fans would be scouting nursing homes for him right now. It's true.

25. Jacksonville Jaguars
When I joked that David Garrard's $60 million extension was like NBC giving Andy Samberg a $60 million extension right after "D--- in a Box," Samberg unveiled the enjoyable "J--- in my Pants" video just 24 hours later. Coincidence? Absolutely. But just to make sure I don't have magical powers with resurrecting the careers of NBC stars, let's try to reverse jinx another one:

(Hold on, give me the parentheses to build the drama …)

If you made a gambling line pitting "total Jacksonville wins in 2008" against "times you'll laugh out loud while watching a Jimmy Fallon webisode over the next six months," would the Jags or Fallon be favored?

24. Washington Redskins
I wrote this Sept. 4: "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)." Now? We're six weeks away. This is exciting.

RESPECTABLY STINKY

23. Seattle Seahawks
You know what I'd call 2008 for the Hawks? A defensibly lousy season. The rash of receiver injuries mortally wounded them. The Matt Hasselbeck and Walter Jones injuries killed them. And if that wasn't enough, they were victimized by the Great Seattle Sports Depression of '08. The good news is they've been relatively decent for six weeks. Will they end the New York Jets' season on Sunday? Quite possibly. Will they beat an uninterested Cardinals team in Week 17 and carry a sheepish Mike Holmgren off the field? Almost definitely. Will any of this make Seattle fans feel better? No.

22. San Francisco 49ers
Matt Cassel
Don't be surprised if Matt Cassel lands with the 49ers in the offseason.
Here's my wild theory: The Patriots will franchise Matt Cassel in fear that Tom Brady might not make it back in time for the 2009 season. By mid-July, when it becomes clear Brady is fine, Cassel quietly will go on the market … and, of course, the Niners will be sitting there waiting for him. As soon as Cassel becomes available, San Fran will toss the Pats a 2010 No. 1 and a 2011 No. 2, then rip up his contract and give him something like $55 million for seven years with a $24 million signing bonus. Everybody wins. Well, until Gregg Easterbrook follows that sequence with an 8,500-word column about the Pats cheating the system again and suggests Bill Belichick should be thrown in a maximum security prison and tortured until he admits his sins and we can ban him from football once and for all.

BULLET-RIDDEN SHOES

21. Green Bay Packers
If I had told you in June that Brett Favre would make the Pro Bowl as a Jet and Aaron Rodgers would lead the Pack to a 5-9 record, including an 0-6 mark in games decided by four points or fewer, you would have responded, "And this was followed by Packers fans rioting all over Wisconsin, setting off cheese curd fires, littering the streets with dark beer and hanging themselves with XXXXXL replica Favre jerseys, right?" Nope. Not even close.

20. New Orleans Saints
Something to watch for, my gambling friends: The Saints are done. They're out. But you know who's still breathing? Drew Brees. He's thrown for 4,332 yards this season. The only member of the 5,000 Club? Dan Marino, with 5,084 yards in '84. With Brees needing just 668 passing yards to join the 5,000 Club and 753 yards to pass Marino (literally and figuratively), he has been given the Christmas gift of the lowly Lions this Sunday. (FYI: The Lions' secondary is so bad it's had FOUR interceptions this season.) Then the Saints finish the season with a home game against the Panthers that might mean nothing to Carolina because its playoff seed could get decided this Sunday night.

Can you expect Brees and Sean Payton to say, "Screw it," and air it out these next two weeks?

(Yes. Yes you can.)

Does this mean you should parlay the Saints with the over both weeks?

(Here's where I would have stuck the link of Colonel James hissing, "Oh, you think so, Doctor?" if that clip was on YouTube. Which raises the question … how the hell is that not on YouTube? Unacceptable!!! One more prediction while we're here: After Brees torches the Lions for something like 450 yards and puts himself in Marino range, look for Boomer Esiason to derisively mention that record in the postgame show along with a biting line like, "Almost makes up for never winning a ring," while Marino's temples pulsate and his face turns purple. Lock it down.)

HOPE IS NOT A GOOD THING

19. San Diego Chargers
18. Denver Broncos
SPORTS GUY'S PICKS
COWBOYS (-4) over Ravens
Steelers (-2) over TITANS
CHIEFS (+4) over Dolphins
Cards (+8.5) over PATS
Bengals (+2.5) over BROWNS
Eagles (-5) over REDSKINS
RAMS (+5.5) over Niners
Chargers (+3.5) over BUCS
Falcons (+3.5) over VIKINGS
Saints (-7) over LIONS
GIANTS (-3) over Panthers
SEAHAWKS (+4.5) over Jets
Texans (-7) over RAIDERS
Bills (+6.5) over BRONCOS
BEARS (-4) over Packers

This week: 1-0
Last week: 8-7-1
Season: 117-102-6

As a football fan, I don't know which AFC West contender becoming a playoff team would offend me more. … At gunpoint, I guess I'd go with the Chargers, since Philip Rivers said after the comeback in K.C., "I know we are 6-8, but that win said a lot about the character of our team." He's right -- laying a stinkbomb for 55 minutes, then being handed the game by an abominably coached team says a lot. Just know that if a gutty 11-5 Pats team is forced to sit out the playoffs because NFL rules demand that one of these two crappy AFC West teams be included, I'm sending a special homemade batch of holiday turd egg nog to the NFL offices with the note "ATTN: Roger Goodell." Damn it all.

LEO THE LATE BLOOMER

17. Houston Texans
Poor Houston. The Texans are headed for a respectable 9-7 finish, followed by seven months of building excitement about 2009, then an onslaught of "I'll tell ya who I like as a sleeper -- the Texans!" media picks … and they'll immediately crumble under the weight of those expectations and finish 5-11 next season. It's rare to find our Winston Wolf Memorial Popsicle Team for the next season when the current season hasn't ended yet. Can't remember that happening before.

THE ENIGMATIC ENIGMAS

16. Arizona Cardinals
Where are you going to go in January when you can't run in short-yardage situations and your defense can't get off the field? I look forward to wagering against the Cards in the first round. In other news, Joe Buck is finally off the hook. I'll let Ray in Milwaukee explain while I take a few minutes to urinate, get a glass of water and stretch my legs:

"Surely, you grew up with Bob Barker and 'The Price is Right.' Hell, who didn't? Well, I hope you saw this call by Drew Carey from the Showcase Showdown. It makes Buck's call of the Helmet Catch sound like Gus Johnson. This is the new high point of announcing low points. As anyone who has watched this show knows, you rarely see anyone sniff $500, let alone $100 of their showcase showdown total. So what do you have here? The first contestant comes within $500 of the Showcase Showdown, then her opponent beats her by hitting the number right on the head!!!! He got it exactly!!!! This could have been -- in the arms of a decent game-show host -- the greatest game show moment of all-time. For God's sake, Drew couldn't have even faked some excitement as he paused and read off the guy's final dollar total? Would that have killed him? Instead, he looked like he just found out that tapioca had been taken off the menu in the CBS cafeteria. There has never been a worse announcer EVER! Seriously, Bob Barker needs to re-enter this show one day, WWE-style, and take Carey out. Oh My God!!!! It's the Undertaker!!!!!!!!"

(Follow-up note: I'm just excited that we got to rip an announcer … even if it was Drew Carey. See how fun that was?)

15. New York Jets
With Favre already showing signs of wear and tear (a 61.1 QB rating the past three weeks), a few readers reminded me of something I wrote back in January after Green Bay got bounced in the NFC title game, when I realized too late that Eli Manning outplaying Favre in minus-4-degree weather was logical: "Who's more likely to be affected by bone-chilling temperatures -- a young QB with little wear and tear on his body, or an old QB who has started 270 consecutive games, battled an addiction to painkillers and probably takes 15 minutes to get out of bed every morning? Wouldn't it be the old guy? Think of it this way: A family gets together for the holidays in Buffalo. There are three brothers in the family (ages 27, 35 and 38), two sisters, a mom, a dad and a grandfather. One morning, Buffalo gets crushed by a blizzard and somebody has to shovel the driveway in minus-4-degree weather for two hours. Which family member gets bundled up and goes out there? The youngest brother. Why? BECAUSE HE'S 27!!!!!!!!! He's the youngest, healthiest one! Is there any chance the 38-year-old guy goes out there? No! Why? BECAUSE HE'S 38!!!! Why didn't I think of this before the game? I hate myself."

SPORTS GAL'S PICKS

Dal -4, Ten +2, KC +4, NE -8.5, Cle -2.5, Was +5, SF -5.5, Min -3.5, Det +7, NYG -3, Sea +4.5, Oak +7, Den -6.5, TB -3.5, GB +4.

This week: 1-0
Last week: 7-8-1
Season: 110-109-6

(Translation: If you're a Jets fan, do you feel good about Favre in chilly Seattle this weekend, home for the Fins in Week 17, or hosting the Pats or the Ravens at home in the first round? Will he play well in three straight cold-weather games? No way. By the way, I think Eric Mangini should be forced to gain 30 pounds and grow a mustache so he can replace Mike Holmgren in the Half-Asleep and Overweight NFL Coaches With a Mustache Club. We also need to find a replacement for Cromeo. Can someone convince Oprah's boyfriend to gain 75 pounds, put on a windbreaker and hold a clipboard while staring straight ahead aimlessly for 16 weeks a year? I mean, he's already got the blank facial expression, and this would get him out of the house, right?)

LINGERING LIKE A STALE FART

14. Chicago Bears
Chicago's new offense: "Throw the ball up to Devin Hester and hope he either catches it or draws an interference penalty." In other words, the Bears are using the same offense my buddy Geoff mastered in "Madden '96," only without the wrinkle of Kyle Orton running backward for 20 yards, scrambling around for eight seconds and heaving a Hail Mary downfield. I'm gonna go out on a limb and say this fails.

13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Let's just say the Jeff Garcia-Brian Griese platoon isn't bringing back memories of Bob Griese and Earl Morrall. Meanwhile, allow me to be the 756,003rd person with a sports column or a sports blog to express my gratitude to Tampa defensive end Greg White for changing his name to Stylez G, because he has liked that name ever since "Teen Wolf." If this inspires a WNBA player to change her name to Boof, White gets my "Sportsman of the Year" vote.

12. Minnesota Vikings
You might remember that I made Tarvaris Jackson's replica jersey my 48th-worst NFL gift last week. When he threw for four touchdowns against the Cards on Sunday, I braced myself for a slew of "Ha ha you suck, Tarvaris rules!" e-mails from the Minnesota area. Nope. I didn't get a single one. Now what does THAT tell you? I'd say more but I'm so excited to wager against Jackson in the playoffs that I can barely hold a thought in my head. I hope the Vikings are laying points in the first round. I hope to see my bookie and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it is in my dreams. I hope.

(My favorite headline of the week: "JACKSON? FREROTTE? THE INTRIGUE BUILDS." Um … it does? Should I move to the edge of my seat just so I don't feel left out? I've watched "Scooby Doo" episodes with my daughter that had more building intrigue than Jackson versus Frerotte. I'm not kidding. You should have seen the twist in the Abominable Snowman episode we just watched. Turned out it was Mr. Hanrahan all along. Who saw that coming?)

THE FISHERMEN

11. Philadelphia Eagles
Get it? They're holding a fishing pole and trying to reel you in? My latest favorite excuse for Donovan McNabb's resurgence these past few weeks: His wife had a tough pregnancy that was resolved Dec. 4 (healthy twins), and now that his house is back in order, he's back to playing with the same old fire. I have to admit, that's a pretty good one. One catch: How does this explain his unwillingness to scramble until AFTER he got benched in the Baltimore game? If you're battling family problems, it makes you not want to roll out and run for 10 yards on a wide-open field? Beyond that, wouldn't your life become MORE complicated after having twins? Have you or a friend had twins? Remember when Richard Dreyfuss was scuba diving in "Jaws," and he was looking through a hole in a sunken boat and a waterlogged head floated in front of him? The face the waterlogged head had … that's what parents look like after they have twins. For like three years. Anyway, I'm not buying the McNabb twins theory. Sorry.

(Here's the theory I'm buying: The Eagles caught the Cards on a cross-country Thanksgiving trip 96 hours after their previous game, then a rattled Giants team right after Cheddar Plaxgate, then a putrid Browns team on Monday night. Now they're catching the Redskins right as they're quitting on their coach. That's four straight totally explainable wins. Do not get reeled in by Philly for that Week 17 home game against Dallas. I am warning you right now.)

ALLIGATOR BLOOD

10. Dallas Cowboys
Terrell Owens
Please, no more.
Record with a healthy Tony Romo: 8-2. And those were two winnable losses. Cris Collinsworth (Wednesday's B.S. Report guest) believes the Cowboys could become the Team Nobody Wants To Play in January, and I tend to agree. My big question -- other than "Can you win a Super Bowl with someone who's as much of a selfish nightmare as Terrell Owens?" -- is this: Can Romo lift his GPA in crunch time from 0.5 to 2.7? There's a little too much Karl Malone in him. At least so far. When you're generating sarcastic, "I haven't seen a QB this clutch since Jake 'The Snake' Plummer!" e-mails from my readers, that's not a good sign for your team's playoff hopes.

(Speaking of T.O., I wrote in September that Chad Johnson had reached the Saturation Zone for me: In other words, they could show footage of him doing ANYTHING on "SportsCenter" -- screaming at his coach, yelling at his teammates, wearing a weird outfit, fighting a walrus, getting caught on a security camera doing lines with Amy Winehouse -- and I just wouldn't care. I wouldn't be interested. I wouldn't want to talk about it. I just want him to go away and never come back. Three months later, I have reached the same point with Owens. And Michael Phelps, you're getting there -- even Ronald Miller handled being cool better. Take a deep breath, do some laps, get a hold of yourself, dip out of the limelight for a few weeks and try to find a girlfriend who isn't a Vegas strip-club waitress with a tattoo on her back bigger than your eight gold medals. That's my advice.)

9. New England Patriots
A resilient, gritty, respectably competitive season for a team that lost nearly every veteran leader as the season dragged along, never made excuses and kept chugging forward. My big concern: seven wins over the Broncos, Niners, Bills, Raiders, Chiefs, Rams and Seahawks (combined record: 29-69); three losses to the Steelers, Colts and Chargers (combined record: 27-15); and splits with the Jets and Dolphins (combined record: 18-10). The Pats' only legitimately impressive victory was the 48-28 spanking of the Dolphins in Miami in Week 12. Everything points to them as a decent, well-coached team that wins the games it should win and loses the games it should lose.

And then you watch this week's "Inside the NFL" miking up Belichick, and he's cracking jokes about Jerod Mayo's truck-buying spree, vowing to Cassel that the team will get him that week's game ball for his recently deceased father, asking his coaches to soak the practice footballs in case it rains Sunday and everything else, and it makes you, as a Pats fan, think, "For 60 minutes, no matter who we're playing, we have a chance with this guy -- even during seasons in which we're signing washed-up linebackers in December, then throwing them into games three days after they were probably hanging out in Cabo drinking margaritas and hitting on 19-year-old waitresses." I wish I could properly explain what it's like to root for a Belichick team but I can't. Just know that he would have been amazing during the strike season in '87. Nothing fazes the guy. He just keeps moving forward.

(Hold on, I have to warn my server that 2,500 "You left out the part that he's a cheater!!!!!" e-mails are coming. I'll be right back. Don't go anywhere.)

THE POTENTIAL MIRAGE

8. Miami Dolphins
And … we're back! Miami's nine creampuff wins aren't any better than New England's nine creampuff wins, but the Dolphins fit the January recipe (defense, ball control, no turnovers) just a shade better. My big question: Do you realize Sunday's cold-weather game in Arrowhead will be their first one of the season? They've played eight in Miami, three in domes and three in warm weather (Arizona and New England in September, then a surprisingly warm one in Denver on Nov. 2). Could that partly explain the Dolphins' absurdly low number of turnovers in 2008? I say yes! I say absolutely! Considering the ruinous history of Florida teams in December and January weather, as well as the sketchy history of QBs with shaky arm strength (that's right, I'm pointing at you, Chad Pennington) in blustery weather, we can't give the Dolphins "sleeper" status until they bang out a victory in bad conditions. How good will you feel about Pennington throwing wobblers to Ted Ginn Jr. and Davone Bass when it's 30 degrees and windy at the Meadowlands in Week 17 with a playoff spot on the line?

7. Baltimore Ravens
Total points scored in their past four games against the Colts, Titans, Steelers and Giants: 33.

Number of times Joe Flacco has topped 200 yards passing this season: four.

Number of 90-yard days by a Ravens running back this season: three.

Number of 100-yard receiving days by a Ravens receiver this season: three.

(See where I'm going with this?)

THE SEMI-SORTA-KINDA-SLEEPER

6. Atlanta Falcons
Check out this schedule: six NFC South games, at San Diego, at Philly, at Green Bay, home against Chicago, home against a desperate Denver team … and since the Falcons are 9-5, I think we can trust them at this point. Regardless, I'm giving the 2008 Falcons the prestigious "My Favorite Random Team Of the Year" award for playing in an inordinate number of entertaining games, rarely screwing up my parlays or teasers, giving a crap every week and even giving me countless hours of "Who does Mike Smith look like?" self-debates that lasted three solid months before I realized he looks and acts like Ernest Borgnine.

In unrelated news, my female readers keep asking for gift ideas for their boyfriends/husbands, so I'm presenting you the following list of can't-miss purchases in descending order from "ridiculously expensive" to "stocking stuffer."

Gift No. 1: Portable DirecTV ($999). A 27-pound suitcase that opens into its own TV with a DirecTV receiver. Perfect for NFL tailgates, summer vacation weeks or whatever. They currently are calling this "Sat Go," which might be one of the five worst names ever. I would have gone with "The Divorce Maker."

Gift No. 2: A Blu-Ray player ($200-250). Better than DVD in every conceivable way. I won't recommend a brand because I don't want to offend a potential sponsor. (By the way, I didn't write that last sentence.) Make sure you also buy an HDMI cable as part of the gift; women always forget that part. Would we buy you a vacuum without a great extension cord? Of course not.

YOUR GIFT TO ME

Here's the gift you can get me for Christmas as thanks for an eighth year of free columns: Click on this B.S. Report link, then click on the "SUBSCRIBE" link right next to my handsome mug. This will take you all of three seconds. Then, every time I record another podcast, your iTunes will automatically download it. You don't even have to listen to it. I'm extremely, irrationally competitive, and I want to crack the iTunes Top 25 in 2009. Help me. Come on. I don't ask for much.

Gift No. 3: An iTunes gift card. Guys like gift cards. Maybe they aren't sentimental, but we're allowed control over the gift itself. We get to interact with it. We like this. Just get us gift cards. No guy will ever think, "I can't believe my unfeeling girlfriend got me a gift card." We'll think, "She loves me -- she knows I love gift cards." Just trust me.

Gift No. 4: A Netflix Roku Player ($99). A machine that gives you access to Netflix's entire library for free; all you need is the Roku box and a Netflix membership. You can watch it anywhere as long as you have a TV and an Internet connection. When Vivid Video rips off this idea for porn, look out.

Gift No. 5: The complete set of "The Wire." Just $139 for every episode of the greatest TV drama ever made? Come on.

Gift No. 6: NFL Game Rewind ($20). I found out about this and signed up in about 7.3 seconds. It gives you broadband access to any NFL game on demand. You can sign him up for it, print out his username and password, and give it to him. He will love it. And then he will pay even less attention to you.

Gift No. 7: Books. You can't go wrong with any of these (all of which I loved): "The Chris Farley Show" (superb oral history of Farley's life) … "Born Standing Up" (Steve Martin's insightful memoir about his earlier life as a standup comic) … "Alphabet Juice" (Roy Blount's one-of-a-kind take on his favorite words) … "Boys Will Be Boys" (Jeff Pearlman's rollicking tale of the '90s Cowboys) … "The Best Game Ever" (Mark Bowden's take on the '58 NFL title game) … "Outliers" (Malcolm Gladwell's new one, a must-read as always) … "Loose Balls" (Terry Pluto's oral history of the ABA, finally back in print) … and "Nixonland" (an amazingly well-done book if you like American history even a little). So there you go.

(Hold on, where was I?)

THE TEAM THAT PEAKED TOO EARLY

5. Tennessee Titans
And you NEVER want to peak early. Am I the only one who can't shake the feeling that we'll be hearing from Vince Young again this season in a "Kerry Collins is writhing on the ground in the third quarter of a playoff game and suddenly Young is warming up on the sidelines with Tennessee's season on the line" kinda way? Here's the good news for Titans fans: "Vince Young, Super Bowl MVP" doesn't seem farfetched after everything we've witnessed in this goofy season through 15 weeks.

I thought reader Ian in Portage, Mich., summed up the season nicely: "Hey, check out what I did for the last six hours trying to make this work all the way through. OK, Kansas City beat Oakland, which beat Denver, which beat Cleveland, which beat Cincinnati, which beat Jacksonville, which beat Green Bay, which beat Seattle, which beat San Francisco, which beat Buffalo, which beat San Diego, which beat New England, which beat the N.Y. Jets, who beat Arizona, which beat Miami, which beat St. Louis, which beat Dallas, which beat Washington, which beat New Orleans, which beat Tampa Bay, which beat Minnesota, which beat Carolina, which beat Atlanta, which beat Chicago, which beat Indianapolis, which beat Baltimore, which beat Philadelphia, which beat the N.Y. Giants, who beat Pittsburgh, which beat Houston, which beat Tennessee, which beat Detroit, which beat NOBODY."

(Honestly, I don't know whether that paragraph should have been followed by, "Ladies and gentleman, the 2008 NFL season!" or "Yup, these are my readers." Too close to call.)

THE CONTENDERS

4. New York Giants
Dear Giants fans,
Did you notice that Eli suddenly stinks? This is what happens when an ordinary QB doesn't have the benefit of throwing against an eight-man front that's stacking the line while his best wide receiver is getting double-covered. Keep looking up -- you don't want him landing on you at 540 mph as he finishes his fall back to earth. Also, keep telling yourself that your seventh-string wide receiver catching a pseudo-Hail Mary off the top of his helmet with your season on the line wasn't the single luckiest play in sports history. In fact, David Tyree himself just admitted this to me. I'm writing this at an IHOP right now, and he just brought me a plate of blueberry pancakes. Did you know you can work at IHOP when you're on injured reserve? Apparently so. I have to go because I'm going to throw a cannister of boysenberry syrup at him as hard as I can and see whether he catches it off his head. Worst of luck in the playoffs.
Sincerely,
Bitter Guy

(P.S.: I don't really believe all that. Just wanted to see what it looked like in print. As far as you know. And, no, I'm not counting out the Giants. I'm just ornery because the year-end highlight shows are starting up and … well … you know.)

3. Carolina Panthers
Allow me to be the 53,749th person to say the '08 Panthers remind me of the '07 Giants: strong pass rush, killer running game, excellent coach, competent QB who might or might not self-destruct at the worst time, a mercurial and semi-unstoppable playmaking receiver who might be one year away from accidentally shooting himself in the leg. …

(Important note: When the Steve Smith-Ken Lucas incident happened, I remember thinking at the time, "This would make for the weirdest media day ever if the Panthers can somehow make it to the Super Bowl." Now, we're like five weeks away from a solid hour of awkwardness at Lucas' booth with questions like, "Are you afraid to joke with Steve in the locker room because he might punch you?" and "Do you ever get the urge to just walk over to Steve's locker and punch him in the face to get him back?" from troublemaking bloggers and radio personalities dressed in goofy football jerseys. I don't know whether to root for this or against it.)

THE FAVORITES

1b. Indianapolis Colts
1a. Pittsburgh Steelers
Mike Tomlin
Mike Tomlin's team is riding a serious hot streak. Bet against the Steelers at your own risk.
I can't choose between them, and here's why: Remember the scene in "Rain Man" when Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman catch fire at the blackjack table, and there's that one hand when Cruise gets blackjack, raises his hands happily, then does the incredulous Cruise laugh for a few seconds? That's the Steelers and the Colts right now. They're winning every conceivable type of hand and catching every break, and after a while, you start waiting for their coaches (Tony Dungy and Mike Tomlin) to raise their hands happily and do the Incredulous Cruise Laugh. I thought for sure Dungy would dust it off Thursday night when David Garrard threw the game-ending TAINT out of nowhere to Keiwan Ratliff. Didn't happen.

Luck is a major part of football, whether we like to admit it or not … but at the same time, you make your own luck to a certain degree. With Jacksonville frantically trying to tie Thursday's game in the final seconds, Maurice Jones-Drew got racked by two Colts on a screen pass and couldn't get up, leading to a 10-second run-off and Jones-Drew being removed from the game. That was a classic part-luck/part-skill moment. But when Dwight Freeney finished off the Jags by demolishing their left tackle and sacking Garrard to end the game, that was just skill and talent. The best teams take advantage of every opening they're given. And if winning football is a mixture of making plays, not making mistakes and getting a sprinkle of good fortune at the right times, you can't do it any better than Indy and Pittsburgh have been doing it lately.

Just remember, if they meet in the playoffs -- and odds are, they will -- there will be only one horseshoe available.

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.