- Ray Ratto
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It happens every year, like Thanksgiving, the cable bill, and flesh-eating weasels getting caught in the chimney and making the most God-awful noises at night.
It's the NFL's Dead Week, not to be confused with the bye week, which, like television revenue, everyone shares equally.
This is the week when nearly every game screams out "limited regional audience." One game between teams with winning records, and 15 in varying stages of damage.
This, in fact, is the week that proves categorically that the invention of the point spread ranks with the silicon chip, penicillin, and the flesh-eating weasel eradicator.
So let's run the schedule, and don't forget to have a waste basket nearby.
THE GAME TO WATCH
PANTHERS (PLUS 3) AT COWBOYS
Carolina (8-2) is in a death struggle with its own boredom quotient, leading the NFC South by three games, in what can only figure as a defensive bloodbath with the Fighting Parcells (7-3), coming off their shutout loss to the Really Fighting Belichicks. A great way to start your day, except in the East, where you clearly needed the extra three hours to sleep off that fistfight with Misters Gin and Tonic.
THE GAMES TO ENDURE
PATRIOTS (MINUS 5) AT TEXANS
Billy B. is now the game's reigning genius, but facing a team in Houston that can stupid up even the most intrepid offense. The Texans have allowed 12.5 points per game in their four wins, 32 and change in their six losses. So the question to be answered here is this: Who is playing New England Sunday?
COLTS (MINUS 3) AT BILLS
Gravity is what happens to those boutique Super Bowl preseason picks -- hey, one time, the smart guys thought the Lions would be a Super Bowl team. Now, they've lost four of five, Drew Bledsoe is back in the fans' plentiful doghouse, and things look bleaker than usual in the Upstate. Oh, well, maybe it'll be cold.
SAINTS (PLUS 5½) AT EAGLES
The best thing that ever happened to Donovan McNabb, it seems, was Rush Limbaugh. Conversely, the first worst thing that ever happened to Rush Limbaugh was Donovan McNabb. As for New Orleans, God only knows. And He's not saying.
49ERS (PLUS 4½) AT PACKERS
The linemakers are apparently waiting to see whether Tim Rattay or Tim Rattay is going to start at quarterback for San Francisco. The Packers haven't faced a crummy team in more than a month (Seahawks, Chiefs, Rams, Vikings, Eagles and Bucs, although the last one is starting to look that way), and they've held their own, as Freudian as that may sound.
SEAHAWKS (PLUS 2) AT RAVENS
Seattle is 7-3, though you wouldn't know it to watch the 'Hawks play week after week, and Baltimore is 5-5 and down to its second quarterback. If you bet this game with any conviction, seek help now. No, not at the end of your shift. Now.
THE GAMES TO CLEAN OUT THE GARAGE TO
LIONS (PLUS 10½) AT VIKINGS
Minnesota has lost four games in a row. Detroit has lost 37 of its last 46. If the Vikings lose this, cancel Christmas. If the Lions lose this, they can look forward to the Packers on Thursday. Points to the Vikings for motivation.
TITANS (MINUS 7) AT FALCONS
A sucker game for Tennessee, which looks more and more like the best team in the AFC. As for the Falcons, Waiting For Vick just had too much lead time to hold anyone's interest. A great game for you Billy Volek fans out there.
GIANTS (PLUS 5½) AT BUCCANEERS
Honk if you think Keyshawn Johnson is worth all this fuss. Honk twice if you think this is a tailor-made situation for whoever coaches the Giants next year. On the other hand, here's the Monday night make-good with your spouse. You'll put the kids to bed tonight in exchange for Redskins-Dolphins.
REDSKINS (PLUS 6) AT DOLPHINS
Two coaches in trouble always means one game in trouble, and there's no prettier way to explain it. It's Sunday night, always a good opportunity to avoid getting the kids to bed, but you'll have to hope your spouse isn't a football fan too.
THE GAMES TO WATCH THE HISTORY CHANNEL TO
JAGUARS (PLUS 4) AT JETS
It's hard to imagine how this game could be worse, unless your own personal fetish runs to tracking former Marshall quarterbacks. The Jets should never be a favorite against anyone, but we'll make an exception this one last time, and then that's it.
BENGALS (MINUS 3) AT CHARGERS
How come Chad Johnson won't pick this game? Huh? Huh? Huh? Flop sweat? Fear of the unknown? The last time the Bengals were better than .500 this late in the season ... oh, why bother? The Chargers are so done that the only reason to think they could win this game is the fact they are playing the Bengals, who lost to the Cardinals in Arizona.
RAIDERS (PLUS 11½) AT CHIEFS
The Chiefs are mad. The Raiders haven't had a good week since the AFC championship game. Could be 10-7, or 48-7, but you can be reasonably sure about the 7.
RAMS (MINUS 7½) AT CARDINALS
The Rams barely beat the Bears, which is cause enough for self-examination. The Cardinals are better than the Bears, but not that much better. They certainly are every bit as unwatchable.
STEELERS (PLUS 3) AT BROWNS
It's hard to remember the last time Pittsburgh and Cleveland assembled a matchup this bad, so we've decided not to remember it at all. That's how we're approaching this one, as well. Duck and cover, children, duck and cover.
BEARS (PLUS 10) AT BRONCOS
It's the Bears. It's the Bears on the road. It's the Bears against a team that has a reason to play hard. It's a train wreck. It's flesh-eating weasels in the chimney. You can't pretty this one up.
But God knows we'll try. We always do.
Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com
1dESPN Stats & Information
14hBy Tom Friend
6hBy Jackie MacMullan