For the uninitiated, back in the early days of cable before there was such a thing as the Cartoon Network, Sunday morning television was a wasteland of televangelism and political talk shows. There were no hour-long infomercials, so some broadcast networks would simply shut down on Saturday night and be awful slow to get up on Sunday morning. Invariably I would wake up far too early and be stuck with hours of nothing to do until the NFL pregame shows finally aired at noon.
That is, until the USA Cartoon Express came along.
This collection of Hanna Barbera re-runs, "all-star" mashups and obscure LSD-inspired cartoons that fell far from the mainstream were like an intravenous drip of life-saving nutrients for kids starved for entertainment. It saved a generation of pasty, wimpy heathen children from the prospects of having to go outside, or worse, having to go to church. And it provided that crucial Sunday morning bridge from breakfast to football.
However, that neural association from the cartoon world to the cartoonish violence of the gridiron still sticks in my head, and sometimes it's easy to see the pitched battles on field in terms of the surreal dramedy of the animated realm. So let's take it a step further, and imagine these matchups in terms of their corollaries from the cartoon world.
Tennessee at CLEVELAND (-1): Titans.
Mike Munchak's team is a bunch of anonymous and seemingly inexplicable talents assembled in a largely uncivlized world. Just like the Herculoids. The prehistoric post-apocalyptic bunch have plenty of brute strength, but their weapons seem laughably crude as they counter robots and rayguns with moxie and slingshots. Hard to explain, sometimes, but it works. Similarly, the Titans are currently Football Outsiders' second-strongest team according to their stats, but even the men who designed those measures can't explain why.
Carolina at CHICAGO (-6.5): Panthers
"He's fearless, scareless, ever so careless. Stronger than a train, with a so-so brain." So the Blue Falcon once described Dynomutt, Dog Wonder, but in today's NFL he might have been talking about Cam Newton. Like Dynomutt, it's tempting to cast Newton as a knock-off, but with an amazing array of weapons that can be unleashed in any given situation, you can't dismiss him.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera gets to face his former team and draw up attack plans for the Bears defense he once coordinated, but like the Blue Falcon, he's mostly just along for the ride as Newton bounces around the field on spring-loaded legs and launches balls downfield with his rocket-powered arm.
San Francisco at PHILADELPHIA (-9): Niners
No team has come out to more fanfare, and been more disappointing so far, than the Eagles. We were expecting a team of transformers who were going to change the game. Instead, we got these cheap-ass knockoffs playing like a bunch of Gobots. The explosive, multi-dimensional Michael Vick has been missing in action for most of the season. He just looks clunkier, more uncertain, and less convincingly scripted. (Note, this comparison does not extend to LeSean McCoy, my pick for top running back in the league right now.)
While I certainly don't trust the 49ers offense and their pathetic 213 yards per game production, 9 points is too many to trust to these expensively-produced but cheaply-designed Eagles.
New Orleans (-7) at JACKSONVILLE: Saints
The Saints are legendarily good, but starting to show their age. The question is, are they aging well? Like "Battle of the Planets" (the US-dubbed version of Japan's Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, the answer is yes. The Saints' vertical offense floods the field with five offensive weapons for Drew Brees to find -- a hybridized throwback to Sid Gilman's and Al Davis' offenses of the 1970s that many teams are borrowing. Likewise, Gatchaman popularized the five-member hero team subsequently used by Voltron, the Power Rangers, and modern shows too numerous to count.
Washington (-1.5) at ST LOUIS: Rams
I'm breaking from my policy of not picking the Rams until they show me something, but I can't put my faith in the Redskins. Not with Rex Grossman (aka "Inch High Private Eye") hidden somewhere under the center. Grossman is generously listed at 6'1", and while he had a nice four-game run under Kyle Shanahan's offense, topping 300 yards three times with nine TD passes in those four games, he is finding out that regression to the mean is a terrible thing. Sure, like Inch High, maybe the Redskins have put a capable enough team around him to make some things happen. But like Inch High, Grossman hasn't exactly been knocking over goliaths on the schedule in building a 2-1 record. With the Rams desperate to get a win before their bye, and previous history on their side in these matchups, Grossman's shortcomings will be on full display.
Detroit at DALLAS (-1.5): Lions (Lock of the Week)
I honestly have no idea why Dallas is favored, other than being at home and a popular bet. The Lions are playing like a top-5 team right now, minus a slow-starting first half against Minnesota. Quite frankly, Matthew Stafford has become as cool-headed as Quick Draw McGraw, teaming with Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh to lay down El Kabong on unsuspecting fools all over the league. Mark down Dallas as yet another band of southwestern bandits to get their due.
Minnesota (-1.5) at KANSAS CITY: Chiefs
At some point for both of these teams, the mindless awfulness will stop. You know, when you turn the TV off. The nod goes to the home team, but this game should be about as well-executed and little-watched as an episode of The Robonic Stooges.
Pittsburgh at HOUSTON (-4): Steelers
While I admit their creative array of offensive weaponry is pretty impressive, I just can't bring myself to believe in the Houston Texans. There's something that feels falsely engineered about them, like they were created as a farm for fantasy football studs, with the real game and its outcome an afterthought. Like M.A.S.K. (the Mobile Armored Strike Kommand), a show clearly engineered to sell cheap plastic toys, they're fun to watch as long as you don't think too hard. The Steelers are not nearly as marketable, and have yet to really awaken, but their offense is every bit as potent and should be able to keep this game close to the end.
Buffalo (-3) at CINCINNATI: Bills
There's something undeniably shabby and cheap about the Buffalo Bills, a team whose offensive core is made up of castoffs, seventh-round picks and undrafted free agents. But like the Hair Bear Bunch, they are too busy living it up and causing mayhem for the traditional powers of the league to care. An aside: no one really knows how the undrafted Fred Jackson has become the most elusive running back in the NFL. Maybe he has an invisible motorcycle?
New York Giants (-1) at ARIZONA: Giants
There's nothing aesthetically pleasing about watching Eli Manning play. He pouts, he sulks, and he throws a quarter of his throws into the ground every game because he can't be bothered to run away from pressure. Having a Giants game sneak onto your schedule is as disturbing as having live action invade your block of cartoon shows. Like Kidd Video, even when Eli is performing at his best, all he exudes is a pathetic dorkiness.
Atlanta (-4.5) at SEATTLE: Falcons
Atlanta is a team in need of a serious rebound. Fortunately for them, they have two things going for them: they face one of the league's most inept teams in Seattle, and they have their own version of Turbo Teen in Julio Jones. The first round pick is a genetic freak who is starting to click with Matt Ryan, catching six passes for 115 yards against Tampa Bay, and he is just scratching the surface of his scientifically-engineered freakish powers. (Some studio executive was seriously high when this show was made.)
Denver at GREEN BAY (-12.5): Packers
We would be remiss in our cartoon-football con-fusion if we did not bring up Clay Matthews, who is known to fans as Captain Caveman. Perhaps it's the unadulterated violence he brings to the field, or the legion of van-driving teenage betties that he hitches rides with, or his ability to bring large objects out of his beard and eat them. One of those things, for sure.
New England (-4) at OAKLAND: Raiders (Upset of the week)
Arguably the greatest assemblage of stars on the football field this weekend, with the Patriots' weaponry opposed by the Raiders breakouts Darren McFadden and Denarius Moore, this game breaks down like a classic episode of the Laff-a-Lympics. And in their home stadium, I fully expect the Raiders to pull out the whole bag of Really Rotten tricks to monkey with the Scooby Doobies in Patriot blue, and keep this game close enough to win at the end.
Miami at SAN DIEGO (-7): Miami
San Diego is the Speed Buggy of the NFL, a semi-successful knockoff of much better franchises. The Chargers like to tout their team speed, but they are too-well-known for inexplicably sputtering out at very inconvenient times. Unnecessary drama and poor attempts at comedy ensue.
New York Jets at BALTIMORE (-3.5): Ravens
Could there be a cartoon comparison better suited to Rex Ryan's Jets than the perennially irritating Jabberjaw? He's an oversized but congenial bully constantly running his mouth and complaining that he gets no respect, but has little actual bite. (Maybe Rex would disagree... he probably sees himself as more of a Street Sharks guy.)
Indianapolis at TAMPA BAY (-10): Buccaneers
Indianapolis has been a ten-point underdog exactly once in the last five years -- last week, against the Steelers. There, they played their hearts out before the home crowd against the Super Bowl hung over Steelers, only to lose 23-20. But the odds of Curtis Painter leading this team to another cover, on the road against a capable Tampa Bay team, are about as improbable as any given episode of Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors. I mean, an evil genius with three brains who also transforms into a vehicle of some sort, fighting against a bunch of kids -- including a six-year-old girl -- driving futuristic backhoes? Oh, and those kids also have power rings? AND A WIZARD? And they fight their battles in some sort of subterranean plant life who just happened to evolve into organically elevated super highways?
I mean, that's not just ridiculous, that's Curtis Painter ridiculous.
Last week's picks: 7-9, and 0-2 on my Lock and Upset. Truly embarrassing. (Season total: 21-24-2.)