The NFL world lost one of its driving personalities, today, a man whose pride in his team became the very organizing principle for the franchise and its far-flung fan base. Not everyone will miss Al Davis, but no one will forget him or the impact he had on the league.
In his honor, this week's picks will be a tribute to Davis and the other city by the Bay.
Oakland at HOUSTON (-6): Raiders (Upset & Lock)
That's right, I'm putting all my eggs in one basket with this pick, and painting them silver and black. Like Lawrence, I already liked the Raiders to cover this spread, but in the emotional aftermath of Davis' passing, I don't think there's any way this already charged-up Raider team can be stopped, even by a very good Houston team. Especially one without its top offensive weapon in Andre Johnson, who will miss the next three weeks.
Cincinnati at JACKSONVILLE (-3): Bengals
The Bengals have become the Raiders of the Ohio River, with their motley collection of miscreants and ne'er-do-wells. And with Carson Palmer firing passes to Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco last season, and Cedric Benson crashing through the center of the line, they had become a modern iteration of the old Oakland offense. With their offensive identity shifting to more of a rookie-friendly West Coast attack, the Bengals defense is the unit putting its impring on games. Expect to see more pain than growth in Blaine Gabbert's second week as a starter.
Philadelphia at BUFFALO (-3): Eagles
I love Buffalo, but I don't like them as favorites. They are a comeback team at heart, lacking that go-for-the-throat, "Just win, baby" killer instinct that typified the glory years of their old AFC rivals. They are facing a dangerous and desperate Philadelphia team this week, one that could be on the verge of a complete mutiny if they don't salvage their season right here. If this game had been played in Buffalo in December, I might slide my pick to the other side. But under these beautiful conditions, with an equal playing field, Philly takes it.
Seattle at NEW YORK GIANTS (-9.5): Giants
This is a stupid lot of points to hang on Eli Manning. I really don't trust this New York team to cover this spread in the least, especially after needing some serious cheating to pick up the win last week against Arizona. (Seriously, I thought only the Raiders had calls this bad go against them. Maybe it was the Cardinals' Radier-black uniforms that confused the refs.) But I also don't trust Seattle to play nearly as well on the road, especially on the east coast, as they have the last two weeks in front of their home crowd.
Arizona at MINNESOTA (-3): Cardinals
If I could choose which games to pick, I wouldn't touch this nuclear waste dump of a matchup with a full hazmat suit on. But if I have to, I grudgingly take the Kevin Kolb-Larry Fitzgerald connection above anything the Vikings can throw out there in their passing game. Conceivably Minnesota could start winning games any time they want, but I'm pretty sure owner Zygi Wilf is taking a "scorched earth" policy towards Minnesota, hoping to follow Al Davis' example and look for a better life in Los Angeles.
Kansas City at INDIANAPOLIS (-3): Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs' iconic owner Lamar Hunt was in many ways the bumbling but lovable white knight to Al Davis' brooding and irascible dark knight, during the days of the AFL-NFL merger. Hunt's Chiefs started out as a Dallas Texans franchise that was successful on the field, but less so in the stands. Three years after they moved to the grain belt, the AFL and NFL merged into one league, and Hunt semi-jokingly suggested a new name for their championship game to commissioner Pete Rozelle. "I have kiddingly called it the 'Super Bowl,' which obviously can be improved upon." Ironically, the Colts, who became a power of the original NFL, also began their football lives as an earlier iteration of the "Dallas Texans"...
Tennessee at PITTSBURGH (-3): Titans
No team was more hated -- and no rivalry more hotly stoked -- by Al Davis than the NFL's darlings, the Pittsburgh Steelers. In Davis' mind, the league consistently looked the other way in order to benefit the tradition-rich Steelers, especially in high-profile matchups between the two teams. Indeed, he insisted for decades that Franco Harris' "Immaculate Reception" was not a legal play. Though replays from the original broadcast are famously inconclusive, the Raiders insist that the desperation fourth-down pass, broken up by Hall of Famer Jack Tatum, hit the ground before Harris could get his fingers on it. These old and slow Steelers might need a similar miracle -- and for today's replay technology to look the other way -- to pull off a victory against the hard-charging Titans.
Tampa Bay at SAN FRANCISCO (-3): Buccaneers
Another band of pirates descends on the Bay Area to take on the hated 49ers. Oaklanders love to characterize rival fans of the Niners as wine-sipping snobs, a stadium filled with Napa Valley elites who couldn't care less about the game. Few have been toasting victories in the last dark decade of football, but Jim Harbaugh's Niners look to be finally turning the corner. While this should be a very competitive game, Josh Freeman's fourth quarter heroics are becoming a force of nature, one that simply can't be bet against at this stage.
New York Jets at NEW ENGLAND (-9): Patriots
The Jets have a mojo problem, though to admit that would create a bigger mojo problem for Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez. The two are coexisting for now, trusting the infallible strength of each other's ego, but this may become an unhappy marriage. The Patriots provide a galvanizing enemy to focus on, but these Jets are looking awful rough at the seams, and the Pats have revenge on their minds after losing to New York in last year's playoffs. As Raider fans can tell you, your team can only go so far on bluster and brave proclamations.
San Diego (-4) at DENVER: Chargers
If Al Davis had one dying bargain with God, he might have asked Him to find a way to make both of these teams lose this game. (No one ever said that dying wishes had to make sense.) Norv Turner is one of the few offensive coaches in the league that draws his playbooks directly from the Sid Gilman-Don Coryell passing tree, which must have endeared him to Davis. But Norv failed miserably in his two-year stint as Raiders head coach, winning only one game against AFC West opponents from 2004-05. Meanwhile, Davis maintained a beef with Denver over the firing of Mike Shanahan, and Shanahan's claim (a totally valid one) that Davis still owed him significant amounts of money.
Green Bay (-6) at ATLANTA: Packers
I can't think of an Al Davis or Oakland connection here, so I'll just say that Aaron Rodgers kind of looks like a white Humpty Hump, leader of the seminal Oakland rap supergroup Digital Underground. At press time, though, my sources cannot confirm whether Rodgers likes his oatmeal lumpy...
Chicago at DETROIT (-5.5): Lions
Chicago has owned this matchup in recent years, winning six straight and covering six of the last ten spreads. Like the inexorable passing of life, though, trends like this must someday come to an end. Both Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler like to heave the vertical ball, in classic Oakland style, but Stafford has a worthy target downfield, while Cutler has nothing more than a bunch of Hey-Beys.
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