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NFL’s contenders and pretenders

After 10 weeks of NFL fun, Bill Simmons says 16 teams still have playoff hopes. He ranks them in order.

In the good old days, you couldn’t start figuring out the NFL playoff picture until Week 10. Three rules always factored into the process:

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Rule No. 1: Teams can’t clinch a playoff spot in the first two months, but they can definitely screw one up. Make sure you find those one or two teams who have already damaged their playoff chances.

Rule No. 2: Since it’s always better to peak in January instead of November, it’s always better to project ahead instead of judging what already happened.

Rule No. 3: Never trust a team with Vinny Testaverde on its roster, no matter how good they look.

But can standard rules apply to a season this screwed up?

When my buddy Sal and I were guessing the lines on Monday (our morning ritual), both of us were blown away by the staggering number of crappy teams.
Vinny TestaverdeFor instance, the Saints are getting 10 against a Patriots team that has been tied or trailing in the final six minutes of their last eight games. The Chiefs looked excruciatingly terrible last week in Buffalo … seven days later, they’re giving nearly a touchdown to a decomposing Houston team. The Rams were the subject of a damaging “All hell has broken loose in St. Louis!” feature that made it sound like Johnny Fairplay, Larry Lucchino and Crackhead Bob were running the franchise … and, oh, by the way, they’re giving 9.5 points to the wobbling Cardinals this week.

Is it even possible to determine some semblance of a playoff picture heading into Week 11? Let’s give it a whirl:

• Six teams are D-U-N done: Arizona; San Fran; Baltimore; Houston; Tennessee; New York Jets.

• Five more teams are done, but lurking as potential spoilers (depending on the matchup): New Orleans; Cleveland; St. Louis; Green Bay; Oakland.

• Four teams are just about done, but we can’t cross them off because of their divisions or other mitigating factors: Buffalo (brutal schedule ahead); Miami (teams with good first-year coaches always improve as the season goes along); Detroit (Joey Harrington alert!); and Philly (just about dead, except for the slight whiff of Ewing Theory potential without McNabb and TO).

• One team looms as the proverbial “Look, I don’t know WHAT the hell to make out of these guys anymore, I just know that I’m not betting on or against them for the rest of the season” team: Minnesota.

That leaves us with 16 potential playoff teams. Just for the hell of it, we’ll separate them into categories and count them down in reverse order, almost like one of those “Fifty Best Pairs of Celebrity Breasts!” specials on VH1 or something:

16. Kansas City (5-4)
Looks like I was one week late with my “Eventually, Trent Green is going to kill the Chiefs” theory. Should have just stuck to my guns. Anyway, these guys remind me of the Sacramento Kings — you see the name and think, “Great offense, these guys can score on anyone, watch out for them,” only that ship sailed about two years ago and nobody has fully realized it yet. I could see them finishing 6-10 or 7-9, followed by a Dick Vermeil retirement press conference in which he sobs incoherently like Sly Stallone right after Mickey died.

I’m proud of you guys. The number of readers who e-mailed me to complain about last week’s T.O. column because they didn’t realize it was a parody was surprisingly low — only 54 people in all — although 38 people congratulated me for going out on a limb to point the finger at people other than T.O. (which is almost funnier, in a way). I just love the fact that someone wouldn’t take the time to read the column carefully, yet they would find time to send me an angry e-mail about it. The Internet is fantastic.

A little background: The original intro to that column contained the paragraph, “What would a defense of T.O. read like? Even though I don’t believe anything I’m about to write for the next 19 paragraphs, lemme give it a whirl. I just have to see whether it can be done.” But my editors suggested taking the “19 paragraphs” sentence out, thinking the ambiguity would make the ending more effective. And they were right. Plus, anyone who skimmed the column mistakenly thought I was defending him, including two sports radio hosts in Los Angeles who apparently took me to task. That’s the sophisticated L.A. sports scene for you. No wonder they don’t have a football team.

15. Washington (5-4)
You give up 36 points to Chris Simms, you’re a pretender. By the way, maybe I’ve been playing too much “Madden” lately, but doesn’t the Redskins offense seem remarkably easy to stop? Really, nobody can handle a max protection blocking scheme with two receivers going out (Moss and Patten, who stinks)? Why wouldn’t you just stack the line against Portis and double-cover Moss? The Giants did this and shut them out. Why wouldn’t everyone do this? This is when I wish that Ron Jaworski’s cell number was on my speed dial.

14. San Diego (5-4)
Need to go 6-1 or 7-0 for a wild card, plus they need Cincy, Jacksonville or Pittsburgh to falter. Seems like a stretch. Hey, maybe they won’t make the playoffs, but at the very least, they proved a point to Antonio Gates when they benched him for the Dallas game. And that point was this: “Wow, are we stupid.”

And since I have nothing else to add, six random thoughts from Week 10:

A. After its triumphant debut as an “Inside the NFL” segment, I’m not asking for “On The Road With Peter King” to be turned into its own HBO show, I’m demanding it. Then we could see TiVo synopses like this:

“On the Road,” HBO2, Wednesday, 11:00PM — Peter accidentally spills hot coffee on a Starbucks barista; Dhani Jones takes Peter shopping in Manhattan; the chili in the Meadowlands press box gives everyone horrible diarrhea.

B. You know I’m battling bad bronchitis when I take Brooks Bollinger on the road against a good Panthers defense. That’s what happens when you ignore everyone’s advice to go on antibiotics for five days — you end up with a cough and Brooks Bollinger on the road.

C. I’m making this call right now: The “player fields a short field goal in the end zone, then brings it back 100-plus yards” has replaced the inside-the-park home run and the double eagle as the most randomly exciting play in sports.

Brian BillickD. You know, if I’m Brian Billick, and I know my owner is probably dying for me to quit so he doesn’t have to pay my contract, I would pull some crazy stuff to get fired (with full pay, of course) beyond continuing to inexplicably play Jamal Lewis over Chester Taylor. For instance, you know how coaches show their players inspiring movies the night before game day? What if Billick told his guys, “I’m taking you to the movies, we need to grow closer together as a team” … and then brought them to the 9:30 p.m. showing of “Brokeback Mountain?” Wouldn’t that do the trick?

E. When McNabb was crouched in pain after his interception TD on Monday night, was anyone else getting flashbacks to Rodney Dangerfield’s “Oooooh, my arm, I think it’s broken” scene in “Caddyshack?”

F. Has anyone in the history of football botched the last five minutes of a game worse than Andy Reid on Monday night? Things were so bad, when they mistakenly allowed 20 seconds to tick off the clock on fourth-and-19, Al Michaels was making excuses for him in a hushed voice instead of saying something like, “Wow, I can’t believe how badly Andy Reid is botching this game!” And what about the look on Andy’s face? He looked like he just got worked over by Teddy KGB at the Chesterfield. Hey, at least he handled the T.O. situation well. Back to the countdown.

12b. Atlanta (6-3)
These guys remind me of when my Dad calls me randomly during Celtics games just to say, “Lemme ask you, what does Justin Reed do? Does he bring anything to the table? Anything?”

With the Falcons, I know, I know … they have Vick and they can run the ball. But would you put their running game in Denver’s class? Does it create easy chances for their passing game? No and no. And I don’t think they do anything else that well. Plus, they have a tough schedule looming. In my book, the Samkon Gado game wasn’t an aberration — they’re headed in the wrong direction.

12a. Tampa Bay (6-3)
I think these guys have a little swagger, personified by last week’s two-point play and the locker room scene after Cadillac Williams’ 38-carry game, when Gruden clenched his teeth and screamed, “Can we run the ball or what?!?!?!?!” as everyone cheered. Plus, not many teams could lose their quarterback, running back and last year’s top receiver (Michael Clayton, a huge disappointment) and still come out 6-3 after nine games. There’s something to be said for that. I think they’re tougher than the Falcons, and I think they beat them on Sunday.

(Then again, I went 3-11 last weekend. So don’t mind me.)

10. Chicago, Jacksonville (tie, 6-3)
Practically an NFL ritual at this point: Two well-coached teams with good defenses take advantage of easy schedules, then get waxed in Round 1 of the playoffs because their offenses stink. Fortunately, we’re allowed to wager against them. And if you don’t think I’m willing to crash the Bears Bandwagon into a telephone pole for a little extra holiday cash, you obviously don’t know me well enough.

9. New England (5-4)
Somehow the Patriots are one of the top nine teams in the league, only I’m saying things during their games like …

“Aren’t you relieved to see Troy Brown playing d-back? I just feel good with him out there.”

“What’s our starting running back’s name again?”

“I think I know the answer to this question, but our center can’t snap the ball with a separated shoulder, right?”

“This has to be the first time a defense inspired an announcer to say the words, ‘Gus Frerotte is in a zone right now.'”

“One of these times, Tom Brady’s getting knocked down and he’s not gonna get back up. It’s the law of averages. If you get knocked down 200 times during the course of an NFL season, one of these times, you’re not getting up.”

“Lemme ask you something — are we just yanking fans out of the stands who have cornrows, then throwing a uniform on them and putting them right in the secondary?”

(And yes, those were all actual quotes from Sunday’s win in Miami.)

8. Dallas (6-3)
Remember in “Lost” this week, when Ana Lucia climbed the mountain with the dude holding the radio, and it seemed like they were having a casual conversation, only she was sizing him up the whole time because she thought he might be one of The Others, and there was that weird intensity in her eyes, like she was trying to remain cool, only deep down, she was waiting for the guy to pounce on her so she could stab him … and it just went on like that for about two minutes before they finally started fighting? Riveting scene, right?

Well, that’s every Cowboys fan dealing with Drew Bledsoe right now. Stick a camera on a Cowboys fan when Bledsoe goes back to pass in a close game, and I guarantee they have the Ana Lucia Face going. Everything seems casual. But it’s not.

7. Cincinnati (7-2)
On “Survivor” this season, Lydia the Fishmonger has managed to stick around for 10 weeks, and you know she’s getting voted off eventually, it’s just that everyone’s keeping her around because she has stubby legs, she cooks, she’s nice to everyone and there’s no way she’s stealing an immunity challenge. But when we get down to the final four? She’ll be gone. Just like the Bengals.

6. N.Y. Giants (6-3)
You can’t blame these guys for last week. After all, when the entire country has the Panthers, Giants and Falcons in a three-team tease, things like “Samkon Gado rushes for 100 yards and three TDs” and “the Vikings become the first NFL team to score on an interception, kick return and punt return in the same game” will happen. Plus, Eli was due for a stinker one of these weeks. I still like these guys.

5. Seattle (7-2)
I keep discounting the Seahawks because of their tortured history … and they keep beating the crap out of teams. At some point, it’s not luck anymore. And when you think about it, since the turn of the century, the Red Sox, White Sox, Patriots, Buccaneers, Jim Boeheim, Roy Williams, Phil Mickelson, Pete Carroll and Larry Brown all won championships. Clearly, there’s no rhyme or reason to this stuff anymore. So why couldn’t the Seahawks win a Super Bowl? I’ll believe just about anything at this point. I mean, even Clippers fans are about four more wins from printing “Why Not Us?” shirts. This is the century of the Lovable Loser, isn’t it?

4. Pittsburgh (7-2)
During Sunday night’s Browns-Steelers game, ESPN’s Mike Patrick discussed Reuben Droughns’ DUI arrest, and how it obscured what a fine person he was. Then he told a story about Droughns in college, how Droughns had given his football jacket to a homeless person who was washing his windshield, then bought that homeless person dinner and gave him cash.

And you know what? I learned two things from that story. First, it’s OK to get a DUI, as long as you have given a homeless person a nice jacket in the past. (Note: Since I have never gotten a DUI before, I’m going out this weekend and handing out jackets to homeless people in the Los Angeles area — I want to be covered in the Karma Department in case I ever blow 0.08 or higher.) And second, you can spin just about anything, no matter how good or bad it is.

Here’s why I bring this up: The Steelers are the fourth-best team in football right now. You can spin that one of two ways — either they don’t have enough to crack the top-three, or they’re within striking distance and it could happen soon. Personally, I think they have a good defense — not great, but good — and they’re one of those teams that looks fantastic when they’re up by 10 and doing the “pound the ball and mixing in some Hines Ward” routine, but a wee bit rocky in any other situation (like the recent Monday night game against Baltimore). Whether it’s Week 2, Week 9 or Week 18, they’re always playing at the same speed, always doing the same things, always hoping for that one trick play or special teams play — and any time they play someone who shifts into another gear, they can’t handle it. I’m not just talking about this season, either. That’s been a Cowher trademark through the years. Needless to say, I’m dubious. Just feels like they don’t have quite enough.

(Home team in caps)

Panthers (-3) over BEARS
TITANS (+4.5) over Jags
BENGALS (+5.5) over Colts
Saints (+9) over PATS
Cards (+9.5) over RAMS
Bucs (+6) over FALCONS
REDSKINS (-6) over Raiders
Lions (+7.5) over COWBOYS
GIANTS (-7.5) over Eagles
BROWNS (-2.5) over Dolphins
Seahawks (-12.5) over NINERS
CHARGERS (-10.5) over Bills
BRONCOS (-13.5) over Jets
RAVENS (+3.5) over Steelers
TEXANS (+7) over Chiefs
Vikings (+4.5) over PACKERS

Last week: 3-11
Season: 70-71-2

3. Carolina (7-2)
Great coach, very good defense (26 turnovers so far), solid running game, solid quarterback, consistently dangerous scoring connection (Delhomme to Smith), good special teams. The first team on this list that feels like a potential Super Bowl team.

And since I have nothing else to add before we get to the favorites, here are some of my favorite football e-mails from the past two weeks:

• From Matt in Plattsburgh, N.Y.: “Aren’t Drew Bledsoe and Jake Plummer kind of like fad diets? For a month and a half you have about 10 TDs and maybe 3-4 interceptions and the team is 4-2. Then suddenly, the interceptions have doubled, the TDs have been halved and your team is 9-7, on their way to a first-round playoff defeat. It’s just like a fad diet with a fat chick with good intentions. When you lose the weight and then within a few months suddenly you have gained it back and then some.”

(Put it this way: Bledsoe is DEFINITELY the Atkins Diet. There’s no question. But I’m not sure about Jake. This unfathomable season he’s having almost feels like a stomach stapling operation instead of a crash diet. In other words, it just might hold.)

• From Gate in California: “As a Steeler fan and Terrible Towel owner out in the Bay Area, I demand to know when the Tommy Maddox Face is going to be added to the vaunted Pantheon of Faces. The unintentional comedy when he is involved in a ball game is through the roof, right down to the ‘He’s really done a good job staying in control, despite things like all the trash piled on his lawn by angry fans’ comments made by the announcers. Simply incredible. But hey, he was XFL MVP.”

(My favorite part of last Sunday’s game: When Tommy went back to pass and you could hear Theismann mutter, “Come on, Tommy.” I mean, when you’re so bad that the announcers are rooting for you, it’s definitely time to call it quits.)

Gus Frerotte• From Bill Rayburn in Palo Alto, Calif.: “This happened on the exact same day [Nov. 13] — Gus Frerotte throws for 360 yards against the two-time defending Super Bowl champions, and Raef LaFrentz goes 7-for-7 from the 3-point line in the first half of an NBA game. Can you conjure up a similar double/double in the history of sports?”

(Of course not. Here’s my question though: Can you pick two more perfect athletes to be linked like that than Frerotte and LaFrentz? Is Gus the Raef of the NFL, or is Raef the Gus of the NBA? They’re like kindred spirits. And while we’re on the subject, who would be the baseball equivalent to these guys? Sidney Ponson? Aaron Boone? I might spend the entire weekend trying to figure this out.)

• From Brian C. in Boston: “Being the connoisseur of bad football announcing that you are, I am surprised that you have yet to comment on the newest trend in horrible announcing. Why is it that every announcer now says that an injured player is out with a body part, rather than an INJURED body part? For instance, in the Pats game this Sunday, Corey Dillon was ‘sidelined with a knee.’ And then in the Monday Night game, Julius Jones had been ‘out with an ankle’ and that David Akers ‘had a hamstring.’ This seems so unbelievably silly, I just can’t comprehend why EVERY ANNOUNCER would speak like this?! More important, does the widespread use of this mean that it’s acceptable to call in sick to work like this? Next time I have a cold or cough can I call and say that I’m going to be ‘out with a sinus’ or that I ‘have a lung?'”

(Excellent work. In 2004, the phrase flat-out was suddenly shortened to flat. In 2005, all injuries have been shortened to just the body part. In 2006, maybe they’ll figure out how to combine the two, as in, “McNabb’s out with a knee, it’s been flat bothering him lately.” By 2020, announcers will be just talking without any verbs. Reuben Droughns. DUI. Homeless. Jacket. Good guy.)

• From Jason M. in Miami: “Concussions have cut short the careers of many professional athletes in recent years: Troy Aikman. Eric Lindros. And likely now Wayne Chrebet. So, here’s my question: Do you think that’s what cut short the career of B.A. Baracus and essentially brought down the entire “A-Team?” Think about it. Every time they flew somewhere, they had to knock him out to get him on the plane/helicopter. Well, after a while, you know B.A. must have been suffering some sort of postconcussion stress syndrome. I bet all those blows to his mohawked coconut pushed him and The A-Team into early retirement. Your thoughts?”

(Jason, you’re a genius and I’m glad you passed through my life. Why couldn’t that have been the final A-Team episode? Imagine Mr. T lying in a dark room as George Peppard opens the door, and Mr. T says, “Uhhhhhhh … close that damn door, B.A.’s feeling nauseous, the light’s bothering B.A., don’t give me no jibber-jabber, just close the door … “)

2. Denver (7-2)
Say what you want about Mike Shanahan — and I have — but he figured out how to take advantage of Jake Plummer’s strengths (fakes the play-action as well as anyone, dangerous when he’s rolling out as long as there’s no pressure, throws a nice longball when he sets his feet) and hide his weaknesses (makes terrible decisions when he ad-libs, forces passes into traffic when he’s pressured, makes more mistakes the more leeway you give him). And that’s how an unfathomable stat like “Jake Plummer has thrown 13 TDs and 0 INTs in two months” can happen.

1. Panthers
2. Saints
3. Broncos

So how did Shanahan pull it off? Three ways:

A. He gave Plummer the best running game in football — Mike Anderson grinding out yards between the tackles, Tatum Bell bursting through for an occasional home run. They’re really onto something here. It’s almost like a baseball team pitching a quality knuckler for three innings, bringing in someone who throws 100 miles an hour for the fourth and fifth, bringing back the knuckler for the sixth and seventh, then closing with the fireballer again. I’m not sure how you stop it, actually.

B. That potent running game forces everyone to stack the line, so Jake is getting crazy amounts of time on those aformentioned play-actions (especially when he sells them well).

C. I have no evidence to prove this, but I think Shanahan secretly gave Jake a frontal lobotomy.

The question remains: Can you win a Super Bowl with Jake Plummer? When it’s phrased that way, probably not. But what if you phrased it this way: Can you win a Super Bowl with a killer running game, a powerhouse defense, veteran leadership, and a limited quarterback who can do a couple of things very well and shall remain nameless? I would say yes.

(In fact, if the Broncos were smart, then they would have made Jake change his name after the frontal lobotomy, kinda like when Tiffani-Amber Thiessen dropped the “Amber” in an attempt to distance herself from “90210” and “Saved by the Bell,” or even how Puff Diddy went to P. Diddy and eventually Diddy. Jake could have called himself, “Jake Plum.” Hell, I would have bought it.)

1. Indianapolis (9-0)
Should be a fascinating final seven weeks on a number of levels. First, can they go undefeated? Second, what happens if they’re 34-0 and have home-field clinched heading into that Week 15 game against the Chargers? Isn’t Tony Dungy screwed either way? If he keeps playing his starters and one of them gets hurt, he’s an idiot. If he rests guys and they’re rusty in their Round 2 game, he’s an idiot. (Personally, I think Ozzie Guillen showed how to handle this situation — just keep kicking butt and don’t worry about anything else.) And third, can you think of a bigger disaster in fantasy football history than Dungy resting Manning, James, Harrison and Wayne for long stretches during the final three weeks of the season?

And yes, I still think they’re the team to beat. But if you drew up someone to beat the 2005 Colts … wouldn’t that team look almost exactly like the 2005 Broncos? As always, stay tuned.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine and his Sports Guy’s World site is updated every day Monday through Friday. His new book “Now I Can Die In Peace” is available on and in bookstores everywhere.