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NFL Week Nine: Spoilers Ahead!

By Brian Chase

COLUMNIST

The lesson from week nine of the NFL: beware the trap game. What’s a trap game, you ask? Take a good team, say the San Francisco 49ers or the Carolina Panthers. Give them two games against two tough opponents. Now put in a game against a really bad team, like the Arizona Cardinals or the Houston Texans, right in the middle of those two tough games. That game, against the horrible team, is your trap game. It’s called a trap game because players on the good team all too often take the bad team for granted and look ahead to the next week. But the bad team, struggling for every win, pays attention and upsets the good team. In the NFL, where only 16 games are played, these upsets assume a lot more significance than in baseball or basketball. Thus, bad teams can often make significant impacts on the NFL postseason, depending on whom they upset. Such teams are called spoilers. And wouldn’t you know, the two awful teams mentioned above, the Arizona Cardinals and the Houston Texans, have emerged as the most adept spoilers this year. Let’s take a look see, shall we?

Arizona Cardinals (3-5):

Don’t get me wrong, this team is bad. They have few experienced starters, and their coach, Dave McGinnis, is having trouble managing them. Add to that poor managing in both personnel decisions and money matters, and you get the lowest home attendance in the NFL. But somehow the Cards can work magic in that hot stadium in Phoenix. Twice this season, heavily favored teams have gone into Sun Devil Stadium and been upset. Those teams are the Green Bay Packers and the San Francisco 49ers, two teams struggling to get back in the playoff race, which makes the losses that much more intriguing.

The Cardinals were designed to be a team that controls the ball with a good running game, which would take the pressure off its defense. For this purpose, they brought in running back Emmitt Smith, who leads the NFL in all-time yardage, and quarterback Jeff Blake. Unfortunately, Smith was a bust, and the Cards defense has proven very inconsistent. But on the bright side, Blake has established a real connection with rookie receiver Anquan Boldin. And now that Smith is out with injury, backup running back Marcel Shipp has outperformed expectations. The final advantage for the Cardinals is their stadium itself, for while no one is there to cheer them on, it is the hottest stadium in the NFL, and teams tend to tire in the temperature. The Cards will take any advantage they can.

Houston Texans (3-5):

This team is all about its coach, Dom Capers. Like Arizona, the Texans are a young team with virtually no seasoned veterans. Unlike Arizona, they are well coached. Capers brings his kids out to play every week, and they never stop hitting, even in games they are getting blown out. They have two huge upsets to their credit: against the Miami Dolphins in week one and against the Carolina Panthers last Sunday. Since the Panthers are one of the top teams in the country, that win is getting a lot of attention.

The Texans’ attack begins and ends on defense. They have even more offensive problems than Arizona, if possible, and so they try to win tough, close games where one big play gives them victory. They also are an incredible fourth quarter team. All three of their wins this year have been comebacks in the fourth quarter. That’s where Capers shows how great he is, because he gets the Texans to play the entire game hard.

Games of the Week:

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Carolina Panthers: The Bucs have alternated win-loss-win-loss for the entire season, and they are due for a win. But the Panthers are going to be playing mad, too, after having been upset by the Texans last Sunday. The last time these two teams played, not one touchdown was scored. That could very possibly happen again. Ultimately, I think the Panthers’ one-dimensional offensive attack has been too mapped out to be effective against the Bucs, and I think the Bucs will get at least one scoring drive off a tired Panthers defense. Bucs win, 10-6.

Miami Dolphins at Tennessee Titans: This is another one of those defense versus offense matchups; the Dolphins supposedly vaunted defense against quarterback Steve McNair’s deadly passing attack. The only thing is that McNair really is that good and that the Dolphins defense really isn’t. Plus, the Titans’ defense has been performing well, while the Dolphins running back Ricky Williams is beginning to show signs of being physically tired. Miami got beaten by one AFC South power last week, they’ll get beaten by the other one this week. Titans victory, 23-10.