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Woody's Winners, NFL Week 8

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NFL WEEK EIGHT

What I've learned through seven weeks of NFL play this season:

  • Buffalo will win a few games before the season's over
  • Oakland will become a contender over the next three years
  • Teams have figured out how to beat New Orleans
  • Dallas has leadership issues and needs veteran help
  • It's no fun for anyone when games are blacked out
  • Tennessee is good enough to reach the Super Bowl
  • Any team can beat any other team on any given week

There are no particularly potent slices of brain food on that list, I know. But you have to admit, it's been a wild season thus far in several regards. Last week's 7-7 record brings me to 56-48 overall, but I know I'll ruin things with the number of upsets I've predicted for Week 8. When the games pan out, I'll either look like a fool, or I'll look like a lucky fool. Let's find out:

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Green Bay (4-3) @ N.Y. Jets (5-1)

The New Meadowlands will be awash in a Sea of Green this Sunday as the Packers and Jets compare notes on how lucky they both are to have “moved on” from the Brett Favre days. New York has only allowed 12 QB hits this season, compared to 20+ for every other NFL team, so the Pack pass rush won’t have much effect. Both teams sport capable pass defenses, but Gotham can run the ball, and plans to do so early and often to control the line of scrimmage. If Aaron Rodgers can toss a few aerial bombs to keep the 747s at bay, he just might be able to shut down the airport. Too bad George Kennedy is a Jets fan.

Woody’s Winner: New York

FACT: The Packers have never beaten the Jets on the road.

Please click "more" to see my picks for the dozen other games scheduled for Week 8!

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Denver (2-5) @ San Francisco (1-6)

The last thing both the Broncos and 49ers needed at this point in the season was a distraction. Denver gave up 59 points last week – at home – while San Francisco’s QB went down in a loss to punchless (and previously winless) Carolina. So let’s send these two teams across the Atlantic to London to play at Wembley Stadium in front of a bunch of fans yelling things like “Sissies wear pads!” and “Wot’s up with the funny-shaped ball?” The Golden Gate guys are just trying to stay afloat, while the Mile High men could still salvage their season. That glimmer of hope, and the anger of last week’s embarrassing show, will make all the difference for Denver.

Woody’s Winner: Denver

FACT: In 1989, the 49ers shellacked the Broncos 55-10 in Super Bowl XXIV.

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Jacksonville (3-4) @ Dallas (1-5)

The Cowboys’ offense has racked up plenty of yardage this season, but mistakes regularly keep them out of the end zone. The solution is to crank out a few long plays, and QB Jon Kitna will have that opportunity against a Jaguars defense that has allowed more 20+ yard pass plays (28 of them) than any other team in the NFL. While Cowboys Stadium is gorgeous, the home team is 0-3 there this season, and it’s sure deafening when 100,000 fans boo in unison. As long as the Silver can contain RB Maurice Jones-Drew, they have no reason to lose this game. But that hasn’t mattered so far this season, has it? Still…

Woody’s Winner: Dallas

FACT: Jacksonville’s QBs have thrown more interceptions (11) than anyone else in the AFC.

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Miami (3-3) @ Cincinnati (2-4)

The notion that this Flipper-vs.-Fluffy matchup involves two middle-of-the-road teams all but guarantees an exciting game. Both squads hope to recover from Week 7 games that they could have (and should have) won. With a tough second-half schedule looming, the Bengals are happy to be playing in the friendly confines of Paul Brown Stadium. But Miami is 3-0 on the road in 2010, and they’d just as soon keep that streak alive. In a surprise, the salt-water Dolphins will thrive in the muddy Ohio River this Sunday.

Woody’s Winner (in a mild upset): Miami

FACT: Since the AFL/NFL merger in 1970, the Bengals are 3-12 against the Dolphins. Cincinnati has, however, won the teams’ two most recent matchups (in 2004 and 2007).

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Carolina (1-5) @ St. Louis (3-4)

Some questioned how much St. Louis had improved following Week 5’s debacle in Detroit, but the team’s other three losses have come by a combined 7 points. Carolina comes to town with the league’s lowest-scoring offense, and it looked like they went all-out to garner a 3-point win vs. the hapless 49ers last week. Despite having surgery on a broken ring finger earlier this week, Rams RB Steven Jackson vows to play in this game. He won’t put a Super Bowl ring on that finger this year, but with that sort of determination, it may not take long.

Woody’s Winner: St. Louis

FACT: The Panthers have won their last four games against the St. Louis Rams (including a 2003 playoff matchup).

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Washington (4-3) @ Detroit (1-5)

Last season, the Lions squeaked by the 'Skins 19-14 at Ford Field, but that was against QB Jason Campbell. His replacement, Donovan McNabb, has torched the Detroit secondary in his career, completing 50 of 68 passes (73.5%) for 6 TDs without an interception. His skill set should allow D.C. to outlast Motown, provided they don’t fall behind too far. QB Matthew Stafford makes his heralded return for the Cats after a Week 1 injury, and had a bye week to prepare, but is he up to speed? I picked the Lions to win once this season, and they did. They’re slightly favored here, but I’m no fool.

Woody’s Winner (in a mild upset): Washington

FACT: The Redskins are the only NFC team that hasn’t attempted to “go for it” on fourth-down this season; not surprising, since they’re worst in the NFC on third down (converting only 25 percent).

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Buffalo (0-6) @ Kansas City (4-2)

These long-time rivals faced off in the 1966 AFL Championship, in which KC earned a spot in the very first Super Bowl (where they were unceremoniously disposed of by Vince Lombardi’s Packers). The Chiefs hope to tan some Buffalo hide when the Bills rumble into Arrowhead Stadium in Week 8. Kansas City feasts on the NFL’s dregs, with all 4 of their wins coming against teams with a combined 8-20 record. The Buffs have hung tough against some of the AFC’s best (notably New England and Baltimore) and if their defense ever shows up, they’ll win a game this season. But not this week.

Woody’s Winner: Kansas City

FACT: The Chiefs’ stellar running game averages a league-leading 176.5 yards per game.

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Tennessee (5-2) @ San Diego (2-5)

Fifty years ago, these two franchises (then in Houston and Los Angeles) met in the AFL’s first title game. The Oilers won, proving that petroleum had an advantage over electricity back in 1960. It’s 2010 now, however, and the buzzword is “hybrid.” In the NFL, this means that, in order to win, you have to play defense AND run the ball. (Just ask Dallas, Detroit, and Denver.) RB Chris Johnson and the Titan offense has picked up steam to become the second-highest-scoring team in the NFL, and that’s advantage enough for them to leave the Chargers looking for a place to plug themselves in.

Woody’s Winner (in an upset): Tennessee

FACT: The Chargers last lost to the Titans franchise in 1992 (when they were still the Houston Oilers).

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Minnesota (2-4) @ New England (5-1)

I’ve heard a few fans grumble that Brett Favre rises slowly from hits – and feigns aches after games – just to make his return the following week appear all the more amazing. A twice-broken heel can’t feel good for anybody, and while the league’s oldest starting QB is still a tough competitor, some time off might be best for Minnesota. The Vikes do need to stir up some excitement (whether it’s orchestrated or not), but they’ve got to win games along the way. Will this be the week that Favre’s record of 315 consecutive games comes screeching to a halt? It matters not to the powerful Patriots, where business as usual will result in a victory at Foxboro.

Woody’s Winner: New England

FACT: The Patriots’ defense is last in the league in opponent pass completion percentage (70) and opponent third-down conversion percentage (49).

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Seattle (4-2) @ Oakland (3-4)

Oakland is 1-2 against the NFC West this season, and finishes off the division when the Seahawks fly south this Sunday. After scoring only 9 points in Week 6, the Raiders shocked everyone last week by hanging 59 points on the Broncos. They won’t have that kind of success against Seattle’s solid run defense, but may have to worry about their own. The one-two punch of Justin Forsett and Marshawn Lynch will take the pressure off QB Matt Hasselbeck. Black-clad fans will sit with mouths agape by the time the ‘Hawks fly off over the horizon with eye patches in their beaks, swatches of silver in their talons, and a “W” where it counts.

Woody’s Winner (in an upset): Seattle

FACT: The home team has won the 9 previous games in this matchup.

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Tampa Bay (4-2) @ Arizona (3-3)

So far this season, the Cardinals have won one week and lost the next. They were defeated at Seattle last week, so it’s “win” week, right? Not so fast. The return of Arizona WR Steve Breaston should help rookie QB Max Hall, but pass defense is one thing (perhaps the one thing) at which the Buccaneers excel. The Redbirds haven’t been performing well on either side of the ball, and their inconsistency is bound to catch up with them. I’m predicting that this will happen in Week 8.

Woody’s Winner (in an upset): Tampa Bay

FACT: The Cardinals have fallen to last in the league in passing yards (172.5) and total yards (237.8) per game.

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Pittsburgh (5-1) @ New Orleans (4-3)

With 3 interceptions and 2 fumbles returned for TDs, opponents have feasted on Saints mistakes this season. The Steelers arrive in town in this contest between the two most recent Super Bowl winners, and they want to add to those numbers in the worst way. Pittsburgh’s powerhouse defense can stop a team’s rushing game in its sleep – which is how Nawlins runs – so they’ll turn their attention to the passing game. Sadly, for the home fans, QB Drew Brees won’t make much of a ruffle in the Steel Curtain.

Woody’s Winner: Pittsburgh

FACT: The Steelers have completed only 86 passes this season (fewest in the NFL) but have averaged 8.7 yards per completion (second-best in the league).

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Houston (4-2) @ Indianapolis (4-2)

In Week 1, the Texans surprised the Colts in Houston, but it will be a tough order to repeat that success this Monday night in Indianapolis. While Peyton Manning’s iron-man streak continues, Indy’s offense has lost several playmakers. The team’s leading RB (Joseph Addai), WR (Austin Collie) and TE (Dallas Clark) are all out. This trio has accounted for 12 of the offense’s 18 TDs this season. The Colts are 8-1 on MNF since 2003, but the luck in their horseshoes might have finally fizzled. If the Texans can control the ball, they’ll prove that their season-opening victory wasn’t just a cow patty.

Woody’s Winner (in an upset): Houston

FACT: The Colts have not played in a regular-season overtime game since 2004 (87 consecutive games).

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BYE: Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, N.Y. Giants, Philadelphia.

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Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below, but please be cordial to others; this is all in good fun. Thanks!

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Pop Culture
Fumbled: The Story of the United States Football League
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davi_deste via eBay

There were supposed to be 44 players marching to the field when the visiting Los Angeles Express played their final regular season game against the Orlando Renegades in June 1985.

Thirty-six of them showed up. The team couldn’t afford more.

“We didn’t even have money for tape,” Express quarterback Steve Young said in 1986. “Or ice.” The squad was so poor that Young played fullback during the game. They only had one, and he was injured.

Other teams had ridden school buses to practice, driven three hours for “home games,” or shared dressing room space with the local rodeo. In August 1986, the cash-strapped United States Football League called off the coming season. The league itself would soon vaporize entirely after gambling its future on an antitrust lawsuit against the National Football League. The USFL argued the NFL was monopolizing television time; the NFL countered that the USFL—once seen as a promising upstart—was being victimized by its own reckless expansion and the wild spending of team owners like Donald Trump.

They were both right.

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Spring football. That was David Dixon’s pitch. The New Orleans businessman and football advocate—he helped get the Saints in his state—was a fan of college ball and noticed that spring scrimmages at Tulane University led to a little more excitement in the air. With a fiscally responsible salary cap in place and a 12-team roster, he figured his idea could be profitable. Market research agreed: a hired broadcast research firm asserted 76 percent of fans would watch what Dixon had planned.

He had no intention of grappling with the NFL for viewers. That league’s season aired from September through January, leaving a football drought March through July. And in 1982, a players’ strike led to a shortened NFL season, making the idea of an alternative even more appealing to networks. Along with investors for each team region, Dixon got ABC and the recently-formed ESPN signed to broadcast deals worth a combined $35 million over two years.

When the Chicago Blitz faced the Washington Federals on the USFL’s opening day March 6, 1983, over 39,000 fans braved rain at RFK Stadium in Washington to see it. The Federals lost 28-7, foreshadowing their overall performance as one of the league’s worst. Owner Berl Bernhard would later complain the team played like “untrained gerbils.”

Anything more coordinated might have been too expensive. The USFL had instituted a strict $1.8 million salary cap that first year to avoid franchise overspending, but there were allowances made so each team could grab one or two standout rookies. In 1983, the big acquisition was Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, who opted out of his senior year at Georgia to turn pro. Walker signed with the New Jersey Generals in a three-year, $5 million deal.

Jim Kelly and Steve Young followed. Stan White left the Detroit Lions. Marcus Dupree left college. The rosters were built up from scratch using NFL cast-offs or prospects from nearby colleges, where teams had rights to “territorial” drafts.

To draw a line in the sand, the USFL had advertising play up the differences between the NFL’s product and their own. Their slogan, “When Football Was Fun,” was a swipe at the NFL’s increasingly draconian rules regarding players having any personality. They also advised teams to run a series of marketable halftime attractions. The Denver Gold once offered a money-back guarantee for attendees who weren’t satisfied. During one Houston Gamblers game, boxer George Foreman officiated a wedding. Cars were given away at Tampa Bay Bandits games. The NFL, the upstart argued, stood for the No Fun League.

For a while, it appeared to be working. The Panthers, which had invaded the city occupied by the Detroit Lions, averaged 60,000 fans per game, higher than their NFL counterparts. ABC was pleased with steady ratings. The league was still conservative in their spending.

That would change—many would argue for the worse—with the arrival of Donald Trump.

Despite Walker’s abilities on the field, his New Jersey Generals ended the inaugural 1983 season at 6-12, one of the worst records in the league. The excitement having worn off, owner J. Walter Duncan decided to sell the team to real estate investor Trump for a reported $5-9 million.

A fixture of New York media who was putting the finishing touches on Trump Tower, Trump introduced two extremes to the USFL. His presence gave the league far more press attention than it had ever received, but his bombastic approach to business guaranteed he wouldn’t be satisfied with an informal salary cap. Trump spent and spent some more, recruiting players to improve the Generals. Another Heisman winner, quarterback Doug Flutie, was signed to a five-year, $7 million contract, the largest in pro football at the time. Trump even pursued Lawrence Taylor, then a player for the New York Giants, who signed a contract saying that, after his Giants contract expired, he’d join Trump’s team. The Giants wound up buying out the Taylor/Trump contract for $750,000 and quadrupled Taylor’s salary, and Trump wound up with pages of publicity.

Trump’s approach was effective: the Generals improved to 14-4 in their sophomore season. But it also had a domino effect. In order to compete with the elevated bar of talent, other team owners began spending more, too. In a race to defray costs, the USFL approved six expansion teams that paid a buy-in of $6 million each to the league.

It did little to patch the seams. Teams were so cash-strapped that simple amenities became luxuries. The Michigan Panthers dined on burnt spaghetti and took yellow school buses to training camp; players would race to cash checks knowing the last in line stood a chance of having one bounce. When losses became too great, teams began to merge with one another: The Washington Federals became the Orlando Renegades. By the 1985 season, the USFL was down to 14 teams. And because the ABC contract required the league to have teams in certain top TV markets, ABC started withholding checks.

Trump was unmoved. Since taking over the Generals, he had been petitioning behind the scenes for the other owners to pursue a shift to a fall season, where they would compete with the NFL head on. A few owners countered that fans had already voiced their preference for a spring schedule. Some thought it would be tantamount to league suicide.

Trump continued to push. By the end of the 1984 season, he had swayed opinion enough for the USFL to plan on one final spring block in 1985 before making the move to fall in 1986.

In order to make that transition, they would have to win a massive lawsuit against the NFL.

In the mid-1980s, three major networks meant that three major broadcast contracts would be up for grabs—and the NFL owned all three. To Trump and the USFL, this constituted a monopoly. They filed suit in October 1984. By the time it went to trial in May 1986, the league had shrunk from 18 teams to 14, hadn’t hosted a game since July 1985, kept only threadbare rosters, and was losing what existing television deals it had by migrating to smaller markets (a major part of the NFL’s case was that the real reason for the lawsuit, and the moves to smaller markets, was to make the league an attractive takeover prospect for the NFL). The ruling—which could have forced the NFL to drop one of the three network deals—would effectively become the deciding factor of whether the USFL would continue operations.

They came close. A New York jury deliberated for 31 hours over five days. After the verdict, jurors told press that half believed the NFL was guilty of being a monopoly and were prepared to offer the USFL up to $300 million in damages; the other half thought the USFL had been crippled by its own irresponsible expansion efforts. Neither side would budge.

To avoid a hung jury, it was decided they would find in favor of the USFL but only award damages in the amount of $1. One juror told the Los Angeles Times that she thought it would be an indication for the judge to calculate proper damages.

He didn’t. The USFL was awarded treble damages for $3 in total, an amount that grew slightly with interest after time for appeal. The NFL sent them a payment of $3.76. (Less famously, the NFL was also ordered to pay $5.5 million in legal fees.)

Rudy Shiffer, vice-president of the Memphis Showboats, summed up the USFL's fate shortly after the ruling was handed down. “We’re dead,” he said.

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Big Questions
Who Was Chuck Taylor?
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iStock

From Betty Crocker to Tommy Bahama, plenty of popular labels are "named" after fake people. But one product with a bona fide backstory to its moniker is Converse's Chuck Taylor All-Star sneakers. The durable gym shoes are beloved by everyone from jocks to hipsters. But who's the man behind the cursive signature on the trademark circular ankle patch?

As journalist Abraham Aamidor recounted in his 2006 book Chuck Taylor, All Star: The True Story of the Man behind the Most Famous Athletic Shoe in History, Chuck Taylor was a former pro basketball player-turned-Converse salesman whose personal brand and tireless salesmanship were instrumental to the shoes' success.

Charles Hollis Taylor was born on July 24, 1901, and raised in southern Indiana. Basketball—the brand-new sport invented by James Naismith in 1891—was beginning to take the Hoosier State by storm. Taylor joined his high school team, the Columbus High School Bull Dogs, and was named captain.

After graduation, instead of heading off to college, Taylor launched his semi-pro career playing basketball with the Columbus Commercials. He’d go on to play for a handful of other teams across the Midwest, including the the Akron Firestone Non-Skids in Ohio, before finally moving to Chicago in 1922 to work as a sales representative for the Converse Rubber Shoe Co. (The company's name was eventually shortened to Converse, Inc.)

Founded in Malden, Massachusetts, in 1908 as a rubber shoe manufacturer, Converse first began producing canvas shoes in 1915, since there wasn't a year-round market for galoshes. They introduced their All-Star canvas sports shoes two years later, in 1917. It’s unclear whether Chuck was initially recruited to also play ball for Converse (by 1926, the brand was sponsoring a traveling team) or if he was simply employed to work in sales. However, we do know that he quickly proved himself to be indispensable to the company.

Taylor listened carefully to customer feedback, and passed on suggestions for shoe improvements—including more padding under the ball of the foot, a different rubber compound in the sole to avoid scuffs, and a patch to protect the ankle—to his regional office. He also relied on his basketball skills to impress prospective clients, hosting free Chuck Taylor basketball clinics around the country to teach high school and college players his signature moves on the court.

In addition to his myriad other job duties, Taylor played for and managed the All-Stars, a traveling team sponsored by Converse to promote their new All Star shoes, and launched and helped publish the Converse Basketball Yearbook, which covered the game of basketball on an annual basis.

After leaving the All-Stars, Taylor continued to publicize his shoe—and own personal brand—by hobnobbing with customers at small-town sporting goods stores and making “special appearances” at local basketball games. There, he’d be included in the starting lineup of a local team during a pivotal game.

Taylor’s star grew so bright that in 1932, Converse added his signature to the ankle patch of the All Star shoes. From that point on, they were known as Chuck Taylor All-Stars. Still, Taylor—who reportedly took shameless advantage of his expense account and earned a good salary—is believed to have never received royalties for the use of his name.

In 1969, Taylor was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. The same year, he died from a heart attack on June 23, at the age of 67. Around this time, athletic shoes manufactured by companies like Adidas and Nike began replacing Converse on the court, and soon both Taylor and his namesake kicks were beloved by a different sort of customer.

Still, even though Taylor's star has faded over the decades, fans of his shoe continue to carry on his legacy: Today, Converse sells more than 270,000 pairs of Chuck Taylors a day, 365 days a year, to retro-loving customers who can't get enough of the athlete's looping cursive signature.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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