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Woody's Winners, NFL Week 9

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NFL WEEK NINE

Apologies for this column being a day late, but I've been focused on doing my part to crank out the next issue of mental_floss magazine. Week 10 brings Thursday Night Football, so we'll be a day early next week (and for the rest of the season). See? It all works out in the end.

Woody chose several upsets last week, and paid for that by posting a pedestrian 5-8 record. Teams I expected to wake up (Dallas, Denver) failed to do so, and those I thought would lie down (Green Bay, San Diego) suddenly came to life. Then, on Monday Night Football, Peyton Manning proved that he can get the ball to any receiver who can catch it. Are you ready for Week 9?

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Tampa Bay (5-2) @ Atlanta (5-2)

The NFC South boasts three five-win teams, and the top two face each other this week for sole possession of the division’s “big kahuna” designation. The Bucs are 3-0 on the road this season, while the Falcons are 3-0 at the Georgia Dome. Save for Atlanta’s victory in New Orleans, neither team has beaten a quality foe this season (owing to an easy first-half schedule). RB LeGarrette Blount has rejuvenated Tampa’s rushing game, but I expect the Blackbird defense to shut him down and pressure QB Josh Freeman, which will let their defenders do what they do best – pick off passes. Dirty, dirty birds.

Woody’s Winner: Atlanta

FACT: Every NFC South team – except the Falcons – appeared in a Super Bowl during the 2000s.

Please click "more" to see my picks for Week 9's other NFL matchups!

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New Orleans (5-3) @ Carolina (1-6)

The Saints have struggled against inferior competition, losing to Arizona in Week 5 and to Cleveland in Week 7. With their bye looming, New Orleans might overlook the Panthers, which would be a mistake. The teams are statistically very similar on defense and with their rushing offense. The difference-maker is QB Drew Brees, who has has completed more passes (234) this season than Carolina has even attempted (228). A win against les Panthères would boost the French to numéro deux in the NFC South. Gagner!

Woody’s Winner: New Orleans

FACT: Since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger, the Saints have lost 170 games – more than any other team.

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Chicago (4-3) @ Buffalo (0-7)

Six of the their final eight games this season are against 2009 playoff teams, so Chicago is well aware of the importance of Bearing down to earn a victory in Week 9. This “home” game for Billy Buffalo is being played 100 miles away in Toronto, where the franchise is 0-2. New head coach Chan Gailey hopes to remedy the fact that the Bisons are the NFL’s only 0-for-2010 team. Grizzly QB Jay Cutler has lost his last three starts, with 1 TD, 5 interception, 19 sacks, and 5 fumbles. If he’s still hibernating, he’ll be in no shape to stop the stampede that may result when Buffalo hoofs it (or is that hooves it?) across his sleepy face.

Woody’s Winner (in a close one): Chicago

FACT: These teams have met each other 10 times in NFL history, and the home team has won 9 of those.

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N.Y. Jets (5-2) @ Detroit (2-5)

The Lions have won two of their last three games. Did I just say that? Wow. Detroit showed some fire – almost confidence – with Matthew Stafford at the helm during last week’s comeback win. Both teams’ strengths seem to feed their opponents’ weaknesses, so special teams may play an important role. Back-to-back wins would change things dramatically for the Honolulu Blue, but the Jets are bound to be angry after being shut out at home last week. A Big Cat in the cargo hold of a 747 could create an exciting scenario, if the kitty can get out of the cage. Luckily for New York, security is tight.

Woody’s Winner: New York.

FACT: Of the Lions’ four wins over the last two seasons (all at home), three of them were blacked out on metro Detroit television, including last week’s victory vs. Washington.

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Miami (4-3) @ Baltimore (5-2)

The combination of a strong defense and a capable running game has allowed these East Coast teams to win more close games than they’ve lost. High scores aren’t predicted here as both offenses rely on two-headed running attacks – Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams of Miami and Ray Rice and Willis McGahee of Baltimore. Expect the Dolphins to arrive in Maryland with one porpoise in mind: whaling on the Ravens. Will they eat crow, or will they eat Crow?

Woody’s Winner: Baltimore

FACT: The Dolphins have won each of their four games on the road.

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New England (6-1) @ Cleveland (2-5)

This matchup places one of the NFL’s most consistent teams over the past decade against one of the most erratic, but Cleveland has shown improvement of late. Their losses have come against strong teams (the Bucs, Chiefs, Ravens, Falcons, and Steelers) and last week’s win at New Orleans put the Browns in a new light. So maybe now they’re the Beiges. The Patriots have underachieved their way to the NFL’s best record, managing to convert an average offensive effort (ranked 19th in yardage) into a league-best 29.3 points per game. New England’s defense needs help, however, and sooner or later, their struggles will cost the Founding Fathers a win. Let’s say sooner.

Woody’s Winner (in a big upset): Cleveland

FACT: The Patriots are 5-1 against the Browns since Cleveland’s return to the NFL in 1999.

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San Diego (3-5) @ Houston (4-3)

The Texans’ hopes of victory in Week 9 hinge squarely on the health of the Chargers’ receiving corps. TE Antonio Gates and WR Malcom Floyd both missed practice this week; otherwise, the meeting between San Diego’s league-best pass offense and Houston’s league-worst pass defense would be a no-brainer prediction. Even if the Electric Ones have trouble sending signals through the air, the one-two RB punch of Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert – along with their solid D – should keep the Texans holed up in the barn.

Woody’s Winner (in an upset): San Diego

FACT: The Chargers are 0-4 on the road this season.

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Arizona (3-4) @ Minnesota (2-5)

The Vikings are struggling, and solutions are being tossed around like salad: Fire coach Brad Childress. Give QB Tavaris Jackson a chance. Let Adrian Peterson run the ball 50 times a game. The truth is that Minnesota’s five losses have been close games against strong teams (the Saints, Dolphins, Jets, Packers, and Patriots). Randy Moss’ departure has fueled more discussion, but the Purple are not a bad team, and they’ll prove it this week against Arizona. The Vikes’ ace-in-the-hole is still QB Brett Favre. Despite dealing with a broken foot and stitches in his chin, he’ll find a way to shuffle the Cards.

Woody’s Winner: Minnesota

FACT: Arizona and Minnesota were the two teams that fell victim to New Orleans in last season’s NFC playoffs.

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N.Y. Giants (5-2) @ Seattle (4-3)

The Giants are all about ball control and yardage – they’ve gained more yards and held their opponents to fewer yards than any team in the NFC. On the other coast, the Seahawks’ offensive struggles aren’t going to improve with replacement QB Charlie Whitehurst, who’s never thrown a pass in a regular-season game. The G-Men will have their way with the ‘Hawks, particularly near game’s end when Plan A (Ahmad Bradshaw) and Plan B (Brandon Jacobs) go into effect. The Tall Guys will prove masterful in the Battle of Seattle.

Woody’s Winner: New York

FACT: The home team has won the last 9 games in this matchup, dating back to 1986.

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Kansas City (5-2) @ Oakland (4-4)

As members of the AFC West, these foes face off twice a season, and the last six games between them have all been won by the road team. So much for a home-field advantage for O-Town. The Chiefs and Raiders are ranked #1 and #2 in rushing yards in the NFL, so don’t expect the pigskin to see very much atmosphere. It’ll travel up and down the field, however, particularly when the defenses begin to tire. Expect lots of scoring in the second half during this ground-based battle as the Silver-and-Black fend off the Red-and-Gold.

Woody’s Winner: Oakland

FACT: In Week 8, Raiders QB Jason Campbell threw passes of 69, 55, and 51 yards (to three different receivers).

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Indianapolis (5-2) @ Philadelphia (4-3)

If the Eagles had knocked off the Titans last week, Kevin Kolb might be back at QB this week. But they didn’t, and he’s not. Michael Vick is expected to get the start when the Colts rumble into the City of Brotherly Love on Sunday. It’s got to be tough for a team to perform well under two so radically different helmsmen, as Philly will find out sooner or later. The Colts know which side their bread is buttered on, of course, and Peyton Manning is slicker than wet jelly. Toot, toot, peanut butter.

Woody’s Winner: Indianapolis

FACT: The Colts have beaten the Eagles by 3 TD or more in each of their last four meetings.

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Dallas (1-6) @ Green Bay (5-3)

Jon Kitna at QB, Roy Williams at WR, silver-and-blue uniforms, and a WHOLE bunch of losses. The Lions? No, these are the Dallas Cowboys, and Woody won’t make the mistake of picking them to win again this season. Everything’s bigger in Texas, including the mess that the ‘Pokes find themselves in. Two weeks ago, Williams predicted an 11-0 run to end the season, and now he’s saying 9 in a row is possible. But he’s never won more than 3 consecutive games as a pro. Next week, maybe he’ll keep quiet. Uh-huh.

Woody’s Winner: Green Bay

FACT: The Packers (-10 yards) and Cowboys (-1 yard) combined for negative-11 yards passing in their matchup on 10/24/65, an NFL record for futility that still stands.

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Pittsburgh (5-2) @ Cincinnati (2-5)

The Steelers seem to have gotten a grip on the mistakes that cost them a playoff spot in 2009. They faded last week at New Orleans, and face a third consecutive road game on Monday Night Football against the Bengals. After a 2-1 start, the stripes are beginning to fade for Cincinnati, who has dropped four games in a row (including two at home). Pressure from Pittsburgh’s defense will prevent Carson Palmer from throwing long balls to the Tigers’ 30-something WRs, and Rashard Mendenhall will do the rest. Can you say “Cats on a Hot Steel Roof?”

Woody’s Winner: Pittsburgh

FACT: QBs Dennis Dixon, Charlie Batch, and Ben Roethlisberger have each started and won games this season for the Steelers.

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BYE: Denver, Jacksonville, San Francisco, St. Louis, Tennessee, Washington

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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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