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San Francisco (underdog by 7) leads the NFC West after they prevailed over St. Louis on Sunday. New Orleans (underdog by 7) won at Super Bowl--bound Carolina. Dallas (underdog by 5) beat Super Bowl--bound San Diego at Qualcomm. Detroit beat Green Bay by two touchdowns. Kansas City stomped Super Bowl--bound New York Jets by 20 points. Miami (underdog by 5) crushed Denver by 24 points.

Scores appear to be out of joint. Favorites are dropping like flies, which is more than a hack phrase in San Francisco, whose offensive guard, Thomas Herrion, collapsed and died after a preseason game in Denver.

As to the Chargers, maybe they were caught up in the swarm or breathed the strange, noxious fumes that wafted their way into several NFL stadiums and caused good teams to play bad. The Chargers have 22 starters back from last year's 12 and 4 team. There's no way San Diego should have lost that game, even with Antonio Gates on the sidelines.

Hang on, I'd better modify that statement. This is sports, so random luck applies; therefore, the preceding paragraph will be changed to say the Chargers should beat Dallas seven out of ten times. Sunday was one of those seven times.

One game is nothing to get upset about unless your money is lost. Saying that, Sunday's contest brought back the familiar feelings of despair and hopelessness that reside in the bones of every veteran Chargers fan. I'm talking about the reappearance of Martyball.

We now know Martyball has not passed away, but lurks in the rancid underground corridors of Qualcomm Stadium. Remember last January when the Chargers hosted the New York Jets on the first day of Wildcard Weekend? The game went into overtime, San Diego drives to the Jet's 22-yard line. It's first and ten. The Chargers deal three running plays -- the same plays that had not worked all afternoon -- for no gain. Then, head coach Marty Schottenheimer sends in a rookie kicker who misses a 39-yard field goal. End of season.

Martyball, the fear-ridden obsession of running the ball up the gut every time an important game is on the line, showed its rodent face on Sunday. Or maybe not. Here's the situation: the Chargers are on the Cowboys' seven-yard line and have 47 seconds, four plays, and one timeout left to them. They need to score a touchdown to win the ballgame. LaDainian Tomlinson is ignored, Brees throws four passes...the first three were incomplete, the last was intercepted.

It sure seemed like Martyball; the stupid, repetitive selection of plays that do not work. But (and here's the rub) this series of stupid, repetitive plays were all passes, and purists will object if we call this Martyball.

But, even purists must admit the foregoing was trying to fit a round peg into a square hole over and over and over and over again until failure is achieved. Isn't that what Martyball is all about?

The Box will sponsor an election on this question and promises an honest count. Here are the competing propositions.

1. Martyball is the stupid, repetitive selection of the same running plays that have not worked all afternoon.

2. Martyball is the stupid, repetitive selection of same plays that have not worked all afternoon.

Cast your vote at: sportbox@ix.netcom.com Results will appear in next week's column.

Ominously, Sunday's game saw a role reversal at the quarterback position. Until last year, Drew Brees was known as an okay backup quarterback. Quarterback ratings run from zero (the quarterback refuses to leave the huddle) to the highest possible score of 158 1/3. Brees's quarterback rating for 2002 was 76.9, in 2003 it was 67.5, and then aliens visited his bedroom and his 2004 quarterback rating came in at 104.8. That's the kind of statistical pump-up one rarely sees apart from Barry Bonds's. But, Brees played Sunday's game the way he used to play all his games; his quarterback rating for that afternoon's work was 65.1.

Conversely, regard Dallas quarterback Drew Bledsoe. His 2002 quarterback rating was 86.0, in 2003 it was 73.0, and in 2004 he turned in a 76.6. Steady Eddy. On Sunday, Bledsoe finished with a 143.4 quarterback rating. Birds fell from the sky.

Finally, I'll close with a sample of Week 1 Stupid NFL Quotes. The idea is for the coach or athlete to speak in sentences that convey no meaning.

Drew Bledsoe, "They call the plays, and I try to just find the guy who's open."

Bill Parcells, "We'll see where we go from here. We have a lot of work to do."

Marty Schottenheimer, "On the positive side, we're in a division [AFC West] where we're only a game out to one team."

Let me see if I get this. All NFL teams have played one game, no team is more than one game behind any other, but since all of the AFC West lost save Kansas City...

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