by Scott Benson

Shaun Hill didn’t get the memo, apparently.

The Niners’ third-string quarterback, making the first start of his six-year NFL career, continued his efficient play (107.4 quarterback rating over the two weeks) to lead San Francisco over Cincinnati for its fourth win of the season against ten losses, dropping the Patriots from the 2nd pick to the 5th if the 2008 NFL Draft were held today.

The 3-12 St. Louis Rams, with losses to Green Bay and Pittsburgh since our last Niner Watch, presently have the inside track to the number 2 pick, followed by the Jets and Falcons at 3-11.

Because the Niners can now finish with as many as six wins, this week’s chart expands to fifteen teams. Note that we’ve included the remaining schedule for each of the Failing Fifteen in the far right hand columns.

So the question now is what Patriots fans can expect for the pick that New England acquired last April (along with the fourth round choice that turned into Randy Moss), in exchange for the 28th selection in the ’07 Draft.

San Francisco has two playoff teams on its remaining schedule. NFC South champ Tampa could still grab the third seed over West champ Seattle, though they need some help because the Hawks have a head-to-head advantage. Cleveland could clinch an AFC wild card spot with a win over the extremely accomodating Bengals this weekend, but could still be vying for the division title when they entertain the Niners in Week Seventeen.

Point being that with two motivated opponents ahead, it looks as though San Francisco is likely to finish with a 4-12 final record. If that’s the case, the Patriots will do no worse than the 5th pick they hold today. And by the way, that’s not a bad return for last year’s 28th pick.

But can they do better? Sure, but they have to hope for a complete collapse by the 6-8 Arizona Cardinals. The Cards will host both the 3-11 Falcons and the 3-12 Rams over the next two weeks. If the Cards – losers of two straight – go belly up over the holidays, the Pats could find themselves as high as #3 when it’s all said and done.

It’s possible, I guess – after all, Arizona has lost twice to the Niners. Further, playing that scenario out – if the 3-11 New York Jets also find a way to win one more game (the home finale with the 4-10 Chiefs is the best bet), the Patriots could wind up with that 2nd pick after all.

The Bengals showed us last week that these grand plans can all go awry when a turd surfaces in the punch bowl. Will the Cardinals cooperate and actually lose two consecutive home games to teams with a combined record of 6-23?

It seems unlikely. If I had to guess today, I’d see a top 10 that looks something like this (ties broken by strength of schedule, as usual):

1. Miami (1-15)
2. St. Louis (3-13)
3. Atlanta (3-13)
4. San Francisco (4-12)
5. Kansas City (4-12)
6. Baltimore (4-12)
7. Oakland (4-12)
8. NY Jets (4-12)
9. Chicago (5-11)
10. Cincinnati (6-10)

Maybe Arizona manages to lose to the Rams, who haven’t played that badly of late, and the Pats upgrade to the 3rd pick (and the Cards vault to the top ten).

How bad can it get? The way I see it, if Hill continues to revive San Francisco and the Niners upset both the Bucs and Browns, as many as nine teams can finish ‘ahead’ of them in the Race to the Bottom. Still not a bad return in exchange for the 28th pick, but a far cry from the second pick in the draft.

Of course, there remains a number of other possibilities, which is why we include the chart. Have at it.