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Notebook Sports


Fight to be finished

San Francisco and Houston could be playing for top draft position in their season finale face-off

Lots of marbles will be at stake Jan. 1 in what could become 2006's unlikeliest big game. San Francisco vs. Houston may seem like a whimpering end to two long seasons, but it could have huge implications for the NFL draft in April. With the league's two worst records and an ironic season finale face-off, San Francisco and Houston could be playing for top draft position. All either team needs to do is lose-something they've done so well during the season.

And in the 2006 draft, top draft position may be especially important. Months ago, the identity of 2006's No. 1 pick seemed clear. Coming off a Heisman Trophy and National Championship season, conventional wisdom, which values quarterbacks above all, says USC quarterback Matt Leinhart should be the clear No. 1 choice. Quarterbacks that highly touted usually are. But two complications arose. First, neither San Francisco nor Houston seems to need a quarterback. Houston burned the No. 1 pick on David Carr in 2002. San Francisco selected Alex Smith first overall just last year. Second, Mr. Leinhart's teammate Reggie Bush, a junior running back expected to go pro, has vaulted up draft boards with his electrifying (and Heisman-winning) 2005 season.

San Francisco could use Mr. Bush. After all, the 49ers have one of the league's worst rushing attacks. And though Houston already has a 1,000-yard rusher in Dominick Davis, Mr. Bush could be an improvement for the Texans. But there could be another way. Either team could deal their pick for what could be a king's ransom. A handful of teams across the league with lesser picks, but with bad quarterbacking, will no doubt make overtures to try to secure the Trojans quarterback.

And sometimes trading your top pick can lead to rich rewards. In the 2004 draft, San Diego dealt the rights to Eli Manning to the Giants for a bevy of picks that materialized into defensive end Igor Olshansky, kicker Nick Kaeding, and heralded young quarterback Philip Rivers, as well as others. Coach Mike Ditka and the New Orleans Saints famously traded their entire 1999 draft and two of his top picks in 2000 to draft Ricky Williams, the Texas running back.

It all could make the Jan. 1 matchup of the two worst NFL teams simultaneously the worst and most important game of the week. To get the top spot, Houston and San Francisco may just need to play to their strengths and lose.

Around the Horn

Julio Franco has become the Energizer Bunny of baseball. He just keeps going and going. After making big moves to acquire Carlos Delgado and Paul Lo Duca, the New York Mets made a different sort of splash by signing the aged Mr. Franco to a two-year, $2.2 million deal. When the contract expires, Mr. Franco will be 49. Last year in part-time play, Mr. Franco hit .275 with nine home runs for the Braves. How does old man baseball keep in shape? Lots of exercise, he says, including yoga, stretching, swimming, and weights.

For once, NASCAR expectations outpaced the results-if only on the business end of the racing circuit. A new eight-year, $4.48 billion television deal with a host of networks actually fell short of Wall Street analysts' expectations that NASCAR would get a shorter contract but nearly $100 million more annually. And though Wall Street experts downgraded several NASCAR-related stocks from "buy" to "hold," analyst Kevin Tynan seemed to keep some perspective: "I think they're actually pretty good considering it's 43 guys making left turns all day.

What the Miami Heat needed most from Shaquille O'Neal in his return was a free throw. In his first game back from injury, the notoriously erratic free throw shooter sank one from the charity stripe to put Miami into overtime against Washington on Dec. 11. With four rebounds in overtime, Shaq helped propel the Heat to a much-needed victory. Was he nervous in his return? Not Shaq: "There's no such thing as nerves when you're playing games."