Friday November 23rd, 2007

We have all due appreciation for the pursuit of excellence, and ample respect for the historical significance of what's unfolding in New England, but we interrupt our regularly scheduled NFL column to declare this space a Patriots-free zone for the time being, in order to bring you something other than more coverage of a certain team's methodical march to perfection.

(Trust me, you'll thank us once it hits December and the media outlets that cover the NFL saturate you with all Patriots, all the time in a painfully slow countdown that will allow for hours and hours of breathless analysis amidst the one-game-a-week pace).

That disclaimer out of the way, how about a little love for the three Thanksgiving Day winners in the NFL, all of whom served up a little holiday domination for our viewing pleasure? Here's what became apparent after watching Thursday's blowout action in Detroit, Dallas and Atlanta:

• In some order, the Cowboys, Packers and Colts showed that they are definitively the second-, third- and fourth-best teams in the NFL this season, after you know who. They have a combined record of 29-4 -- the Cowboys and Packers are 10-1, the Colts 9-2 -- and that mark improves to an even gaudier 29-2 against everybody else accept, yep, you guessed it, that team that shall remain nameless. Winning 29 of 33 games produces an .879 winning percentage, and that's dominant in anyone's league. Come late January, I think we're watching all three of them play in their respective conference title games.

• There's only one NFL quarterback performing better than the threesome of Brett Favre, Tony Romo and Peyton Manning, and his initials are T.B. The three winning QBs combined to throw for 848 yards, eight touchdowns and just two interceptions on Thanksgiving, with Green Bay hanging up 37 points, Dallas 34, and Indy 31. The Cowboys won by 31 points against the out-manned Jets, the Colts rebounded from an early 10-0 hole to score 31 of the game's final 34 points at Atlanta and the Packers cruised 37-26 at Detroit, in a game that wasn't really that close. Favre, Romo and Manning won't win the MVP award this season, but they'd all be in my top five. And I'd vote the remarkable Favre second overall after seeing him complete a franchise-record 20 consecutive passes against the Lions, with a season-best 381 yards passing.

• Even better news for fans of Dallas, Indy, and Green Bay, all three winners flashed some offensive balance, too, proving they'll be able to run the ball down the stretch and into the playoffs. The Cowboys, with their two-headed backfield of Marion Barber (103 yards) and Julius Jones (64), wore New York down with 174 yards rushing on 34 attempts (5.1 average). The Colts had their own version of a two-back attack, with Kenton Keith (74) and Joseph Addai (44) fueling a running game that averaged 4.4 yards per carry (118 yards on 27 rushes).

And even the Packers are starting to be multi-dimensional, with emerging first-year running back Ryan Grant gaining 101 yards on 15 carries against the Lions (6.7 average). For all of us who said the Packers won't go very far without a running game once it turns cold, well, they've fixed that potential problem just in time for the arrival of Lambeau's frozen tundra.

• One more reason to like Dallas, Green Bay and Indy's chances? Their kickers are top notch. The Cowboys' Nick Folk, the Packers' Mason Crosby and some guy named Adam Vinatieri (recent slump and all) in Indy all have proven they can be counted on. When the pressure builds in the coming weeks, and the games get exponentially bigger, these kickers won't wilt.

The Cowboys and Packers will of course be right back on stage next Thursday night, when they meet in Dallas in the NFC's game of the year. Homefield advantage throughout the playoffs will be at stake -- no one else in the NFC is remotely in position to challenge for it -- and while both teams could win on the other one's turf in January, the difference between playing at Texas Stadium or Lambeau Field figures to be pivotal.

As for the injury-plagued Colts, despite their recent troubles they remain in line for the AFC's No. 2 seed and a much-needed first-round bye. That should keep them on a collision course for Foxboro and the AFC title game, where they'd get a second shot at The Team That Can Not Lose.

For now, Patriots overkill is on the way. You know it, and I know it. But let's not look past what the Cowboys, Packers and Colts accomplished this weekend. None of them can rightfully claim to be No. 1. But as far as Nos. 2, 3 and 4 go, they've made a convincing case.

• After Thursday's showing, I'm even more convinced that the Lions are frauds and will ultimately find a way to waste their 6-2 start and lose out on the NFC's second wild-card berth. Detroit hasn't just dropped three in a row to fall to 6-5, it has also managed to lose head-to-head to four other NFC wild-card contenders: the Giants, Washington, Philadelphia and Arizona. Suffice to say the tiebreakers don't look good for the Lions.

• Watching the Jets run up the white flag in that 34-3 loss at Dallas only made me more dubious about the Steelers. How is it that Pittsburgh can look so good some weeks, and then lose to a New York team that's capable of putting up such little fight against the Cowboys?

I still like the Steelers to beat out Cleveland and claim the AFC North title, and that's a great first season for Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh. But a No. 3 seed will likely earn the Steelers a trip to No. 2 Indy in the divisional round, and I don't see Pittsburgh pulling the upset at the RCA Dome for the second time in three years.

• Very quietly, and just in the nick of time, Atlanta's Roddy White has become a pretty solid receiver. The Falcons' 2005 first-round pick looked like another Atlanta receiving flop the past two seasons (he combined for 59 catches for 952 yards and three touchdowns), but through 11 games this year he has a team-high 52 grabs for 774 yards and three scores, the latest being that 48-yard bomb he caught from Joey Harrington in the first quarter Thursday night.

No other Falcons pass-catcher has even 40 receptions, or 400 yards. White's emergence, even amidst more Falcons quarterback trouble, takes a little of the spotlight off Atlanta general manager Rich McKay's shaky draft performance.

• Godspeed, Priest Holmes. The Chiefs running back made his comeback, and now he's making the right call by not pushing his body any closer to the risk of potential paralysis. Retirement has to be an easy decision when cast in that light.

• Games haven't been the only thing lost by Jets coach Eric Mangini this season. He looked positively svelte on the sideline in Dallas on Thanksgiving. Without a doubt, a bit glum, too, but definitely on the lighter side compared to his 2006 form.

• Am I the only one who can't hear the last name of Colts tight end Ben Utecht without thinking that it could double for his alma mater?

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