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Patriots, Steelers, Giants ... Bears? How 32 teams stack up right now

You'll find one very predictable thing in common with every top team in my annual Tick Off Half The Football Fans In America Post-Free-Agency, Post-Draft NFL Power Rankings: quarterbacks. The best teams have 'em. The worst teams don't, at least not that we can see yet. Look at the top dozen teams. Every one has a quarterback you wouldn't be shocked to see playing deep into the playoffs this year.

It's still 11 weeks before most teams enter training camp, but the personnel hay is in the barn for almost every team. Maybe Anquan Boldin gets dealt; maybe Brett Favre comes back (more on him in 10 Things). But there won't be much major roster-tweaking before the camp begins. So here we go, 1 to 32, with a surprise or two, starting at number four:

1. New EnglandTeams don't stay the same in the NFL. That's the old bromide. But tell me: What's the difference between the Patriots of 2007 and the Patriots who enter the season in 2009? I'll tell you the biggest thing -- concern about Tom Brady's knee. And if there were any real reason to be concerned, Bill Belichick wouldn't have traded Matt Cassel to Kansas City.

New England was seventh in the league in scoring with Brady playing one quarter in 2008; it'll be in the top three, easily, with him back. With new young talent in the defensive backfield -- Belichick can mix and match all the toys he's gathered over the past two offseasons, maybe playing Shawn Springs sparingly some weeks to keep him healthy for January -- New England should have enough ammo to be competitive with the best quarterbacks on the schedule. It was 5-1 down the stretch, including 4-0 on the road, as many of its young defenders grew up. I don't see much downside.

2. PittsburghOther than losing Bryant McFadden (free agency, Arizona), nothing significant happened to a deep roster this offseason. You can be sure Mike Tomlin won't be much of a laurel-rester, but it's always quasi-impossible to repeat.

I had a friend of Ben Roethlisberger's tell me the best thing that could have happened to him was not being MVP of the Super Bowl. After he led one of the best playoff drives ever to give Pittsburgh its Super Bowl title, Santonio Holmes got the MVP. Big Ben said he was fine with it, but now he's got something else to shoot for and some perceived critics to shut up.

I worry a little about Hines Ward surviving another physical season, because there's not a good possession-receiver/playmaker behind him. I worry about Casey Hampton being in shape. When those are your biggest worries about a team, that team's in pretty good shape.

3. New York GiantsI've said I wished the Giants had acquired a veteran receiver like Anquan Boldin, because no team ever rides the backs of one or two rookie receivers to the Super Bowl. That's the biggest question on the deepest front-seven team in football (sorry, Ravens). Tom Coughlin and GM Jerry Reese know you need to be six or seven deep on the defensive front because you'll have an injury or two or three along the way. The Giants have a strange schedule -- three of the first four on the road, two of the last three on the road -- but a veteran team that has always played well on the road should survive it. New York has an excellent chance to go to the Super Bowl for the second time in three years.

4. ChicagoI may not like how Jay Cutler babied his way out of Denver, but by Labor Day, the football world will have forgotten, and by Thanksgiving, the most popular baby name in Chicagoland will be Jay. (Unless it's Jerry, as in Angelo, the man who stuck his neck out and made this deal.) Cutler's a big-time player, and I suspect we'll find out over the next few years if he has nerves of steel and can win the big game.

Now, there's two things we don't know about Cutler and this offense. There's not a great receiver in the house and no promise of one on the way (Angelo should have guaranteed Torry Holt more money to get him to come to the Windy City). So Cutler's going to have to make do with the Devin Hesters and Rashied Davises, apparently. (Not that there's anything wrong with Hester. But he should be a third receiver, using his speed to game-break.)

Two: How good of a leader can Cutler be, coming in with the knock that he chafes on some teammates. It'll be interesting to see if he meshes well with Brian Urlacher; I don't take for granted that he will. Because of the Cutler factor and because I don't love the defense the way I did two or three years ago, I didn't want to leap the Bears over so many other teams. But then I went back and looked at their 2008 numbers. The bedrock stats for a good defense, I've always thought, are opponents yards per rush, turnovers forced and opponents' yards per pass. The yards per rush, 3.4, was excellent, third-best in the league. Turnovers forced, 32, was very good, second in the league. And yards per pass play by foes, 6.20, was eighth in the league. All good. If Cutler can lead an offense that puts up 400 points, only a point and a fraction more than a year ago, the Bears should win 12.

5. IndianapolisAs long as Peyton Manning walks, talks and leads the way he does, the biggest question about the Colts is what they do in January, not October. I'll be interested, as we all will be, to see what kind of tweaking takes place on the defense, with a more aggressive style now that Tony Dungy and defensive coordinator Ron Meeks are gone and the more aggressive Larry Coyer has been hired to run that unit. I don't expect an overhaul of the Tampa 2, but I do expect the secondary to be more aggressive, particularly in some blitz situations, and I expect emerging star safety Melvin Bullitt to be used more, even with Bob Sanders in the game.

6. PhiladelphiaTo me, this is the start of a two-year window for the Eagles. You don't know how much longer Donovan McNabb has at some form of his peak, and if he doesn't get the job done this year or next, the Eagles are sure to look for someone who can lift a talented team over the top. The offense will be younger and more explosive with DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin sure to be used in many three-receiver sets, and maybe even some two-receiver sets. Andy Reid will find a valuable role for LeSean McCoy early, maybe even as the third-down back to give Brian Westbrook a consistent blow. McNabb has the best weaponry, in tandem, that he's ever had on offense. He's got to lift his game to a higher level in big games. I think this team gives him a better chance than the first Terrell Owens team in Philly.

7. San DiegoPhilip Rivers' great 2008 season was lost in the fog of a weird, controversial 8-8 year. I bet there haven't been 20 seasons -- ever -- as statistically impressive as the one Rivers had last year: 65 percent passing, 4,009 yards, plus-23 touchdown-to-interception differential. Now Shawne Merriman returns with his wacked-out, Seau-like desperation to succeed, and first-rounder Larry English comes from the Mid-American Conference determined to prove A.J. Smith didn't reach for him. This team's good enough to win 13, but it has to survive the toughest road schedule in the league: at Pittsburgh, at the Giants, at Dallas, at Tennessee, all in the last three months.

8. BaltimoreQuick. Who is Greg Mattison? You're a big fan, and you didn't even recognize the name of the new Baltimore defensive coordinator. The big challenge for Mattison will be to get this group to respond to him the way it responded to Rex Ryan. But Ray Lewis and his men like smart guys, which everyone tells me Mattison and his defensive aides are. The one looming problem they have entering camp, now that Bart Scott has flown the coop, is making sure there's no job action by Terrell Suggs, who has been franchised and is skipping mini-camp activities for now. Suggs has to be on board, and I suspect he will be, when the Chiefs come in for an opening friendly on Week 1 of the season.

9. DallasMaybe this is the year the Cowboys start putting the round peg in round hole. They have 25-, 24- and 22-year-old running backs -- Marion Barber, Tashard Choice and Felix Jones, respectively--who last year rushed the ball 360 times for 1,623 yards (4.5-yard average) and 12 touchdowns. Meanwhile, their quarterbacks dropped back to pass 578 times. When your backs are that good, they shouldn't be handed the ball on 37 percent of the offense snaps. I'm counting on Jason Garrett to make the run game much more of a presence this year. If he does, it's not a very distant limb to walk out on and say the Cowboys should win their first playoff game since 1996. But I've got to see it to believe it.

10. TennesseeSecond team in the top 10 that should have tried harder and offered more to get Holt. Still, Tennessee is good enough to win the South without anyone better than Justin Gage outside. And by the way, he played well enough last year (19.1 yards per catch) to merit a shot at being Kerry Collins' go-to-guy downfield and will benefit from the Titans' acquisition of ex-Steeler Nate Washington. I don't worry much about Collins, except about him surviving 16 games; he turns 37 this year and the team is up the creek without a paddle if he's not playing well.

11. AtlantaMatt Ryan can salve a lot of wounds, and now that he's got the best offensive tight end in football, Tony Gonzalez, to patrol the middle, he should increase his accuracy from 61 to 67 or 68 percent. Atlanta needs first-rounder Peria Jerry, who injured his knee over the weekend, to be a disruptor on the defensive line; it's a big gap in their defensive front. Mike Smith's terrific handling of John Abraham last year, keeping him healthy for the first time into January in the star pass-rusher's career by rotating him a lot and making sure he always sat for a third of Atlanta's defensive snaps, will pay dividends again this season.

12. ArizonaJust an unsettling offseason, so far. I love the free-agent signing of Bryant McFadden to pair at corner with Dominique Rogers-Cromartie (does any other corner combination in football contain 13 syllables?), but the Cards are too unsettled right now. Will Boldin or Darnell Dockett, or both, shoot their way out of town? Will Beanie Wells be a good fit for the two-headed running game, along with Tim Hightower? One thing we do know: Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald will be Brady-Moss-like prolific as long as Warner can stay healthy.

13. HoustonEvery year a trendy pick. Every year 8-8. Notice I said the top dozen teams all have reliable strong quarterbacks. I stopped at Matt Schaub, who has been just OK. Quick aside, the Texans paid more for him (two second-round picks, plus moving down two spots in the first round) than Kansas City did for Matt Cassel and Mike Vrabel combined (a second-round pick in the 2009 draft).

14. Green BayI'm shocked the Packers won only six games last year. It just showed how valuable a piece of their puzzle Cullen Jenkins was. At 6-2 and 305 pounds and with good lateral quickness, he should come back from the torn pectoral that caused him to miss 12 games last year and play very well in the new 3-4. This is a team with far better talent than six wins, and I expect Aaron Rodgers to be better in the fourth quarter this year than last, by the sheer experience factor.

Hiring Dom Capers to run the defense was smart because the 4-3 wasn't working with the talent Green Bay had in-house. With B.J. Raji anchoring the middle, and Jenkins and Clay Matthews and new outside 'backer Aaron Kampman rushing, I wouldn't be surprised if the Packers won 10. But they'll have to run the gamut of a tough schedule the last month of the season (Baltimore, at Chicago, at Pittsburgh, Seattle, at Arizona) to make the playoffs.

15. MinnesotaIt's hard to forecast because the offense is so spotty after Adrian Peterson, and I can only assume Percy Harvin will stay on the straight and narrow with so much at stake in his life and career, but they don't sell insurance for those kind of things. We don't know who will play quarterback for the Vikes. But either Sage Rosenfels or Favre would be better than Gus Frerotte. Eight times they scored 28 or more last year, mostly with Frerotte playing. The biggest benefit? Minnesota has the easiest first month in football: at Cleveland, at Detroit, San Francisco, Green Bay, at St. Louis. If they don't get out to a 4-1 start, you know something's wrong.

16. New York JetsThey were 8-3 last year after 12 weeks with a quarterback playing well but not great, and they only fell off the face of the earth because Favre couldn't throw well down the stretch. The key will be whether Mark Sanchez can adapt to Brian Schottenheimer's offense and digest it in time to play very early, like opening day. Because what coach Rex Ryan is aiming for is clear. Speaking of Ryan, the Jets will be a fun team to watch because he's going to make some lesser lights shine in roles they've never played before. It's a fun defense, and his troops will eat it up. I could see the Jets anywhere between 6-10 and 11-5.

17. MiamiThe difference between this year and last might just be the schedule. This one's a bruiser, starting with Atlanta on the road, Indy at home and San Diego on the road, and ending at Tennessee and home with Houston and Pittsburgh. Every one of those teams could win 10 games, and that's how the Fins have to start and end the season. I really like the Pat White second-round pick, but if Chad Pennington doesn't stay upright, playing Chad Henne with White in relief could be a major pothole.

18. CarolinaSorry. I can't get the taste of that last game out of my mouth. That was as bad a game as I've seen a playoff quarterback play in years, and as much as I admire Jake Delhomme as a person and like him as a player, I'm going to have to see him play better than the guy who was just OK (59 percent completions, 206 passing yards a game) last year. The Julius Peppers situation is unsettling too, particularly for a team that didn't play well on defense at all down the stretch. Points allowed, last seven games: 45, 31, 23, 10, 34, 31, 33. So pardon me if I'm not on the Panthers bandwagon just yet.

19. SeattleHard not to like what the Seahawks have done in the offseason, replacing the declining Julian Peterson and Rocky Bernard with Aaron Curry at linebacker and defensive-line-rotation pieces Colin Cole and Cory Redding. T.J. Houshmandzadeh's a very good addition, but he's not really much different than Bobby Engram, other than he should be able to stay healthier than Engram. But this team will sink or swim on the back of Matt Hasselbeck. Jim Mora told me in about 16 different ways Hasselbeck's back is fine. Hasselbeck has echoed that repeatedly, but let's see how he holds up when the real games start.

20. DenverFor years, Broncos fans had to sit back and just trust Mike Shanahan, because some of those weird Maurice Clarett-ish decisions he made were so counter-intuitive. So now Pat Bowlen hires boy wonder Josh McDaniels, and the Broncos fans have to think the same thing all over again. Jettisoning Jay Cutler? Drafting a running back with the first pick when the crying needs are all over the defense? Paying a long-snapper $1 million a year? I like McDaniels. I think he's smart, he doesn't have rabbit-ears, and he's a man of his convictions. He can coach the hell out of the quarterback position, but he may not have a very long honeymoon period.

21. JacksonvilleI can't imagine a player whose stock has dropped as much in my eyes as David Garrard's in the past year, but how much of the flat 2008 was his fault? And how much will the jettisoning of Matt Jones and Reggie Williams and the addition of Torry Holt fix that? The Jags have to hope their first two picks, tackles Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton, will make a leaky line better immediately. That's the first step in making Garrard -- sacked 2.7 times a game last year -- play with more security.

22. BuffaloThe Bills remind me of the Orioles in the American League East. No matter what they do to improve in the offseason, they can't get over the New England hump. Even when Miami and the Jets make overtures to pass the Patriots, the Bills stay stuck down in the pack. That's why they went out and risked their season on Terrell Owens. If they've hit a home run with T.O., it might be enough to eke out nine or 10 wins against a manageable schedule. But I doubt it.

23. WashingtonPrediction: I'll look foolish when Washington starts 4-2 or 5-1. These things happen with St. Louis, Detroit, Tampa Bay and Kansas City on the schedule before Halloween, three of them at home. But then, when it finishes against the Giants, Cowboys and Chargers, I might be closer to right -- and Jason Campbell might be closer to being somewhere else in 2010.

24. New OrleansNo team with Drew Brees will ever be awful, particularly in a division without an almighty power. The Saints will win two or three 40-31-type of games. But unless Gregg Williams can find a better-than-average pass-rush by maneuvering some average chess pieces -- and unless Jonathan Vilma plays like Superman, and Jabari Greer and Malcolm Jenkins cover like Deion -- this defense is not going to be good enough to win eight games.

25. San FranciscoWhen I think of the big factors in the Niners' 4-1 finish, I think of Patrick Willis playing sideline-to-sideline and the underrated Parys Haralson giving the team a decent pass-rush threat from the outside linebacker slot. They keyed a defense that held four of San Francisco's last five foes to 16 points or fewer. And I think of Mike Singletary's will, which cannot last for four months. I still don't think this offense can score enough to make San Francisco a threat to win its division.

26. Tampa BayRebuilding year. Big-time. Whether Byron Leftwich wins the quarterback job, which I expect him to do and then keep the QB seat warm for Josh Freeman 'til 2010, this is a team more focused on next year than this one.

27. OaklandIn every story about the Raiders' prospects this offseason, there's been some reference to the attitude/work ethic/study habits of JaMarcus Russell needing improvement. That's not good. The quarterback of your team has to know enough to be the hardest worker and the leader, and it sounds like Russell is neither. He's still young enough in his career to become that worker bee, but you've got to have your doubts as of now. I like that Tom Cable doesn't seem to be taking any crap from him, or anyone on the team, for that matter. I just don't think it's enough to get a team with questionable skill players and a mediocre defense over the top.

28. CincinnatiI find myself liking what the Bengals have done in the offseason, with the exception of not re-signing a sure 100-catch guy in T.J. Houshmandzadeh. And though they're going to have strong personalities to handle in Tank Johnson and Andre Smith, both should make this team more competitive. Love the Rey Maualuga pick; he'll be a gem, even if he comes off the field on third down. I'd probably have them in the seven-win range if I trusted Carson Palmer to come back at his peak from elbow injury, because Cincinnati will have to score a lot of points to win.

29. Kansas CityCould the Chiefs be this year's Dolphins, a team that gets a quarterback and magically starts being competent? Don't think so. Not unless the front seven of Kansas City is a lot better than it appears right now. The Chiefs surrendered an alarming 5.0 yards per rush last year, and that's not going to change overnight just because they're playing a 3-4 now and because they picked a couple of big bodies, Tyson Jackson and Alex Magee, with their first two choices in the draft.

30. St. LouisThere's no doubt the Rams did the right thing, bypassing Mark Sanchez for Jason Smith. It might get GM Billy Devaney fired at the end of this year (a new ownership group might do that anyway), but this team simply had to start building the right way, and a franchise left tackle was vital to the future. Not that Smith can help much this year. It'll be a big improvement if Marc Bulger is still standing by December.

31. DetroitLions win four. Mayor commissions bronze statue of Jim Schwartz.

32. ClevelandHey, thank me, all you Brownaholics. Two years ago in a column like this one, I wrote that Cleveland was the worst team in the league. The Browns went 10-6. This year I'm saying they're the worst team again -- and I can guarantee you they're not going 10-6, unless Brady Quinn morphs into Tom Brady. Too many holes, too tough a division; write them down for 0-4 against the Steelers and Ravens.

"I think you realize that if I was to stop playing today, I would look back and say, 'Man, I wish I could've kept playing and try to go after that record.' I don't want to have to do that. I want to be able to give it all I got and I feel like I'm close enough where I can make a serious run at the record.''-- LaDainian Tomlinson to XTRA sports radio in San Diego, via sportsradiointerviews.com.

To break the record, Tomlinson would have to rush for 6,596 yards ... in his 30s. Not saying it's impossible, but the Lions going 12-4 this year is more likely.

"It all culminated when our quarterback didn't return calls from the owner. That's not the best idea for you young kids out there. You work for someone, you call them back.''-- Former Bronco safety John Lynch, in a speech to junior high and high school athletes in Denver, on the major reason for the Broncos' trade of Jay Cutler to Chicago, according to the Denver Post.

I said it then, and I'll say it again: Lynch is 100 percent spot-on. The Cutler deal had a lot to do with the relationship between him and Denver coach Josh McDaniels, but there's no question the thing accelerated when Cutler snubbed owner Pat Bowlen, refusing to return his phone calls. I am told Bowlen said it was the most insulted he's felt in 25 years as an NFL owner.

"It would be a wonderful little salt to rub in the eyes of some of our Green Bay Packer friends.''-- Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, on the prospect of the Vikings signing Brett Favre.

I wonder how many votes Pawlenty lost with that quotation. Think of it: My guess is the state of Minnesota has maybe 10 percent Packer fans. Just a guess from being there over the years for a few Viking-Packer games; it could be 15 or 20 percent. But there's a vocal minority of Green Bay followers. Very vocal. And here's your governor saying he'd love to sign your hero and rub it in your face.

"I think he should do whatever he feels is in his heart. But once he puts on that purple, he will become an enemy, which is all part of the game ... It's hard to imagine him doing that.''

-- Green Bay linebacker Nick Barnett, in a series of two Tweets last week on a possible return of his former teammate, Favre, to the Vikings. Barnett tweets under the name nickbarnett

If the Steelers could win the Super Bowl last year with the kind of slate they faced, what might they do this year? Charting the difference in schedules entering 2008 and 2009 for the defending world champs:

The blogging, the instant-knowledging, the Tweeting ... it's all getting pretty hard to follow. But one of the blogs I enjoy a lot is the football/human one of Jerry McDonald, who wrote over the weekend of three straight minicamp drops by Darius Heyward-Bey; the top two draft picks (Bey and safety Michael Mitchell) sitting out Sunday's practice with undisclosed injuries; JaMarcus Russell looking inaccurate (including writing that Russell "threw a high wobbler down the left sideline ... that missed badly out of bounds with Justin Miller in coverage.''

It's amazing the coverage that football gets now. We're reporting critically on a wounded duck in a mini-camp practice.

McDonald also reported that early in the afternoon practice Saturday, "a hawk emerged from the field beyond the fence at the Oakland airport, flew through the air with a snake, and landed on a nearby communications tower, where it came under the scrutiny of a few other birds who were diving at his prey.''

I refuse to brag any more (after this column) about the joys of living in a city, particularly a city near the airport. But it's pretty cool when you can fly into Logan International Airport, hit the tarmac at 1:50 p.m., gather luggage, walk through customs, get in a cab, and walk into your apartment at 2:35. That just happened to me. I think we're going to like it here.

A week from tonight in West Orange, N.J., is our effort to raise money for SI's longtime pro football maven, Paul Zimmerman, who suffered three strokes in late November and cannot read, write or speak coherently. It's been a terrific week for the Zim cause, and it looks as though we'll have at least 200 football fans in the house to fete Dr. Z and to hear the two New York football coaches, Tom Coughlin and Rex Ryan, give us the lowdown on their teams.

I continue to be amazed at the response. The other night, my phone rang. "Mr. King,'' the voice said, "it's Mark Sanchez.'' Stop with the Mr. King business, I interrupted. Then he said he'd read about the benefit for Zim and wanted to know what he could do. This is Mark Sanchez, hardly a child of the Zim generation. Zim was writing Super Bowl game stories glorifying Joe Montana when Sanchez wasn't even in the womb yet. Sanchez wondered if he could do anything, and I said, "Well, a signed jersey would be nice.'' And so it happened, and you can visit our auction site, www.DrZ.cmarket.com, today and bid for the jersey.

Thanks for your response to the big-ticket items last week. There is some wine that still needs a home, and two fun football weekends for two -- in Dallas and Denver -- that need bidders. But Paul and Linda Zimmerman will never be able to thank you for your generosity.

For now, we're down to the deadline for dinner tickets. You must act today if you want to attend. The deadline for ticket orders is Friday, so get your check in the mail today, and let's make this the football dinner of the year. Tickets are $225 apiece, or $1,500 for a table of eight, and are available by sending a check, payable to "Dr. Z/Nothing is Impossible Foundation'' to:

Dr. Z/Nothing is Impossible Foundation21 Pine St.Suite 202Rockaway, N.J. 07866

All tickets are tax-deductible. Donations may be sent to that address as well. For further information, please e-mail me in the box that comes with this column, or Barbara Neibart, at bneibart@yahoo.com.

1. I think I've been so focused on helping Zim that I've short-shrifted the Dallas scout, Rich Behm, who was paralyzed in the collapse of the Cowboys' practice bubble. The club has set up a trust fund for the children of Behm, who is married, with two young children. Funds can be sent to Bank of America, c/o Shelby Kirksey, 5500 Preston Road, Suite B, Dallas, TX, 75205, payable to "Rich Behm Family Trust Fund.'' Behm is 33.

2. I think if the Saints didn't have bad luck, they'd have no luck at all. In a draft already skinned to the bone because of trades robbing New Orleans of its original second-, third- and fifth-round picks, the team had four choices. And the third of those four, linebacker Stanley Arnoux of Wake Forest, ruptured his Achilles running to the ball in minicamp over the weekend. If I were a free-agent, my agent would be peppering Mickey Loomis with calls now. I'd want in. The Saints are the NFL's land of opportunity now.

3. I think the Rams' release of linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa was about one thing: size. Even though Tinoisamoa led the Rams in tackles four times in his six-year career, new St. Louis coach Steve Spagnuolo needed a bigger body than Tinoisamoa's 225-pound frame to play strongside linebacker in the 4-3.

4. I think that Jimmy Buffett thing with the Dolphins is weird. What's his role? Playing a few songs in the parking lot? I'm amazed the Dolphins have so much trouble selling tickets and haven't been able to build a constant-sellout fan base in South Florida. It's weird. They have a competitive team almost every year, and they beg to sell tickets, and they use stuff like some unclear relationship with an old pop star whose last hit was (I googled this, so apparently it's true) Margaritaville, in 1977.

"It's something I've always dreamt about -- seeing how we can merge Jimmy Buffett and the Dolphins,'' the Dolphins new owner, Steve Ross, told a crowd in south Florida the other day. Wow. That's a heck of a dream. I never heard Eddie DeBartolo say he dreamed of merging Tony Bennett and the 49ers, or Wellington Mara dreaming of merging Bruce Springsteen and the Giants.

I'm not trying to kill Ross here. It's good that he's trying anything he can to market his team to a fan base that doesn't buy enough tickets. I'm just pointing out what a strange reach it is. Stirring lyrics to the song Buffett wrote that the team hopes will become its theme song. "Kickoff time's approaching, we gotta shut off our cell phones, and get our arms up in the air. We are entering the 'FinZone.' ''

5. I think I love the Brian Leonard trade for Cincinnati. The Bengals dealt a journeyman rotational defensive lineman, Orien Harris, for the Rams' second-round pick in 2007, who was a non-factor last year with a shoulder injury that has since healed. I've always thought Leonard was a perfect NFL swing back -- a good-enough blocker to plug in at fullback, a very good pass-catcher, and a good-enough runner to have a 20-carry game three or four times a year and not hurt you.

6. I think I don't have much illuminating to say about Brett Favre, the will-he-or-won't-he man of the moment, because the cake's still in the oven. It's not done yet. Favre has not decided yet whether to play.

A couple of important points: The right biceps near his throwing shoulder isn't right, dating to last year with the Jets. He also has to decide that he'd want to train the way he did two years ago, when he had a live-in trainer for much of two months at his home in southern Mississippi.

I feel sure the Vikings want him and will put up with this long hiccup, regardless of the outcome. If they think he can be healthy come August, and he wants to play, they'll have him. And if Favre feels that by August he could play with no pain in the shoulder -- either after having surgery or it going away naturally -- it's likely he'll play. No matter what is said this week, it's not over now. Even if Favre says he's decided not to play, it's not over, because he's ruled by emotion.

Now, could the Vikings tell him no thanks, unwilling to be held hostage by the emotion of the moment? Yes, of course. But they shouldn't. What Brad Childress should do right now, simply, is tell his quarterbacks Tarvaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels, "Look, we're exploring signing Brett Favre. The guy was playing well last year 'til he hurt his arm, and we owe it to the organization to cover our bases here. So just keep working, and I'll keep you posted on what happens.''

Then he should announce that the Vikings are going to give Favre the time he needs to see if he wants to play and can get healthy enough to play, and then the Vikings will see if it's a smart idea for the franchise to make a deal with him, and everyone's just going to have to be patient while this process plays out.

7. I think you might be wondering how two news organizations, Yahoo! Sports and ESPN, could have such disparate stories 24 hours apart last week. Yahoo's report said Favre called Childress and told him he's not playing. ESPN's said Favre will play if his shoulder's right.

Having been around Favre a lot over the last decade, I can tell you why these stories happen, and why there's a very good chance both are correct: Because it's hard for him to make up his mind (no crap, Sherlock!), and he keeps his own counsel a good deal of the time, and there are very few "sources close to Favre'' who have a good idea what he's planning to do at a given moment -- and even then, he could change his mind about what he's likely to do.

Good example: Last year, I sat with him for a few hours five days before he signed with the Jets. It was a discussion about everything -- playing, not playing, venom about the Packers' decision to not allow him to come back or start or release him. And when I walked away from that meeting with him, I remember telling someone who knew I'd been around him, "He's going to play hardball with the Packers for a few weeks, at least. One of the reasons is he doesn't want to go to the two teams that want him -- the Bucs or Jets.'' I told a beat-guy friend of mine covering the story: "He's not going to the Jets.'' Eleven days later, he's posing with a Jets' jersey at a press conference. Moral of the story (painful for me because I'm supposed to know the guy, and I keep getting his fate wrong): Write your stories about Favre with a big eraser on the end of your pencil.

8. I think here are my two cents on the fate of Marvin Harrison: I said in my March 3 column that I thought he'd retire, because he's made $80-$90 million over the last decade or so, and given that he can't get totally healthy and no one wants to guarantee him enough to make another effort worth his while, it was highly unlikely he'd play again. I had a source with knowledge of the situation echo that to me in the past month, that Harrison, though he was still holding out hope that someone might step up and pay him big money, wouldn't get such an offer, and so this source didn't think he would play again.

So in response to a Twitter follower's question about Harrison a week ago, I tweeted that I was told reliably Harrison isn't going to play. His agent, Tom Condon, responded by saying Harrison still planned to play, and he's healthy enough to play.

If I were Harrison's agent, and I was still holding out hope that some team desperate for a veteran receiver (Chicago? Tennessee?) might guarantee my client $5 million to play in 2009, I'd say exactly the same thing -- especially because I'd want to leave no thought in a future employer's head that my client's wheels are healthy enough to play.

Barring a big offer from someone, I'd be surprised if Harrison shows up on anyone's team this summer.

9. I think I agree with Drew Rosenhaus: Darnell Dockett is worth a first-round pick.

10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:

a. I trust you all had a nice Mother's Day.

b. Happy graduation day, Alex Mortensen.

c. And a happy graduation day to you, six days early, Amanda Bowers. In case you didn't know, your father is looking quite forward to the trip to Charlottesville this weekend. I doubt he'll be playing any pickup basketball down there, though.

d. I'm not going to give you any I-told-you-so reaction to the Manny Ramirez thing. I had no idea he used anything illicit to get big and strong and great, and it's another sad case of a player thinking he's bigger than the game and willing to risk everything for an edge that might help him, but certainly isn't vital to his success, unless he's been doing it for 10 years.

e. And I would also say that Jason Bay, who was traded to Boston when Ramirez got dealt to L.A., is becoming Manny without the selfishness, prima-donnaness and non-respect for the game. Bay hit a home run for the winning runs in a 6-4 win over the Yankees two days before Ramirez got suspended. Bay also hit an RBI double and three-run homer in the same inning in a rout of Cleveland the day Ramirez got suspended, and he hit a three-run homer to spark Boston past Tampa Bay the day after Ramirez got suspended.

f. Coffeenerdness: I'll say this about England: It has to work on its espresso, in a big way.

g. Finally saw The Wrestler. Touching. Gripping. I really feel like the curtain was pulled back on a weird world, and I know a little about wrestling, and wrestlers.

h. Finally saw Gran Torino. And why that was not Picture of the Year, I'll never know. It's a classic I-laughed-I-cried-I-ranted movie. How great was Clint Eastwood? How great was how he conquered the Hmong gang? How great were the Asian brother and sister? Loved, loved the movie.

i. Speaking of getting to know something about a world we know little about: I can't say enough good things about As They See 'Em, Bruce Weber's book about umpires and umpiring. I know I praised it last week, but I finished it the other night -- terrific ending -- and said to myself, "I'd love to illuminate a darkened world the way Bruce Weber did.''

j. Every time I read a British sports section, I feel like there's an inside joke and I'm not in on it.

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