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Palmer, Favre and an unsung receiver added to Week 3 drama

Football Insiders: Check out Stewart Mandel's College Football Overtime.

NEW YORK -- Now that's what I call some drama, and some good stories.

Carson Palmer converting two fourth-downs in the final minute to slay the Steelers. The Jets riding Mr. Charisma again. The Lions breaking the 19-game schneid. Pierre Thomas gaining more yards in 28 minutes than any other back in the league gained in 60.

Remember how the locals wanted to give Josh McDaniels a one-way ticket out of Colorado before he ever coached a game? Now he has as many wins this season as playoff veterans Bill Belichick, Mike Tomlin and John Fox combined.

How'd Brett Favre get that ball in there? How'd Greg Lewis get both feet down inbounds?

Just another frantic Pleasant Valley Sunday. And in my five headlines of the week, the biggest is from a 34-14 game, concerning a guy who gained seven yards all day. Off we go, around the league.

****

The Michael Vick Experiment gets off to a slow start.

I'll tell you what I worry about with Vick. Greed. I'm not in the man's shoes, but I get a sense that at some point this year, he might want more than some Wildcat snaps and three or four passes a game. He did an interview with Sterling Sharpe for NFL Network Sunday morning and seemed almost embarrassed to be called a decoy by Sharpe.

That's essentially what he was in the 34-14 win over Kansas City. He played 11 plays, was 0-for-2 passing, rushed out of the direct-snap once for seven yards, played receiver one play, and handed the ball off seven times. In the next few weeks, I expect the Eagles will give him more to do; clearly against the Chiefs, he was operating a minimal package of plays.

When we talked after the game -- I hadn't spoken with him for three years -- I wanted to know if he was going to be OK with the role Andy Reid has for him, assuming Donovan McNabb and Kevin Kolb remain the top two quarterbacks. "I'm fine with the role,'' he said. "I'm blessed to be back in the NFL. My future is at quarterback, but for now this is fine with me. The city has embraced me, the organization has embraced me, the players have embraced me.''

I liked hearing that. It's the attitude he has to have, because this should be the year he uses as training for football and life, not the year he moves heaven and earth to try to be somebody's starting quarterback. It's not important right now.

I asked Vick if there was ever a moment in federal prison when he felt he'd never get to this day. "No, not one moment ... a thousand moments,'' he said. "Days and days and days I didn't think this would ever happen.''

At the time I spoke to Vick, our NBC Football Night in America was preparing for the evening show, and I asked Vick if he wanted to say hello to Tony. "Tony who?'' Vick said. And I said, " Dungy.'' Of course he wanted to say hi.

"Michael,'' said Dungy, "how'd you do?''

"It's the first time I ever had butterflies playing,'' he said.

****

Could it be? Could it possibly be? Could the Steelers actually respect the Bengals?

Time will tell if Cincinnati deserves it. But it was interesting after the Bengals pulled the 23-20 stunner at home -- breaking an eight-game home losing streak to the Steelers -- to hear Ben Roethlisberger say: "Tough loss for us. Tough divisional fight.'' Tough divisional fight -- those words have been reserved for games with the Ravens, not the Bengals or Browns.

Two reasons this happened. One: The Bengals played a physical game, and they have players -- Brian Leonard on offense, Rey Maualuga and Keith Rivers on defense -- more suited to that style than Bengal teams have been in the past. Two: Carson Palmer. A good quarterback (a healthy good quarterback) always gives your team a chance. "We deserved to win the game,'' Palmer said afterward, and he was right.

****

New Vikings hero Greg Lewis will have a place in the Favre history book -- even if he wasn't supposed to be in the game.

The Vikings may be playing a risky game with Favre, who turns 40 in two weeks, because they don't know if he can last the full season at his age. But they've now officially won one more game than they'd have won with either Sage Rosenfels or Tarvaris Jackson playing. That's because Favre pulled a Favre -- he threw a 32-yard touchdown pass to Lewis at the back of the end zone with two seconds left to beat the 49ers.

It was one of those plays that at first seemed certain to be overturned because Lewis seemed like he'd come down with at least one foot on the white end line. But in the replay, one foot comes down perilously close to the white line and the other is clearly in. There's no way ref Jerome Boger could have nullified the play.

Lewis said he wasn't supposed to be on the field for this play; Percy Harvin was supposed to be in the left slot, where Lewis lined up. "But Percy was gassed,'' Lewis told me last night. "He just ran, like, seven straight go-routes, and they needed someone to go in for him.''

With Sidney Rice and Bernard Berrian split wide, and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe just to the right of the formation, the Vikings called a four-man all-go pattern on third-and-three from the Minnesota 32 with 12 seconds left and San Francisco up 24-20.

"Just before we left the huddle,'' Lewis said, "Brett told us, 'Stay alive.' [Meaning, if he leaves the pocket, try to find an opening in the coverage where he could find one of them.] Once he breaks the pocket, we're free to go within our landmarks. So I saw him leave the pocket and I just floated toward the back of the end zone, following him as he moved to the right.'' Favre picked out Lewis because he had two steps on his man, and because desperate times call for desperate decisions.

The ball came high and fast, and Lewis went up to get it. "When it was in the air, I thought, 'This is the chance you've been waiting for,' '' said Lewis, cut by the Patriots early this month and signed by the Vikings just before the opener two weeks ago. "When I came down, I felt I wasn't in. But I tried to drag my feet, and they gave it to me.''

I asked him if he was surprised he got cut by the Patriots. "Honestly I was,'' he said. "But you have to be prepared for any situation in this league.'' Good thing he was. And when he said that, I was left to wonder if Bill Belichick wishes he had kept Lewis and cut Joey Galloway.

****

Inside Football Note of the Week: Dallas Clark's value to the Colts skyrockets.

Dating to the start of the 2008 season, here are the stat lines for the two most important targets on the Indianapolis Colts, including the playoff loss at San Diego in January:

Though Manning has thrown 29 more passes targeted for Wayne than for Clark since the start of last season (169 to Wayne, 140 to Clark), I'm not overly surprised at the parallel place they reside in Manning's quarterback thought process. Even when Marvin Harrison was on his last legs in Indy in the last couple of years, Clark was getting comfortable as Manning's slot receiver, and with Harrison hurt so much, Clark began to share the go-to receiver role with Wayne. Now with Harrison retired and his replacement, Anthony Gonzalez, down for a few weeks with a sprained posterior-cruciate ligament, you can expect to see the same regimen as last year through the next few weeks. Last night in Arizona, as if to echo this note, Manning threw each man nine passes, and each man caught seven, and each man scored one touchdown. Talk about your symmetrical players.

It's likely Clark and Wayne will alternate being Manning's men in the coming weeks, and perhaps even when Gonzalez returns. That's because Manning takes so long to get totally comfortable with new receivers. I've been told that Gonzalez hasn't become the kind of go-to receiver Manning looks for because he's too exact and doesn't yet have the kind of rapport with Manning the veterans do.

"It takes every receiver who comes into this offense a few years to not just be a receiver running routes, but to be a useful target,'' Clark told me. "It took me four years. It's hard to narrow down why, but a good answer is experience. It's my seventh season now, and it's seeing a lot of plays with [Peyton], in the same film room with him, then getting out on the field and feeling it. Same thing with Reggie. I'm sure he didn't have the chemistry in year three he does now."

We saw this last Monday night in Miami, and not just on the opening play of the game, when Manning froze linebacker Akin Ayodele with play-action and looped a throw to Clark, who made an 80-yard catch-and-run TD out of it. The best example of the sonar between Manning and his receivers came on the last play of the first half, with the Colts holding the ball at the 50-yard line with eight seconds left. Manning needed 17 to 20 yards, minimum, to get into Adam Vinatieri's realistic field-goal range, and he needed it quickly, so there'd still be enough time left to go try the kick.

Before the snap, Wayne went to offensive coordinator Tom Moore and told him that two Dolphins were going with him wherever he went; let me run a deep clear-out, Wayne said. Moore told Manning, and Moore called for Wayne to do as he said, and Manning went to the line knowing that if the Dolphins did what Wayne said, he'd clearly have to go to another receiver.

Clark was lined up to the right of the line, and his assignment was to run a corner route across the field. On this play, there's no defined depth to the pattern. "Peyton's got to know, and I've got to know,'' Clark said. "My landmark depends totally on the defenders.''

Clark has to find the midway point between the linebacker in shallow coverage and the safety or safeties downfield. For Clark, on this play, the soft spot was about nine yards downfield, and he cut left and ran diagonally across the field. Manning hit him near the left hash, and Clark sprinted out of bounds. Twenty-yard gain. Two seconds left. Vinatieri's 48-yard field goal ended the half.

Brandon Stokley, Manning's old slot receiver, once told me he liked playing with Manning because he knew if he did the job the right way, Manning would always come to him. It's defining what "the job'' is, and working to earn Manning's trust, that determines whether you'll be a successful Colts receiver. It's hard to earn Manning's trust, but when you earn it, you'll have it for a long time.

And last night, in the 31-10 rout of the defending NFC champion Cardinals, you'd have never known he was missing two of the four key guys to the passing game from the last two years, Harrison and Gonzalez. That's how at-ease Manning was in his four-touchdown night.

*******

Jake Delhomme takes the field at Dallas tonight with a clear head. I think.

There's probably enough pressure on Tony Romo for both quarterbacks playing at Cowboys Stadium tonight; he's taken more media and fan hits by far than the Giants threw at him in his three-interception game last week. But Delhomme, the amiable Louisianan, thinks the pressure's been lifted off him with his let-it-all-hang-out performance last week at Atlanta (25-41, 308 yards, one touchdown, one interception). It wasn't one of his best days in football, but at least he played football instead of thought football.

Delhomme said all offseason he was completely over the nightmarish five-interception game in the NFC playoffs against Arizona. But as it turned out, he wasn't. He told me thoughts of the playoff game would creep into his mind often, and that they not only crept into his mind during Philadelphia's rout of the Panthers in the season-opener ... but also prevented him from playing the game he thought he could have played. It's funny -- big, tough football players aren't supposed to have these mental blocks. But sometimes they do. Delhomme did.

"I thought quite a few times in the offseason that I hadn't been there for my team during the playoff game, and it really bothered me,'' Delhomme said. "I thought, 'Why? Why?' And I couldn't figure it out. And the Eagles' game, it was like I was playing and thinking, 'You can't make another mistake.' I was thinking like that on every play. Not good.''

"So,'' I said, "there was a carryover from the playoff game.''

Delhomme threw four interceptions and was yanked for backup Josh McCown. "Without a doubt,'' he said. "Without a doubt. I brought something to that game. I brought something to that game I shouldn't have brought. Josh even said to me later, 'You're trying to aim it.' ''

Delhomme said he thinks he has the problem fixed now, and he did it by, in essence, talking to himself, and by caring about nothing but the next play, and by having an attitude of Bleep it. What's interesting is what he felt from his teammates. He said he's not the type of person who ever needed to hear congratulations from teammates after a win, or after a great performance. That's what he's supposed to do, play well. But after the Eagles debacle, he needed someone to tell him he wasn't worthless, and that someone was tackle Jordan Gross. After the game, Gross literally grabbed him and said, "You're still our guy. Got it? Understand?''

"And now,'' Delhomme said, "I feel great. I really do. Not just saying that. I just want to play. See the field, throw the ball, play, run the offense.''

Starting in Dallas tonight, Delhomme could save the Carolina season if those aren't empty words. God knows the Panthers, at 0-2, need a good jolt to stay in the running for the defense of their NFC South title.

******

What a week we've got coming up.

I haven't even been to bed yet, and I can't wait 'til Sunday. The looming highlights of Week 4:

• Baltimore (3-0) at New England (2-1). Why shouldn't Tom Brady face every quarterback of the future. Trent Edwards, Mark Sanchez, Matt Ryan and now Joe Flacco.

• New York Jets (3-0) at New Orleans (3-0). Because this is FOX's doubleheader week, and this game is a CBS game, it won't go to much of the country. A pity. These might be the two most intriguing teams in the league after three weeks.

• (Sunday night) San Diego (2-1) at Pittsburgh (1-2). Did you see Mike Tomlin's post-game presser from Cincinnati? He's mad as heck, and he's not gonna take it anymore, from the looks of it.

• (Monday night) Green Bay (2-1) at Minnesota (3-0). The big storyline: Ryan Longwell tries to exact revenge on the Packers, who allowed him to leave the team he loved. Or something like that.

****

Joe Montana really had to be Joe Cool when he threw that big pass to Dwight Clark.

In a book hitting the shelves Tuesday about the 1981 NFC Championship Game, ("The Catch: One Play, Two Dynasties, and the Game That Changed the NFL, Random House) New York Daily News football writer Gary Myers gets quite a confession out of Joe Montana: He played the game with a credible death threat called into Candlestick Park that day. "They told me right before the start of the game, or right at the start of the game,'' Montana told Myers. "Somebody was going to try and shoot me during the game.''

In those days, as Myers points out, there was no security at the turnstiles of stadiums. It'd have been simple for anyone in the crowd of 60,525 to carry a handgun into the stadium that day. Montana told Myers he thought about it a couple of times during the game, but as he said, "You are alone. There isn't a whole lot that could be done.''

Then, late in the fourth quarter, he rolled out and threw the high ball that Clark caught that catapulted the Niners past the Cowboys as the power team of the NFC. And when Montana kneeled on the last play of the game, Dallas unable to stop the clock with 19 seconds left, his teammates were surprised by Montana's actions. He grabbed the football and started running off the field, pausing to celebrate with no one, and sprinted to the San Francisco Giants dugout, which had a tunnel leading to the locker room. No celebration. Just a run for what he thought might be his life.

This book is full of nuggets I'm sure you didn't know -- some of which I doubt you'd know even if you played in the game. You want to know why little-used running back Lenvil Elliott was the star of The Drive that ended in The Catch, rushing four times for a clock-eating 31 yards? Because against the protestations of Dallas safety Charlie Waters, defensive coordinator Ernie Stautner played a dime defense (six DBs, one linebacker) for the first 12 plays of the drive. Foolish, and that's no second-guess. Bill Walsh wasn't so attached to his beloved passing game that he wouldn't take small chunks on the ground on the biggest drive of the year, particularly when Montana had 4:54 to drive San Francisco downfield.

My favorite nugget of many from Myers: In the 1979 draft, the Cowboys had an in-the-twilight Roger Staubach, Danny White and Glenn Carano on the roster, and they passed on picking Montana in the first, second and third rounds. In predraft meetings, Myers quotes Tom Landry as saying he was passing on Montana because "if we take him, I'll probably cut him in training camp.'' And in the irony of ironies, Montana was selected with the 82nd overall pick, a choice that originally belonged to the Cowboys. Ouch.

1. Baltimore (3-0). "I think we're 10 times better than last year,'' Joe Flacco told Steve Tasker of CBS after the game. Well, they're certainly better, but 10 times better would mean they were a combo platter of the '66 Packers, the '78 Steelers and the '07 Patriots. Here's a controversial statement: I don't think they're there yet.

2. New York Giants (3-0). Uh, all of you Saints, Jets and Vikes backers who are throwing bricks through your computers at the office this morning because I moved the Jints over your lads ... here's a stat for you: Tampa Bay, in the first 50 minutes AT HOME Sunday, managed 30 net yards against a Giants team missing two huge pieces from the front-seven puzzle -- Justin Tuck and Chris Canty.

3. Minnesota (3-0). Interesting Fine Fifteen nugget: Favre's current team is third, his old team is fourth, and his former Packers are eighth.

4. New York Jets (3-0). As I said last night on NBC, the confidence is running downhill from Rex Ryan. I asked wideout Jerricho Cotchery if he thinks the Jets are the best team in football. "Yes I do,'' he said. "We're playing well in all three phases right now.''

5. New Orleans (3-0). The Saints don't need Drew Brees to carry the team every week to win. Sunday in Buffalo, they rushed for 222 and held the Bills to 243 yards total offense.

6. Indianapolis (3-0).Tony Dungy's dissertation on Football Night in America on what Peyton Manning digests at the line of scrimmage, and how he calls up to three plays per snap, and how he decides which play to use, was a great piece of television.

7. New England (2-1). Still can't figure out this team, but I do know this: As long as Fred Taylor runs the ball the way he did Sunday (21 carries, 105 yards, 5.0 per rush), he's an infinitely better option that Laurence Maroney.

8. Green Bay (2-1). A.J. Hawk flexed his muscles a bit, for the first time in a while. His 10 tackles led everyone at the Jones Dome.

9. San Francisco (2-1). No shame in losing that one. None. But now, with Frank Gore likely out this week with an ankle sprain, they would be in a little trouble if they weren't facing St. Louis. Still, if it's a long-term injury, that could knock the Niners down a peg.

10. San Diego (2-1). This just in: Philip Rivers is really, really good. He threw two picturesque bombs, a 55-yarder to Vincent Jackson, a 47-yarder to Malcolm Floyd, and now has 739 passing yards in the last two weeks. That's Fouts-ian. In fact, the last time a San Diego quarterback had that many passing yards in a two-game span was in 1985 ... and it was Dan Fouts who did it.

11. Denver (3-0). This is the kind of balanceJosh McDaniels wanted to establish when he got the job in Denver: Correll Buckhalter 108 rushing yards, Knowshon Moreno 90 rushing yards, Kyle Orton 157 passing yards.

12. Chicago (2-1). Coolly efficient Jay Cutler at Seattle. Not his best day, but he went 21 of 27 and found Devin Hester in traffic for the winning throw of a very tough game at Seattle.

13. Philadelphia (2-1). Don't you get the feeling Kevin Kolb has gone from liability to legitimate in eight days?

14. Cincinnati (2-1). Andre Caldwell! Andre Caldwell! Or, as Keith Olbermann called him on TV last night: Ocho Siete. You know -- 87. That's who caught the winner from Carson Palmer in the end zone against Pittsburgh.

15. (tie) Atlanta (2-1). For the first time in a long time, maybe in his 13-month pro career, Matt Ryan played a C-minus game. The stats don't look that bad -- 17 of 28, 199 yards, no touchdowns or picks -- but you had to see the game to get the feel of Ryan's inability to make anything happen. For Ryan, one drive of 60-plus yards in a game is just not normal.

15. (tie) Pittsburgh (1-2). "They have bigger closer problems than the Phillies,'' said Elliott Kalb, my baseball-minded friend at NBC and the MLB Network. Now, I don't think the Steelers are the 15th-best team in football, but that's what they've played like in the first three weeks. Until they can run the ball, they'll be suspect.

1. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans. He's human. He's also 3-0.

2. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis. Colts travel two-and-a-half hours to play AFC East champ Miami, and Manning wins it with a 303-yard passing night. On a short week, Colts travel three-and-a-half hours to Phoenix, and Manning strafes the NFC champs for 379 yards and four touchdowns.

3. Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota. Not his best day, obviously -- 19 carries, 85 yards -- but it came against the same team, San Francisco, that held him to a three-yard rushing day in 2007.

4. Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore. A rating of 95 or better in all three games, and it's no coincidence the Ravens are outscoring their foes by 50 point so far.

5. Darrelle Revis, CB, New York Jets. After taking Andre Johnson and Randy Moss out of the first two games, Revis was the key to holding old pro Kerry Collins to a 41-percent passing day Sunday.

"Let's go win the game! Let's go win the game!''-- Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis, with 60 seconds left at Paul Brown Stadium and the Bengals trailing Pittsburgh 20-15 and Cincinnati with a fourth-and-two at the Steeler 20. Lewis yelled this out to his offense, and the offense, of course, went out and converted two fourth downs in the next 30seconds en route to the 23-20 win over Pittsburgh.

"It was definitely a blessing. I never would have changed. I was able to sit back and see what was missing in my life. When I had all the money in the world, I didn't have peace in my life. Now I do.''-- Michael Vick, in a conversation with Sterling Sharpe on NFL Network, talking about how his life improved when the dog-fighting side of his life exploded and forced him out of football and into federal prison.

"Rich Gannon had been a journeyman quarterback in the NFL for years, and we gave him the opportunity of a lifetime to be our starting quarterback. We're the only team that ever afforded him that opportunity.''-- John Herrera, Raiders executive, in criticizing the team's former quarterback after attempting to ban Gannon from the Oakland facility and preventing him from preparing for his CBS duties as colorman for Sunday's Oakland-Denver game. The Raiders relented because league rules mandate they not shut out Gannon.

The Raiders have been stung by Gannon's criticisms of the team, among them Gannon saying in a radio interview that the team should blow up the current structure and start over. Now there's a revolutionary concept for the losingest team in football since 2003. Now, it's all well and good for the Raiders to be steamed at an alumnus. But what kills me about this organization, dating to the freeze-out of Marcus Allen, is when a minion makes an important player in team history seem like a practice-squadder. It's needless, insulting and stupidly demeaning.

Say what you want about how Rich Gannon got to the Raiders, or what he's said about the Raiders in retirement, but to imply he was an unimportant or marginal quarterback who was lucky to be employed by such a wonderful organization insults any football fan's intelligence. He and Jon Gruden are by far the two people most responsible for the run of mini-glory the Raiders had at the start of this decade, culminating in a Super Bowl loss in the 2002 season.

Further, I see no credible way to dispute that Gannon is one of the three best Raiders quarterbacks in the first 50 years of the franchise -- unless you think a checkered eight-year run by Jim Plunkett (57 starts, minus-1 touchdown-to-interception differential in the regular season, but very good postseason play) merits placement with Ken Stabler and Daryle Lamonica because he was the winning quarterback in two Super Bowl victories by the Raiders. I'd put Gannon over Plunkett.

Plunkett never played a 16-game regular season for the Raiders. Gannon, in six Raiders seasons, played 16 games four times. In those four seasons, 1999-2002, he averaged 3,947 passing yards per year, completed 63.4 percent, and threw 105 touchdowns with 44 interceptions. The Raiders have had three NFL MVPs -- Stabler in 1974, Marcus Allen in 1985 and Gannon in 2002.

Look, I've got no problem with a team sniping at a critic. Critics are fair game if they're going to step out and take shots. But let's not treat Gannon like Andrew Walter. Notthe man who, seven years ago, routed the Steelers at Heinz Field, swept the hated Broncos home and away, got Tuck-Rule revenge against the Patriots and won two lopsided playoff games before playing a lousy Super Bowl. It's silly.

Tampa Bay's initial first down of the game against the Giants came at 2:52 p.m. Eastern Time, 111 minutes into the game in real time, 40 minutes into the game on the game clock.

Difference Between Baseball and Football Dept.:

On Wednesday, in Kansas City for a series with the Royals, a group of eight members of the Red Sox traveling party -- including manager Terry Francona and infielder Kevin Youkilis -- spent a couple of hours at the Kansas City Chiefs' offices and training facility, across the parking lot from Kauffman Stadium. Francona is close to Chiefs GM Scott Pioli from his days in New England, and Pioli visited Francona in the Red Sox clubhouse prior to Tuesday's game. Youkilis and former major-leaguer Sean Casey, now a part-time TV colorman, kept commenting about the pace and fury of the midweek practice. Said coach Todd Haley: "They were very shocked how physical we were and how hard our coaches coached.''

I can't emphasize enough -- though I've said it a few times in this column over the years -- how marvelous train travel is up and down the Boston-New York-Washington corridor. I now take the train on Saturday at different times from Back Bay Station in Boston to Penn Station in Manhattan. Because we had no Saturday obligations at NBC this weekend, I took the regular Amtrak train at 4:45 p.m. from Boston to New York, stopping at the Kingstons and New Londons, and when we got into the little train station in Old Saybrook, Conn., just off Long Island Sound, there was a slight sunset struggling to be seen through the cloud cover.

Four placid hours, having a couple of Heineken Lights and banging through some elements of this column. I think you could save 60 or 90 minutes by taking the Delta shuttle, but then you wouldn't see the people walking on the seashore where Rhode Island meets Connecticut in a part of the country not many people know.

"It's interesting how the media views Matt Millen. To fans, it's like Madoff giving out investment advice. He destroyed a franchise.''--notsleeeping, Maria Panova, with a clever Tweet on the personnel acumen of Millen.

I got this started by telling people on Twitter the other day they shouldn't be all excited about Millen being on TV. Before he went down his destructive path with the Lions, he was considered by all to be the heir to John Madden as a pro football analyst.

Offensive Player of the Week

Carson Palmer, QB, Cincinnati

Stats, schmats. Palmer was 20 of 37 for 183 yards, with one TD and no interceptions in the 23-20 upset of Pittsburgh. But his value to this game, and to his team, can be measured in one very important one: He gives the Bengals hope that they can win any game they're in late. Against the Steelers, he led his team 71 yards in the last five minutes, bleeding the clock so the Steelers wouldn't have a chance to score after the Bengals did. A brilliant, clutch drive by a guy we've forgotten could be this good.

Pierre Thomas, RB, New Orleans

You mean this team has a catalyst other than Drew Brees? Thomas didn't touch the ball for the first 32 minutes of the game, then carried it 14 times for 126 yards and two touchdowns in the second half. His 34- and 19-yard fourth-quarter touchdowns gave the Saints the padding to coast home in a 27-7 win at Buffalo.

Defensive Player of the Week

The Giants

Sorry for taking the lazy way out and not choosing one player. I can't. New York held Tampa to 86 net yards, and didn't allow them to convert one third down. The Giants didn't let Tampa Bay breathe. By the time the Bucs got a meaningless long drive in the final 10 minutes, the Giants had thoroughly suffocated them. Tampa Bay's drives, in plays, until that last one: three, one, three, three, three, one, three, five, and three.

Brandon McGowan, S, New England

Not only did McGowan do a great job in coverage on Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez (he caught one pass for 16 yards), but also he made the play that spurred the Patriots to an uneven 26-10 win. Late in the first half, with the game tied at 10 and the Falcons driving at the New England 27, McGowan, a marginal free-agent pickup from the Bears in the offseason, burrowed into the pile of tacklers on Michael Turner and pasted Turner, causing him to fumble. New England recovered. Instead of going into the half down 13-10 or 17-10, Brady drove the Pats to a field goal and a 13-10 halftime lead.

Special Teams Player of the Week

Percy Harvin, KR/WR, Minnesota

His 101-yard kickoff return gave the Vikings a 20-17 lead late in the third quarter, but that's too antiseptic. What made the return amazing to me was that he did not appear to have been touched on it. How often do you see a touchdown on a return accomplished without any of the 11 defenders touching the return man? I asked Harvin if anyone hit him or even grazed him on the return. "I don't believe so, sir ,'' said Harvin over the phone from the locker room.

Lynell Hamilton, RB, New Orleans

Want to see one of the best form tackles you'll ever see on a kickoff return? Hamilton, a Saints' insurance policy with the early-season injuries in the backfield, contributed five carries for 24 yards in Buffalo, but he made his presence felt midway through the fourth quarter when he burst through the Bills' blocking front on a kickoff return, wrapped both arms around Roscoe Parrish, lifted him in the air, drove him backward and tackled him after a meager gain of 14 yards.

Ray McDonald, DE, San Francisco

With the Niners lining up in field-goal defense at the end of the first half at Minnesota, trailing 13-7, McDonald burst through the middle of the line, got a big paw on the Ryan Longwell kick, and knocked the ball directly to Nate Clements, who lumbered the length of the field for a shocking touchdown at the first-half gun. Instead of going into halftime trailing 16-7, the Niners had a 14-13 halftime lead. Ten-point swing.

Coach of the Week

Scott Linehan, offensive coordinator, Detroit

Anyone recall a team this young and green playing as clean a game as Detroit did -- especially with the weight of a city on its shoulders? The Lions didn't get intercepted, nor did they lose a fumble, and they allowed but two sacks in 38 Matthew Stafford pass-drops. They possessed the ball for 37 minutes, ran for 154 yards and got an efficient day from the rookie quarterback who seemed to be slipping last week against Minnesota. For Detroit to be competent on offense, which the Lions were Sunday, says Jim Schwartz picked the right guy to train his rookie quarterback and run his new offense.

Goat of the Week

CBS Control, New York

What has been the story of this preseason and early football season? Michael Vick. Vick this, Vick that. And so Vick had just touched the ball in a National Football League game for the first time in 33 months -- almost three years -- and then we hear from the booth, "Let's go to James Brown.''

What?!!! Let's go to James Brown?!! Unless it's for live coverage of Armageddon, you're not going to James Brown. MICHAEL VICK HAS JUST TOUCHED THE BALL FOR THE FIRST TIME IN FOREVER.

This is not play-by-play man Kevin Harlan's doing. All he's doing is obeying the wishes of the truck, and of New York. Common sense, please. It turned out the only gain of Michael Vick's day was a borderline afterthought to CBS.

Ryan Mouton, DB/KR, Tennessee

Jets up 7-zip, kickoff goes to Tennessee, rookie Mouton takes the ball and fumbles it back to the Jets, who are soon ahead 14-0. But the Titans come back to take a 17-14 lead, and they just might add to it midway through the third quarter when the Jets punt to Mouton. Oh no! The dreaded muff happens, and Jet special-teamer Larry Izzo recovers, and the Jets soon score again. The Jets scored on 19- and 23-yard drives after Mouton fumbles. And I don't want to pour too much horsecrap down on the kid's head or anything, but Mouton's pretty much the reason Tennessee is 0-3 today instead of 1-2.

My mix of sort-of MMQB classic and new stuff, due out in mid-October, can be preordered, and to tempt you I'm throwing a couple of nuggets at you this week.

One is a Factoid That May Interest Only Me: At one point, the same lawyer represented Barry Switzer, Jerry Jones and Larry Lacewell of the Cowboys. The lawyer's name was Larry Derryberry. They once dined together -- Barry, Jerry, Larry and Larry Derryberry.

Two is a Quote of the Week, from Joey Harrington, the year he was coming out in the NFL draft, 2002, and was asked to take the New York Giants' 480-question personality test, which included one question asking if you enjoyed beating animals. "And I wondered if you're a linebacker, should you say yes?''

Lots more where those came from.

1. I think these are my quick-hit thoughts of Week 3:

a. I'd expect both LaDainian Tomlinson (ankle) and Shawne Merriman (groin) to play for San Diego next week in Pittsburgh.

b. Chargers are 0-13 in Pittsburgh in regular-season games. Strangely, San Diego is 2-1 in Pittsburgh in the postseason.

c. Not the best look for Jeff Fisher, that sky-blue long-sleeve thing designed to approximate what the Houston Oilers once wore. I guarantee you Bum Phillips never wore that interesting piece of material someone made Fisher wear. It looked like what a girl would wear as a nightie to a high school sleepover.

d. Awful, awful, awful Jets' throwbacks. The only thing worse on the Giants Stadium field Sunday was the officials' garb. I believed I said the old AFL officials' unis made the men in stripes look like creamsicles when these things debuted in the opening Monday-nighter at Foxboro. Ditto.

e. Re the Seattle shock-green uniforms, which are to the eyes what a triple-espresso is to the heart rate: I didn't hate them as much as I thought I would.

f. Three weeks into the season and the Colts have a three-game lead on the Titans.

g. Did it rain on every football game Sunday, or was it just my imagination?

h. Excellent touch by Jim Schwartz, sending the Lions back out on the field from the locker room to thank fans for supporting the team.

i. Jim Mora sounds like he'll be bringing a kicker (Brandon Coutu?) in this week to challenge Olindo Mare, who missed 43- and 34-yard field goal attempts on a perfect weather day in Seattle. "No excuses for those,'' Mora said. "Not acceptable. Not acceptable. Absolutely not acceptable."

j. If I were Raheem Morris, I'd want to see more of Josh Johnson. He didn't look bad in garbage time against the Giants.

k. Chad Henne could have used some help from his receivers, but he had an uneven day after replacing Chad Pennington. I expect Pennington to be out this week, meaning Henne and Pat White would be the Miami quarterbacks. That's it.

2. I think in the tampering charges files by San Francisco against the New York Jets over the Michael Crabtree situation, the 49ers have something more than Deion Sanders saying two teams would be willing to pay Crabtree a contract of at least $40 million.

(The absurdity of that, by the way. The sixth pick this year, Andre Smith, got four years and $26 million; the seventh pick, Darrius Heyward-Bey, got five years and $38 million. The 49ers cannot trade Crabtree's draft rights this year, so this means to get $40 million, he'd have to either have his rights dealt when the next league year begins next March, or he'd have to re-enter the draft and hope to get picked in the top six or seven players. Now, is there a team that, picking that high, would invest $40 million in someone who hadn't played football in a year-and-a-half?)

But I feel the organization is mostly firing a shot across the bow of any other team that might think of playing footsy with Crabtree, agent Eugene Parker or any of his advisers, such as Sanders.

3. I think -- and trust me on this -- Jim Zorn's going nowhere soon other than to work coaching the Washington Redskins. As I said on TV last night, the Redskins can't fire the man who's not only their coach but also their quarterback teacher and offensive play-caller. And as I didn't say, Daniel Snyder is hardly giving his interim head-coaching job to defensive boss Greg Blache, whose men surrendered 381 yards to the Lions (the Lions!) Sunday. Now, if the Redskins continue to play lousy football on the JV portion of their schedule (next three: Tampa Bay, at Carolina, Kansas City), I guarantee nothing about Zorn's future. But this week, next week? He's safe.

4. I think there's no question the happiest man in the league Sunday night was Carson Palmer. He might not have shown it, but I can tell you the immense personal satisfaction he derived from that game in Cincinnati. When I convened five quarterbacks for the SI quarterback roundtable in Lake Tahoe in July, Palmer was the de facto leader of the group. He was into the topics, and I thought he liked how the others there looked at him with the respect they all obviously had for him.

Palmer was sitting next to Ben Roethlisberger when I asked the guys who they hated. "Since I've been in the league,'' Palmer said, "the Steelers have been at the top of our division. We just happen to be in the same division. You always want what you don't have. You're always jealous because you all want the same thing. [Turning to Roethlisberger.] He's got two Super Bowl rings; we all want one. They've got two and you're jealous, you're envious, you want what they have and personally ... Ben, don't take this the wrong way, but when the Steelers were in the playoffs [in 2005], after I got hurt and I was on the couch and I was watching in California, and Jon Kitna was back in Cincinnati and we were going back and forth talking during every playoff game as it went on every week. I was like, 'Oh, I just can't watch. I can't believe they're winning,' and I'm just pissed off and mad, like drinking beers and throwing bottles against the walls because you just kept going.''

And then Palmer went out Sunday and outdueled Roethlisberger 35 miles from Big Ben's college campus in Oxford, Ohio. That's a great day for Palmer.

5. I think, from the sound of the boos at Oakland on Sunday, the locals have had just about enough of JaMarcus Russell. His first three series: three-and-out, interception on a deep ball intended for Heyward-Bey, another interception on a deep ball intended for Heyward-Bey. That dug the Raiders a 10-0 hole they could never get out of, and Oakland had to throw mostly short stuff the rest of the day, fearful of Russell turning it over more. His 12 completions resulted in a measly 61 yards. I'm starting to think we're watching the second coming of Ryan Leaf.

6. I think, thanks to columnist Dave Hyde of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, I'd like to set the story straight on the origins of the Wildcat formation. I, like so many peers in the past 12 months, have credited former Arkansas assistant coach David Lee --now the Dolphins' quarterback coach -- for importing the option offense to the NFL. Lee did bring it to pro football, but he isn't responsible for inventing it. It was actually the Arkansas offensive coordinator in 2006, Gus Malzahn, who introduced it to college football, where he brought it from an Arkansas high school state championship team.

In 2006, Malzahn used it, in part to get Darren McFadden and Felix Jones on the field at the same time and to make defenses wonder which one of the talented backs would be getting the ball on a given play. McFadden began taking many direct snaps, instead of the snaps going to the quarterback; he even threw a touchdown pass in the 2006 SEC West-clinching victory over Tennessee.

In 2007, Malzahn moved to Tulsa as offensive coordinator, ceding the Arkansas job to Lee. Lee continued to use the Wildcat that year, then brought it to Miami when hired as the quarterback coach in 2008. A year ago, in a Week 3 game at New England, Miami head coach Tony Sparano decided to revitalize a moribund offense by inserting the Wildcat into pro football. Lee helped the offensive staff install it, choosing running back Ronnie Brown to be the triggerman, and the Dolphins scored four touchdowns out of the formation in Foxboro, leading to a 38-13 victory.

The Dolphins continue to use it, and we see it league-wide now, as we did Sunday with Michael Vick in his first NFL appearance since 2006.

7. I think this is what I liked about Week 3:

a. Mark Sanchez's guts in going for the end zone on a 14-yard touchdown scamper in the first quarter.

b. Ahmad Brooks, the San Francisco linebacker in Patrick Willis' shadow, made a tremendous knockdown of Percy Harvin, sniffing out a reverse and nailing him for a loss.

c. Aaron Curry is starting to make impact plays for the Seahawks, like his strip-sack of Jay Cutler that led to a field goal and a 19-17 Seattle lead in the fourth quarter.

d. Odd that Ray Rice scored his first NFL touchdown Sunday. Seems like he's had 10. I'll tell you this: Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron would take the combined product of Rice and Willis McGahee from Sunday (18 carries, 115 yards, three touchdowns) every game for the rest of his life.

e. Speaking of offensive Ravens, Michael Oher would get some consideration from me for offensive rookie of the year if I had to fill out my ballot this morning.

f. But Mark Sanchez or Percy Harvin (touchdown in all three NFL games) would win it.

g. That is not a misprint in your morning paper or evening Internet source: Atlanta middle linebacker Curtis Lofton had 19 tackles at New England.

h. Arizona probably hated the Week 4 bye when the schedule came out. I bet the Cards love it now. They need it.

8. I think this is what I didn't like about Week 3:

a. If the Chiefs' biggest area of concern isn't the offensive line, it should be.

b. What an embarrassing replay review by Alberto Riveron's crew at New England, ruling a Matt Ryan incompletion (as clear as day an incompletion and not a fumble), forcing the Falcons to throw a challenge flag, and taking away the New England momentum by making each team stand around for three minutes. And then, when he came back to admit the ruling on the field was wrong, he said, "New England will not be charged with a timeout.'' Atlanta, sir. Geez.

c. Joey Galloway is killing the New England offense.

d. The Redskins can't allow Kevin Smith to average 6.3 yards per rush. It's easy to nail Jason Campbell for everything that ails the 'Skins, but that defense has to start playing, period.

e. I can't believe how bad the Browns looked in Baltimore. As Olbermann said, "Tackling was optional.'' When I picked Cleveland to go 2-14 in SI before the season, my reasons were simple: The Browns don't have a quarterback, don't have an offensive weapon who scares a defensive coordinator, and don't have a defensive player (except maybe Shaun Rogers) who you have to gameplan around. Nothing's changed. What's sad is the Browns aren't in better shape for the future than they were as an expansion team in 1999.

f. Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Kansas City, St. Louis, Oakland ... 32, 31, 30, 29, 28.

g. In the eight quarters following his energetic Monday night debut, Richard Seymour has six tackles and zero sacks.

h. Terrell Owens' stats for the year: five catches, 98 yards, zero impact. Shutout Sunday against the Saints.

9. I think this is the best example of how you never pick up where you leave off in the NFL: Eight months ago, Pittsburgh and Arizona went down to the wire in a thrilling Super Bowl. Now they're a combined 2-4, and it would be 1-5 if Tennessee played even semi-clutch down the stretch in the season opener against the Steelers. And each looks so vulnerable; Pittsburgh can't run nor protect Ben Roethlisberger. Arizona got manhandled by a decent Indy defensive front Sunday night. It always seems strange when last year's champs struggle so mightily the following year, but it happens so often that you'd have to be naïve to be surprised by it.

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

a. I love Curb Your Enthusiasm. And as far as I'm concerned, the more Funkhauser, the better.

b. Should I watch the Strahan show? I suppose I should invest 30 minutes for my old Montclair neighbor, but the premise of the show holds no interest for me. I'd like to hear your feedback.

c. Courtney Cox must bury her head in her hands when she realizes how her career is being dragged through the mud by this idiotic show about picking up younger men.

d. Adam Dunn's career is the most interesting of any player in baseball by far. He hit 40 home runs in 2005. He hit 40 home runs in 2006. He hit 40 home runs in 2007. He hit 40 home runs in 2008. He has 38 home runs with seven games left. Bad news: Only problem with this wonderful symmetry is Dunn has three homers in Washington's last 25 games. Good news: He's got three games with the Mets today through Wednesday. Mediocre news: He's got between 164 and 194 strikeouts in each of these five symmetrical seasons. Well, at least you know what you're getting when you draft him for your rotisserie team.

e. Poor Jason Varitek. He'd be the last guy to want your pity, but if he plays at all the rest of the way for Boston, that's what he's going to get. His swing is ridiculously off (he's hitting .122 since July 31), and one of the best defensive catchers in the game is now being embarrassed as a defender. He's last in the major league in throwing base-stealers out. He's gunned down only 13 percent this year, just 16 out of 123 (though he did nail Robinson Cano Sunday). It's like Willie Mays staying too long with the Mets.

f. I thought the Yankees couldn't pitch. They look pretty good to me.

g. Swine flu is coming. We're not even in flu season and I know six people who've come down with it.

h. Saw The Informant! the other day. Mildly entertaining. About 25 minutes too long, and I'm not sure the plot's worthy of a movie.

i. Hope you're OK, Tim Tebow. That was a scary thing, a violent concussion.

j. Coffeenerdness: True story in Starbucks in Boston's South End Saturday morning. Man, about 23, waiting for in long line for his drink, picks up New York Times (without paying), walks into men's room. Five minutes pass. Man walks out straightening out the paper, puts the paper back in the pile of Times copies, picks up his drink and walks out.

k. Remember when George Costanza took the art book into the men's room at the big bookstore, and he had to buy it? That's what I was thinking here -- only Starbucks-fouler got away with it.

l. Was it just my hotel TV in Manhattan, or was the sound awful on U2's "Breathe'' on Saturday Night Live? I heard Sunday that U2 had its own sound-mixers for the performance, and that may have played a part in the awful distortion of the music.

m. I would have liked to have laughed at least once in the endless Khaddafy spoof that opened the Saturday Night Live season.

Dallas 33, Carolina 24. Romo channels his inner Dan Fouts and has another 300-yard game, getting the baying hounds off his doorstep for a few minutes.

But instead of previewing the game, I thought I'd review the Cowboys Stadium -- from a player's perspective. I asked Giants tackle David Diehl for his perspective on the noise, the spectacle, the walking onto the field through a fancy bar. Diehl's thoughts:

"You pull up to the place in the bus, and you're amazed at the size. I mean, it's three times the size of Giants Stadium. None of us had ever seen a stadium this big. It was cool before the game to be warming up and to be able to see the highlights of the other games and see how incredibly clear the video picture was ... Walking out before the game, you feel a little like an animal in a zoo. Normally, you go onto the field through a tunnel, and there's no one there but you and your teammates and the coaches. But the people there, and most of them are drinking, obviously -- you hear a lot of things. You're sort of trapped in there, with people pounding on the glass at you ...

"The [video] boards are so high above the field that when you're playing, you don't even notice them. I'll tell what was frustrating to me. I'm always looking for down-and-distance on the scoreboard, and in most stadiums, you can look on the side and see it pretty easily. But in this place, there are mostly ads where that normally is. Miller Lite, Dr Pepper ad screens instead of the down-and-distance. I found it in the corner of the end zone, but it's hard to see ...

"When we were on the sidelines, I didn't find myself looking up all that much, because you're at a bad angle to the boards. I'd glance up every now and then, but I didn't spend the game when the defense was on the field watching the TV ... As far as the atmosphere, I thought it would have been a lot louder. It was loud at the beginning, then at the end, but there were times you were surprised at so many people without all the noise.''

Overall? "Exciting, really exciting,'' Diehl said. "Stadiums are becoming big attractions. This is the future of the NFL -- bigger, glamorous stadiums.''

Order a copy of Peter King's new book, "Monday Morning Quarterback: A fully caffeinated guide to everything you need to know about the NFL"

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