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Broncos, Bengals open some eyes with impressive Week 5 wins

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

NEW YORK -- One of the great things about any NFL season is how it doesn't matter what we all think out here in media- and fan-land. Just after Labor Day, teams are going to play, and truths will soon be self-evident, and some of the damndest things are going to happen.

Like, this year:

• The Bengals can play defense.

Kyle Orton is good.

Josh McDaniels is a genius. A pretty emotional one, as it turns out.

Miles Austin just had a better game in his first NFL start than any of the 199 games Terrell Owens or Michael Irvin ever had for the Cowboys.

• The Titans are pitiable. Let me expand: Two of the first-round-bye playoff teams last year, Tennessee and Carolina, are a combined 1-8 this year. And the Panthers had to come back from a 17-2 deficit at home Sunday for that one measly win.

Let me take a couple of those and dig in, starting with the Friendly Revenge Match in Denver.

As impressed as I am with Josh McDaniels in the wake of his 20-17 overtime victory over his mentor, Bill Belichick (I detailed much of that in last week's column), I'm just as impressed with Orton. Will it last? I don't know. Will the bubble burst? I don't know. But right now, he's every bit the surprising find to McDaniels' Denver team as Tom Brady was to the Patriots in 2001.

Underline this and put it in your mental bold print: I'm not saying Orton is as good as Brady or ever will be; what I am saying is that he's doing for the Broncos in 2009 what Brady did when Drew Bledsoe went down with an injury in 2001. Brady led the Patriots to a Super Bowl win no one saw coming. Can you sit there right now and say Orton might not do the same thing?

Exhibit A: Sunday at Invesco Field at Mile High (what a silly stadium moniker), Orton led the Broncos on scoring drives of 90, 66, 98 and 58 yards. With 10 minutes left in the game, New England led 17-10, and Denver was starting at its own 2. The Broncos weren't going to have many more chances -- two, maybe -- and Orton knew the significance when he went out to the huddle.

"We'd had a 95-yard drive earlier,'' Orton told me last night. (Actually, it was 90.) "And after we scored on that drive, I never had so much confidence in us as an offense before. It was a big game and we made a big drive. So here we were at the 2, and I got in the huddle and said, 'We did it once for 95 yards. What's three yards more?' '' And that was it for the inspiration.

The Patriots D looked gassed, even though it had been on the field for a reasonable 46 snaps to that point. But Orton only needed one third-down conversion and four and a half minutes to buzz down the field. He got 27 yards on a smart screen to Knowshon Moreno to put Denver into New England territory. On first down from the Pats' 11, New England thought Brandon Marshall would run a fade in the end zone. Instead, McDaniels called for a fade/stop, with Marshall selling the fade and stopping short. Orton threw it to him near the goal line, and Marshall used his leverage to pry away from a defender and score.

"It was a big win,'' Orton said, "but what I liked was we prepared like we'd prepare for any game, like it was any other week. Josh does a good job of that. They create a lot of problems for an offense, and we spent the whole week on that, not on any of the stuff surrounding the game. We put a plan together this week to try to beat New England, which is different from the other game plans we've had, and I'm sure this coming week will be different. That's the way we play, the way we prepare.''

I reminded Orton of his first game with Denver, when the city was apoplectic after he threw three first-half interceptions in a Broncos' preseason game at San Francisco. Joe Bronco was petrified that they'd gotten shafted in the trade with Chicago, and the franchise would never recover from losing Jay Cutler. Well, here we are five weeks into the season. Cutler's a 64-percent passer, averaging 225 yards a game, with a plus-three TD-to-interception differential and passer rating of 89.3. Orton: 63 percent, 247 yards a game, plus-six, 97.4 rating.

"I just thought about that this week,'' Orton said. "And I actually took that as a positive. I'm serious. There was a lot of doubt about me locally, but not from the coach. It was great to have a game like that and have the coach back me the way he did, with no reservations. That's the first time in my career that ever happened to me. I know my game. I'm not a turnover guy. Now I had a coach who knew I wasn't either.''

As long as he's not a turnover guy -- Orton's first pick of the year came on a Hail Mary throw at the end of the first half Sunday -- the Broncos will be a contending offense.

*****

In Baltimore, the Bengals completed the AFC North Hat Trick. Three Sundays, three AFC North wins. And good things, evidently, come in threes, as in three-point wins: Bengals 23, Steelers 20; Bengals 23, Browns 20; Bengals 17, Ravens 14.

If you watched Hard Knocks on HBO this summer, you saw the softer side of a very hard defensive coordinator, Mike Zimmer -- his wife, Vikki, made cookies for the defensive players. She'd tell her husband to not be so hard on the players. On Thursday, Vikki died suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving Zimmer and three children without a wife and mother. Mike Zimmer, after much deliberation, decided to coach the team Sunday.

"I was at their house Thursday,'' coach Marvin Lewis said over the phone from Baltimore after handing Zimmer the game ball for a strong defensive performance. "And Vikki had post-it notes all over the kitchen, reminding her about what she had to bake for the players. It obviously was very, very tough for Mike and his family. We told him to do whatever he thought was best -- coach, not coach, bring his family, stay with his family, fly in Saturday night on a private plane, fly in Sunday on a private plane. He decided to just come and coach. It was an amazing thing he did. I told him, 'I don't know how you did it, but you know I love you.' ''

Lewis has done the unthinkable (at least to me) in Cincinnati: He's won as many as he's lost (50-50-1), and he's done it rebuilding on the fly. Three reasons Cincinnati's better on defense, finally:

One: Most important is the Bengals have established a physical presence, led by punishing rookie linebacker Rey Maualuga. "He hits you like a cinderblock wall,'' Lewis said.

Two: The first-round starting corners, Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall, are healthy in tandem this year and maturing into a pair of corners Zimmer's not afraid to put on islands with good wideouts.

Three: They're getting consistent pressure on the quarterback, led by Antwan Odom, tied for the league lead with eight sacks; after gaining 30 pounds in the offseason, Odom's able to play outside on run downs, then move inside to a Kevin Williams-type three-technique role as defensive tackle on passing downs.

The Bengals could have been the same old Bengals a couple of times Sunday. Ed Reed picked off Carson Palmer and ran 52 yards with a second-quarter interception for a touchdown, sending the crowd into a frenzy with the first points of the day. On the last drive of the game, Ray Lewis hit Chad Ochocinco coming across the middle so explosively that it tore his helmet off; Lewis got hit with a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness on a defenseless receiver.

"You could have folded then,'' I said to Marvin Lewis.

"We don't get intimidated by anyone,'' the coach said. "It was funny. The Ravens always introduce the defense here. I'm sure they like to get the crowd fired up. And so I told our players, especially our young guys, 'Make sure you get a good seat for it and get a good view.' They all saw it. They saw Ray Lewis do his thing. Then we went out and played pretty good defense too.''

For a pretty good defensive coordinator and for themselves.

*****

I'd planned to write 800 words or so on the Browns and where they stand in the wake of their three big deals this year -- trading Kellen Winslow, the draft day trade-down that netted the Jets Mark Sanchez, and trading Braylon Edwards -- but decided to save it for the top of the Tuesday column instead, barring major news breaking. There are some interesting developments in Cleveland, with the scratch-and-clawing 6-3 upset of the Bills Sunday, following Adam Schefter's report on ESPN that the Browns willingly allowed a rookie running back, James Davis, to practice recently without pads against fully padded defensive players, resulting in a season-ended shoulder injury for Davis. Hopefully we'll get to that tomorrow.

Now for some other items of interest around pro football over the past few days:

Michael Crabtree signs: Well, throw a parade. I'll have a few thoughts on the uselessness of the holdout below in 10 Things, but let's use this space for something useful -- like what Crabtree's role will be.

The 49ers have the bye this week, but they'll use the time to expedite the learning process for Crabtree. Barring injury, he'll be on the field Oct. 25 at Houston, likely as a slot receiver. The Niners could play an interesting four-receiver set with Isaac Bruce and Josh Morgan outside, and tight end Vernon Davis and Crabtree inside.

Let's assume -- as I've been told reliably -- that the 49ers do put Crabtree in the slot and give him a spot in three or four personnel groups of three- or four-receiver sets. Rather than immerse Crabtree in the offense and throw the phone book of a playbook at him, it's smarter to feed him piecemeal if you want to get something out of him this year. Crabtree's holdout destroyed his chance to be a big player this year, but he still can be a helpful one.

After his third practice with Crabtree, quarterback Shaun Hill told me he thought Crabtree could be a useful piece this year. "He's got strong hands, late hands,'' Hill said. "Late hands -- that's when the ball's over your shoulder and you either see it late or find it late, and you can get your hands up in time to catch it. He's not extremely tall, but he plays big. Long arms. He attacks the football when he catches it.''

I asked Hill about how the 49er skill players are now fairly competitive with the rest of the league. "When you've gone through what we've gone through as an organization, nobody in the outside world expects anything from you, but I can tell you we have some playmakers here,'' he said.

If Crabtree can be a two-catch-a-game guy in the slot, he should draw some attention away from Bruce and Morgan and help the Niners become more diverse on offense.

I don't know Crabtree, and I have questioned his judgment over this senseless holdout. But I like one thing I heard about him late in the week, after he and GM Scot McCloughan had a lengthy discussion. In the course of it, Crabtree asked: "Why was Rossum inactive last week?'' Allen Rossum, the returner/cornerback, is the player Crabtree wondered about. And to ask that showed the Niners he was watching and thinking about his team. I think he was so miserable not playing that he had to get back, regardless of the advice he was getting.

----

The birth of the UFL: There was no buzz in Las Vegas or Orlando for the opening weekend of the United Football League. With crowds announced at 14,000 in Las Vegas and 11,000 in Orlando, some of which were comps (I saw the fourth quarter of Orlando Tuskers-New York Sentinels, and there couldn't have been 11,000 there), the first weekend of the odd, four-team, six-games-per-team league was inauspicious.

Convinced that the fall is when people watch football, the league chose to play opposite the NFL and high school and college football, which is almost like planting a garden in a blizzard. The only way the league can work is to be content being a Triple-A league with some borderline NFL players; to have the long view; to play on Thursday nights; and to not have the sort of visions of grandeur that the XFL and USFL had. All of which commissioner Michael Huyghue, who helped build the Jacksonville Jaguars from the ground up 15 years ago, does have.

"This season's an appetizer,'' he told me Saturday night from Orlando, after Jim Haslett's Tuskers beat Ted Cottrell's Sentinels 35-13, behind four touchdown passes from Brooks Bollinger. "We're at the start of a three- to five-year project. It's easy to get caught up in the attendance, and some people thought we shouldn't start this year, or play with a four-team league. But we wanted to grow this league steadily. The four-team league is a preview. We're putting our money into the football, not the promotion, like the XFL did. A person who's knowledgeable about football will see the product we had out there.''

Bollinger handed to Tatum Bell, who rushed for 1,000 yards for the Broncos, and Michael Pittman, who gained 124 yards in the Super Bowl six years ago, and Bollinger was sacked by Simeon Rice, who has 122 NFL sacks. Out west, J.P. Losman tried to resuscitate his career, throwing two touchdowns, and late Bengals cut DeDe Dorsey scored two touchdowns. "The quality is like an NFL preseason game,'' Dorsey said. "What I like is the people running the league care about the football. We've got a bunch of players trying to re-prove themselves and show they can play at a high level.''

The UFL will play a title game Nov. 27 between the two teams with the best regular-season records. The goal is to experiment in several stadiums and markets (Tropicana Field in Tampa, Rentschler Field in Hartford, CitiField in Queens), then to add two teams for 2010. "We may never play more than 10 games,'' Huyghue said. "We may never have more than eight teams. We're going to do what's practical.''

I'll tell you what's practical: not playing a Florida team's opener directly opposite Florida-LSU, which the league should have seen months ago, and finding some way to put bodies in the stands, no matter how papered the houses are. The wide swaths of empty seats at both games was embarrassing.

"Good football, bad marketing, nothing for kids, probably 3k there,'' one attendee at the Citrus Bowl on Saturday Tweeted me Sunday morning.

The only way a fall minor league can make it is if the league's serious about not having visions of grandeur and can settle into a niche of Thursday night football in underserved pro football markets (Las Vegas, Orlando, Hartford, Sacramento, etc.) for the long term. And I don't mind the lack of hype as the season kicked off. The XFL had hype out the wazoo and lasted five months. This is a startup company, and startups needs to come in quietly, have money, and have a good football plan. I have my doubts about the UFL making it, but it does have money, a plan and good football people in place. I'll be watching.

----

Roughing-the-passer: Say what you want about the most despised call in football -- and there's no question some officials, particularly the younger, more-unsure refs like Alberto Riveron and rookie Don Carey, are calling roughing inconsistently -- but here are a couple of truths.

The NFL absolutely, positively isn't going to cut down on its vigilance of quarterback hits, no matter how many Ray Lewises and Rodney Harrisons ridicule the protectionist attitude toward passers. I'm told reliably that the league is not going to let up, and that officiating czar Mike Pereira did not issue any sort of edict to his 17 referees last week after a controversial spate of calls in Week 4.

Here's what I have a problem with: players like Patriots defensive tackle Mike Wright getting fined $5,000 for contacting quarterback Joe Flacco's helmet while rushing. Clearly, if the league's going to fine a player, there should actually be some intent there. I've watched the Wright play twice, and he clearly did not intend to hit Flacco. Penalizing is one thing. Fining should be reserved for flagrant fouls.

One other thing: Players are getting the message about going easier on the quarterback, judging by roughing numbers over the past five seasons and four games this year.

I wouldn't put a lot of stock in the 2009 numbers -- yet. As I said earlier, they're through four weeks, and a couple of light weeks would put the average back down to the levels of the past two years. I wondered why the numbers plummeted between 2006 and 2007, but other than the usual points of emphasis about protecting the quarterback, there was no big rule change that year.

----

Happy birthday, Brett Favre: Favre turned 40 Saturday -- doubt he got many birthday cards from Green Bay zip codes -- and celebrated by leading the Vikings to their fifth straight win, in St. Louis on Sunday. But that's not the milestone date I was thinking about this weekend.

Today is the one-year anniversary of the hit from Cincinnati linebacker Rashad Jeanty that led to Favre's right biceps injury, and led to the arm and shoulder pain that made his late 2008 season so miserable. In his first first games a year ago -- the injury happened during Game 5 -- Favre completed 71.3 percent of his throws for the Jets, with 13 touchdowns and six interceptions. He was 63.3 percent after that, with nine touchdowns and 16 picks. So my question to him last week was the same as my question to him in the summer: Can you last?

"I don't know,'' he said when I spoke to him in the tunnel at the Metrodome, an hour or so after the emotional win over the Packers. He looked like he'd been through a 15-round fight, emotionally and physically. "No one knows. You never know what'll happen. I know how hard I'm working for it.''

He said he hasn't had anything to drink but water, has sworn off sweets, hasn't been hunting, and said he's throwing totally pain-free. I asked him about the gigantic welcome-to-Minnesota billboards Wrangler, one of his employers, has put up around town. "Haven't seem 'em,'' he said. "All I see is the road between my house and the training facility.'' Tunnel vision.

That probably gives him the best chance to make it. But we won't know how this story turns out until we see if Favre can make it and play competently through December, and he knows that.

1. Minnesota (5-0). What a week for Jared Allen. Four-and-a-half sacks and a safety Monday night, followed on Sunday by one pass deflected and two fumbles recovered -- one returned for a touchdown against St. Louis.

2. New York Giants (5-0). Take it from me. I had plantar fasciitis one summer in the mid-nineties. Stepped on a rock with my bare right foot in July. It still bugged me in December and didn't go away completely until I did aggressive physical therapy. It's like going through the day with a toothache. It never goes away. You can live with it by stretching and massaging it, but Eli Manning's going to feel this 'til after the season.

3. New Orleans (4-0). The Saints didn't drop from 1 to 3 because they had their bye this week. They dropped from 1 to 3 because of how impressive the Vikings were last Monday against Green Bay and Sunday against the Rams. The Saints and the Giants will have the chance to prove who's better this Sunday in the Superdome.

4. Indianapolis (5-0). Three road night games in the past 21 days. What team has played three road night games in a four-game span in NFL history? Doubt it's ever happened. I only bring it up because teams that play early road games return home at 8 or 9 p.m. Sunday. The Colts have returned home from their three road games at about 4:30 a.m. Tuesday (from the Miami Monday-nighter), about 5 a.m. Monday (from the Arizona Sunday-nighter) ... and I'd guess they got home this morning about 2 a.m. from Nashville. They've got a Week 10 Sunday-nighter at home against the Patriots and a Week 15 Thursday-nighter at Jacksonville, and I expect one of their interesting games in the second half of the season (they host the Broncos and Jets) will be moved to a Sunday night game by NBC.

5. Denver (5-0).Matt Prater's winning 41-yard field goal in overtime would have been good from 58. Very, very impressive comeback win in the biggest game of young Josh McDaniels' coaching career.

6. Philadelphia (3-1). Donovan McNabb (16-21, 264 yards, three touchdowns, no picks) looked like he missed no time and had no busted rib. He needs one touchdown pass and 337 passing yards to become the 20th quarterback in the 90-year history of the NFL to pass for 200 touchdowns and 30,000 yards. In other words, the reports of his demise and the ascension of a.) Kevin Kolb and b.) Mike Vick are greatly exaggerated.

7. Cincinnati (4-1). Not only are the Bengals in control of the AFC North, but also they're 3-0 in the division, 3-0 on the road ... and, oh yes, Carson Palmer's back, and he might be as good as ever. He's certainly as clutch as ever.

8. New York Jets (3-1). Calvin Pace returns from his four-game league suspension tonight in Miami. Just what Rex Ryan needs -- another toy to play with on the league's fifth-ranked defense.

9. New England (3-2). Underrated injury of the weekend: With the Patriots trying to add to a 17-10 lead on the first play of the fourth quarter at Denver, left tackle Matt Light hurt his right knee and had to be helped from the field. The Patriots can survive Light's absence against Tennessee and Tampa Bay the next two weeks, but they'll need to get him well during the bye week. Their five games in 29 days post-bye: Dolphins, at Colts, Jets, at Saints, at Dolphins ... good pass-rushers in every one of those games.

10. Atlanta (3-1). At halftime in San Francisco, Roddy White had six catches for 185 yards with two touchdowns, and Michael Turner had 13 carries for 72 yards, with three touchdowns. At halftime!

11. Chicago (3-1). Idle 'til an interesting battle of the whippersnapper quarterbacks -- Cutler vs. MattRyan -- at the Georgia Dome next Sunday.

12. Pittsburgh (3-2). I don't like dropping the Steelers four spots after a road win. I understand it's not fair. But the Lions drove to the Steelers 21 in the final minutes and were a big Daunte Culpepper pass from pulling a ridiculous upset. I need to see a little more from the Steelers.

13. Baltimore (3-2). Two weeks in a row Ray Lewis goes home on Sunday night thinking the officials cost his team the game. No time for thinking like that, Ray. You've got Favre and Adrian Peterson, on the road, coming up.

14. San Francisco (3-2). I am now sobered up about the Niners. Surrendering 340 yards in the first half to any team, and I don't care if it's the '99 Rams or the '84 Rams or the '07 Patriots, is going to make you spiral downward.

15. San Diego (2-2). It doesn't take a genius to see that A.J. Smith would love someone to call him with a good offer -- say, a second-round draft choice -- for Shawne Merriman between now and the trading deadline eight days from now. That would mean Merriman would have to show some signs of being a dominant player again. Since this was San Diego's bye week, and the Chargers have a Monday-nighter next week that will end 16 hours before the trading deadline, that won't give interested parties much time to beat down Smith's door.

"From my blindside, Tom Cable threw me from my chair and into a piece of furniture ... He was screaming, 'I'll f------ kill you! I'll f------ kill you!' And I have no reason to believe he wouldn't have killed me if they hadn't pulled him away.''-- Raiders assistant coach Randy Hanson, to Yahoo! Sports' Michael Silver, in his first extensive public comments about what he claims was an attack on him by Raiders coach Tom Cable Aug. 4 at the Raiders' training camp hotel in Napa, Calif.

Excellent story by Silver, and explosive claims, obviously, by Hanson, if they are true. There will certainly be a wall of silence put up by the Raiders on this one, but if even half of what Hanson claims is true, there's no question the NFL will have to suspend Cable, and not just for one game. Because commissioner Roger Goodell has to put non-playing NFL employees on notice that he'll hold them to a higher standard under the Personal Conduct Policy, I expect if Cable is found culpable in the attack on Hanson that he'll get more than Steve Smith got last year in Carolina -- two games -- for punching out Ken Lucas. A charge like this, if confirmed, could be a career blackball for Cable in the NFL.

"Well, the weather's nice.''-- Oakland defensive lineman Richard Seymour,asked on a conference call with New York reporters last week, "How's Oakland?''

"People see what I do and forget who I am and they really don't know who I am. Working with kids is what I do. I have over 100 kids in the NFL -- I called them kids, but they're young adults -- that I text every morning, Monday through Friday.'' -- Deion Sanders, in an interview on NFL Network Sunday.

Sanders was an adviser to Michael Crabtree, the 49ers' first-round draft choice who had the longest holdout of any pick this year, and Sanders' statement that two teams were willing to pay Crabtree at least $40 million a year was part of the reason the 49ers filed tampering charges against the Jets. Then, Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant was suspended by the NCAA for lying about his relationship with Sanders.

First, it's dubious that NFL Network can have Sanders on the air commenting on anything relating to Crabtree when he's advising him. Second, there's no question Sanders is good on TV and makes good analytical points about all aspects of the game. The problem is, you don't know when you're listening to him who his sacred cows are, who he's training, who he's taken under his wing.

Is he over-praising Ray Lewis or Ed Reed because he's so tight with them? Or is he over-praising scores of other players because he's worked out with them or advised them or mentored them or exchanged texts with them before and after games?

Coach of the Week

Mike Zimmer, defensive coordinator, Cincinnati.

Coaching three days after his wife, Vikki, died, Zimmer went to battle on the road against the NFL's third-rated offense in both scoring and yardage. His troops played an inspired game, holding the Ravens to a season-low 257 yards and seven points. (Baltimore's defense scored the other seven.).

Zimmer had an agonizing decision to make -- whether to coach or not -- and the Bengals gave him the latitude to do whatever he wanted to do. And what he wanted to do was coach his defense. "Vikki loves you,'' Zimmer told his players in a halting voice after the 17-14 Cincinnati upset of the Ravens.

Offensive Players of the Week

Kyle Orton, QB, Denver.

As I said earlier, Orton is rapidly becoming to the Broncos what Brady was to New England when he took over for Bledsoe in 2001 -- an efficient player who does precisely what his game plan directs him to do. In his biggest Denver start to date, Orton, the anti-Cutler, completed 35 of 48 throws for 330 yards, with two touchdowns and an interception, and drove the Broncos to the tying touchdown in the last 10 minutes of the fourth quarter, and to the winning field goal on the first drive of overtime. Jay Who?

Miles Austin, WR, Dallas.

What does he do for an encore? In his first 41 NFL games, Austin totaled 23 catches for 435 yards. In his 42nd -- also his first NFL start -- Austin caught 10 passes for 250 yards in the Cowboys' 26-20 overtime victory at Kansas City. His 60-yard TD reception on second-and-16 midway through overtime, saved the Cowboys from having the most miserable bye week of the NFL season.

Roddy White, WR, Atlanta.

With 27 minutes left at San Francisco, White already had broken the Falcons' single-game record for receiving yards. His six-catch, 210-yard day was the best ever by an Atlanta player, and his 90-yard catch-and-run over ace Niner corner Nate Clements broke the game open in the first half.

Defensive Player of the Week

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB, Arizona.

With the Cards on the verge of blowing a 21-0 halftime lead, the Texans were driving near midfield in a 21-21 game with 2:30 left. Matt Schaub threw for Kevin Walter along the right side, a garden-variety out pattern Schaub has thrown hundreds of time -- and a route Rodgers-Cromartie has read hundreds of times. Rodgers-Cromartie picked it off at the Cards' 49 and high-stepped in for the winning touchdown. Arizona, 28-21 ... with a massive assist from Darnell Dockett and the middle of the Arizona defensive line, which held fast when Houston tried to bull-rush on fourth-and-goal from the 1.

Special Teams Player of the Week

Dave Zastudil, P, Cleveland.

Amazing a team can win, especially on the road, when its quarterback goes 2-of-17. The Browns beat Buffalo 6-3 in one of the all-time ugly NFL games because of Zastudil, and almost because of Zastudil alone. On nine punts, the Bills had seven return yards. Seven! With one of the best returners in football, Roscoe Parrish. Ladies and gentlemen, take note of this game, because it's one of the best a modern punter has had -- as significant as the game Mike Scifres had for San Diego in the playoffs last year against Indianapolis. Charting how Zastudil pinned the Bills back all day:

Average drive start for nine Buffalo drives on Zastudil's punts: Buffalo's 15-yard line.

1. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis. Every week he plays, he laps the field in the MVP race. I can't figure out a way, barring the Colts collapsing, that he doesn't win this award.

2. Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants. It's sort of cute to have the Mannings 1-2. I'll admit that. But in Eli's game performance against the Raiders, he had his fifth straight strong performance. His five passer ratings in the Giants' 5-0 start: 93.5, 110.6, 106.4, 104.0 and 158.3 (perfect against the Raiders -- eight of 10, 173 yards, two touchdown, no picks).

3. Darrelle Revis, CB, New York Jets. Well-documented. I love him. Shutdown machine.

4. (tie) Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota. Even on a relative off-day, Peterson's two touchdowns were a big key in the road win at woebegone St. Louis.

4. (tie) Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans. Off day. I think he'll break the two-game touchdownless streak Sunday against the Giants at the Superdome.

4. (tie) Kyle Orton, QB, Denver. New entry to the list. That's what happens when you're under one of the hottest spotlights in football, and you lead your team to a 5-0 start, and you've thrown one interception in 20 quarters.

When the Redskins take FedEx Field next Sunday against the Chiefs, it will be the sixth consecutive week they've played a winless team. The titanic schedule they've played thus far:

Week 1: vs. 0-0 Giants.Week 2: vs. 0-1 Rams.Week 3: vs. 0-2 Lions.Week 4: vs. 0-3 Bucs.Week 5: vs. 0-3 Panthers.Week 6: vs. 0-5 Chiefs.

The Giants, obviously, don't factor into the bad-teams-on-the-sked deal. But it's amazing how poorly this team has played, and still Washington has a chance to be 3-3 entering its home Monday night game against the Eagles on Oct. 26.

If Rush Limbaugh becomes part-owner of the St. Louis Rams -- which I'm told is not even close to happening right now -- he may want to do something about the organization's political leanings. According to politico.com, no NFL team in the past 20 years has donated more money to the Democratic Party than the Rams. Politico reported in September that the Rams had given $230,050 to the Democrats, or 98 percent of the franchise's total political donations. That would mean that in 20 years, the Rams have given about $4,600 to Republicans. That's not even enough for a 30-second spot on Limbaugh's national radio show.

Tried one of the low-cost carriers to and from Minneapolis for the Packers-Vikings game last Monday. They sure are friendly at Sun Country Airlines, and they fly big planes, and, though they pack 'em in like sardines, it's at least non-stop at a sub-$300 round-trip fare.

Eight hours after the Vikings pranced off the field with a 30-23 victory over Green Bay in the Brett Favre Revenge Bowl, I boarded the 6:50 a.m. flight from the mostly barren Humphrey Terminal at the Minneapolis Airport (the main terminal in Minneapolis is the Lindbergh Terminal, which is part-mall, part flying place) to Boston. The droll captain said this as the door to the 737 was sealed:

"Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for joining us on Sun Country for our 2-hour, 11-minute flight over to Boston this morning. Our route of flight will take us over Green Bay, where it appears tears are still falling, then over parts of Michigan, across Lake Erie, and on into New England.''

The agonizing wait is over! You can find my some-things-old, some-things-new "Monday Morning Quarterback,'' the book, online now or in stores this week. I've been teasing some of the content here in the past month, and this morning, I'll give you three of the Ten Things I Think I'd Do If I were Commissioner For a Day:

1. Give each team at least one possession in overtime. As I say in the book, I don't care if only 43 percent of the overtime games are won on the first possession by the team winning the coin toss. If the coin toss were so insignificant, why is it that only seven times since overtime was adopted in 1974 has the team that won the coin toss chosen to kickoff and play defense? There was another example Sunday. Tom Brady never came off the sidelines after New England lost the overtime coin flip. I wouldn't care if it was the other way around -- if New England had won the flip and Brady drove the length of the field to score with the Denver offense not getting on the field. It's unjust. Period.

2. Eliminate ties. Play OT clockless. Ties are stupid.

3. Care for indigent older players by starting The Mackey Fund. I told you about the disgrace of the bedrock players of the league, like former Baltimore tight end John Mackey, being treated so shabbily; Hall of Famer Leroy Kelly's NFL pension pays him $176 a month. I'd have owners give one-quarter of 1 percent of their gross revenues, with players giving one-quarter of 1 percent of their take. At least $35 million a year would be thrown into the pot for better care for the men who made this game as great as it is.

• One last note: In the book, I also pass along some of my greatest hits from past columns. Like this gem from my coverage on the day of the 1999 draft:

Indianapolis will rue the day it bypassed Ricky Williams for Edgerrin James. This is a dark day for the Colts franchise.

And that sort of peerless analysis is why I make the big bucks.

"Just because you are clueless doesn't mean everyone else is Peter. Is SI still in business?''--@mcuban, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, to me Saturday night at 10:52.

This little tempest occurred when I was asked on Twitter where the United Football League game between Florida and New York was being televised. I said it was on "HDNet, whatever that is.'' I had never heard of HDNet until seeing it was the outlet for Saturday's game. A flurry of tweets informed me it was Mark Cuban's channel. Cuban's amiable Tweet followed. Then I wrote two Tweets:

"Nice to meet you, Mark.''

"Never heard of HDNet till tonight. Sue me. I cover football, not television.''

Then Cuban accused me of being condescending to his channel. And so on. The Tweeters loved that. @Iluvcollinfultz wrote: "Oh, HELL YES! Old man Twitter catfight!! Ding, ding, ding!!'' And @PatIVERSON wrote: "Round 3! King sidesteps a Cuban punch, throws a body blow! Intense!''

Not really.

"Play nice, fellas,'' came in a while later, from @qbkilla, someone who always played nice. Warren Sapp.

1. I think these are my quick-hit thoughts of Week 5:

a. Weirdest sight of the opening United Football League weekend: Officials in blood-red shirts and black pants.

b. Second-weirdest sight: Simeon Rice sacking the quarterback. He's 33, and playing for the New York Sentinels. With team training headquarters in Florida, by the way. San Francisco and Las Vegas are headquartered in Casa Grande, a southern Arizona city about 20 miles north of Jackrabbit. I kid you not.

c. JaMarcus Russell has such terrible pocket awareness. It's like he's playing quarterback for the first time. He is so unaware of rushers around him -- like he has no peripheral vision. And quarterbacks are supposed to have clocks in their heads, telling them how long they can hold onto the ball. Russell's clock needs batteries. He is powerfully ill-equipped to be a starting NFL quarterback.

d. Mike Vrabel: 11 career catches, 11 touchdowns.

e. The Broncos uniforms were so ugly I actually like them.

f. The Patriots ought to wear those togs every single, solitary time they wear white. Gorgeous. Classy. And those helmets with the real Patriot snapping the ball ... fantastic. I remember getting one of those for Christmas

g. Bill Belichick has to be verrrrrry secure in his masculinity to wear that cheerleadery pompom ball on the top of his hat.

h. Every Cincinnati game this season has been decided in the final 60 seconds.

i. I don't care that Josh Johnson's stats (26 of 50, 240 yards, two touchdown, three picks) were pedestrian Sunday at Philadelphia. If you saw much of the game, which I did, you saw a bold quarterback with growing confidence. I'd start him not just one or two more weeks -- I'd give him the rest of the year.

j. I recall Peyton Manning telling me at training camp that he didn't want to get too excited yet, but he really liked what he saw in the rookie from BYU, Austin Collie. Sunday night in Tennessee, late in the first half, we saw why. On a skinny post, Collie weaved and broke a tackle and busted a 39-yard touchdown.

k. Every Sunday I do Peyton Manning a grave disservice by not naming him Player of the Week. Like last night ... 20 of 24 in the first half for 200 yards against a team that knows him intimately and was playing a playoff-type game. We're watching one of the great players in any sport in recent history right now.

l. Bad Day For Northeasterners Dept.: Within three hours Sunday, Jonathan Papelbon surrendered his first postseason runs and Brady lost his first overtime game ever. Sox lose. Pats lose. New York erupts in glee.

2. I think if you're a Chiefs' fan, you might want to skip this section. Kansas City refused to give Jared Allen a top-tier defensive end contract 18 months ago, instead shipping him to Minnesota for what appeared to be fair compensation three days before the 2008 draft. Here's how the deal looks today:

What the Chiefs got:

1st round (15th overall) Branden Albert, OT -- Starting LT has a chance to be good. In-and-out work ethic.

3rd round (73) Jamaal Charles, RB -- Change-of-pace back averaging five carries a game in 21 pro games.

3rd round (82) DaJuan Morgan, S -- Sub safety who still has to prove self to new coaching staff.

6th round (182) Kevin Robinson, WR -- Cut by Chiefs in '08.

What the Vikings got:

Jared Allen, DE -- The league's best all-around defensive end has 21 sacks and three safeties in 22 Viking games.

6th round (187) John Sullivan, C -- First-year starting center on one of NFL's best lines.

It's not certain, but it's possible that history will show that the Vikings got a more productive player at 187 (Sullivan) than the Chiefs got at 15 (Albert). Ouch.

3. I think Brady Quinn has played his last significant snaps for the Cleveland Browns. I believe Derek Anderson -- barring injury or an extremely bad stretch of football, even with his 2-of-17 performance Sunday in Buffalo -- will play the final 11 games of the season as an audition to see if the Browns will take their third first-round quarterback in 11 years next April. My hunch is that they will -- almost regardless of Anderson's performance -- unless there's such a good pass-rusher in the draft that Cleveland can't refuse.

4. I think the next new-stadium frontier for the league is in Minnesota, where the Vikings are getting restless after watching the state help the University of Minnesota build an on-campus football stadium and the Twins build a baseball stadium.

"After this season,'' owner/president Mark Wilf said the other day in Minneapolis, "we've got only 20 games left in the Metrodome on our lease. We're here at the bottom of the [revenue-producing] teams in football, and we've got to get moving toward a deal for a new stadium soon.''

Said a Viking source close to the stadium talks: "We're clearly headed for a crisis in Minnesota if our leadership sits back and does nothing.''

The Metrodome sits on the smallest footprint of any NFL stadium, contains only 200 club seats, has one traffic-clogged narrow concourse for the entire stadium, and 28 NFL cities have gotten a new venue in the last 20 years. Minnesota and the three California teams have not. At this point there have been no substantive talks between the state and the Wilfs, who plan to contribute about a third of the costs for the new stadium.

It's too early to start using Los Angeles as a stalking horse, but the L.A. stadium issue will be resolved in the next two weeks, and there's no question prospective L.A. owner Ed Roski will go aggressively after each of the league's wavering franchises, perhaps as soon as after this season.

5. I think this is what you need to know about coaching situations this morning:

a. Dick Jauron would need a miracle to keep his job in Buffalo, but know this about Ralph Wilson: He has not made an in-season firing of a coach since Hank Bullough 23 years ago. Wilson kept Gregg Williams to the bitter end of a 6-10 season in 2003, Mike Mularkey to the end of a 5-11 season in 2005.

This team is awful, but would Perry Fewell or Bobby April be suitable interim guys for the last couple of months? I don't see Wilson doing it, but he's got to be near despondent over how horribly wrong things have gone since a spirited opening night performance at Foxboro.

b. Mike Shanahan, as I said on NBC last night, is not going to coach the Redskins -- or anyone else -- this year. He'll keep his options open and get married to some team after the season. I don't doubt Washington owner Dan Snyder and Shanahan have talked, as FOXSports' John Czarnecki reported this weekend; but it would be folly to go in during the season for a few reasons.

The current staff wouldn't be loyal to Shanahan because they'd know he has his own guys in mind, like defensive coordinator Bob Slowik. And how would he call the offense, which is designed and coached by Jim Zorn? It's impractical to suggest that a new coach could implement a new system during the season.

c. Coaches other than Zorn and Jauron with futures in hand over next two months: Norv Turner, John Fox, Wade Phillips, Gary Kubiak ... and others TBA, depending on the big slumpers over the last two-plus months.

d. I don't see how Tom Cable makes it to the 2010 season. He may not make it to January.

6. I think this is what I liked about Week 5:

a. Loved the Chiefs' Texans helmet. Strange, of course, with a map of Texas on the side of helmets the day they play a Texas team, but good helmets nonetheless.

b. Finally: DeMarcus Ware's first sack of 2009 -- after 20 in '08 -- came in the 31st minute of the fifth game.

c. Matt Hasselbeck. I've said it before and will again: If he stays upright, Seattle contends for the playoffs. In the two full games he's played, Seattle has won 28-0 and 41-0, over St. Louis and Jacksonville. His four-touchdown strafing of the Jags Sunday at home gave Seattle a chance to be .500 at the bye in two weeks, with Arizona coming to Qwest Sunday. Now that Hasselbeck's gotten T.J. Houshmandzadeh (two TDs Sunday) into the act, I expect the next man up will be either John Carlson or Deon Butler, both of whom need to be targeted more to make the Seattle passing game unpredictable.

d. Defenses keep challenging Adrian Peterson by clogging the box. Favre keeps completing 70 percent.

e. When the Broncos came after Brady, he kept going to Wes Welker -- 15 times. That's 12 more chances for Welker than Randy Moss.

f. Brian Dawkins is playing great for Denver. What a signing by Josh McDaniels and GM Brian Xanders.

g. I've criticized Julius Peppers enough, so I must credit him for a strong game against Washington -- four tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble. For the Panthers to have a chance to climb back into the playoff picture, Peppers has to turnstile a few more tackles.

h. Rashard Mendenhall, you're making Mike Tomlin's job tough. With 242 yards and a 5.5-yard average carry the last two weeks by the second-year back, what's Tomlin going to do when Willie Parker returns from his turf toe?

i. The Lions are not terrible. They compete.

j. Ed Reed bluffs quarterbacks so well he ought to sell a patent for it.

k. Tony Romo threw for 351 with no turnovers and took only one sack ... without Terrell Owens and Roy Williams. He threw for Miles Austin, Patrick Crayton and Sam Hurd 25 times and netted 304 passing yards from those throws. What's that say to you? Says it's a blue-collar game to me.

7. I think this is what I didn't like about Week 5:

a. Chad, Chad, Chad. You can't let Ed Reed punch the ball away from you like that, Ocho.

b. Albert Haynesworth on the ground again, hurt. Just what has Washington bought with its $50 million investment in him?

c. Sam Hurd, you have to catch that ball in the end zone. Have to. With Dallas down 10-0 late in the first half, Romo threw one in the end zone behind Hurd but right in his hands -- and it threw flew through both hands.

d. The Dallas punt-return game is a disaster. Either they can't catch the punt (Patrick Crayton) or they unwisely let the ball bounce inside the 10 instead of catching it around the 20 (Terence Newman).

e. Patriots 27 carries. Laurence Maroney five. Wall, meeting handwriting.

f. Rams: 400 yards, 27 first downs ... and four fumbles. Ridiculous.

g. Chris Berman said this Sunday morning, and it's still true: Darrius Heyward-Bey has more names (three) than catches (two).

h. Don't celebrate too much, Cowboys. That was one shaky win against a bad team.

i. Burger King: You're not serious about that Cowboys video on the FOX pregame show, are you? That's the bad taste of the year spot, without question. It must be on YouTube. Try "Crass Jessica Simpson Defamatory'' in the keyword line and see what you come up with. Or click here.

j. Magic's over, Kerry Collins. It's Vince Young's turn.

8. I think the moral of the story on the Michael Crabtree contract breakdown shows pretty clearly he didn't get anywhere near the money of the player picked seventh overall,Darrius Heyward-Bey, who unwittingly helped cause this ridiculous work stoppage. There was no question DHB getting picked seventh rankled the Crabtree camp. And when Heyward-Bey got a five-year deal worth $38.25 million, with $23.5 million guaranteed, that was the golden goose Crabtree wanted. What he got was a six-year deal (more onerous for the player) with $17 million guaranteed for a total of $28 million over the first five years, monstrously lower than Heyward-Bay's five-year payout.

The guarantees for the two players picked ahead of Crabtree -- Jacksonville's Eugene Monroe and Green Bay's B.J. Raji -- were for five-year deals, and both got more. Monroe got $18.9 million, Raji $17.7 million. Now, if Monroe, Raji and Crabtree play five good years with their teams and earn similar incentives, all will make close to $28 million, so in that way, Crabtree's deal is a good one compared to those around him. But the fact is, the 49ers would have done something very close to this contract in August. The deal is a big jump over last year's 10th pick, Jerod Mayo, but that same jump could have been had two months ago.

The net gain for this holdout? There is none. Crabtree didn't come close to Heyward-Bey. He ended up missing the first six weeks of the season. If I were advising him, I'd tell him to go to the 2010 NFL Rookie Symposium and make a speech to next year's crop of newbies entitled: "Don't Make the Same Dumb Mistake I Did.''

9. I think ESPN has a good chance to make ratings hay right now, and for the rest of the season. The Brett Favre game last week was the highest-rated cable-TV show in history. With the exception of Baltimore-Cleveland and Tennessee-Houston, the Monday night slate in Week 8 and beyond is strong and includes Atlanta-New Orleans, Pittsburgh-Denver, New England-New Orleans, Baltimore-Green Bay (Dec. 7 in the tundra), Arizona-San Francisco and Minnesota-Chicago. This could turn out to be the deepest schedule ESPN has had in the four years since going to Monday night.

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

a. I demand to know why the volume on some television commercials is 30 percent higher than the volume on the regular program. And if I find out it's anything like the sponsors pay more money to get their volume raised, I vow to never buy that advertisers product again.

b. Mike Scioscia understands the moment, which is one of the big reasons the Angels swept the Red Sox. Game 2, bottom of the seventh inning, no outs, 1-1 tie, cleanup hitter Vlad "The Impaler'' Guerrero walks, and out jogs Howie Kendrick ... to run for Guerrero. Now, immediately go to Baseball-Reference.com and look up Howie Kendrick, because I never remember him being a runner. Sure enough, 11 steals this year, four times caught. Marginal speed. And yet I know what Scioscia is doing here. He's going to try to steal a run, then mix-and-match two or three relievers to get the final six outs.

Kendrick tries to steal twice while the next batter is up, but the ball is fouled off. Then he goes on the first pitch to Juan Rivera and steals. With two out, Maicer Izturis grounds a single up the middle. Angels, 2-1. I like that Scioscia plays desperate like that. Terry Francona's a very good manager. But would he run for David Ortiz in a tie game in the seventh inning of a playoff game? No. Sometimes, as Scioscia does, you have to break the mold.

c. Coffeenerdness: Earlier this morning, 2:06 a.m. Because my hotel coffee stinks out loud, I get my coffee on the outside. (Sound familiar, Mr. Seinfeld?) Tonight, on the walk back from NBC's studios, I stopped at a midtown deli in need of some caffeine. But not wanting to risk the coffee, not knowing how long it'd been in the urn, I got an Illy Issimo cold cappuccino -- 8.4 ounces of (I hope) two shots of espresso and lowfat milk and cocoa. I'll need it an hour from now. The early results are encouraging. That is, I'm not drooling on the keyboard.

d. I wasn't sure it would be possible for the Pam/Jim wedding episode of The Office to be better than I thought, because it was a much-anticipated show. But it was a superb hour of television. I won't spoil it for you, other than to say the real wedding couldn't have been better or smarter, Dwight has a tremendous line about a dental hygienist, Kevin looks good in a toupee and Andy is a godsend to the show.

e. Yes, I am officially the last person on earth to have figured out the Seinfeld stuff on Curb Your Enthusiasm was to be the recurring theme of the season.

f. Jevan Snead. Remember that name? Quarterback from Ole Miss who was supposed to compete with Colt McCoy and Sam Bradford at the top 10 of the 2010 draft. Supposed to are the operative words this morning after Snead threw four picks and completed 11 of 35 against Alabama. After a mediocre first half of 2009 by Snead, now I wonder if he'll be a top-20 pick.

One of the things I like about Rex Ryan? The Jets deal for Braylon Edwards at 8:30 in the morning, and Ryan's first public pronouncement on Edwards at noon that day is that he'll be starting immediately. For the Jets' sake, I wish Edwards would have a healthy Jerricho Cotchery (hamstring) on the other side tonight. I'm counting on Ronnie Brown and Pat White to pick up the slack from Chad Henne, starting his second NFL game against the multiple defenses Ryan will throw at him. Miami 20, New York Jets 17.

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