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NEW YORK -- Much of the past week I've spent researching and writing a Peyton Manning story for Sports Illustrated's NFL midseason report, which you'll see this week. I'll get to the games of the day and issues of the week in a few paragraphs -- particularly the Cowboys growing up before our eyes last night in Philly, the mayhem around the Browns and the five biggest stories of 2009's First Half -- but I want to open with this year's installment of November madness, the New England-Indianapolis series. The Pats and Colts play Sunday night in Indianapolis, and even though the two teams will spend today tightly battening down the hatches so their all-important "focus'' isn't disturbed, let me do the honors.
I officially declare Patriots-Colts Hype Week kicked off.
November Sweeps Factoid of the Week: This is the fifth straight year the Colts and Pats have met in the first half of November.
More than all other games, New England-Indy is the game TV loves. This will be the seventh straight year the Colts and Patriots have faced off, and each has been a Super Bowl contender every time they've met. Since the start of the 2003 season, the Colts and Patriots sit atop the NFL with identical 83-21 regular-season records. In the six previous seasons, they've made the playoffs a total of 11 times, and the only time one didn't is last year, when the Patriots lost Tom Brady eight minutes into the season and still finished 11-5, losing the AFC East on a playoff tiebreaker with Miami.
The Peyton vs. Tom angle is always good, and that'll be played up all week. Both survived 2008 knee injuries and are playing superbly again. But in preparing the Manning story, I got this from Qadry Ismail, the former receiver (he played one year for the Colts, 2002, before retiring with a neck injury) who was one of a few people I reached to try to dissect why Manning was playing so well with a new cast of characters this year. Ismail's delightfully opinionated, and the matchup he loves in this game is Manning-Belichick, not Manning-Brady.
"Peyton Manning and Bill Belichick are twins from another lifetime,'' Ismail said. "They both have the same mom and dad. [Writer's Note: That would surprise Archie and Olivia Manning, and Jeannette Belichick.] When I read about Belichick's life, it's Peyton to a T. No matter who you put around Peyton with the Colts, the beat goes on. No matter who you put on Belichick's team, the beat goes on. They don't allow anything to interfere with winning.''
It's an interesting comparison. Belichick grew up idolizing the football team -- particularly Roger Staubach -- at the Naval Academy, where his dad, Steve, coached. Manning grew up idolizing his dad, the quarterback of the Saints. Both hung around the game from age 6 on, Belichick riding to the Baltimore airport with his dad to pick up game films when they arrived from next week's opponent, then watching them with the team when his dad allowed. Manning watched film at home in New Orleans when his dad brought his work home. Not much has changed. In training camp this year, former Patriots DB Ellis Hobbs told me it wasn't rare for Belichick to call him into his office and put on tape of the receiver he'd be facing that week, then sit there watching the player's tendencies for 45 minutes. In Indianapolis last week, I learned rookie receiver Austin Collie and Manning sit together every Thursday, alone, to watch video, apart from the endless meetings where the team and positions groups watch game and practice tape.
"I can never repay him for what he taught me about football,'' Hobbs said of Belichick.
"I'm getting a football education from Peyton,'' Collie said of Manning.
Both will be in full CIA mode for this one. Belichick always is. Manning's usually a great storyteller, but he zipped it pretty tight last week, amiably declining my request for a one-on-one. We spent five minutes after his weekly media scrum at his locker Wednesday, and these were the only things I learned: He wears a Timex digital watch with a Gatorade logo that's set 11 minutes ahead of real time; and he has a ridiculously vivid memory of everything he's ever done in this game. He remembers the formation, the cornerback and the play from Ismail's first touchdown in the 2002 season-opener. He's like one of those golfers who can recite hole-by-hole club selection and shot distance in his sleep.
I actually didn't mind Manning not talking. He's so good and vivid and descriptive that you can become entranced by his words and stories. In this story, I could tell what I wanted to tell about his adjustment to life without so many familiar pieces from the angles and stories of others both in his life and formerly in it.
In the editing process, one of the stories was lost. I wanted to share it with you. It has to do with Manning's refusal to be second at anything. Or at least his distaste for second place. Here goes:
Most who know Manning talk about his competitiveness. Tony Dungy said he thought when Manning agreed to host Saturday Night Live after the Colts won the Super Bowl, he wouldn't take it as an all-expense-paid vacation week in New York. It'd be a work week. "He'd want to be the best host they ever had,'' said Dungy.
"The first day, Monday, you could tell how much it mattered to him,'' said Seth Meyers, a nine-year vet on the show. "He came in with a big binder with color-coded tabs, and he'd take notes on everything. Even though we'd pass out script changes as the week went on, he'd be taking notes about all the changes.''
One of Manning's skits was a faux NFL/United Way commercial. Manning and a bunch of 8- to 13-year-old kids lined up for a pickup game on a Manhattan field, Manning being the NFL hero, the kids being the starstruck kids. Manning played the game like they were NFL players, whipping the ball like Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne were his wideouts. When an 11-ish-year-old boy got nailed in the back with a pass, Manning looked totally disgusted and stared the kid down. "All right, back in here, let's go ... except you. I can't even look at you. Go sit in the port-o-let for 20 minutes. Stay in there!''
The kid went into the portable toilet on the side of the field, then peeked out. Manning yelled, "WHY IS THAT DOOR OPEN! Close the door!''
The cast on hand couldn't believe it. The portable toilet wasn't even a part of the skit. Manning changed the play at the thespian line of scrimmage. "Totally unscripted,'' Meyers said. "Hilarious. It was an excellent example of how he sees the field. Off the top of his head, he just improvised.''
Improvise. Now there's a word you'd better know if you play receiver for the Colts.
I go on to write about how no route is ever set in stone with the Colts, and why it's so hard to play receiver there. I think I've gotten beneath the surface of the closed city of Manning a bit, but I'll let you be the judge of that. Hope you like the story a tenth as much as you like Colts-Pats on Sunday.
The Broncos and Saints might have shown human sides the past three weeks, but they're the best team stories of the first half of the season.
The Colts are good. Cleveland stinks. Oakland's lost. So what else is new? A lot, actually. Big stories of the NFL's first half:
1. Josh McDaniels wasn't crazy for dumping Jay Cutler. Denver sped to a 6-0 start and sits atop the AFC West even though McDaniels dealt a franchise QB, Cutler, for a marginal one, Kyle Orton, in April. "No one will care if we win,'' the Kid Coach said then. He's been proven right.
2. New Orleans isn't kidding around. With the best offensive free-agent in history, Drew Brees, you knew the Saints would score. What you didn't know is that Gregg Williams -- hired after coach Sean Payton gave up $250,000 of his own salary to help pay him -- would build a top-10 defense. New Orleans has beaten three big, bad playoff contenders from the East (Jets, Eagles, Giants) by an average of 20 points. I like what the 8-0 Saints have shown the past three weeks, rebounding from a 24-3 deficit in Miami and a 14-0 deficit against Carolina, sandwiching a back-and-forth Monday-nighter with Atlanta. They're close to the pack, but I still call the Saints the best team in football. They can beat you too many ways.
3. Parity's dead. For now anyway. After eight weeks, six teams had one win or less. The Bucs finished ahead of the Saints each of the past two years, but they're seven games apart in the standings now. The reason for the bottom-feeding: Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Kansas City, St. Louis and Detroit ripped up their organizations, and rosters, after last year and started from scratch. Those five teams are 5-35.
4. Brett Favre's alive. Daughter Breleigh was fit to be tied when Favre told her in late July he was staying retired, and, truth be told, Favre was in full waffling mode for much of August until Minnesota coach Brad Childress called and said it's now or never. Favre unretired for the second straight year. Good call. Vikes are 7-1, have swept Green Bay decisively, and Favre has a 16-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio, the best at midseason in his 19-year career.
5. The Browns, again, are adrift on Lake Erie. Having lost his director of football operations, Erin O'Brien, and hand-picked rookie GM, George Kokinis, both under mysterious circumstances near midseason, coach Eric Mangini now awaits the hiring of a Cleveland football czar to determine his fate. Hope he's renting. The 2-14 expansion Browns of 1999 had significantly more promise than this team.
Which leads us to ...
Cleveland is looking for another solution.
On Saturday at NBC, I reported Cleveland owner Randy Lerner has spoken with, or will speak with, former Super Bowl-team architects and/or coaches Ron Wolf, Mike Holmgren and Ernie Accorsi about the football czar position he hopes to fill to set his organization on a better path. Translation: He wants someone with a great résumé to be a helping hand for Mangini -- and, depending how the rest of the year goes, to perhaps be the one who tells Lerner, "You've got to fire this guy and start over. Again.''
I believe Lerner still has faith in Mangini, but that the faith has been shaken by the work environment in the building that would cause two of the people Mangini trusts most in the world, O'Brien and Kokinis, to be vanquished by midseason of their first year together in Cleveland. I think nothing would make Lerner happier than to hire Holmgren, hand him a five-year GM contract, and finally believe he's put the right man in place to steer the team out of its Washington Nationals-type funk.
There's no question a new boss is needed. For too long, this team has made knee-jerk financial decision that will haunt Lerner's bottom line for year. He's on the hook to Romeo Crennel and Phil Savage for $21 million, which you know if you've followed this story. But what you don't know is the three-year, $6-million extension the team handed offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski late in Crennel's tenure. That's the reason Lerner needs a Holmgren (or an Accorsi or Wolf). If someone in the office mentioned handing a hard-working but unproven coordinator $2 mill a year, Holmgren would say one of two things: "Hey, I'll do it for $2 million a year,'' or "Are you out of your mind?''
Lerner wants the new man on board very soon so he could make an educated recommendation about Mangini's fate soon after the season. One of the reasons there's a little pressure on the Mangini decision is that the team will likely be in the market for a quarterback in the April draft. It'd be silly to have Mangini make the pick, unless Lerner was certain Mangini was his man to lead the team into the future.
And if Mangini goes, that would bring to at least $35-million the amount of money Lerner would be paying people to not work for the Browns. This team needs a life-preserver in the worst way.
That was a potentially (and I stress "potentially'') season-altering win for Dallas last night.
I think the smartest thing the Cowboys did in the offseason was jettison Terrell Owens. It has allowed Tony Romo to concentrate on only one thing when he drops back to pass -- hitting the open man, rather than making sure T.O.'s happy. And Miles Austin sure has been open a lot in the past month, even if it happened only one time in Philadelphia.
About an hour after Dallas' first significant road win since one at Lambeau Field 14 months ago, Romo said over the cell phone, "Shock you a little bit?''
Yes, a little. Holding an explosive Philly team to 16 points is a surprise. Winning at the Linc 10 or so months after losing there by 38 is a surprise. And playing clutch football on both sides of the ball in the fourth quarter of a big game is a surprise.
A few minutes after Cris Collinsworth astutely said on the game telecast that Romo hadn't found shooting star Austin yet, Dallas lined up for a play at the Eagles' 49 midway through the fourth quarter in a 13-13 game. Austin was split left, with cornerback Sheldon Brown playing off the line opposite him. "At that time of the game, you've played a lot of plays, and you've seen things in their defense, and you're just trying to react and put your team in the best position to make a play,'' Romo said. Translation: Austin is quick, and Brown could be sold on a double-move (basically, the old sandlot stop-and-go), and so Romo called it. "I tried to sell it with my eyes a little bit. You have to believe in your guy to get open, and I really believe in Miles.''
Austin sprinted, slowed and before he could sprint again, Brown jumped the route and Romo threw a soft spiral over him right into the hands of Austin.
"It's weird,'' Austin said. "I lost it in the lights for a minute, but when it came down, I saw it and caught it. I felt someone behind me but I thought I could score.'' He did.
I asked Austin, after all of his recent success, if he was getting a little testy out there, not catching a ball in the first 50 minutes of a big game. And what he said is why the Cowboys like the kid so much.
"Well, there's times when I think I'm open, and I wish I'd get the ball,'' he said. "But I'm not Tony. And I have no idea what he's going through back there. Usually he's got some 300-pound guy back there chasing him, trying to rip his head off. So no, I don't get too upset by that. Right now, we've got a good thing going. Guys are making plays when they're called.''
Someone send that quote to Owens.
"Each guy doesn't have to do anything but his best,'' Romo said. "That'll be good enough for us to make the plays we need.''
There's a lot of football to play, and it's too early to say anything about Dallas except that it's in first place, alone, in the NFC East, and nobody but Bum Phillips thought that'd happen this late in the season. The Cowboys don't have a killer schedule. They might be good enough to spoil the Favre-Brees NFC Championship Game.
Upon further review, the unrestricted free-agency list is not so bad.
I wrote a few weeks ago that the UFA class of 2010 would be horrible, because it wouldn't include unsigned fourth- and fifth-year vets if the league and union don't have a new CBA done by March. But because of the rise of players like Aubrayo Franklin and the promise of interesting prospects like Brian St. Pierre, the list looks a little better now. Not good, but not as bad as it looked on Labor Day.
1. Vince Wilfork, NT, New England. With more teams valuing 3-4 tackles, Wilfork will be in demand.
2. Karlos Dansby, MLB, Arizona. Watch his 2008 postseason and you'll see he's going to be well-paid.
3. Julius Peppers, DE, Carolina. He woke up about three weeks ago. He's ridiculously talented, obviously. Question is, who's going to pay $12 million a year or so for Peppers, knowing they have absolutely no idea what kind of production he'll give?
4. Aubrayo Franklin, NT, San Francisco. The best run-stopper you've never heard of, and he won't cost what Wilfork will get.
5. Kevin Walter, WR, Houston. Productive, smart and willing to play any role, outside or slot.
6. Ryan Pickett, NT, Green Bay. Three nose men in the top six. Dr. Z would be so proud of me.
7. Ryan Clark, FS, Pittsburgh. Underrated soul of the Steelers defense, but he's absorbed lots of hard hits.
8. Aaron Kampman, OLB/DE, Green Bay. I get the feeling he wants to put on a few pounds and go back to end, which he feels is his home.
9. Antonio Bryant, WR, Tampa Bay. I'd like to see him stay healthy and attitude-free.
10. Justin Bannan, DT, Baltimore. Someone will probably pay this Baltimore role-player too much, but if you surround him with good penetrators, he'll help.
11. Darren Sharper, FS, New Orleans. Normally, I'd say a 34-year-old player (his birthday was last Wednesday) should be avoided in free agency. But the age rules don't apply to Sharper, Ray Lewis and Jack LaLanne.
12. Brian St. Pierre, QB, Arizona. Someone might see him as 2010's Matt Cassel and go buy him for a fifth of the cost.
13. Ben Watson, TE, New England. Patriots never seemed to warm to him. Maybe another team will.
14. Roy Williams, S, Cincinnati. Career rehab is going just fine, but he's not going to be the big star he was for a couple of years in Dallas.
15. Chad Pennington, QB, Miami. I might be wrong. I think if I were running Cleveland, or some team looking to develop a rookie quarterback next year, I'd pay Pennington $4 million to play for a season, hold the fort, and teach the kid how to be a professional.
1. New Orleans (8-0). Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams thanks his lucky stars the StarCaps case didn't rob him of defensive end Will Smith. Two sacks for Smith in the 30-20 win over Carolina as the Saints improved to 8-0 for the first time in franchise history.
2. Indianapolis (8-0). Dates of the last five Pats-Colts games as the November sweeps continue to dictate the scheduling of this big game: Nov. 7, 2005; Nov. 5, 2006; Nov. 4, 2007; Nov. 2, 2008; Nov. 15, 2009.
3. Minnesota (7-1). Good week for a bye, and for rest for Brett Favre's groin.
4. Denver (6-1). I like the Ty Law signing, even if he has very little left. He's been there before in big games and won't be cowed by getting a little physical with the Hines Wards of the NFL in the next eight weeks.
5. Pittsburgh (5-2). Don't play, Ryan Clark.
6. New England (6-2).Randy Moss, that was one of the best straight-arms in the history of straight-arming. And for you who need to know the rule about helmet-touching, the only player who can't have his helmet touched is the quarterback. So as long as the straight-armer doesn't grab or twist the facemask, it's legal.
7. Dallas (6-2). I thought long and hard about putting Jay Ratliff on my Midseason All-Pro Team, and I'm even more of a Ratliff guy after watching last night. Two sacks, five tackles, constant disruption. That's a franchise defensive tackle, even if he doesn't have the pedigree.
8. Cincinnati (6-2). OK, OK, Bengals fans. I give up. I acknowledge your greatness. Well, at least your very-goodness. The thing that impressed me watching Cincinnati's relatively easy victory: 44 total yards by the Ravens in the first half and just 215 in four quarters. "Not the same old Bengals,'' Chad Ochocinco told me after the game. Apparently not.
9. Philadelphia (5-3). How amazing it is, the difference DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin make in the Eagle attack. In the 11 years Andy Reid has coached this team, they have to be the best fast/quick receiver twosome he's had.
10. Arizona (5-3). For a team that's been terrible on the road, the Cards have climbed high by being 4-0 away from home this season (defeating Jacksonville, Seattle, Giants, Chicago).
11. San Diego (5-3). You won't be surprised to learn that Vincent Jackson is one of the two wide receivers on my SI midseason All-Pro team, at a newsstand or mailbox near you Wednesday.
12. Atlanta (5-3).Michael Turner has to be one of the top 10 free-agent signings of this decade. Through eight games in '09, he has 10 rushing touchdowns and a 4.9-yard average carry, following up on his superb output last year.
13. Houston (5-4). I agree with Tony Dungy. There's just something missing here. There's a reason good teams win and why some teams continually knock on the door of goodness. Not running the play that would have prevented the challenge that overturned the Ryan Moats fumble, missing the 42-yard field goal at the gun, all the stupid penalties. The Texans have to play smarter to be better than the Colts.
14. Carolina (3-5). In the last eight days, they won in Arizona and -- some say -- should have won at New Orleans.
15. Baltimore (4-4). Here by default. If Chicago, Green Bay, San Francisco or Miami had won Sunday, the Ravens would be on the outside of this prestigious poll of greatness.
"Josh is well ahead of where I thought he'd be. He will decide what we become as a team. He is our future.'' --Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris, after the first start of first-round pick Josh Freeman's NFL career resulted in a 38-28 upset of the Packers at Raymond James Stadium.
"I think a darkhorse is Buffalo. They talked originally. There was some communication there. I think that could be a good spot.''-- Tony Dungy of NBC's Football Night in America, asked about possible 2010 landing spots for a player he is advising, Michael Vick.
"I felt for me it was either the Chargers or the Steelers. That's just the way I felt. If it didn't work out with San Diego and I ended up with Pittsburgh, I think Ben [Roethlisberger] may have ended up in New York had Eli been in San Diego. So when the Giants took me, I was told by my agent that something was probably up, and I had already kind of figured it. But at the same time, he said if this doesn't shake down, the Giants seem to be OK if they end up having to keep you. So anyway, it was a crazy 30 minutes. And I also knew right away that something was up. Usually the 4th pick of the draft -- you talk to somebody on the team that takes you. I still haven't spoken to one soul from the Giants.''--San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers, via sportsradiointerviews.com, on XX Sports Radio 1090 in San Diego, talking about the 2004 trade that sent him from the Giants to the Chargers on draft day.
Offensive Player of the Week
Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego.
Pedestrian stats (24 of 36, 209 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions), but it all came down to the final 2:05 for Rivers. Quarterbacks are judged on what they do in the clutch, and Rivers is in this space because he came through in said clutch time at Giants Stadium. New York leading 20-14, Charger ball at their 20, 2:05 to play. He moved the Chargers downfield steadily, never getting to third down, until the ball lay at the Giants' 18 with 29 seconds left. "That's where you need to have poise,'' Norv Turner said afterward. And a good arm. Rivers lofted a perfect fade into the right corner of the end zone to Vincent Jackson and the Chargers left town victorious.
Defensive Players of the Week
Dwight Freeney, DE, Indianapolis.
Freeney's never been better. Dating to Week 17 last year, he's had sacks in nine consecutive regular-season games. On the first Houston offensive snap Sunday, he roared around left tackle Duane Brown for a three-yard sack. In the second quarter, with Houston trying to convert a third down and make the game remotely competitive, Freeney bull-rushed Brown despite being 65 pounds lighter -- and met Robert Mathis at the quarterback for a combo-sack. For the game, Freeney had two tackles and 1.5 sacks.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Clifton Smith, RB/KR, Tampa Bay.
Great to see Smith, waylaid on the cheap shot by Carolina's Dante Wesley last month, back in action ... and helping previously winless Tampa Bay stun the Packers. With Green Bay up 28-17 early in the fourth quarter, Smith took the kickoff at the goal line and rambled 83 yards, setting up a Josh Freeman touchdown pass. That led to two more fourth-quarter touchdowns and a 38-28 win. For the day, he added a 24-yard kick return and four punt returns for 54 yards.
Coach of the Week
Mike Heimerdinger, offensive coordinator, Tennessee.
No one had much faith in Vince Young to jump-start his career when Jeff Fisher officially benched Kerry Collins 11 days ago. The job to remake Young fell to Heimerdinger, and he did the smart thing. He had Young throw mostly safe passes in his first two games, safe enough that he's completed 73 percent of his throws, with some help from the acrobatic Justin Gage along the way. As long as Young plays turnover-free, the Titans have a chance each week. Heimerdinger's teaching and planning the past two weeks have been vital in making the Titans competitive again.
Goat of the Week
Tommie Harris, DT, Chicago.
Harris is a pal from our trip to Afghanistan a year and a half ago, but there's no excuse for the stunt he pulled 64 seconds into the Cards-Bears game. Angry at a perceived cheap shot by the Cards, Harris reared back and slugged Arizona guard Deuce Lutui. If you're Lovie Smith, you have to do something internally to discipline Harris for putting the team in such a terrible spot so early in a must game. "Tommie Harris has to be smarter than that,'' Smith said.
I don't like removing Jared Allen, because he didn't play this week and did nothing to fall out of the top five. And I hate having quarterbacks in each spot. But I wanted to get Tom Brady in here because he's back to looking like the 2007 Brady.
1. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis. It's a simple argument to me, Manning over Brees. Manning's playing with a bottom-five rushing game and, to survive, has to win the game offensively mostly by his arm. Drew Brees has a top-five running game. Even if they were flat equal -- and they are very close in all aspects -- the fact is Manning's value is magnified because of the lack of a running game.
2. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans. It was good to see the Saints rebound from some real adversity in the win over Carolina, coming back from a 14-0 deficit, and Brees' 330 passing yards played a big role in it.
3. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh. Five years ago, the Steelers were 60 percent run. This year they might be 60 percent pass. It's all because Roethlisberger has earned Mike Tomlin's trust.
4. Brett Favre, QB, Minnesota. It'll be interesting to see if the groin injury that Favre suffered 12 days ago and aggravated eight days ago is going to be a recurring factor as the 40-year-old QB tries to make it through the final eight weeks of the regular season.
5. Tom Brady, QB, New England. If Brady threw for 4,700 yards, 32 touchdowns and completed 66 percent of his throws for the year, we'd all say his comeback season was more than a success, right? Well, he's halfway there.
Arizona, the most explosive team in the 2008 playoffs, has two gains of more than 27 yards in 2009.
Very Bad News for Giants Fans Dept.: No teams has ever lost four games in a row in the regular season and gone on to win the Super Bowl.
First, a quote.
"I kind of laugh when I hear the video board isn't going to be a big factor. It's going to get peppered all season.''-- Former Tennessee punter A.J. Trapasso after nailing the 165-foot-wide video board hanging 90 feet above the field at the new Dallas stadium in an August preseason game.
The Cowboys have played five games since -- one in the preseason and four in the regular season. Total punts in the five games: 48. Punts that have peppered the videoboard: zero.
You can now say you told us so, Jerry Jones.
Boarding a flight from Denver to Phoenix last Tuesday, I was in the aisle walking toward the back of the plane. The aisle was full. The plane was going to be full, and it was probably half-boarded.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we are ready for immediate departure,'' the flight attendant said, with a bit of urgency. This was a 6 a.m. flight, and now it was about 5:40. "Please take your seats as soon as possible so we can depart.''
About three minutes late, I got to my seat, was putting away my carryon, and the aisle was still full, with a line of maybe 30 people still making if to their seats.
"Ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats so we can be ready for an on-time departure,'' she said, more urgently now.
How should we get there, ma'am? By levitating?
It wasn't even 5:45 now. We weren't leaving the gate, minimum, for 15 minutes. And this women was talking like there was a fire onboard and we had to scram or we'd all be cooked. And it wasn't even 6 in the morning, no less. Now that's a good time in the friendly skies right there.
New England left tackle Matt Light has a foundation, as many players do. The Light Foundation strives to instill honesty and responsibility in young people through outdoor learning experiences that include an outdoor leadership camp and a character-development football camp. He's opened his Outdoor Leadership Camp on several hundred acres in Ohio, and he's trying to raise money to bring at-risk and underprivileged teens from New England, Ohio and the West to the camp. I told him I'd help if I could.
What we're going to do is have lunch at Davio's in Foxboro, just outside Gillette Stadium, on Friday, Dec. 11. We're going to open it to the first 10 people willing to donate $1,000 to the Light Foundation. If you're interested, contact Light's representative, Margrette Mondillo, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll hang out that Friday for a couple of hours. Light will tell you every one of the deep, dark Patriot secrets. I won't tell you much, but I'll be there for comic relief.
A reminder (have I reminded you enough how to buy Monday Morning Quarterback: A fully caffeinatedguide to everything you need to know about the NFL yet?) that I have a special deal going with my book.
You can buy the book on Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com or at borders.com, or at your local bookstore. If you live anywhere in North America, you can mail it to me, and I'll sign and/or personalize it and return it, postage-paid. Send by Dec. 4, and I'll mail it back to you by Dec. 12. Plenty of time for holiday giving, folks. Send to:
Chris MahrSports Illustrated1271 Ave. of the AmericasRoom 33-120BNew York, NY 10020
1. I think these are my quick-hit thoughts of Week 9:
a. MLB Network/NBC stat maven Elliott Kalb on the Kansas City Chiefs: "They're so unwatchable they render the opponent unwatchable.''
b. I haven't met Aqib Talib. I don't think I want to.
c. Chris Johnson has a 122-yard lead in the rushing race over Cedric Benson. More significantly, Adrian Peterson is 175 yards behind Johnson.
d. It's not going to make made headlines, but I thought there was some sort of poetic justice that the winning point in the Chargers' 21-20 win was scored by a third-round throw-in to the Philip Rivers-Eli Manning trade. Kicker Nate Kaeding made the kick that propelled the Chargers to their fifth win of the year.
e. Lucky Vikings. They had the best bye a team could have. I'm sure they thought they'd be two games up on Green Bay and Chicago when they returned to work today. But they're three up, thanks to horrible Sundays by Chicago and Green Bay.
f. I never thought Lovie Smith was in any real trouble until yesterday. But this is the defense he's calling plays for? The defense that laid down in Cincinnati and gave up 45 points? The defense that gave up five touchdown passes to Kurt Warner?
g. I don't have a good feeling about Bill Sheridan long-term as the Giants' defensive coordinator.
h. I told you to take more chances downfield, Matthew Stafford, which you should do -- but not as recklessly as you did yesterday in Seattle.
2. I think Aaron Rodgers has a serious problem when it comes to taking sacks, and it cost the Packers dearly Sunday in Tampa. He's got 37 now. I'm not absolving a porous offensive line, but Mike McCarthy has to get it through Rodgers' head when the rush is closing in to throw it away. If I were McCarthy, I'd put on some tape of Peyton Manning today. Manning's Colts line is not a lot better than Green Bay's -- it really isn't; just watch -- and Manning's taken seven sacks. That's because Manning knows when to throw it away or go to his hot guy.
3. I think at this rate, Peyton Manning's arm will fall off by New Year's Day.
4. I think Philip Rivers was as impressive as any player in the league Sunday, just by the way he competed. "As cool as a cucumber,'' tackle Marcus McNeill said of Rivers. "You very rarely see him squint. He has such confidence in his offense. He had a lot of protection up front and that's what he tells us on that drive. He said, 'Come on guys, I need you right now' and he believes in us. That's why we go out and block the way we do.' '' I haven't handed the AFC West to Denver yet. Close, but not yet.
5. I think Marvin Lewis is going to get serious coach-of-the-year consideration from me. I remember seeing him in HBO's "Hard Knocks'' show rail at his team after a preseason loss to St. Louis, lost when the ninth-stringers were on the field. And I thought: This guy's making it very uncomfortable for his team to lose. And the Bengals have gone out and played like that.
6. I think this is what I liked about Week 9:
a. Randy Moss' hands. You see that one-handed catch in the first quarter against Miami? "He'd do that in practice on a lot of catches,'' Rodney Harrison said as we watched the play in our NBC viewing room. "One-handed, all the time.''
b. Speaking of hands, what a pick by linebacker Rocky McIntosh of the Redskins. Perfectly timed, with the hands of a Lynn Swann.
c. Still want to fire Jeff Fisher, Titans fans?
d. John Fox is going nowhere. Just a gut feeling, but as his team comes back to normal, that's how I see it.
e. Arizona's dangerous.
f. He won't get much credit for it because of the final score, but Jay Cutler played an excellent football game against Arizona.
g. The Falcons will be a tough out in January. And yes, they'll be playing football in January.
h. Will Witherspoon. Bargain of the year.
7. I think this is what I didn't like about Week 9:
a. In a big game like 5-3 Houston at 7-0 Indy, 5-3 Houston isn't going to have much of a chance to be 6-3 Houston if it can't figure out how to stop fumbling. Come on. Now Ryan Moats?
b. Donovan McNabb missed a lot of receivers last night.
c. Someone has kidnapped Brandon Jacobs. The Giants want him back -- now.
d. Looks like the Baltimore defensive revival lasted exactly four quarters.
e. The 49ers are better that 3-5. Miami's better than 3-5. But you get what you deserve. Both have to get better quarterback play to have a chance.
f. Oh, I didn't like Eric Mangini moving on from George Kokinis so quickly, at least publicly. That whole thing is ridiculous. You bring a guy in to be the GM and then, somehow, he gets thrown overboard after nine months? It's not right. I wonder how the Ravens feel, having given up a trusted scout to have full authority in Cleveland, and he's gone halfway through the year.
8. I think the Cincinnati corners, Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph, were the league's unsung heroes Sunday. Not saying the Ravens have Swann and Stallworth on the flanks, but Joe Flacco looked unsure in the pocket all day, and it's because Hall and Joseph pestered the Raven receivers all day.
9. I think the league won't do anything about Chad Ochocinco's little money gag, where he took out a dollar bill and waved it at an official during a disputed call. "You know, like, here's a dollar, change the call,'' the Ocho told me. "Just kidding. Just having fun.'' Wasn't sure the league would see it that way, and though I think league officials will look at the replay in New York today, I hear they won't be inclined to fine Ochocinco. Harmless fun. Well, I didn't think it was fun, but I'm old and boring.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. On Saturday, I shared a dressing room with Taylor Swift at NBC. It's not what you think. All her stuff was in the dressing room for the show that night, but she wasn't there, and I had to dress for the Notre Dame halftime pop on NBC. Well, there was an incident. I stepped on Taylor Swift's red gown. Not on purpose, but there it was, the bottom of it on the ground, and I was trying to walk around it to get my jacket, and I stepped on it, and there it was, a footprint on the bottom of the red material. I quickly wiped off the footprint off. Most of it, anyway. You guys didn't see a size-14 sneaker mark on the bottom of her red gown Saturday night, did you?
b. Jeff Garlin, I know you read this column. You're looking good. You've dropped some weight, and you're sharp. But I don't write to praise your physique or acting ability. I write to urge you, please: More Funkhauser. We out in "Curb Your Enthusiasm'' land cannot get enough of the gravelly voiced weirdo who has three good lines in every scene.
c. Coffeenerdness: Three triple lattes Sunday. Sooner or later, the lack of sleep is going to catch up with me.
d. Listen to Rilo Kiley. You'll thank me.
e. My heart goes out to the victims of the Fort Hood and Orlando shootings and their loved ones. Senseless, senseless incidents. I will not go quietly into the night on this one. America needs to do something about idiots with handguns. How many more Fort Hoods and Orlandos do there have to be before our political leaders have the guts to severely restrict access to murderous weapons?
Hines Ward knows the drill by now. Some media outlet (in this case, your good friends at SI) does a story or polls players and comes to the conclusion that Ward's the dirtiest player in football. SI did its annual player poll and that's the way the players voted. It evoked a little more than a shrug from Ward when we spoke the other day.
"Not much I can do about it, and I'm pretty used to it by now,'' said Ward. "But it does piss me off. If I was a dirty player, would my coach [Mike Tomlin] tell me, 'Don't change a thing you do?' ''
Ward thinks it's his reputation now, and not current information, that keeps him winning titles like this. Whatever, I find it interesting that Ward has been penalized once this year in seven games for unnecessary roughness and hasn't been fined yet. Not that he hasn't had his share of edgy hits, of course, including the clobbering of Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers that kayoed Rivers for the season last year and caused the NFL to implement a rules change outlawing high blindside hits.
It'll be interesting to watch Ward go up against Brian Dawkins tonight if they meet on the field at Invesco when the 6-1 Broncos meet the 5-2 Steelers. Dawkins has had an excellent start for the Broncos after moving from Philadelphia in free agency, and because Denver plays left and right safety instead of free and strong, Dawkins could find himself near Ward on a few occasions tonight.
"Big game for us,'' Ward said. "As good as the AFC is this year, we'll probably have to win 11 or 12 to get in the playoffs ... they've got a great secondary. Dawkins is playing like the Dawkins of old. Champ [Bailey] is Champ again. But we're pretty good too. We have so many weapons on offense that it's like, 'Pick your poison.' ''
He's right there, but I worry about Ben Roethlisberger having time to throw with outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil storming in all night, and I don't trust Pittsburgh to be able to run. I'll take Denver, uneasily, 20-13.
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