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No matter which way you dissect it, Bill Belichick made the wrong call

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

NEW YORK -- Three o'clock in the morning, and I'm still rolling Bill Belichick's call around in my head. I wonder how many people in New England aren't asleep yet ... and how many won't be able to sleep all night.

This call reminds me a lot of Grady Little's call in the 2003 playoffs, when all logic said he had to take a done-in Pedro Martinez out of Game 7 of the ALCS playoffs in Yankee Stadium. But he refused, rode his horse into the valley of death, and watch Martinez give up the lead and, as it turned out, the season. This call is certainly as controversial, but it doesn't quite have the finality of Little's laissez-faire foolhardiness. The Patriots should still win their division and host at least one home playoff game. That's not the same as having home-field advantage through the playoffs, which was possible midway through the fourth quarter but is now out the window.

Very interesting day in the league, particularly in New Jersey and Pittsburgh, but The Call Heard Round the World takes the spotlight now, and I'm going to try to dissect it logically, after a couple of hours considering every angle.

Let's start with 2:23 left in the game, New England up 34-28 with two timeouts left. The Colts had three timeouts left, plus the two-minute warning stoppage, so New England needed at least one first down to bleed much of the clock, and two to run the clock out entirely. As Tom Brady got to the huddle and saw the play clock winding down, he noticed the wrong personnel group on the field for the play that was called. A very uncharacteristic mistake by the Patriots, and Brady signaled for a timeout. One left for New England, which really was only important in case the Patriots wanted to challenge an officials' call in the next few seconds.

Kevin Faulk up the middle for no gain; Indianapolis timeout. Brady eight-yard pass to Wes Welker; Indy timeout. On third-and-two, Brady, pressured, threw a ball for Welker that was nearly picked off by Colts rookie cornerback Jerraud Powers. Incomplete. Fourth-and-two.

New England timeout, 2:08 left. The Patriots' last one.

Why? I wondered. Get the punt team on the field, try to pin Peyton Manning back as far as you can, and make him drive 70 or so yards. The New England punter, Chris Hanson, hadn't had any of his four punts returned, and he'd averaged a 44-yard net. So if he did what he'd done all night, the Colts would start at their own 28 at the two-minute warning with one timeout left.

Belichick was talking to Brady on the sidelines. I was sure they were talking about trying to draw the Colts offside with a hard count; there was no way he'd be authorizing going for it on fourth down. But back went Brady to the field, and he lined up in the shotgun, and started calling signals without the head-bob you normally associate with trying to draft a team offside.

"My God,'' I thought, "he's going for it!'' (Full video here.)

Two things had to factor in here. One: Belichick didn't want to give Manning the ball with two minutes to go; he'd just seen Manning take the Colts 79 yards in six plays for a touchdown. Two: He trusted Brady to get two yards. Let's place the odds of Brady getting two yards at 60, 65 percent. The odds of Manning going 72 yards to score a touchdown in less than two minutes ... that's maybe 35 percent.

You might say Manning's chance of taking his team 72 yards are better than 35 percent. Not sure I would. On his previous seven possessions, covering about 30 minutes of game time, Manning had done the following:

· Six plays, 79 yards, touchdown.

· One play, zero yards, interception.

· Five plays, 79 yards, touchdown.

· Six plays, 16 yards, punt.

· Four plays, 24 yards, interception.

· Five plays, 16 yards, punt.

· Three plays, no yards, punt.

Three punts, two interceptions, two touchdowns. Now, maybe Belichick thought his defense was tired. Maybe he feared Manning. Maybe he trusted Brady. Whatever, the faulty logic here is that Manning was a sure thing to ram it down the Patriots' throats. Yes, he'd just done that, but on the series previous to that one he'd thrown a interception, his second of the night. So if the theory was Manning was going to score for sure, I don't buy it.

Against Atlanta in Week 3, there was a play something like this. New England had fourth-and-one at its 24 late in the third quarter, up 16-10. Sammy Morris ran for two yards, first down, and the Patriots went on to kick a field goal on the drive. But that was one yard, not two, and even if it had failed and the Falcons got the ball and scored, the Patriots would have had an entire quarter to rectify things.

Brady looked for his old reliable, Kevin Faulk, blanketed to the right by safety Melvin Bullitt. The pass was on target, and it hit Faulk's hands between the 31- and 32-yard lines, but Faulk juggled the ball as he was jostled by Bullitt. As Bullitt pushed him back inside of the 30-, where he needed to go to make the first down, Faulk got control of the ball and he went down at about the 29-yard line. Immediately, head linesman Tom Stabile gave the signal of both hands going up and down alternately, palms up, which meant Faulk was juggling the ball. And the ball was spotted about a yard shy of the first down.

The clock just then hit the two-minute warning. Under the rules of the replay system, a team can challenge a play until the first play after the two-minute warning; then all reviews are dictated by the replay official upstairs. At all other times, teams can challenge calls, but they have to have a timeout remaining so that if their challenge is wrong, they can be docked a timeout, as called for by the rules.

But the Patriots had no timeout left. The team that never makes dumb mistakes made one with 2:23 to go, calling one because of the miscommunication that resulted in the wrong personnel being on the field.

If they could have challenged the spot, what would referee Scott Green have ruled? I saw the replay eight or 10 times. There wasn't a perfect angle with a camera right at the 30, and you couldn't see exactly when Faulk stopped juggling the ball and got indisputable possession. Over and over again in the wee hours this morning, I watched to see when Faulk had the ball, and it was very, very close. But I'm fairly certain Green wouldn't have been able to change the call, because of how difficult it was to tell when Faulk had it cleanly.

"If we gain seven more inches, it's a great call,'' Brady said at his post-midnight press conference.

Try 30 more inches. And this would never have been a great call. Even it you think you've got a two-out-of-three chance to make two yards deep in your own territory, the cost of missing it is too great. The difference between Manning driving 29 yards for the winning touchdown and 72 is too great. Too many chances for him to err in 72 yards, as he'd been doing occasionally during the night.

One more variable. If Tony Dungy had been the coach, Brady could have counted on no blitz on the play, because Dungy would have relied on his Cover 2 scheme and used seven or eight players to cover. But new defensive coordinator Larry Coyer is more blitz-minded, and he sent two extra rushers here, hurrying Brady as his pocket collapsed; that just made the conversion more of a problem. So maybe making two yards there with a coordinator more likely to bring the heat would be tougher than under Dungy.

It took only four plays for the Colts to drive for the winning touchdown, a Manning-to-Reggie Wayne slant from a yard out.

All in all, I hated the call. It smacked of I'm-smarter-than-they-are hubris. Let Manning, with the weight of the world on his shoulders and no timeouts under his belt, drive 72 yards in two minutes, with his mistake-prone (on this night) young receivers and the clock working against him. Sure he could do it. But let him earn it. This felt too cheap. It was too cheap. Belichick's too smart to have something so Grady-Littlish on his career resume, but there it is, and it can never be erased.

***

The Jags are riding Maurice Jones-Drew's cape.

Now that was a weird end to a game at the Meadowlands. At the two-minute warning Sunday, the Jags trailed the Jets 22-21. New York had no timeouts left, and Jacksonville was going down the field in big chunks. When running backs coach Kennedy Pola and coach Jack Del Rio told Jones-Drew to take a knee at the one-yard line if he got that far, he said, "Really?'' And they explained why: The Jets were without timeouts, and if he could get to the one and then the Jags could bleed the clock, they could kick a field goal and go home with the win.

So on the next play, Jones-Drew burst through the middle -- unbeknownst to him, the Jets were instructed to not tackle -- and went down by himself at the one. A couple of Jets yelled, "C'mon! Score!'' Said Jones-Drew: "The Jets guys were laughing. One of them said, 'Why'd you do that?' '' The Jags let the clock run down, and Josh Scobee kicked the winning field goal at the gun.

"Great job not being selfish,'' Del Rio told Jones-Drew.

Now the Jags are 5-4, winners of three of four, and only a game out of the Wild Card. And Jones-Drew, with 1,080 rushing-receiving yards, is showing no signs of slowing in his first year as an every-down back.

These are not your father's Bengals.

To start the final Pittsburgh series Sunday at Heinz Field, Ben Roethlisberger took over at his own 33 with 1:49 to play and Cincinnati leading 18-12. He stepped back into the shotgun and tried to do what he hadn't been able to do all day -- score a touchdown. In fact, dating to the Steelers' first game with the Bengals this year, Roethlisberger had gone 13 straight series without scoring a touchdown, and now he'd have to go 67 yards to break that schneid.

On first down, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer rushed six. Linebacker Brandon Johnson, a free-agent pickup after Arizona cut him two years ago, beat the block of running back Mewelde Moore and forced Roethlisberger to throw incomplete.

On second down, Zimmer rushed the customary four, and Roethlisberger, hurried slightly, misfired deep down the right side for wideout Mike Wallace, with another 2008 street free-agent, safety Chris Crocker, in tight coverage. Incomplete.

On third down, Zimmer sent five, and Roethlisberger had enough time to make a good deep throw to Hines Ward --but Ward was blanketed by cornerback Johnathan Joseph, and the Bengals defender actually dropped an interception.

On fourth down, Zimmer sent four, including two third-round defensive ends -- Frostee Rucker (2006) and Michael Johnson (2009). They met at Roethlisberger, nearly sandwiched him, and Roethlisberger had to hurry a final incompletion to Ward.

I watched nearly every snap of this game, and that last series showed the defensive depth of Cincinnati. The two linemen who had the best games were end Jonathan Fanene and tackle Domata Peko, and they weren't even heard from on the series. Fanene sacked Roethlisberger twice, batted down a pass and had six tackles. Peko's no sacker, but he's a line-collapser.

If you watched the game, you wondered which nose man had more impact -- the famous Casey Hampton of the Steelers or Peko, who's known only for the hair exploding out of the back of his helmet and covering his back. I haven't seen Roethlisberger's pocket crumble the way it did Sunday since the AFC Championship Game against Baltimore. That's how strong Cincinnati's defense was.

Also, as impressive as corners Leon Hall and Joseph have been this year, that's how impressive nickel back Morgan Trent was Sunday. He broke up two passes and seemed to be in the middle of the action all day.

The Bengals, 27th in team defense when the buck stopped with Marvin Lewis two years ago, hired Zimmer to run the D his way in 2008. The Bengals were a surprising 12th overall last year, and they'll be better this year. After Sunday's game, Cincinnati was second in the NFL in points allowed, at 16.3 per game.

"What Mike's done that's been so valuable is he's taught a team defense to our guys, front to back, so they have total confidence in the scheme and know exactly why they're doing what they're doing,'' Lewis told me Sunday. "He's taught them how to adjust, why they adjust, the evolution of a game plan. And he's taught them how you win in the NFL.''

And Zimmer's appealed to their emotional side too. You'll read in a minute how the shocking death of Zimmer's wife last month has ruled his life -- rightfully so. Saturday night, he read the defense a letter -- written in pencil -- from a 9-year-old Indiana kid who loves the Bengals. He told Zimmer he was going to dedicate his youth football season to the late Vikki Zimmer. "Let's go out in this game and make little kids like this one proud of how we play,'' Zimmer told his players. Cornball, yes. Effective, yes -- because it came from Zimmer's heart.

The Bengals are 7-2, and so much of it is due to the emotionally wrung-out defensive coordinator and his men.

***

Mike Zimmer's slowly coming back in Cincinnati, under the kind of pressure that would break most of us.

Imagine what Zimmer's life must be like. The defensive coordinator lost his wife to a yet-to-be-determined illness Oct. 8, and he comes home to an empty house every night. His son, Adam, lives in New Orleans and is an assistant coach on Sean Payton's staff, and his two grown daughters live in Texas, and all are still struggling to cope with the shocking loss. All Zimmer knows is he's been told by the medical authorities that Vikki died of natural causes, and that two organs stopped working the week she died, apparently leading to the death.

"She lost her voice, and we thought she just had laryngitis,'' Zimmer said from his office. "I thought she just had a cold. There were no drugs or alcohol in her system. They just don't know for sure yet. It's pretty tough.

"The thing that keeps me going is I've got to be a father and a mother. It's difficult, but you've just got to do it. You've just go to go on. I call the girls down in Texas, and they answer the phone crying and say, 'I'm just so sad.' And it's been harder on my son than I thought it would be. I just try to be there for them as much as I can. I've had to do things I never really thought of very much -- make sure I have a will, make sure I have my insurance taken care of.''

He spoke almost in a monotone, like he was trying to put one foot in front of the other and just go on.

"The letters, the messages, the cards ... they've been overwhelming. I've probably gotten 500 of them. They've helped. I've heard from a lot of people with depression. I got a letter from one guy who said that seeing me coach with what I'm going through gave him inspiration. I appreciate that. The thing is, it's so hard to be happy, even with how well the team is doing. We beat Chicago really bad a couple of weeks ago, and I go home, and I was just miserable. I've been sleeping on the couch because I just can't get back into our bed. I'm getting ready to go back in there, but I can't just yet. That's tough.''

She famously baked for all the players. "She always took care of us,'' said cornerback Jonathan Joseph. "She was a second mom to a lot of guys.''

Owner Mike Brown and business manager Bill Connolly were superb in flying both sides of the family to Cincinnati for the funeral, and arranging a dignified service, which Zimmer says he'll never forget. And his players -- Zimmer couldn't ask for a better group. The Bengals aren't the most talented. "But what makes this group special is you never have to get on them to work,'' he said. "It's great to be around guys who want to play the game and want to excel the way these guys do.''

On HBO's "Hard Knocks'' last summer, Zimmer, to me, came across like a head coach in waiting. I've always known him to be a very good teacher; what I didn't know was how naturally hard-nosed and disciplined he is. It just flows from him, and it's not forced. In the midst of his greatest tragedy, he is building a solid case to be an NFL head coach. If you can turn the Bengals' defense into a top 10 NFL defense, you deserve a bushel of interviews. Maybe you don't deserve a job over the four Super Bowl coaches on the street, but you deserve an airing.

"You ask the guys on this defense,'' said Joseph. "We like his approach. He's not looking to make any friends. He's looking to win.''

In seven of the Bengals' nine games, the defense has allowed 20 points or fewer. I think Zimmer's done his job.

1. New Orleans (9-0). No Darren Sharper. No Jabari Greer. And a road game, from the start, that was tougher than it looked. This is the fourth straight game the Saints were in trouble, but there's something special about teams that survive games like these.

2. Indianapolis (9-0). I am reminded of a Jack Buckism. I don't believe what I just saw. Amazing comeback win by the Colts.

3. New England (6-3). Bill Belichick won't sleep for the next five days, or maybe five weeks. No time for the coach or the 53 men on the roster to wallow, with the Jets, Saints, Dolphins and Panthers coming up.

4. Minnesota (8-1). Good news for the Vikes: The best physical cornerback in football, Antoine Winfield, rehabbing a badly sprained foot he injured 29 days ago, practiced without pain late last week and hopes to be ready for Seattle this week. Good thing. Starting Sunday, Vikes face four teams that will throw it: Seattle, Chicago, Arizona, Cincinnati.

5. Cincinnati (7-2). Wow: 5-0 in the division, 5-0 in its past five road games, home-and-home wins over the AFC Championship Game contestants last season. This is a team I swung on and missed badly. The Bengals will be a tough out in the playoffs.

6. Pittsburgh (6-3). The Steelers kayoed Cedric Benson early and still couldn't beat the Bengals. This was no fluke, folks. The Steelers have some major protection issues to fix if/when they face the Bengals in the playoffs this year. Plus, as Tony Dungy said last night: "Cincinnati out-defensed Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh.''

7. San Diego (6-3). Just when you want to fall in love with the Chargers for winning their fourth in a row, Donovan McNabb throws for 450 yards as San Diego allows the Eagles to parade up and down the field. But a win's a win. Now the Chargers travel to Denver on Sunday, with the two teams tied atop the AFC West. The division title likely hangs in the balance.

8. Dallas (6-3). In the category of feeble losses, Sunday's in Green Bay ranks very, very high.

9. Arizona (6-3). Eight touchdowns in the past eight quarters. The Cards are starting to resemble the January Cards.

10. Denver (6-3). In the past 15 days, Broncos have lost by 23, 18 and 10 points. They're lucky to be number 10 in these rankings, and I'm darned sure it really matters to Josh McDaniels.

11. Houston (5-4). Texans will have to make hay, with three of the next four at home (Tennessee, Indianapolis, at Jacksonville, Seattle), to have a good shot at a Wild Card in what will be a very competitive AFC race.

12. Carolina (4-5). The most interesting thing John Fox said to me Sunday? "In 2006, we won on the last day of the season and finished 8-8, and we just barely missed out on the playoffs. I think this might be one of those kind of years in the NFC, where eight wins could get you a Wild Card.''

13. Green Bay (5-4). Quite a comeback: The Pack allowed 38 two weeks ago against the Vikings, 38 last week against the Bucs ... and seven against Dallas.

14. Tennessee (3-6). In the latest chapter of the star-crossed (but compelling) Vince Young Era, the Titans have won three straight, scored 30, 34 and 41 points in those wins, and unleashed the most explosive runner in football in Chris Johnson. This listing of the best teams every week is designed to be a ranking of the best teams every week. And in my mind, Tennessee is clearly one of the best 15 right now.

15. Baltimore (4-4). The Ravens have lots of proving to do, and lots of winning too, to get in the playoff race.

1. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis. The win Sunday night all but eliminated Manning from some of these records he'll be chasing in the second half. It's expected that coach Jim Caldwell will agree with how Tony Dungy did things -- that is, when there's nothing to play for, prominent starters get a break.

2. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans. Sixteen minutes left at woeful but fired-up St. Louis, Saints up 21-17, crowd imploring for one more defensive stand by the Rams, first-and-10 at the New Orleans 23. Brees threw five strikes on the next seven plays, totaling 69 yards, and getting the Saints into the end zone on a 27-yard TD pass to Robert Meachem. They needed those points. The final: Saints 28, Rams 23.

3. Brett Favre, QB, Minnesota. This is getting ridiculous. Is the old man ever going to play a bad game? With a 20-of-29, 344-yard, one-TD, no-pick game in a win over Detroit, Favre's got a 17-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

4. Tom Brady, QB, New England. He can't make the coaching decisions.

5. Chris Johnson, RB, Tennessee. Titans have won three in a row. Johnson's numbers in those three games: 75 carries, 495 yards, six touchdowns, 6.6 yards per rush.

Offensive Player of the Week

Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jacksonville.

Biggest difference-maker in the day games Sunday, with 123 rushing yards, 22 receiving yards, and two very big plays that don't show up in the ol' box score in the Jags' 24-22 win over the Jets. In the first half, he scored one touchdown on a 33-yard run and set up another by pushing a stalled David Garrard ahead for a first down. In the second half, he made the play of the day. "An MVP play,'' Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez praised. I went over it earlier, but by purposely taking a knee at the Jets' 1, Jones-Drew allowed the Jags to run out the clock on the timeout-less Jets and kick a field goal to win at the gun. What a football game, and what a smart way to end it.

Defensive Player of the Week

Charles Woodson, CB, Green Bay.

First, Woodson winning this is an achievement in itself, because the Bengals had about five guys who deserved this. But Woodson was dominant in a 17-7 win over the red-hot Cowboys. Imagine holding the Cowboys to a garbage-time touchdown in the final minute of the game ... with weather being no factor. Woodson led the charge with nine tackles, a sack, two forced fumbles and a crucial interception of Tony Romo at the goal line with six minutes left. That was the Cowboys' last gasp, and the way Woodson played all day, it was fitting it was he who made the acrobatic interception.

Special Teams Player of the Week

Bernard Scott, RB/KR, Cincinnati.

First, what can't be overlooked on Scott's weaving, sprinting, game-changing 96-yard kick return for touchdown -- the first kick return for a touchdown by a Bengals rookie in 33 years -- was the ridiculously weak tackle try by kicker Jeff Reed. What, Reed can get in fights off the field but can't contest a runner on the field?

That was the only touchdown of the game, but it wasn't Scott's only impact on the game. After Cedric Benson went down with a hip injury early, Scott, a rookie from Division II Abilene Christian who scored 73 college touchdowns for the Texas school, had to bang against the great Steelers run defense. He rushed 13 times for 33 yards and caught a swing pass from Carson Palmer for 21 yards. He also returned five kicks for a 41.5-yard average. Imagine someone named Bernard Scott accounting for 260 all-purpose yards in your biggest game of the year. Kudos to the Bengals oft-maligned scouting staff, headed by Jim Lippincott, for finding this diamond in the very deep rough.

Coach of the Week

Mike Zimmer, defensive coordinator, Cincinnati.

In four victories this fall, Zimmer's Bengals have held the Steelers and Ravens to 20, 14, 7 and 12 points. As I wrote higher in this column, Zimmer has shot up the charts and is now a legitimate 2010 head-coaching candidate. "What he's done is teach our players the total game of football,'' Marvin Lewis said after the win over Pittsburgh. "He's been invaluable.''

Goat of the Week

Jay Cutler, QB, Chicago.

I hear the natives in the Loop are beyond restless, and they're not naming sandwiches after Trader Jerry Angelo anymore. Cutler has been at his worst in prime time -- 12 night quarters on national TV, 11 interceptions -- including the five-interception game at San Francisco on Thursday night. There's no question Cutler's not alone in the Chicago blame game; his offensive line is helping kill the Bears offense. But a couple of Cutler's Thursday night interceptions, such as the one on the 49ers goal line to nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin, were absolutely careless, the kind of throws you see from a Josh Johnson. Very bad sign. Oh, and the next game is in prime time. At home. Against Philly. Wear a fur coat, Jay. Reception will not be warm.

"We need a touchdown here, but let's not be in a hurry to score.''-- Peyton Manning, on what he said in the huddle to his teammates with a little under two minutes left in Sunday night's game and the Colts starting a drive at the New England 29.

How amazing this game was, obviously. The Colts, with four minutes to go, trailed 34-21 and had the ball at their own 21. To think they'd be trying to bleed the clock and waste time at the end ... well, it just shows what an incredibly weird and compelling spectacle this was.

"I'd like to apologize to all the fantasy football players out there. Sorry for taking the knee.''-- Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew, on his heady, once-in-a-career play, taking a knee at the 1 in the final minute of the Jags' win over the Jets, so Jacksonville could run down the clock and kick a field goal to win without giving New York another possession.

"Third false start for the Packers, who I believe are at home this week.''-- FOX play-by-play voice Joe Buck, incredulous that Green Bay, playing with the fans quiet so the offense could hear Aaron Rodgers' signals, got three false-start penalties in the first half of the game against Dallas.

"I love the way Al [Davis] runs the team. People give Al a lot of grief, but Al is an old AFL guy. The NFL tried to bury the AFL for years, and finally when the AFL caught up and was about to pass these guys, a couple of owners took the league and tried to merge behind Al's back. So he has been an outlaw ever since. He is going to do it his way; he has won three championships his way, and I love how the Raiders are run.''-- Ice Cube, the famous rapper-turned-actor, who is making a film about the Raiders for ESPN. He made his comments in an interview on KNBR in San Francisco, via sportsradiointerviews.com.

Gut Feeling of the Week: Mr. Cube will soon be named to the Raiders Board of Directors.

The ESPN documentary on Jimmy "the Greek'' Snyder was absolutely terrific the other night -- insightful and accurate. As I tried to think of a way to put the importance of The Greek and his show in perspective, I thought of one word: volume. Here's a chart comparing 1987 -- just one generation ago -- to today in NFL pre-game show volume:

For those too young to remember the significance of "The NFL Today'' and Jimmy The Greek, or for those of you reading this in a college dorm and who know Brent Musberger only from the big college games on Saturday, take a minute to learn history.

Musberger was the voice of CBS and led most every red-blooded American into NFL games for 15 years, starting in 1975. He was smart and never knocked off his feet. The Greek picked games on TV, though he was careful never to mention the spreads. "He'd say, 'I like the Cowboys big,' or, 'I like the Cowboys close,' and people could figure out what he was saying.''

Bob Costas said the other day. "He was a character. The show was the defining show about football, and it was a little slice of Americana.''

The Greek, angry at a perceived lack of TV time, once slugged Musberger in a bar. He was fired after the 1987 season for making racially divisive comments. The ESPN show focused on the tragic life that Greek's became. Good viewing.

Just think: In two decades, there's been a 550-percent increase in NFL pregame show programming. No wonder so little in NFL featuredom is special anymore. (And three years earlier, ESPN didn't even have a show. The sports network started a one-hour pre-gamer in 1985, long before it had rights to a game of the week.)

People ask me what the biggest difference is in covering the NFL today versus the early years I covered it; my first season as an NFL beat guy was 1984. That's easy. Access to players and coaches is monumentally different. The NFL landscape is under siege from reporters, producers, anchors and editors, all wanting to do something different, something new, and all wanting time with the big players of the day. I don't get angry about it, and I don't pound my fist on desks of PR guys or agents, screaming for access.

The perfect example is the Peyton Manning story that graced the cover of Sports Illustrated last week. Manning had no interest in cooperating or dining or sitting down with me -- or anyone for that matter. Nothing personal; he's in a stretch of tough games, and the last thing he wants to do is allocate any more time for the media than he has to while he prepares for the games. And what is one more SI cover to Peyton Manning anyway? Or one more sit-down with Rachel Nichols?

I remember in Boomer Esiason's heyday with the Bengals, sitting with him in his hotel room the night before a big game, talking to him for a story and then actually quizzing him on formations and pass-routes he planned to use the next day. Today, it's rare to talk to a player the night before the game, and actually being in his room, having an in-depth interview? My God, the alarm bells that would go off if that ever happened.

Not complaining, mind you. It's the reality of the business. Adapt or get out.

I have to thank my SI.com buddy Ross Tucker for the idea on this one:

Minnesota center John Sullivan, who snaps the ball to Brett Favre, has a 2009 salary of $385,000. Favre earns $705,882 ... per week.

Three Kindle readers in my Amtrak car to New York on Saturday. I had the thinish John Grisham book of short stories, and the Kindles were thinner -- and they contained up to 200 books. I peered over the shoulder of the woman in front of me for a minute and saw bright, easy-to-read type, and I thought of every bookshelf in our apartment being full, and I thought: I know exactly what I want for Christmas.

"The Who?!?! What's their target market? CSI fans?''--@fillbish, Bill Fishof New Jersey, soon after news broke on SI.comthat the British rockers from another lifetime would be the halftime entertainment at the Super Bowl in south Florida in February.

What an odd choice.

I am 52. I like The Who. Then again, I am not the future of the NFL. This band was formed 45 years ago; 39 years ago it did its signature album, "Who's Next.'' Two of the original band members, Keith Moon and John Entwistle, are dead. The other two are 65 (Pete Townsend) and 66 (Roger Daltrey). This group is almost too old for Roger Goodell.

I'll be signing today and then returning my first batch of Monday Morning Quarterback books you've sent, and they'll be sent out in the mail this week. Heck of a deal we're running at SI between now and Dec. 4: For the cost of a book and the shipping to New York (Barnes and Noble and Amazon have it on sale in the $17 range), you can get the thing autographed, personalized and shipped back for you in time for the holidays.

Send the book by Dec. 4, and I'll mail it back to you by Dec. 12. Send to:

Chris MahrSports Illustrated1271 Ave. of the AmericasRoom 33-120BNew York, NY 10020

On Saturday, I'll be in my old hometown of Montclair, N.J., at the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center, from 4-6 p.m. I'll have a short reading, sign, and answer everyone's NFL questions. Come by if you can.

1. I think these are my quick-hit thoughts of Week 10:

a. Why, oh why, would Bill Belichick have arguably his most important pass-rusher, Tully Banta-Cain, playing special teams in Indy? He hurts a rib in the first quarter and isn't a factor the rest of the way.

b. Just because Steven Jackson is playing for a 1-8 team doesn't mean he's invisible. He's a heck of a back, both inside and outside the tackle box, and he tormented arguably the best team in football for 131 rushing yards Sunday.

c. Darrius Heyward-Bey's past four games: 11 passes thrown to him, four caught, 60 yards, no touchdowns.

d. This tells you everything you need to know about the stunningly bad inaccuracy of JaMarcus Russell: He's attempted 81 passes to Louis Murphy and Heyward-Bey ... and completed 22. Ridiculous.

e. Strange but true, and probably meaningless: Entering play Sunday, the six stingiest teams in points allowed were all AFC teams -- Indianapolis, New England, Denver, Jets, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh.

f. Excellent job by ref Terry McAulay, taking three yards away from the Steelers on a forward-progress replay reversal in Steelers-Bengals. Ideal use of replay -- a clearly wrong call on the field.

g. When we talk about the great tight ends, we too often forget Antonio Gates. Philip Rivers doesn't. Against Philly, Rivers hit Gates for nine yards to the left side on the first snap of the day, followed by a 15-yard strike over the middle.

h. My football buddy at NBC, Joe Gesue, had this comment when FOX showed a sideline view of four defensive linemen on the Vikes, with Jared Allen on the right: "Three Men and a Mullet.''

i. When's the last time you heard Patrick Kerney's name?

2.I think if Bud Adams made obscene gestures to the opposition Sunday in Nashville -- andthis video catches him red-handed -- he better get fined about five times what Chad Ochocinco got. That is to say, it had better not be a wrist-slap.

3. I think Todd Haley's going to blow a gasket on the sidelines soon. Good for him, winning his second NFL game in Oakland Sunday, but if he wants to last in this job, he needs to learn to swallow some of the anger. He really laid into Matt Cassel at one point in Oakland -- and that's in a win.

4. I think this is what I liked about Week 10:

a. Not bragging or anything (yeah, right), but did you see San Francisco defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin, one of the unsung members of SI's midseason all-pro team, abuse the Bears? Loved when Mike Singletary called him the team's most consistent player through nine games.

b. Watch the replay of the Ike Taylor pass-breakup on third-and-14 on the Bengals' first series of the game. Textbook last-second deflection, and it caused Cincinnati to try a 51-yard field goal, which doinked off the right upright.

c. LaDainian Tomlinson had some special inspiration Sunday, his wife leaving the positive results of a pregnancy test for LT at the stadium so he could find it before the game. He went out and rushed for 96 yards and two touchdowns, passing Marcus Allen for third place on the all-time TD list.

d. Love how hard the Rams are playing for Steve Spagnuolo.

e. Play of the Day I: Buffalo running back Fred Jackson takes a Wildcat snap, pauses, rears back, throws a perfect spiral 35 yards in the air, hitting Lee Evans in stride in the end zone. You talk about your basic amazing play. That's one right there.

f. Play of the Day II: Detroit cornerback Philip Buchanon sprinting two yards behind Adrian Peterson, the last man who can prevent Peterson from scoring and putting Vikes-Lions out of reach. And Buchanon winds up with his right fist and windmills a roundhouse onto the back of the football, popping it out of Peterson's right arm. Touchback, Detroit. A touchdown-saver by Buchanon.

g. Play of the Day III: Washington punter Hunter Smith, who'd already run for a touchdown this year, threw for a vital score for the Redskins out of punt formation, tying the game at 14 on the way to the Redskins' 27-17 victory.

h. I'm going to quote Dan Patrick here: Maurice Jones-Drew. You can't stop him. You can only hope to contain him.

i. Beautiful throw by Vince Young, rainbowing a bomb into Kenny Britt late in the first quarter of Bills-Titans.

j. Great pop by Jags safety Sean Considine, breaking up a perfect deep ball by Mark Sanchez.

k. Speaking of great pops, Steeler safety Ryan Clark nailed J.P Fosche, the Bengals' tight end, in the red zone in the third quarter, preventing a converted third down and forcing a field goal.

l. Ricky Williams is very much alive and well.

m. Buffalo corner Jairus Byrd, a second-round pick from Oregon, got his seventh pick in the past four games, in Tennessee. He leads the NFL with eight interceptions.

n. You're right, Troy Aikman: Cullen Jenkins is one of the best, and most tireless, defensive linemen in football.

5. I think this is what I didn't like about Week 10:

a. How in the world, Lovie Smith, do you get a delay of game when lining up for a 45-yard field goal and you have one timeout in your pocket at the end of a half? Totally, absolutely inexcusable.

b. Speaking of absolutely inexcusable, Roy Williams running in the open field and fumbling, and stealing a score from his team ... I mean, there's a reason why Jason Garrett's calling Miles Austin's number more.

c. And how old did Flozell Adams look when Clay Matthews speed-rushed him on that second-quarter sack?

d. Aaron Rodgers' pocket presence. He's taken a step back from last year. There's a book about Bill Bradley from the sixties, when he starred at Princeton, called A Sense of Where You Are. Someone needs to get it for Rodgers.

e. Steelers special teams. Awful. Tackle somebody, will you?

f. Detroit's offensive line. You guys are going to get Matthew Stafford killed back there.

g. The Jets just can't make up for the loss of Kris Jenkins. Thought it might be the case, and we're seeing it week by week.

h. Vikings, 10 points on 303 yards at the half. Talk about inopportune.

i. A 46-yard penalty is important in any game. In Cincinnati-Pittsburgh, it was vital, with Bengals safety Chinedum Ndukwe's senseless pass-interference on Mike Wallace, which set up a Jeff Reed field goal.

j. Why the timeout with 14 seconds left, Tony Sparano? Let the clock run down to five seconds, so you don't have to kick off and give the Bucs one final chance to return the kick and have one final play from scrimmage.

6. I think I get a little bit like a broken record on this issue, but the thought of playing 18 games is so absurd that -- well, I'll let Rodney Harrison be my voice on this one. "It's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard of,'' Harrison, my NBC partner, said Sunday. "This is the time of year when you're really vulnerable -- you get tired, you're already banged up, and it's easy to get hurt. I don't know what they're thinking, going to 18 games, if they do.''

One member of the Competition Committee told me recently it's a train rolling down the tracks, the expanded regular-season schedule, and more likely to be 18 games than 17. How about the injuries Sunday -- Troy Polamalu (knee sprain), Kyle Orton (ankle sprain), Jordan Gross (broken leg), Michael Turner (ankle sprain), Cedric Benson (hip). It won't happen to every team, but it will happen to some -- depth will be worn so thin that some good teams will be shells of themselves come playoff time with an 18-game sked.

7. I think -- and this will be the only time this year I say anything of substance about betting lines -- this is the best reason why you absolutely, positively should not gamble on NFL games: After eight games, every team in the AFC East was 4-4 against the spread. You're not going to beat it, folks. Why do it?

8. I think I think it's not all disastrous for the Browns, at least according to a site you've probably never heard visited. But if you're into the real nitty-gritty of football, you should check out Pro Football Focus, which has a cadre of workers watching every tape of every game and grading players on every play.

PFF's verdict on the best left tackle in football in the first half of the season? Cleveland's Joe Thomas. "Without any shadow of a doubt,'' the site says. "Despite getting almost no help from tight ends on his side, he's once again put in a high quality, well-balanced and extremely consistent performance.''

PFF rates tackles on pass-protection and run-blocking, and Thomas is fourth in pressure allowed per pass-drop (behind Jason Peters, Jared Gaither and Jake Long, and just ahead of Ryan Clady). But he's first, ahead of Clady, in positive run-blocks. Much of offensive line play is subjective, but sites like PFF, and individuals like K.C. Joyner of the New York Times "Fifth Down'' blog, do a very job quantifying one of the mystery areas of the game.

9. I think I blew the Chad Ochocinco fine story on NBC last week, and I'd like to explain myself. You all saw the funny bit about Ochocinco semi-waving a dollar bill at a game official last week, trying to get him in jest to change a call. Later that day, I spoke to someone with knowledge of NFL discipline, who said to me the thing didn't strike him as discipline-worthy. So I went on TV eight nights ago and said I didn't think Ocho would be fined for it. What my knowledgeable person didn't know was that after the game, in interviews with the media, Ochocinco used the word "bribe'' in discussing his use of the dollar bill. And when the combo platter of the dollar bill being shown to the official and the word "bribe'' came to the attention of the league office, it was deemed worthy of a $20,000 fine.

To me, the fine was totally out of whack. When you fine Tommie Harris $7,500 for slugging a player in a game and give another player three times that for a joke that went too far, I've got a problem with that. To me, it's political correctness run amok. But in any case, I was wrong, and I should take a journalistic hit for that. My fault.

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

a. Department of Redundancy Department: ESPN's Jesse Palmer referred to the Western Athletic Conference as the "WAC Conference'' Saturday night. Does he know he was saying the "Western Athletic Conference Conference?'' If you say the WAC, you're saying Western Athletic Conference. But Palmer added an extra "conference'' on the end. Same as announcers who call the Mid-American Conference the "MAC Conference.''

b. Great to hear from Army First Sgt. Mike McGuire, the Army's biggest Kurt Warner fan, on Sunday. He checked in at halftime of the Bengals-Steelers game -- and yes, he was watching five time zones away at his home in Germany. To refresh your memories, Sgt. McGuire's at work prepping his third platoon for a foray into the wars into Afghanistan and Iraq, and it's pretty dangerous work. McGuire's men disarm Improvised Explosive Devices on roads in the war torn countries, and he is due to deploy with the new platoon in 2010. His e-mail to me Sunday afternoon:

"Hi Peter. I got a new company, HHC 40th Engineers, huge company. Twice as big as I had before, so I work from 5 a.m. until about 7 p.m. every night. HHC is the Headquarters Company for my Battalion, very different from running a regular 'Line Company,' and tiresome. We are preparing to deploy again. Can't give you the date yet, but I can tell you that I am enjoying this football season because I won't be around for next year's. On and off, it's a crazy lifestyle, I know. I am glad I have such a strong wife and kids. They are on their own for long periods of time with no help from me.

"Right now I am watching the Bengals-Steelers game. I've seen a lot of the Bengals this year. Seems like every week they are on here. They are pretty impressive though. Very good defense. That front line is hardcore. Got to see Kurt throw 5 TDs last week. Even kept my wife up late to watch. Very fun to watch. Can't wait to read your book. Rams will be OK. A real fan rides the hard times. Man, they are terribly hard now. But they will get better. What's your take on James Laurinaitis? We draft defense -- just hope it pays off soon. Thanks for keeping in contact, its pretty cool. Tell Kurt he has another two to three years left, bring a trophy to Arizona. Take care and talk to you later.''

c. I'll have an opportunity for all of you to wish Mike and his men happy holidays coming up here in a week or so. Stay tuned.

d. Hilarious "Rear Window'' spoof on "Saturday Night Live'' the other night. Seems that Grace Kelly has some flatulence problems in this 2009 remake of one of the great Hitchcock films, and Jimmy Stewart just couldn't take it.

e. Don't tell me there's only one "Curb Your Enthusiasm'' episode left. Come on! You just started, Larry David! How do you expect us to exist on Funkhauser reruns only? And really, you could have given us a little more Seinfeld in this year's run.

f. Coffeenerdness: Saw Dan Marino early Sunday morning outside the Manhattan hotel the NBC and CBS crews use on NFL weekends. Good ol' Dan -- sucking down the Starbucks. In honor of him (Dan always loved the green tea in our HBO "Inside the NFL'' days), I went with the China Green Tips Sunday morning at my West 57th Street Starbucks while working.

g. Stay, Jason Bay.

h. Come, Adrian Gonzalez.

i. Sounds like I'm talking to Bailey, our Golden Retriever.

j. Brandon Jennings, the 10th pick in the NBA draft, scored 29 points Saturday night ... in the third quarter. Had 55 for the game. I don't know much about the NBA, other than the Nets break someone's heart every other night, but 29 points in 12 minutes, reportedly, is good.

k. I found the perfect Peter King short-attention-span book for the football season. It's John Grisham's collection of Mississippi-based short stories, Ford County. The thing I've always liked about Grisham is his ability to get you attached to a character or characters in the first 20 to 30 pages of a book. (And I should know -- I've read them all.

In fact, as I've said before, the only one of his books I didn't like was Playing For Pizza, the story of a professional quarterback in Cleveland playing so poorly he was exiled to play in Italy. Maybe I just know too much, but the premise seemed preposterous, and the carrying-out of the plot was pretty unbelievable. But to have one mulligan in a generation of great reads? Pretty good.

Anyway, Grisham did a heck of a job on these short stories. The first one, about three miscreants making a road trip to Memphis to donate blood, is the best so far. I got the book Friday night, and I'm through four of them. I'd be finished by now if this darn job didn't intrude.

Such good luck Brady Quinn's having. He got yanked after 10 quarters after facing three pretty good defenses -- Minnesota, Denver, Baltimore -- and now comes back in what I believe is a hopeless attempt to save his job in Cleveland, facing a team that's spitting mad and trying to save its season, in front of a home crowd that just might boo the tar out of the Browns.

Baltimore's in town, and the 4-4 Ravens are playing for their playoff lives beginning tonight. Quinn's as hard-working a kid as the NFL employs, and he wants to succeed as much as anyone. But tonight's not the night -- unless he's significantly more accurate than he showed in his first go-round this fall. Baltimore, 33-9.

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