NEW YORK -- There's much to dissect this morning. Concussions, Canton, Jim Caldwell, Colts, Bill Cowher, and later in the alphabet, Vince Young's drive, Dennis Dixon's mistake, Rex Ryan's challenge, San Diego's streak, the MVP storm and the latest Game of the Year tonight in New Orleans.
And the Miraculous Bra, of course. (Won't the Victoria's Secret people be excited to make the second graph of Monday Morning Quarterback!)
My starting point is the parking lot outside LP Field in Nashville. That's where Kenny Britt was clutching a Roger Goodell-autographed football an hour after making the kind of catch dreams are made of. I'm a sap, which you may have figured after reading this column for a while. I like sappy stories. That's why concussions and perfect seasons and MVP arguments can wait. Britt and Young deserve a moment here, right at the top of Week 12.
Ninety-nine yards to a saved season for Tennessee.
"I've got the ball in my hands,'' said Britt, speaking of the ball he caught to beat Arizona Sunday at the final gun in Nashville, speaking from the parking lot outside the stadium. "I don't want to let it go.''
Oddest thing about the catch you've all seen 10 times by now: "I never knew I got hit for a half-hour or so after it happened,'' Britt told me. Britt caught the ball near the back of the end zone, then got crushed by nickel safety Matt Ware. He did an impressive job of hanging onto the ball while getting hit with a Rodney Harrison-like ton of bricks from Ware.
"In a situation like that, everything's a blur," Britt said. "I found out [I'd been hit] when I took off my shoulder pads and got in the shower. I've got this big bruise on my left shoulder, and I'm like, 'How'd that get there?' '' Then he reconstructed the play, and people told him he got waylaid in the end zone, and Britt had no idea. Interesting.
There's something about the Titans that speaks to exactly why the NFL is so popular. There's always time for a miracle. When this month dawned, Tennessee was basically playing out the string. At 0-6 when they took the field Nov. 1 against Jacksonville, the Titans were coming off a 59-0 embarrassment in New England. I stated the obvious on one of the Notre Dame halftime shows on NBC -- that coach Jeff Fisher and Young would not be together in Tennessee for the 2010 season. One, maybe. But not both. Thirty days later, we're asking this crazy question: If the Titans can shock the world in Indianapolis Sunday, they're 6-6, and they'd have three of the last four at home to make a legit playoff run.
Young had engineered four straight wins since taking over for Kerry Collins, but Sunday's game looked bleak late in the fourth quarter. Arizona led 17-13 with five minutes left when Britt's deadly fumble after a 51-yard gain seemed to end it for Tennessee. Even when Arizona stalled, Ben Graham's punt was downed at the Tennessee 1 by rookie LaRod Stephens-Howling (Name of the Year, by the way), who'd played a superb game for the Cards, having returned a kick 99 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter. Tennessee took over at the one with 2:37 left. A dink here, a dunk there, two fourth-down conversions, smart use of the clock and smart play-calling that focused on small chunks ... until it was fourth-and-goal from the 10 with six seconds left.
Last play of the game. Maybe the last meaningful play of Tennessee's season.
Offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger called a play designed to have four receivers spaced fairly evenly across the end zone. Tight end Bo Scaife and wideout Lavelle Hawkins would run twin curls about three yards deep in the end zone. Nate Washington and Britt would line up in the right and left slots, respectively, and run posts. Different kinds of posts though -- posts that were really 20-yard incuts, where each would run straight to the end line, then turn toward the middle and troll the end line.
"We haven't run that play since I've been back,'' said Heimerdinger, who begin his second stint with Tennessee last season. "Haven't practiced it either. Sometimes that happens -- you see something you think can work against a defense, and you hope your guys can all run it. On that play, Kenny's just playing football.''
Britt's a Jersey kid, raised in Bayonne and polished at Rutgers. He remembered lessons from both places in the last six seconds of this game -- the kind of memories that will have his mentors bursting with pride.
Britt, at 6-3 and 218 pounds, always had the size to be a good prospect at receiver. But he was known at Rutgers as a guy with iffy hands. "Every day, my coach, Greg Schiano, and my offensive coordinator, John McNulty, would be on me about my focus. I'd drop one, and they'd be like, 'Focus! Focus!' That's what I kept thinking about when I knew the ball might come to me.
"I saw Vince scramble. Sometimes in practice he throws it sidearm, so you know you have to be ready for anything. I'm running across the back of the end zone hoping he sees me, and he lets it go for me. First I thought there'd be a clear path for the ball, but then it looked like there was traffic. I've always been taught to catch with your eyes and catch with your hands. Concentrate. Focus. And I had to go up for it. My high school coach, Ricky Rodriguez, always used to say, 'Catch before two.' Catch the ball before your two feet hit the ground. The ball came and I knew I was going to get it.''
He got it. And he might never let it go, from the sounds of how happy he was in the parking lot.
I understand no one wants to read about concussions, but ...
Seems like we're making head-trauma news almost by the week now. A top league source insisted to me Sunday that the Ben Roethlisberger and Kurt Warner benchings Sunday due to mild head-trauma residual effects are not the beginning of a sea change with how individual teams deal with brain injuries. But it sure seemed that way. "I think teams have been taking these injuries very seriously for some time,'' the source said. "I think in the last three years, we've really raised the awareness of head trauma.''
Maybe so, but I can't believe that a couple of late-week headaches by Roethlisberger would have sent him to the bench for a vital Ravens-Steelers game a couple of years ago. And I can't believe Warner would have sat had he woken up with a sore neck in 2006 or 2007 ... maybe even 2008.
But I do think what's happening in the league is a good thing. Earlier this month came the news that each venue would have independent neurologists on the sidelines, to take the decisions away from the team docs about whether a player is "with it'' enough to get back in the game. Now, Jay Glazer reported on FOX Sunday, comes word that commissioner Roger Goodell is on the verge of toughening up the restrictions about dinged players returning to games.
I can confirm Glazer's report -- in the next week or so, the league will have a policy in place that if a player has any symptoms of memory loss or amnesia, or any foggy incident that shows a player clearly has lost his bearings for even a few moments, he won't be able to return to the game that day. Currently, a player has to sit if he loses consciousness for any length of time. This threshold will be much easier to reach.
The league hopes this sends a message to all levels of football that head-trauma has to be dealt with seriously now. It should. Now the big question is whether players will self-report and be honest about headaches and things that may be signs of brain trauma -- and whether it'll affect their standing in the locker room. You know the ethos of the locker room: suck it up, spit on it, tape it up and get back out there. You can't tape up a brain. You can be gutsy and play with a dislocated shoulder, as Matthew Stafford did last week. If you play with severe memory loss, players have to begin to see that might be gutsy for today but potentially life-altering for tomorrow. The long-term concussion-sufferers -- Al Toon, Harry Carson, Wayne Chrebet -- can tell you that.
"It's a man's game,'' Rex Ryan said Sunday. "But we all have to take this issue seriously. The last thing I want to do is put a player at risk. I'm going to be a coach who errs on the side of caution.'' It's against the instinct of coaches and players both to do that, but it has to become the way the league does business. It's time.
Jim Caldwell fits perfectly in the Indianapolis template.
The rookie Colts coach is 11-0, and he had the same reaction about his wonderful start as his predecessor would have had. "I understand the gravity of it, because so many great men have coached in this league,'' Caldwell said after becoming the first NFL coach to win the first 11 games of his pro career. "I am humbled. I am honored. I am fortunate to be in this position. I'm a traditionalist. I admired Vince Lombardi a lot growing up. On the den in my basement is a picture of George Halas, Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers. Being one of the 32 men to be a head coach in this league means a great deal to me.''
So far, the new Caldwell is much like the old Tony Dungy. He's plain-spoken. Players thought he might be a little more fiery, but they've found him to be as thoughtful as Dungy and maybe slightly louder. But not much. When he spoke at halftime in Houston, his team down 20-7, all he talked about was an old football bromide: "We have to take back both lines of scrimmage.'' No screaming. Just a statement of fact. The Colts proceeded to reel off the next 28 points.
It always helps to have Peyton Manning on your side. The Colts have started 13-0 (2005), 9-0 (2006), 7-0 (2007) and now 11-0, and it's clear that he's the greatest asset to the winningest regular-season team of the decade. But what the Colts have done is put a system in place, from the front office on down, that ensures a smooth passage from one year to the next. That's the reason the Colts will prosper for as long as Manning is playing. Check your ego at the door and do what's best for the team.
That's one reason owner Jim Irsay signed Bill Polian's son Chris to be the long-term general manager the other day while Bill was still in place as franchise architect. Irsay didn't want the younger Polian to leave the Colts without a logical successor when Bill Polian steps away from the team in two or three or four years. "We'll continue to build the team with the same kind of philosophy and core values,'' Chris Polian told me. "With fast players who play 60 minutes and who play smart. At the same time, we'll look for new ideas to make sure we don't get stale. We have a great situation here. We've always talked about the Rooneys and the Maras as the role models for how an organizations should be built.''
I asked Caldwell if the Colts would handle the last two or three games of the year differently than they did under Dungy. You're familiar with the national debate about going for the undefeated season. The Patriots went for it in 2007 and got to 16-0, only to lose in the Super Bowl. The Colts have thumbed their noses at it, preferring to be in the best possible physical condition entering the playoffs. That's how Dungy and Bill Polian believed the season should be -- once you've earned home-field advantage, rest your players and be in good position for the second season. Caldwell sounded no different Sunday afternoon when we spoke.
"It'll be somewhat similar to what we've done,'' he said. "Going undefeated was always a secondary goal. I don't think we'll put too much emphasis on that.''
The Colts won't be known as the team of the decade because of their middling playoff success. Eight times since 2000 they've made the playoffs; five times they've lost their first game. Probably the biggest criticism of Dungy as a coach was his practice of resting players for the playoffs each year once there was nothing to play for but the final record. Get ready for more of the same debate this year. Knowing Caldwell, he'll be like Dungy was. It won't faze him.
The 2010 Hall of Fame Class will disappoint a lot of people.
Twenty-five men got their hopes up Saturday, when the Pro Football Hall of Fame announced its semifinalists for induction in 2010. The 44 selectors (me included) will vote by mail ballot for the final 15, who will be announced Jan. 7. Those 15 men, plus two Senior candidates (Dick LeBeau, Floyd Little) will have their cases heard at the Hall of Fame selection meeting Feb. 6, 2010, in Fort Lauderdale. The 25 semifinalists:
Offensive players (11): Quarterbacks -- none. Running backs -- Roger Craig, Terrell Davis, Emmitt Smith. Linemen -- Dermontti Dawson, Russ Grimm. Wide receiver -- Cliff Branch, Tim Brown, Cris Carter, Andre Reed, Jerry Rice. Tight end -- Shannon Sharpe.
Defensive players (9): Linemen -- Richard Dent, Chris Doleman, Charles Haley, Cortez Kennedy, John Randle. Linebackers -- Kevin Greene, Rickey Jackson; Defensive backs -- Lester Hayes, Aeneas Williams.
Special teams (2): Player -- Steve Tasker. Punter -- Ray Guy.
Others (3): Don Coryell, Art Modell, Paul Tagliabue.
The points that strike me 10 weeks before we meet to select the new class:
• A maximum of seven can earn entry into the Hall -- five from the 15 standard candidates, and two from the Seniors. Of the 15 modern-era guys, two are locks -- Emmitt Smith and Jerry Rice. That leaves three spots for the other 23 semifinalists, and that means a lot of impassioned speeches will fall short this Hall season.
The Seniors men have a much easier road to election, particularly this year. The 44 voters hear their cases, then vote yea or nay separately on both; an 80 percent yea vote would put Little and/or LeBeau in. The 15 modern-era candidates get funneled in a voting process down to five, then each is voted on individually and must get the same 80-percent to make it.
• The next most logical modern-era candidate? I'd make an educated guess of Richard Dent and/or Haley. The selectors have been mindful the last couple of years about the relative paucity of defensive players in the Hall. Because 64 percent of the modern-era enshrinees (those who played in 1960 or after) are offensive players, the board's been looking to fix the inequity; seven of the last 11 players to get in played defense. Of the offensive players next up, I'd say Russ Grimm has the best shot, in part because the celebrated Washington offensive line doesn't have a player in.
• Shannon Sharpe might have a better chance than Cris Carter, Andre Reed or Tim Brown. There's only one deserving tight end. There are three logical candidates at receiver, and Carter and Reed could take votes from each other. I sense Carter's slightly ahead of Reed, but that could change at this meeting.
• Don't forget Rickey Jackson. I back Jackson, plus he's the sleeper candidate of respected voter Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, and for good reason. Think of Jackson's candidacy this way: Lawrence Taylor played for the Giants from 1981 to 1993. Jackson played for the Saints from 1981 to 1993. In those 13 years, Taylor had a combined total of 152.5 sacks, interceptions and fumble recoveries. Jackson's total: 149.
It's believed Jackson also had more forced fumbles than Taylor, but those statistics are in some dispute. And though passes-broken-up isn't an official statistic, it's thought that Jackson led all linebackers in his Saints tenure with 118. I'm not saying Jackson was Taylor. I do think he was an impact player who's fallen through the cracks of the Hall process.
• I'm frustrated that Ron Wolf or a deserving general manager didn't get to the final 25, and it's also frustrating that the candidacy of Ed Sabol can't get traction. At some point, the Hall has to address the contributors like general managers and others (maybe even commissioners) because players almost always win the battle of on-field versus off-field candidates.
Wolf traded for an overweight party boy, Brett Favre, and against all odds made the biggest signing in the history of free-agency, bringing Reggie White to the relative hamlet of Green Bay when the Packers stunk. Wolf also played a role in building the great Raider teams and nascent Bucs.
Last week, NFL Films had what Steve Sabol (Ed's son and the keeper of the NFL Films flame) called the best player wiring he'd ever seen -- Matthew Stafford beating Cleveland in obvious and audible pain, and it was the 965th reminder of how important NFL Films is in building the legend of the game. There should be a face of NFL Films in the Hall, and that face should be a bust -- the founder, Ed Sabol's.
• It's basically a wasted vote to pick Paul Tagliabue on the final 15 ballot. If Tagliabue didn't get in the Hall in the last three years, when he had his qualifications shot down every year in part because voters wanted to wait to see how the current wrangling over a new collective bargaining agreement played out, why would he get in when the league and union are knee-deep in CBA talks?
The Charlie Weis Tote Board.
Spin the spinner: Where will Weis land once he's fired by Notre Dame? Well, eliminate Cleveland in the increasingly unlikely event that Eric Mangini keeps his job. Weis and Mangini coached together in New England but are not pals. I wouldn't be surprised to see Al Davis go hard after Weis, by the way, seeing that the Raiders won't exactly be picking from the Shanahan-Cowher tree of top candidates. But as for offensive coordinator possibilities for Weis, I'd list five teams:
1. New England, obviously. Bill Belichick hasn't given the offensive coordinator's title to Bill O'Brien this year, even though O'Brien has done a good play-calling job lately. Weis was vital to Tom Brady in his formative years, but Brady's all grown up now, so it's reasonable to wonder if Belichick would view Brady as needing Weis after five seasons without him.
2. Carolina. Weis and John Fox are close friends and current Panthers offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson worked under Weis in New England. Carolina's offense needs better quarterback play (actually, the offense needs any quarterback play) and needs to make better use of Steve Smith --two areas that are strong suits for Weis. Now, if Fox gets fired, scratch Carolina.
3. Kansas City. The Chiefs don't have a coordinator in the wake of the midseason departure of Chan Gailey. GM Scott Pioli and Weis worked together with the Jets and Pats. Not sure if Todd Haley and Weis, both strong personalities, would be oil and water.
4. Indianapolis. Surprised? I don't see it happening, but it's intriguing. Brian Polian, son of Bill, is Notre Dame's special-teams coach, an ace recruiter and is tight with Weis. Colts brass loves Notre Dame and has high regard for Weis, and you can be sure Bill Polian and Manning would love to keep him from returning to New England. But here are two reasons it probably wouldn't happen. Tom Moore, the offensive coordinator for the Colts throughout Manning's 12-year career, seems likely to return in 2010. And when he's gone, it's likely the Colts would promote from within with assistant head coach/receivers coach Clyde Christensen.
5. Chicago. If Lovie Smith returns in Chicago, he may have to sacrifice offensive coordinator Ron Turner to shake up a bad team. Weis would be a candidate.
The weird first year (a trial run, really) of the four-team United Football League ended Friday with Jim Fassel's Las Vegas Locos besting Jim Haslett's Florida Tuskers for the first league title. Cool twist: The game ended in overtime, with the OT rule I love in force. Each team gets at least one possession, and once the second team gets the ball either on a turnover or on a regular possession, the game is in sudden death. "We think it's the most fair way to solve a tie game,'' said Rick Mueller, the league's vice president and general manager. "All four coaches were in favor of it, and with me and [director of officiating] Larry Upson on board with it, that's what we went with. We were basically the Competition Committee.''
The UFL is looking to add two teams and to play a 10-week schedule next year. Look for the NFL -- which has signed four UFL alums to active rosters or practice squads -- to work out a few players, beginning this week. Florida quarterback Brooks Bollinger could catch on, along with running back DeDe Dorsey, wideout Taye Biddle, tackle Rob Pettitti and pass-rusher Josh Savage.
1. New Orleans (10-0). The real key tonight: Who's lining up in the Saint secondary, and how healthy are they?
2. Indianapolis (11-0). We're watching an amazing season. I don't know how it'll end, but when you win five games in a row that you've trailed in the fourth quarter, you're having one of the most compelling seasons a team's had in years.
3. Minnesota (10-1). Unless you're partial to Michael Oher, Percy Harvin's just about locked up the Offensive Rookie of the Year. He had eight touches for 146 yards and a touchdown Sunday against the Bears.
4. New England (7-3). I'll tell you what would be a crazy AFC Divisional Playoff game: Pats, seeded third, and coming off a physical wild card game against, say, Pittsburgh or Baltimore, traveling to Cincinnati to play the rested Bengals. Even against those odds, anyone picking against Tom Brady?
5. San Diego (8-3). That defense was voracious Sunday against the Chiefs. The Chargers are going to be a tough out in January.
6. Arizona (7-4). Can't kill the Cards, nor demote them, when they lose to the hot Titans on the last play of the game with backup quarterback Matt Leinart playing.
7. Cincinnati (8-3). Bengals 33, Raiders/Browns 27 the last two weeks.
8. Green Bay (7-4). Through 12 weeks, Charles Woodson has officially played his way past Nnamdi Asomugha as the corner opposite Darrelle Revis on my All-Pro team.
9. Dallas (8-3). Moments of truth coming for the 'Boys in a 14-day span, beginning Sunday at the Meadowlands: at Giants, vs. Chargers, at Saints.
10. Philadelphia (7-4).DeSean Jackson joined Brian Westbrook in dingland Sunday. In today's NFL, that could be trouble in a very big game next week at Atlanta.
11. Tennessee (5-6). Moment of truth, 1 p.m. ET, Sunday, Lucas Oil Stadium: Titans (five-game winning streak) at Colts (11-game winning streak).
12. Pittsburgh (6-5). Don't fret -- assuming Ben Roethlisberger's back Sunday. Steelers will make playoffs if they go 4-1 in their last five: Oakland, at Cleveland, Green Bay, Baltimore, at Miami.
13. Baltimore (6-5). Closest of calls, Steelers over Ravens. Obviously I put stock in Dixon taking Sunday's game to overtime on Baltimore's field.
14. Denver (7-4). Encouraging signs by Broncos, particularly their defense, on Thursday night against the Giants.
15. Atlanta (6-5).Mike Smith was in with the doctors for quite a while after the Falcons' win over Tampa Bay. I think I would be too. I'd want to know if my season was in the dumpster with injuries to Michael Turner and Matt Ryan. I think they'll both be OK -- but I wouldn't bet on Turner facing the Eagles this week.
"I'd say somebody's on our shoulder.''-- Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, to me, an hour after the Titans stunned Arizona on the last play of the game on Young's 10-yard touchdown pass to Britt.
"Not even close.''-- Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme after his second four-interception game of the year cost the Panthers in a 17-6 loss to the Jets, on whether he's ever had a season this frustrating.
"The Miraculous Bra just came out.''-- Candice Swanepoel, Victoria's Secret model, on CBS' NFL Today show Sunday.
That's perhaps the worst promotion on any NFL pregame show of all time. CBS is doing a fashion show this week and put this babe on TV as a billboard for it, and while Swanepoel was on TV, she got in a pop for a new piece of underwear.
Second thought: It is the worst promotion on any NFL pregame show of all time.
"I've spoken to no teams and don't intend to do so while there is a current head coach.''-- Bill Cowher, former NFL coach and current NFL analyst, on CBS' NFL Today Thursday.
That's interesting -- the first real indication of any kind since retiring that Cowher would return to coaching.
Goat of the Week
Matt Schaub, QB, Houston.
In the devastating loss to the Colts -- and this was the kind of loss that can cost coaches their jobs -- Schaub built a 20-7 lead, scoring on the Texans' first four possessions, then let the win crash and burn horribly as the Colts outscored Houston 28-0 over a 28-minute span. His five possessions in that span: interception, three-and-out (punt), fourth-and-out (punt), interception returned for a touchdown, and strip-sack/lost fumble. At times this year, Schaub has looked like a big-time player. He took about 20 steps back Sunday.
Offensive Players of the Week
Kenny Britt, WR, and Vince Young, QB, Tennessee.
It wasn't so much making the winning catch at the gun ... but hanging onto it was just as big a feat. For the game, Britt caught seven balls for 128 yards and the one winning touchdown. And I love the fact that Britt could have been the goat of the game after fumbling at the end of a 51-yard reception from Young on the previous drive in the fourth quarter. With 4:55 left in the game, he lost the ball, and it appeared the Titans had lost the game. But here came Young on a 99-yard drive, and here came Britt with the biggest catch of his life.
Give Young credit for keeping his cool as the clock wound down to :00 as he held the ball in his hands, knowing he either had to make a pass to win it and keep the Titans in the playoff race or throw an incompletion and know the Titans would be playing for 2010.
Defensive Player of the Week
Charles Woodson, CB, Green Bay.
Woodson continued an All-Pro year with one of the best games of his life at Detroit on Thanksgiving. "I don't know who's playing better in the league right now,'' coach Mike McCarthy said. The same week his $2-million donation to a hospital at the University of Michigan was announced, Woodson picked off two Lion passes and returned one for a touchdown, sacked Matthew Stafford once, pressured the quarterback twice on blitzes, broke up four passes, forced a fumble and recovered a fumble. A month's work in one long afternoon for the Lions.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Matt Prater, K, Denver.
Prater went four-for-four in field goals attempts against the Giants Thursday night (from 26, 32, 47 and 24 yards), and should have; those are the kicks pros should make. But his kickoffs landed him in this space -- seven of them, all of which went to the goal line or into the end zone. Prater had five touchbacks, and the two kicks that were returned both went for 20 yards, one from the goal line to the Giants' 20, and one from four yards deep returned to the Giants' 16.
Denver got lucky when Detroit, Cleveland, Miami and Atlanta let Prater go in a two-year span; the Broncos signed him last season to replace Jason Elam, and it looks like he can do the job several teams use two kickers for -- placements and kickoffs.
Coach of the Week
Mike Heimerdinger, offensive coordinator, Tennessee.
Give the man his due -- he's choreographed smart game plans for Young five weeks in a row and gotten Young to re-dedicate himself to football full-time for the first time in his NFL career. Heimerdinger and Young have been the perfect match that Norm Chow and Young never could be because Young didn't know everything it took to be a good player under Chow.
1. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis. It's now very close between Manning and Favre, but it's still Manning, to me, because of all the new pieces the Colts had to put in place on offense this year, and because Indy's 11-0. But three weeks ago, I thought it was Manning in a walk. Now it's Manning a neck ahead of Favre with two furlongs to run.
2. Brett Favre, QB, Minnesota. Last season after Thanksgiving, playing with a sore arm, Favre went 1-4 with two touchdowns and nine picks. In one game -- Sunday's rout of the Bears --Favre equaled his 2008 post-Turkey wins and exceeded his touchdown throws. Clearly, Favre enters December in far better shape this year than last, which means he might make a good run for his fourth MVP.
3. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans. It's going to be hard, but not impossible, for Brees to propel himself past Manning and Favre because the Saints' running game is such a prominent part of their offensive success. Monday night's the kind of game, if Brees dominates, that could vault him into a better spot for the MVP.
4. Tom Brady, QB, New England. So I went back and tried to figure out what's different about Brady in 2009 versus 2007, and what I found told me why I think it will be hard for Brady to win the MVP. The numbers say what I figured they'd say: The Patriots are more methodical this year and not quite as explosive as they were in 2007. The Patriots are averaging four more offensive snaps a game this year (70 to 66) and 0.6 yards per catch less (11.5-yard average this year, 12.1-yards in 2007). Maybe it's that Josh McDaniels dialed up the big downfield throws more than Bill O'Brien has, and O'Brien's more of a move-the-chains play-caller. Maybe. Whatever it is, Brady could have fewer TD throws -- and wins -- than Manning, Favre and Brees, which would leave him trailing in the MVP race.
5. Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego. Six in a row for the Chargers. Seven coming up Sunday at Cleveland. In the last three, he's completed 77 percent with no interceptions. Rivers is not just an MVP candidate; he's played his way into the top five or six quarterbacks in football.
Back in the spring, Belichick called Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Brady on the carpet for their comments -- Moss' and Welker's, really -- that the New England offense should be more explosive than in its 589-point 2007 season. Sounded far-fetched at the time, and even through the first month or so of this season. But the Patriots have averaged 37.2 points per game in their last five outings; the 2007 teams averaged 36.8. And though the passing game hasn't been as explosive (50 touchdown passes in 2007, 20 so far in 2009), the production of Moss and Welker has been in some ways more impressive. Tracking the averaged combined production of Moss and Welker through 10 games, compared to 2007:
You want to know why the Saints love Brees so much?
The clue is in the commercial that aired at halftime of the Sunday night Ravens-Steelers game on NBC -- the one with Brees throwing a pass to President Barack Obama as part of the NFL's "Play 60'' initiative, which urges kids to exercise or play outside for 60 minutes a day.
On Nov. 2, the Saints played a Monday-night game at home, beating Atlanta. After the game, Brees went home; he fell asleep well past midnight. At 7 a.m., he was on a commercial flight to Washington. He spent almost five hours at the White House taping the ad with Obama, Troy Polamalu and some kids. Then he was on a plane back to New Orleans. At 6 p.m., 20 hours after walking off the field following the win over Atlanta, Brees was back at the Saints' suburban practice facility in Metairie, La., watching video of the Carolina Panthers, the next week's opponent.
And you wonder why Sean Payton wouldn't trade Brees for Manning or Brady.
Quite a nice midseason refresher trip to Seattle for Thanksgiving. It's hard to imagine a prettier American city -- when it's not raining, of course. But a Friday noonish walk around Green Lake, just north of the city, was a 3.2-mile slice of heaven, with about a dozen different pines and other trees with late-turning leaves ringing a pristine lake. There's something very different about cities like Seattle, Portland, Spokane and Salt Lake City, from my experience in the last 10 or 15 years. They're less electronic. People read. People walk. People talk. People are outside a lot more, doing things that require less human-tethering to the almighty Blackberry.
"So will you call Harbaugh's 4th and 5 play boneheaded or will you be consistent and blast him for going for it instead of punting?''--iypoon, Ivan Poon, on the call by Baltimore coach John Harbaugh in the fourth quarter, extending the game-tying Baltimore drive.
Pretty different circumstances compared to the Patriots' decision. New England went for it on fourth-and-two from its own 28 with a six-point lead and 2:08 to play. Baltimore went for it on fourth-and-five from its 46, trailing 17-14 with 3:31 to play. Baltimore had one timeout left.
A risky move by the Ravens, for sure. But look at it this way: If they punt, the Steelers likely need one first down to run out the clock. And if they go for it and fail, with a neophyte quarterback on the other side of the field, it's no lock the Steelers are going to score any insurance points there.
I think it's eminently debatable, but to me, Harbaugh's decision is more logical than Belichick's.
1. I think these are my quick-hit thoughts of Week 12:
a. Best AFL throwbacks: 1. San Diego; 2. Buffalo; 3. Denver.
b. Favre's on pace for a 35-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
c. Dixon 73 more professional at-bats in the Braves organization than NFL starts.
d. Shane Lechler might be invisible to some because he's punting for the Raiders, but Tom Cable knows he's his most indispensable player, other than Asomugha. Time after time on Thanksgiving he gave the Cowboys long fields. What a player.
e. I'm told Tim Ruskell has a shot to save his job as Seattle's architect and GM ... if the Seahawks go something like 4-2 down the stretch. Sunday was a good start in St. Louis.
f. Mike Holmgren? Seattle or San Francisco -- as a GM/president, not as a coach or coach/GM -- are the most logical places for him. The longer he takes to consider Cleveland, the less chance the Browns have to get him.
g. Every time I see Brian Cushing play, I think I'm seeing the next great outside linebacker in the league.
h. Nice week for Houston. Embarrassed at home on Monday by local hero Vince Young. Humiliated at home on Sunday by the Colts. At some point, Houston has to win a big game.
2. I think I have no idea how Lovie Smith and his coaching staff can't be in trouble.
3. I think the demotion of Kerry Rhodes has mostly to do with work ethic and commitment, and some to do with Ryan wanting him to be more physical. "I got the message. The message was sent,'' Rhodes said after picking off two passes against Carolina. What I liked about the move was Ryan was blunt about it and sent a message to his team as well as to Rhodes. The message was: When we're losing, I'm going to shake things up-- and I'll have no sacred cows.''
4. I think we started to see the real Lawrence Timmons Sunday night for the Steelers, the guy the Steelers let Larry Foote walk for last winter. Trailing 14-10 in the fourth quarter, in a game the Steeler defense knew it had to make big plays to have a chance to win, Timmons roared through a hole in the Baltimore line and strip-sacked quarterback Joe Flacco. That led to Dixon's go-ahead rushing touchdown midway through the quarter. For the day, Timmons had two sacks, seven tackles, the forced fumble and another tackle for loss. He's starting to realize the potential the Steelers saw in a very young Florida State linebacker in the first round of the 2007 draft.
5. I think I very nearly gave Offensive Player of the Week to Ray Rice. What a football player. He blocks. He catches (one-handed sometimes). He makes some great Steeler run defenders miss. Just a terrific example of what a player with immense desire can do when a coach and a team trusts him. That was an impressive show, particularly down the stretch.
6. I think this is what I liked about Week 12:
a. The NFL Films wiring of Matthew Stafford. In a word: wow. The best thing was the moaning and -- I think -- the unedited pain when he got his shoulder busted.
b. So Aaron Rodgers is being left in the dust this fall by Brett Favre. What quarterback isn't? Rodgers (348 yards, though against Detroit) is still a commanding presence for the Packers.
c. Donald Driver. Ageless. A 142-yard receiving game, on the rug, at 34.
d. Dennis Dixon. More good than bad in his first NFL start. Throws a good-looking ball, if not very accurate.
e. Chris Redman. It took him seven shots to get Atlanta into the end zone in the final minute to beat Tampa Bay, but he played respectably (23-of-41, two touchdowns, no interceptions) after gathering dust on the Falcons shelf for two years. Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey kept telling coach Mike Smith that Redman would be OK, and the way Redman managed the game against the Bucs, Mularkey was right.
f. Marvin Lewis doesn't mind boring, and that's what he got against Cleveland: 40 carries between Larry Johnson and Bernard Scott, for 194 clock-eating yards.
g. Play five more games like yesterday's, Alex Smith, and you just might keep the Niners from picking a quarterback to replace you next April.
h. Say this for Justin Forsett: the Seattle running back won't go away, and he refuses to cede the job to Julius Jones forever. The marginal prospect outrushed Steven Jackson 120-89 and led Seattle to a 10-point win.
i. I had no idea Ryan Fitzpatrick was so fast.
j. More dominance from London Fletcher (12 tackles, a sack). The guy just doesn't slow down.
7. I think this is what I didn't like about Week 12:
a. The awful pass-interference call that gave the Colts life --and a 43-yard gain -- on the first drive of the third quarter. Jacque Reeves barely arm-barred Pierre Garcon, and a drive-sustaining flag came flying. Manning doesn't need your help, zebras. This is really saying something, but that's the worst PI call of the year.
b. Why no safety over the top to help Dunta Robinson on a red zone throw to Reggie Wayne?
c. Brady Quinn. Best hands on the Browns. And I mean that as a criticism to the Cleveland wideouts. Even without Braylon Edwards, they can't catch.
d. We've written off the Jags a few times this year, but I believe we can write them off for good now.
e. Uh, Donald Brown... you're supposed to block the guy in the other jersey, not your own.
f. Uh, Baltimore ... you're supposed to have containment people on the outside when a runner like Dixon leaves the pocket.
g. Ball security, Chiefs. I guarantee you Todd Haley will have a few periods in practice this week to harangue his team about that.
h. Nineteen minutes of possession time for the Bears. Awful.
i. Twenty interceptions for Jay Cutler. Worse.
8. I think I'm doing the same thing if I'm Mike Shanahan: waiting for the end of the year and surveying the field. Because I want to see what the Bears do. I want to see what a lot of teams do -- Dallas, Washington, Carolina. Why jump at the first team with an opening? How much would Shanahan kick himself if he commits to the Bills and then in a month his old friend Jay Cutler is coachless and it could have been Shanahan's gig?
9. I think it's getting to be the time of year when we 44 voters on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee get bombarded with the pleadings of fans and teams about their candidates for the Hall. This is how silly it gets: I answered a Tweet Friday from a follower who asked why Floyd Little isn't in the Hall of Fame. I replied: "1 1,000-yard season, career 3.9 yards per carry, 54-yard average rush yds per game.'' I didn't say I didn't support him, or he wouldn't he get in this year as one of two Seniors Committee nominees. I was asked a question about why he wasn't in and answered why, in my opinion, he has never been voted into the Hall.
I'm going to guess that the next three or four hours brought 50 responses, most of them outraged that I would dare to question Little's qualifications, many of them offering reasons why he should certainly be in the Hall. Thanks for your input, folks. I have a Floyd Little file at home. Most of those reasons are it. Haranguing doesn't help. Calling me names doesn't help. Reasoned arguments are good; I'll take those. I'm not saying some people don't respond positively to being called a know-nothing dillweed. I'm not going to shout back at you, but rest assured your point doesn't get better the louder and angrier you get. Thank you.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. Rest in peace, Mike Penner. I didn't know you, but everyone who did said you were a gem.
b. Sometimes the media does the darndest things. On Wednesday, anchor Suzanne Malveaux teased an upcoming story about safety measures to avoid the repeat of a tragic 2008 stampede death on Black Friday on CNN. Two seconds later, a commercial began with these stern and excited deep-throated words: "Friday doorbusters at Joseph A. Bank!''
c. You have until Saturday to get the cheapest, most valuable holiday gift of the season -- Monday Morning Quarterback a Fully Caffeinated Guide to Everything You Need to Know About the NFL. I'll personalize, sign and return to you in time for the holidays, but only if I have it in hand by Saturday. You can buy the book on Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com or at borders.com or at your local bookstore. I'll have it back to you by the middle of the month, plenty of time to spread that Peter King holiday cheer. Send books to: Chris Mahr, Sports Illustrated, 1271 Ave. of the Americas, Room 33-120B, New York, NY 10020.
d. Michaele and Tareq Salahi, you are pathetic. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves. You want to be on a reality show, and so you crash a White House state dinner. A state dinner! Which one of you moronic 8-year-olds got this great idea? Did you sit around one night thinking, "How can we get on some sad reality show that no one will watch?'' And you have a publicist, and a camera crew as part of this, and Larry King booked you? Larry King? What do you have to say for yourselves? Speak! I can't wait to hear whatever reason you have for this immature cry for attention and fame.
e. I don't know when I've been more embarrassed for two adults than in reading that story.
f. Can you please speak, Tiger? Say something. Anything.
g. Coffeenerdness: Well, at least the Egg Nog latte is skim this year. At least that's what one of the midtown Manhattan baristas told me this year. As in past years, it tastes different depending on where you buy it, because there's no universal flavor for egg nog. But the couple I've had in the past week are lighter than I recall last year. I always add three or four shakes of nutmeg, which helps. It's not good enough to replace hazelnut in my life, but it's a good diversion.
h. How great would a Boise-TCU national championship game be?
i. Never thought I'd say this: I do believe The Office is aging better than Seinfeld did.
j. I guess Mount Union really misses Pierre Garcon. The Mount's won two Division III playoff games, 127-14.
Though I've written about it a few times, and others have done so before and after that, you're making a big mistake if you view the 10-0 Saints as a team that has to throw for 350 yards to win. New Orleans ran on 38 percent of its offensive snaps last year. This year, it's 49 percent rushing.
That's no surprise to the Patriots. When I spoke with safety Brandon Meriweather the other day, he said normally he'd watch maybe four games of a team. Preparing for this game, he said he'd watch every Saints game -- as well as sitting in with Belichick on a one-on-one session to get his take of the important keys against the New Orleans offense.
"The thing I've noticed about Brees,'' said Meriweather, "is he can change his mechanics in a split-second. You've got no room for mistakes. He thrives on your mistakes. The best way is to try to confuse him with different looks.''
After watching a lot of the Saints, Meriweather had especially high praise for Jeremy Shockey, who he figures to see a lot of tonight. As the heir to Rodney Harrison in the New England back end, Meriweather knows he has to be both physical and good in coverage against the versatile tight end. "Shockey's passion is so noticeable. He's a great receiving tight end who blocks well.''
I expect New England might play this game the way it played the first Super Bowl this decade against St. Louis. That day, Belichick put the word out to hit Marshall Faulk every time he moved. Someone else might beat the Pats, but not Faulk. Look, there's no right way to play such a multiple offense. You try to figure out the best way to stop the dam from bursting. My best guess is they'll try to stifle Mike Bell and Pierre Thomas and hope they can force Brees into a couple of turnovers. Belichick knows his side will put up points, particularly against a patchwork secondary that will struggle to contain Brady, Moss and Welker.
But I also think some pretty good defenses have had well-oiled plans for this offense this year. Philadelphia, the Giants and Miami entered their games with New Orleans confident that if they pressured Brees and put a stopper in the run game, they'd have a chance to force him into mistakes. The Saints put up 48 on Philly, 48 on the G-men, 46 on Miami. In other words, it sounds logical -- the same way so many teams thought they had the 2007 Patriots figured out.
My pick: New Orleans 37, New England 33.