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New Orleans steals the show, but beware of streaking San Diego

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

NEW YORK -- Best day of football of the year? Well, at least it was the best set of early games, with the most dramatic missed field goal of 2009, the Saints falling out of a Redwood and landing on their feet, Michael Vick actually engendering love, the Dolphins making a race of the AFC East, Bruce Gradkowski imitating Joe Montana, and the Colts and Saints -- the first time two teams have been unbeaten this late in any NFL season -- approaching perfection as polar opposites.

But I start this morning with a winner in one of the late games, the team on a seven-game winning streak (puny compared to 12-game streaks, of course), and the team all contenders want to see get upset early in the playoffs.

***

The Chargers want to show they're not your father's Bolts.

Rather than look at the narrow 30-23 victory in Cleveland with negativity, I look at it as an example of San Diego growing up. The Chargers built a 27-7 lead on a 27-degree wind-chill day, and even though San Diego likely won't face a frigid game in the playoffs, it's good to know the players can handle it if it comes. More likely, San Diego will find a road to the Super Bowl runs through Indianapolis. The Chargers would never say that makes them happy, but they don't have to. The stats say it.

"I don't think that's a team Indianapolis wants to play,'' says Tony Dungy, who might know a thing or two about what Indianapolis wants.

With the most recent game first, the past five San Diego-Indy meetings did not go well for the Colts. How they've gone:

2008 playoff, at San Diego: Chargers 23-17 (OT).2008 regular season, at San Diego: Colts 23-20.2007 playoffs, at Indianapolis: Chargers 28-24.2007 regular season, at San Diego: Chargers 23-212005 regular season, at Indianapolis: Chargers 26-17

So let's see. The Chargers in 2005 beat the 13-0 Colts in Indy. The Chargers knocked the 13-3 Colts out of the playoffs in 2007 in Indy. The Chargers knocked the 12-4 Colts out of the playoffs in 2008 in San Diego.

I sense a trend.

The Chargers lead the league in matchup problems for defense. On Sunday in Cleveland, San Diego started two 6-foot-5 receivers, Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd, and two tight ends, 6-4 Antonio Gates and 6-2, 295-pound Brandon Manumaleuna. They subbed two more 6-5 wideouts, Legedu Naanee and Kassim Osgood. Smurfy Darren Sproles caught four balls. Gates had an eight-catch, 167-yard day. "Football is a game of matchups,'' Gates said from Cleveland. "Right now, our skill-position guys can match up well with defenses.''

Consider how the Chargers are playing in their seven-game win streak. They are scoring more than one unbeaten team, Indianapolis, in the past seven games, averaging 31 points during the win streak, and defending better than New Orleans, averaging 15 points allowed in their win streak.

"Our maturity level is higher,'' Gates said from Cleveland. "We realize it's all about now. Forget what happened last week, forget what we've got next week. It's now that counts. We've also realized all that stuff about talent doesn't win games for you. Having talent doesn't mean you'll win in the playoffs, and going 14-2 doesn't mean you'll win. We just want to get to the postseason and be playing well when we get there.''

***

Crazy game of the day. Or the year.

The play of the day: Trying to cut a 17-10 Washington deficit just before halftime, Drew Brees throws a desperation interception to Washington safety Kareem Moore at the Redskins' 30-yard line. Moore runs upfield with the ball, on his way perhaps to a 24-10 halftime lead, until encountering Robert Meachem of the Saints.

"When he got the interception,'' Meachem said via cell phone postgame, "he had two blockers in front of him. I thought the only way I had a chance to get at him was to knife through the two blockers, to avoid them and just get through them. He looked like he was carrying the ball a little loose. Those DBs aren't used to running with the ball.''

Meachem, a second-year man, hears defensive coordinator Gregg Williams every day in practice preaching "Strip, strip, strip.'' As Meachem said, "It's burned in my head. So I managed to get through the two blockers and I went for the ball.'' It's crazy how easy it was. Meachem grabbed it, and ran it 44 yards for the tying touchdown. Then, given life by my Goat of the Week, the Saints got the tying touchdown, a 53-yard bomb from Brees to Meachem, to send this one into overtime. There's no way it should have gotten to OT, of course. "Maybe it's our turn,'' Brees said after the game. No maybes about it, particularly after the overtime replay.

The replay of the day -- and the timeout of the day: On the third play of overtime, Jason Campbell completed a ball to fullback Mike Sellers in the flat. Sellers was upended by Chris McAlister, and either just before he was down or a millisecond after his elbow hit the ground, the ball came loose. The officials called the runner down by contact, and the Redskins went to run another play. At the last second, with Campbell calling signals at the line, it appeared replay official Larry Nemmers wasn't going to call for a booth review of the play, and so New Orleans coach Sean Payton called a timeout.

During a timeout, it's perfectly within the rules for the replay official to determine if the play should be reviewed. And Nemmers called for a review. Now, overnight, I watched this replay seven times. I believe it does not meet the most important criterion for being overturned -- namely, that it requires indisputable visual evidence to change the call on the field. The one angle where you can see Sellers upside down, with his elbow either touching the ground or very close to touching the ground, the ball has just been dislodged. It's very, very close. Referee Carl Cheffers called for a reversal. I wouldn't have. But you watch the play a few times and let me know what you think.

Now, if the play hadn't been overturned, the Redskins were still 40 yards out of field goal range where you'd trust the kicker. (Then again, would Jim Zorn have trusted Shaun Suisham after he missed from extra-point ranged earlier?) So the replay reversal didn't win the game. But it was a very big factor.

***

Sean Payton: "We're going for it.''

Payton's about to have a lot more admirers around the United States. He told me Saturday he's not going to take the foot off the accelerator down the stretch, not even if the Saints have homefield advantage clinched in the NFC playoffs. The Saints, instead of taking the last game or two to let players heal for the playoffs, will try to make history if they're in position. They're aiming for a perfect season.

Payton loved what Tom Coughlin did in 2007, having his Giants play the Patriots like it was the seventh game of the World Series in a meaningless final game of the regular season, going down to defeat valiantly and narrowly, and setting up the Giants' 4-0 playoff run that ended in the Super Bowl upset of the perfect Patriots.

I'm not saying what the Colts have done over the years -- resting their key players so they'll be fresh for the playoffs when their playoff position can't change -- is wrong. Obviously, fluky plays can happen and Peyton Manning or Reggie Wayne or Dwight Freeney could get hurt on any snap of the ball. But the Colts are the winningest regular-season team of this decade, and here's what they have to show for it: eight playoff appearances, one Super Bowl victory and five first-game playoff losses. It was particularly disastrous in 2005 and 2007, when the Colts went a combined 27-5, rested many of their starters, rested them some more with a playoff bye, then went out and lost at home to Pittsburgh and at home to San Diego, respectively.

Jim Caldwell says the same thing is planned this year when the Colts clinch homefield, and with a three-game lead and four games to go, Indy could have three late-season games to snooze. That could mean taking a month off before a battle-tested team like New England or Baltimore comes to Indiana for a Jan. 16 or 17 playoff game.

Payton's not going to do that. He thinks his players -- many playoff rookies -- will be energized by going for it. And though you might get the PC answer from most of the players, I can tell you guys like Drew Brees definitely will want to make a run at history. No team has ever gone 19-0; the Patriots came within a velcroed David Tyree catch of doing it two years ago. When I asked Meachem about it Sunday, he said, "I feel good about that. We always want to play. If our coach says that, we've got to back him and go out and do it.''

The landscape changed quite a bit Sunday. New Orleans (12-0) took a two-game lead over 10-2 Minnesota when the Vikes lost in Arizona. For the Saints to lose home-field advantage now, Minnesota would have to go 4-0 down the stretch, and New Orleans would have to lose two of its final four games (all NFC games). Because there's no head-to-head game this year between the Saints and Vikings, the tiebreaker would come down to conference record. My scenario would give the Saints and Vikings 14-2 records, but Minnesota would win homefield by virtue of an 11-1 NFC record, while New Orleans would be 10-2 in the conference.

It's easy to say the Saints have it locked now, but who'd have thought New Orleans could be taken to overtime by the Redskins? New Orleans will play at Atlanta on Sunday -- GM Thomas Dimitroff says injured quarterback Matt Ryan (turf toe) told him he would play against the Saints, but he's at best questionable -- and it's a playoff game for the 6-6 Falcons. Then Dallas plays at New Orleans, and that could be a must-win for the Cowboys, who have a bear of a schedule the rest of the way. Final two games for New Orleans: Tampa Bay, at Carolina. Should follow form, but if the Panthers come to play, their top-tier running game could make it a time-of-possession game.

***

Could Bruce Gradkowski be the Raiders quarterback in 2010?

As much as I've killed the Raiders over the past four or five years, I have to give them credit for a heroic win at Pittsburgh. I'm sure it didn't make up for the Immaculate Reception to Al Davis, but in a week when desperate fans put up a billboard urging Al to cede football control of his franchise, this was one of the sweetest, unlikeliest wins in recent Raiders history. And it happened because a journeyman kid from Pittsburgh, Bruce Gradkowski, threw more touchdown passes in the final 10 minutes (three) than JaMarcus Russell threw in his nine games this year (two).

Gradkowski, 10 of 16 for 188 yards and those three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, led the Raiders back from deficits of 10-6, 17-13 and 24-20 in the last period with a brilliant mix of throws on the run and well-placed deep throws from the pocket. In the process, he planted Russell deep on the bench for the rest of the season and may well have put himself in play to contend for the Raiders quarterback job in 2010.

Why not? Oakland has tried the millionaire kid with zero work ethic. Why not try the blue-collar kid from western Pennsylvania and the Mid-American Conference (Toledo) who grew up dreaming of being Dan Marino? At least he'll work at it to try to make his dreams come true.

Gradkowski plays like a Pittsburgher. According to Jerry McDonald of the Oakland Tribune, left tackle Mario Henderson was staring up at the replay board in the end zone in the Raiders huddle on the winning series when Gradkowski yelled at him: "Stop [expletive] looking at that thing and get your mind right!'' As Henderson said, "I looked at him like, 'You talkin' to me? OK, you're right. You're right. You're the man.''

"When I'm out there, it's my offense, and that's how I'm going to lead,'' Gradkowski said.

To Raiders fans, Christmas just came early. Gradkowski's their new icon.

"We want Vick! We want Vick!''

Michael Vick, 45 minutes after one of the most memorable games of his star-crossed NFL career, was still so emotional about it that I could almost feel his goosebumps over the phone. The day started with him being booed by the Georgia Dome crowd, but when Andy Reid called a couple of plays catering to Vick's strengths -- and they worked -- the crowd switched. It was a Vick lovefest.

"We want Vick! We want Vick!'' came the chant from every corner of the Dome.

"Awesome, awesome,'' Vick said over the phone from Atlanta. "I had chills down my spine. I will never, ever forget this day. To have them say they want me to be a part of their team, their city ... I just appreciate it so much. I appreciate everything about today. This will always be my hometown-away-from-home ...''

In the 34-7 win over the Falcons (to be fair, playing without Matt Ryan, who got standing ovations of his own in this same Dome last year as Vick's heir), Vick finally got to throw the ball downfield. People credit Vick for his athleticism, and justifiably, but I say he's got one of the three best arms in football, and two years in federal custody didn't rob him of that.

In the Eagles' first 11 games, Vick had touched the ball 18 times and generated 74 unspectacular yards. But in the third quarter Sunday, on third-and-one from the Falcons' five, he wriggled through the line for a five-yard touchdown. And after the chant got loud early in the fourth quarter, Reid put him back in the game and Vick threw a bomb up the left seam. It was so perfectly thrown, bisecting double-coverage, that Reggie Brown got interfered with and still caught the 43-yard throw.

"We've had that play in the playbook all season, but we haven't called it,'' said Vick. "In practice, I overthrow it every week, but this time, the safety bit on it and he [Brown] went up and got it. Thrilling.''

I told Vick the FOX cameras caught him talking to Arthur Blank before the game, and I wondered what they said. "Family stuff,'' he said. "It was good. We're going to have dinner in the offseason.''

***

Uh, what's going to be unleashed in January? Some firings?

It sure sounded good last week when, after an overtime loss at Baltimore dropped the Steelers to 6-5, Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin stepped to the postgame microphone and said: "We will not go gently. We will unleash hell in December.''

Hell Month began for sure at Heinz Field, but not quite the way Tomlin intended. The Steelers allowed a 3-8 team with nothing to play for to go on three long touchdown drives in the last quarter and win a game that put the Steelers in playoff jeopardy. Pittsburgh (6-6) now may have to sweep its final four games (at Cleveland on Thursday night, Green Bay, Baltimore, at Miami) to make the playoffs.

Pittsburgh's shortcomings include: The secondary depth is un-Steeler-like and porous; when William Gay went out in the fourth quarter and rookie Joe Burnett had to play his first extended time at corner, Burnett dropped an interception on the final Raiders drive that would have ended the game. Secondly, Troy Polamalu's absence with a knee injury is killing defensive playmaking. There's no one to take up the slack in the back end. Thirdly, the offense's finishing ability is awful. In Pittsburgh's four-game losing streak, the offense has scored 77 points, with an emphasis on shaky play in the red zone. On the Steelers' first three red zone forays Sunday, they went field goal, interception and a failed fourth-down conversion.

This is the first crisis in Tomlin's three precocious seasons running the Steelers. Starting this morning, everyone will be looking to him to set the tone to save the season. He'd better have something good up his sleeve.

***

Can't anyone here rush the passer?

In the past two NFL drafts, teams have used 20 picks in the first two rounds trying to find, at least in part, players to bring the heat on the quarterback. Early results -- which can be dangerous because of the adjustment from college to the pros -- say the crop has been an immense failure. Only one of the 21 defensive ends/outside linebackers picked is averaging more than half a sack per game. That's Brian Orakpo, the rookie outside linebacker for the Redskins, who has seven sacks in his first 11 games.

I remember seeing Orakpo at the Scouting Combine last February and thinking he had the body of a fifth-year NFL player. That's one reason Washington had Orakpo rated a top-10 player and chose him over a much-needed offensive tackle on draft day. "He's succeeded because of the two things NFL pass-rushers have to have -- speed and explosiveness,'' said Washington VP of football operations Vinny Cerrato. "There's not many in college. He came into the NFL understanding the speed of the game. At this level, a lot of time your success or failure as a rusher depends on whether the guy has a second move, and he does.''

The pass-rushing dunce cap is reserved for Vernon Gholston. (His play reminds me of Dean Wormer in Animal House. When the good dean was reading the grade-point averages for the fine students in the Delta House, he got to John Belushi. "Mr. Blutarsky: Zero point zero!'') Gholston, drafted to be an edge rusher, made little impact under Eric Mangini, and that has continued under Rex Ryan. Gholston's line: 25 games, 0.0 sacks. For $21 million guaranteed. Yikes. San Francisco's Kentwan Balmer also is sackless, but he was drafted to be a two-way defensive end, and at 315 pounds, he's clearly not the classic rush end.

The other honorary dunce caps go collectively to Jacksonville's Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves, drafted 1-2 last year to solve the Jags' anemic rush. Harvey got a sack Sunday of Matt Schaub, but that's it this year. Through 12 games, Harvey and Groves have a grand total of that one sack.

The 20 young draftees, and how they've fared in Sackville:

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1. New Orleans (12-0). In 2006, the red-hot Saints blew out Dallas on a Sunday night and lost to the 4-9 Redskins the next week. In 2009, the red-hot Saints blew out New England on a Monday night and lost ... uh, check that ... came back from the dead to beat the 3-8 Redskins in overtime the next week.

2. Indianapolis (12-0). Say this for the Colts' D: It can play the run better than it has played it in a while. In two games against the Colts, NFL rushing leader Chris Johnson averaged 73.5 yards; in 10 games against other opponents, Johnson has averaged 136.2.

3. Minnesota (10-2). Favre giveth. Favre taketh away.

4. San Diego (9-3). "Best team in football,'' one NFL coach told me Saturday. Don't laugh.

5. Cincinnati (9-3). Take away the bad loss at Oakland 15 days ago, and the Bengals have been playing terrific football. They have a 2.5-game lead with four to play, nearly insurmountable, though they do play at Minnesota and vs. San Diego the next two weeks. America doesn't see much of the Bengals and may not down the stretch. (Cincinnati has daytime games scheduled each of the final four Sundays.) But know this: The Bengals can play defense.

6. Arizona (8-4). If I were the Saints or Vikings, I wouldn't want to see the Cardinals, with Kurt Warner and that defensive front healthy, come calling in January.

7. Green Bay (7-4). Brett Favre's career-high single-season passing year as a Packer: 4,413 yards. Aaron Rodgers is on pace for a 4,561-yard season. Interesting. Some of us don't think of Rodgers' year as being particularly tremendous. Maybe because so many quarterbacks are having a good year. Think again.

8. Dallas (8-4). I don't know what to do with the Cowboys. Should they be eight? Ten? Fifteen? I wrote the other day Dallas hasn't had a winning December in 13 years, and after the loss to the Giants, it'll be incredible if it has one this fall. Next three December games: San Diego, at New Orleans, at Washington.

9. Philadelphia (8-4). Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott breathed a pretty big sigh of relief Sunday in Atlanta. Even with the quarterback and best running back out for the Falcons, holding them to no points for 59 minutes and 59 seconds (Atlanta got a garbage TD at the gun) was a welcome relief after giving up 75 points in the previous three games.

10. Denver (8-4). What a psycho team. Lost four in a row by an average of 20. Now have won two by an average of 25.

11. New England (7-5). According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the game against Miami was the third this year in which New England has lost after holding a 10-point lead. The Pats had one of those in the previous seven years. Great line, by the way, from MLB/NFL stat maven Elliott Kalb about the Pats: "They've only won in England, and New England.''

12. Jacksonville (7-5). Jax has won four of the past five, and the wins have come by 3, 2, 3 and 5 points. If the playoffs started today, the Jags would be at Cincinnati in the wild-card opener.

13. Baltimore (6-5). Touring the NFC North over the next 14 days: at Packers tonight, home with Detroit and Chicago the next two Sundays.

14. Tennessee (5-7). Can't kayo the Titans for losing at an unbeaten team and playing competitively.

15. New York Giants (7-5). Though the Giants allowed 24 points to the Cowboys, the Dallas rushing line was 23 carries for 45 yards. That has to give Tom Coughlin hope that a major hole is starting to be plugged.

"I'd have to cut him before he cost me my job.''-- NBC Football Night in America analyst Tony Dungy, on what he'd do if he were the coach on a team with Shaun Suisham on it, and Suisham missed a 23-yard field goal like he missed Sunday.

"He's our knucklehead, and we love him.''-- Jets coach Rex Ryan, on quarterback Mark Sanchez's unwillingness to slide, which resulted in him making a first down Thursday against Buffalo, but also partially tearing a knee ligament, placing his availability for Week 14 in question.

"The commissioner has talked about the risk the owners take. We're not financially invested in ownership, so we don't face that, but we're physically invested in this. What's the price tag for that? Ask [permanently injured Buffalo tight end] Kevin Everett the price tag. We feel we take great risk every time we take the field. I'm sure the owners feel they take great risk every time they invest their money. Where is the common ground? That's what we need to find.''-- New England quarterback Tom Brady, the Patriots' assistant player representative, to Ron Borges of the Boston Herald, on the current collective bargaining talks between players and owners.

Classic Brady -- he's not afraid of lobbing a bomb, but he'll usually do it wrapped in a nice padded box of respect.

"At some point I think players have to understand that there are certain risks that are involved, and if you decide that you want to go out and play football, then you've got to understand that part of that means you're going to break some bones and you may have some head injuries. But if you try to eliminate all of those things, then we're no longer playing football."--Troy Aikman, on ESPN's Pardon the Interruption with Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon.

"I'm toward the end of my career. I don't think about one more game defining me, or them throwing me out. I'm thinking about the 50 years with my family after this part of my life. Football takes a huge backseat. I'm going to have 12, 13 years in this game, and 70 out of it. When I think about it that way, it makes the decision a little easier.''-- Kurt Warner, to me, from my Friday Game Plan column, on making the decision not to lie to Cardinal team doctors a week ago. He said he knew he could have lied about his symptoms and played against Tennessee.

Offensive Player of the Week

Bruce Gradkowski, QB, Oakland.

The Pittsburgh kid just might have kayoed his beloved Steelers from the playoffs with a 20-of-33, three-touchdown, no-pick performance in Oakland's 27-24 win at Heinz Field ... all three touchdowns in the final 10 minutes of this shocker. It's what so great about this game. Gradkowski should never, ever beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh in a game with such big playoff implications. It happened because the Raiders played hard and the Steelers made enough mistakes to let them.

Defensive Player of the Week

Vontae Davis, CB, Miami.

With the Patriots up 21-19 and throwing into the end zone to ice the game with 9:45 to play, Davis, the feisty first-round rookie from Illinois, made a play he'll be telling his grandchildren about someday. He leaped with Randy Moss and picked off the pass, killing the drive and helping the Dolphins make a race of the AFC East again. "It's something I'll remember forever,'' said Davis. He added three tackles and another pass broken up, but it was the pick that led to a long and winding road to the game-winning field goal by Dan Carpenter.

Special Teams Players of the Week

Donnie Jones, P, St. Louis.

It's hard to imagine a punter having a better day than Jones did in a losing cause at Chicago. His seven punts averaged 45.3 yards, and in one of the rarities of this or any NFL season, his net average was longer than gross -- 45.7 yards. That's because the one punt he had returned went for minus-three yards by Devin Hester. Jones dropped six punts inside the Bear 20 -- at the 15, 7, 2, 2, 19 and 3. One last variable: he did it punting a K ball (of course; all kicks are made with a fresh ball at the start of a game, a ball not well-broken-in), on a day with 30-degree wind-chill temps and a 8-mph breeze. What a great performance by Jones.

Domenik Hixon, PR/WR, New York Giants.

Nursing a 24-17 lead with six minutes left, the Giants' punt-return team lined up for a boomer by Dallas' Mat McBriar. Fielding it at his 21, Hixon weaved and deked for a few yards, then found an alley down the right side. He got two good blocks and sprinted into the end zone. Ballgame.

Coach of the Week

Bill Callahan, offensive line coach, New York Jets.

It's no wonder other coaches study what the Jets do in the running game. "I really like what Bill Callahan does,'' says New Orleans running game/offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, and Thursday night showed why. The Jets ran inside the Bills and outside the Bills, 43 times for 249 yards, dominating the line of scrimmage in a 19-13 win.

Goat of the Week

Shaun Suisham, K, Washington.

I don't mean to doom Shaun Suisham for life, but his missed field goal with two minutes left has to be the gaffe of the year. The snap was slightly high, and the hold not pristine, but the kick has to be made. Just has to. The situation: 'Skins up, 30-23. Two minutes left. Suisham lines up for a chippy from 23 yards out. He makes it, and Washington has the upset of the year in the NFL. It's an extra point! But these are the 2009 Redskins, and Suisham pushed it wide right.

1. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis. The new protégés, Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon, are full-fledged members of the Manning tribe at a young age. They've combined for 90 catches and nine touchdowns.

2. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans. Creeps into second place with one of the most ridiculous comebacks, helped by Suisham's ridiculous field-goal miss.

3. Brett Favre, QB, Minnesota. He and Brees were close heading into Sunday, and they're still close -- only in reverse.

4. Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego. Fourteen touchdowns, three interceptions in the seven-game win streak.

5. Elvis Dumervil, LB, Denver. He's bucking the NFL trend for pass-rushers by actually being good at it. Had his 14th sack of the year in the rout of the Chiefs, and he's in this spot over Chris Johnson and others because when the Broncos were about to go into the tank, he spearheaded a strong defensive effort in the past eight quarters that has seen Denver stuff the Giants and Chiefs.

Sean Payton, a branch of the Bill Parcells coaching tree after working under Parcells for three years in Dallas, has done pretty well for himself against the other Parcells alums. By pretty good, I mean going 5-0 in head-to-head matchups, and averaging 40 points a game. (Payton has not coached against the other two former Parcells assistants who formerly coached or currently coach in the league, Al Groh or Eric Mangini.)

The last time the Colts lost in the regular season came eight days before Barack Obama was elected president -- the night Tampa Bay and the Phillies tried, in vain, to finish the World Series in an insane frigid downpour in Philadelphia. In other words, not many people noticed a loss by the Colts on that Monday night.

But it's interesting looking back. That loss made the Colts 3-4. We all had serious questions about whether Peyton Manning was just too gimpy coming off his two knee procedures -- the first to remove his bursa sac, the second to deal with the staph infection that set in afterward. Marvin Harrison was a shell of himself. Austin Collie was playing at BYU. Pierre Garcon's head was swimming, trying to adjust to the jump from Mount Union (Ohio) College to the NFL. The Colts couldn't run. The Colts couldn't stop the run.

What a difference 58 weeks makes.

"Why does Indy insist on resting players when their only SB win came when they played it out 'til the end?''-- td619, Tim, of Buffalo.

Good question. Bill Polian believes it's better to have a fresh team in January than a team with momentum. If they're one-and-done this year, my guess is Polian, Caldwell and that entire organization is going to have to re-think the assertion that playing the JV for two or three weeks really is the best way to go.

Amtrak Acela conductor to me, 8:27 a.m. Saturday:

"Fourth-and-two at the 28. Did Belichick do the right thing?''

It never ends.

1. I think these are my quick-hit thoughts of Week 13:

a. The Raiders ought to be called more for lining up in the neutral zone.

b. It must drive NFL people crazy to hear Ed Hochuli go on those long, explanatory riffs when he's got his mike open. But I love it. Mike Pereira can't make stolid refs have Hochuli's personality, and he shouldn't try. But his explanations should be textbook for all officials in college and pro football. Fans deserve to hear exactly why something has happened.

c. Good reporting by Greg Gumbel, that Tom Cable plans to play Gradkowski the rest of the year while Russell sits.

d. Clint Session is so much better than I thought he'd be. He's the biggest playmaker in the Indy back seven, and coming out of Pitt in 2007, Session wasn't universally beloved in the Colts' draft room. At 6-foot and 235 pounds, he's the kind of undersized linebacker the Colts have unearthed, successfully, over the years. Thirteen more tackles Sunday against the Titans.

e. I inadvertently left out the Patriots' throwbacks from the ones I like of the old AFL unis. Great classic jerseys and helmets -- another team that would be smart to go back in time, full-time.

f. What must Ronde Barber think of this Bucs mess?

g. Not sure the Bears would be too disappointed if Orlando Pace retired in the spring. He's been a big disappointment at left tackle.

h. Matt Cassel, who looked awful Sunday, is not going to stay in the lineup just because of money if he has many more of those 10-for-29 days like he had Sunday against Denver.

i. I really like Tony Dungy and Rodney Harrison, but I disagree with their feeling that Tony Romo can't take a day off to attend a benefit in Las Vegas on a long weekend after a resounding win. One day. And it was not a day, from all accounts, with any debauchery involved.

Dungy and Harrison feel it's a bad example to set for the other players, that the leader of the team is jetting off to Vegas on a day off, especially when the team has such a bad record in recent Decembers. I just don't buy it. He was back in the building for treatment Saturday morning after 24 hours in Vegas.

j. Hey Rodney: Congrats on your new daughter, Sydney. Nice job. The Harrisons had child number four Saturday night in Atlanta, and Rodney, the gamer, was in the viewing room as normal at noon Sunday at NBC.

2. I think he'll get no credit for it other than some nods of thanks from those who own him in fantasy leagues, but everyone in his locker room Sunday knew the kind of day Steven Jackson had, playing in pain with a bad back. His 28-carry, 112-yard rushing performance (along with four short catches out of the backfield) had "gamer'' written all over it. Jackson has proven himself a longterm keeper to Steve Spagnuolo.

3. I think it's going to be hard to stop the Saints. Not saying no one can. The Redskins almost did. But since their Week 5 bye, they've scored 48, 46, 35, 30, 28, 38, 38 and 33 points. How about over an eight-week span when your worst day is scoring four touchdowns!

4. I think Mike Holmgren to Seattle is not quite the slam dunk we might think it is. The other day, when Tim Ruskell walked out of the Seahawks' posh new facility in suburban Renton, the most interesting -- and telling -- thing said by team CEO Tod Leiweke was, "We're not going to join them, they're going to join us.''

I believe Holmgren wants a role like Bill Parcells has in Miami -- a franchise czar sort of role. Parcells has installed a football culture in Miami. But Leiweke sounds very much like he wants to retain Jim Mora as coach (which Holmgren would also do), and find a general manager who fits in with the organization and doesn't cast a major shadow over it.

Would Holmgren, with homes in Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona, be the kind of worker bee at this stage of his life to help a team in need of rebuilding at so many positions on and off the field? Seattle will have three picks in the top 45 of a very rich draft -- its own in the first and second round, and Denver's from a draft-day trade last year. The Seahawks have to plan for a new left tackle with Walter Jones on his last football legs and a new quarterback with Matt Hasselbeck not an ironman anymore (though Hasselbeck certainly can give Seattle a year or two more of quality play if he can stay on the field). It's a good job, but a few weeks ago, the football world thought Holmgren would be crowned with it. Now he may well have to prove to Leiweke he deserves it.

5. I think Houston owner Bob McNair feels he's closer to winning in 2010 by keeping Gary Kubiak than by firing him. At least this morning he feels that way. Could that change? Absolutely.

6. I think this is what I liked about Week 13:

a. You can't throw a football better than Ben Roethlisberger threw it to Santonio Holmes, rainbowing it into Holmes at the goal line in tight coverage.

b. Well, can't throw it better unless you're talking about Tom Brady's touchdown bomb to an in-stride Randy Moss.

c. And you can't catch it any better than Hiram Eugene did for Oakland on his end-zone interception of Roethlisberger.

d. The best big back in the NFC East right now is not Brandon Jacobs. It's Leonard Weaver of the Eagles. Seattle should never have let this nimble big man with good hands go.

e. Jonathan Fanene's athleticism. This nimble Bengals lineman picked a deflected interception out of the air and ran it in for a touchdown, a TD the suddenly toothless Bengals needed after falling behind the Lions 7-0.

f. Way to show signs of life, Jason Campbell. Heck of a job.

g. Sam Aiken's jump-ball-catch-and-run touchdown for 81 yards at Miami tells me one thing about him: The Patriots have a third weapon at wide receiver now.

h. Tamba Hali's three sacks and two forced fumbles. The rest of the team did nothing Sunday, but his 10 tackles and brutish behavior around Kyle Orton is one good sign on a very bad day.

i. I love imaginative special-teams play, and Seattle special-teams coach Bruce DeHaven drew up a smart one at Qwest. In the fourth quarter, the Seahawks hemmed San Francisco in with 13 minutes to play in a 14-14 game. Olindo Mare lined up for a long field goal but took a direct snap and, under some pressure up the middle, quick-punted on a low, line-drive sideways kick to the goal line. Tight end John Carlson leaped, dove and knocked the ball from hitting in the end zone to the two, where it was downed by offensive lineman Max Unger. Great heads-up play by Carlson. San Francisco managed only a field goal in the last 13 minutes, and the Seahawks won 20-17.

j. Great game, Alex Smith, probably your best in the NFL overall.

7. I think this is what I didn't like about Week 13:

a. Nate Washington's drop of a touchdown bomb from Vince Young. I can guarantee you that's the biggest nightmare drop of his career.

b. Tackle, Chris Johnson. Tackle! I mean the Raiders corner, not the Titans back. Johnson flailed at Rashard Mendenhall and allowed him to run another 20 yards in the open field.

c. The Bucs running up 469 yards and scoring six points. Six! They'd better hope the 16-6 loss at Carolina was a growing-pains game for Josh Freeman and not a precursor of the future -- because he threw five interceptions.

d. Joe Burnett. Joe, Joe, Joe. For a guy with very good hands (that's the rep of the fifth-round rookie corner), his drop was amazing. It was the difference between winning and losing in Pittsburgh for the Steelers.

e. Enough moral victories against good teams, Lions. Time to win one of those.

f. And if Matthew Stafford is going to be struggling physically, play Daunte Culpepper, by the way. It's one thing to be Audie Murphy. It's another thing to play the guy who gives you the best chance to win.

g. That's quite a bit of rust you've accumulated, Rex Grossman.

8. I think I agree with Justin Tuck. Maybe not in the "dirtbag'' comments about Flozell Adams, but Adams does too many chippy things away from the play that don't belong in football. That disturbance Sunday at the Meadowlands was another example. The league needs to come down hard on him.

9. I think that was one odd game in New Jersey, by the way. Eli Manning completed 11 passes and won. Romo completed 41 and lost. Jason Witten caught 14 balls, and Miles Austin and Roy Williams combined for 16 more and three touchdowns. That's what happens when your punt defense and regular defense allow 74- and 79-yard plays.

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

a. Am I wrong, or do Jon Gruden and Dwight Schrute get their hair cut at the same barber?

b. Marco Scutaro at shortstop for the next two years in Boston. I am reminded of the word Mary Beth King uses when she is dismissive and unimpressed: "Meh.'' Glad to see they've got a Pedroia-type gamer on board, but I'd rather have paid Alex Gonzalez to be a peerless fielder for one year at short and looked for a better option in 2010.

c. Why It's Hard To Not Like Derek Jeter Dept.: I'm on record as saying Jeter is the best player I've seen in my life as a baseball fan, from about 1968 to now. Most of you are on record as thinking I'm out of my mind for that. But he said something in accepting SI's Sportsman of the Year award that sums up why he's an admirable guy, why he plays as hard in a 9-1 game in Oakland in May in the eighth inning as he does in the World Series. "I just like the game,'' he said. "I like competing. It's hard to put into words, because it's all I ever wanted to do. I only wanted to play baseball. I only wanted to play shortstop. I only wanted to play for the Yankees. My whole life. It wasn't like I wanted to play for another team and ended up in New York. It wasn't like I wanted to play another position and ended up at short. This has always been the dream of mine: to play shortstop for the New York Yankees. And I get a chance to do it.''

d. Coffeenerdness: Two coffee notes for you who love such things. 1. A critical note about the new Starbucks Caramel Brulee latte. As a professional coffee guinea pig, I feel it's my duty to warn you before you dive into the new offerings. It's the most sickeningly sweet drink I've ever had at Starbucks. A nice first few sips, but once the brulee bits dissolve a bit, it adds to the sugary mayhem ... 2. Praise for a great cup of coffee: Milano roast from Bay Area Coffee Company of San Francisco. Now that'll wake you up in the morning. The darker the better for me, and this is a really dark roast with no bitterness.

e. Texas came within a second -- and maybe not fairly -- of not playing for the national championship because of a bizarre and irresponsible bit of clock management at the end of the game. As I watched Colt McCoy, with a timeout in his pocket, cavalierly call the signals and patiently roll right, I couldn't believe what I was seeing.

f. I don't watch the college game nearly enough to know who's going where next April in the draft, but Ndamukong Suh (pronounced en-DOM-uh-ken soo) looks like he could be the next great three-technique defensive tackle, or even morph into a 3-4 defensive end, or a guy who could play an outside rush in any formation on passing downs. He and Florida cornerback Joe Haden were the best players I saw on TV Saturday. Haden looks as if he could walk onto an NFL team and play cover corner right now.

g. College Game of the Year: Has to be Cincinnati 45, Pitt 44. Found myself magnetized to the game Saturday afternoon because it had as many momentum swings as any other game in memory. Tony Pike was the goat about three separate times and he lived to win it as the end. The missed extra points should remind us all that these are kids who feel the weight of the intense pressure and who make the kind of mistakes they'd never make under normal circumstances.

h. Kudos to former NFLers Reno Mahe and Gabe Reid for spending 10 days in American Samoa, helping the locals and FEMA dig out and rebuild after an October tsunami. Mahe and Reid brought a $50,000 check from the NFL's relief fund to donate to rebuilding efforts, then worked in some devastated villages near the ocean that were wiped out.

"It was a blessing for us,'' said Mahe, just back at his Utah home over the weekend. "What was so incredible was to see the people not waiting for handouts, but pitching together to rebuild before FEMA even got there. It's like what you hear after tornadoes in the midwest. The neighbors just help each other. We were lucky to be able to go to represent the NFL, because there are so many Samoan and Tongans in the league now, and they all want to help.''

i. Congrats, to one of Mary Beth King's former softball teammates, the inimitable Steffi Aspero-Mahmoud, for birthing Ryanne Firdaus Mahmoud Friday. Good luck on a great family life, Steffi.

Ray Rice is one of those players who needs to be seen to be believed. Last Sunday night, on 24 touches, he strafed the Steelers for 145 yards in a 20-17 overtime win. Tonight, he should get more chances than that. Baltimore needs to control the ball, keep it away from the productive Aaron Rodgers, and eat some clock. Look for Rice and Willis McGahee to combine for 35 to 40 touches, and look for the Ravens to prevail, 29-17.

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