Monday October 6th, 2003

This is a football league we're covering after all, and so, with all due respect to a story we're all sick of, I am going to relegate Rush Limbaugh to some lower portions of my column. There is also a great NFL matchup on tap tonight, quite possibly a game for the ages. I love the storyline -- one of the best quarterbacks in recent history (flawed, but still one of the best) likely taking the field for the only time in his life against the best defense of his day. But Peyton Manning versus the Bucs will have to wait for a few paragraphs. And the intensity of the Red Sox's two very unlikely wins over the weekend, which you know I'd love to write about for the next couple of hours ... well, I won't bore you non-baseball folk until very low in the column. There's some great Montclair field hockey news from the weekend too. First, though, I have a few points to make about the Patriots' 38-30 win over the Titans. It was an interesting game that revealed a truth about what it takes to compete in the NFL today

FOXBORO, Mass. -- An hour after New England's 38-30 defeat of Tennessee, which I classify as the second-biggest NFL surprise of the day (behind Chicago 24, Oakland 21), I was chatting with Tom Brady as he moussed his hair. I think it was mousse. It could've been something else, but in either case, it makes the girls go wild. Brady nodded in the direction of rookie Dan Koppen. The rookie out of Boston College started at center for the Patriots yesterday, and now the carrot-topped, stubble-haired 23-year-old was walking out of the locker room.

"Look at him," Brady said. "Looks like he's still in college. He's dressed for class."

Koppen's getup: Army-Navy-type khaki jacket, jeans, backpack slung over his right shoulder. NFL starter? The wide-eyed kid looked more like a frat pledge than the linchpin of an offensive line for a 3-2 team.

"Look at those clothes," Brady said to him. "We gotta get you some new clothes. You're starting in the NFL, man."

Subtract the backpack, and Koppen had the Fenway Chic look, which I saw Saturday night as I walked back to my hotel through the masses of college kids who were either already flooding the streets around Fenway to scream about the Red Sox's win over Oakland or moving en masse toward the Cask 'N Flagon and those bars of the quick-drunk ilk. Anyway, let me get to my point (Yay! He's got a point!) about the moral of this game: You can't win consistently in the NFL without a reliable corps of Dan Koppens. Every team has a bunch of players like him, marginal draftees who, because of the transient nature and violence of today's game, have to play at some point. You now have to figure that, no matter how far down the depth chart they are in July, you'll see them in action at some point with a game on the line. In New England's case, it happened early -- Week 5. And most of the bottom 10 guys on the roster helped the Patriots win a game they probably had no business winning.

New England defeated Tennessee because of quality depth. Nine starters from the beginning of the season, from the rich Rosevelt Colvin to the economical Mike Compton, have been lost in the first month to injury. In their places have come players who combined to roll up 354 yards on a pretty darned good Titans defense, and who forced the improvisational (and terrific) Steve McNair into some pretty big mistakes. Running back Mike Cloud, who rode the pine for most of his four seasons in Kansas City, managed two rushing touchdowns and 73 churning yards in his first game as a Patriot yesterday. Draft picks high and low all played big roles. At points in the second half, Asante Samuel and Eugene Wilson played full series in the secondary.

Third-rounder Bethel Johnson sped for 188 yards on five kickoffs. Dan Klecko played special teams, fullback on the goal-line offense, defensive tackle and outside linebacker on defense; Klecko lead-blocked for Cloud on one of his touchdowns and looked more like a steamroller than a human being. A former practice-squadder, Tom Ashworth, blocked Jevon Kearse, who had two sacks and was a big factor but not a debilitating one. I could go on.

A month ago the Patriots' rushers on passing downs were Colvin, Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel. Yesterday, because of all the injuries, those roles were filled by Matt Chatham, Anthony Pleasant and Klecko.

"People wrote us off for this game," Klecko said, "but this is the type of game that shows how important 53 players are. Maybe these guys aren't Rosevelt Colvin or Ty Law, but they all can play. They all can contribute to a winning team in the NFL."

Actually, Bill Belichick told me, it's more than 53.

"When you look at your team now, it's not just the 45 you dress or 53 you have on your squad," the Pats coach said. "You've got to look at the top 60. Really, about 65. Because you figure with the practice squad and injuries, those 65 guys are going to play for you sometime that year. You'd better think that your top 65 guys are going to be good enough to play. Look at us this year. I bet the eight guys on our inactive list from the Buffalo game (opening day, Sept. 7) were all active today.

"I'm speechless," said Koppen, who, I would bet, hasn't had to make many speeches in his life. "How this team played today, against the odds, using everyone on the team. It was great." Koppen is starting at center because Compton is lost for the year with a knee injury, and incumbent center Damien Woody has moved to guard.

I always thought a team needed a good final 45 on the roster. The Patriots had a very good final 45 entering the season, one that I was sure would bring them a playoff berth. But this crash-and-burn game teaches us something every year -- every week, really: If you don't have depth, you don't have anything.

Offensive Player of the Week

Dallas quarterback Quincy Carter. What a pretty deep ball he throws. I gain more respect for Carter every time I see him play or catch his highlights. Even yesterday, when Bill Parcells blistered the QB on the sidelines after he made an errant throw (It looked like Parcells screamed, "What the bleep were you thinking!"), the kid bounced back and made big plays. In the 24-7 win over Arizona, Carter was 20 of 31 for 277 yards, with two touchdowns and one pick.

Defensive Player of the Week

Oakland cornerback Charles Woodson, for his two interceptions and a fumble recovery in a 24-21 loss to the Bears. Hey, I can't blame him for his team's debacle. His tremendous performance gave the Raiders every chance to turn the game into a rout.

Special Teams Player of the Week

Kansas City return man Dante Hall. In my Inside the NFL column for this week's issue of Sports Illustrated, I make the point that if the MVP vote was taken right now, I'd go with Hall -- hands down. He cemented his case with a 93-yard, game-winning punt return touchdown against Denver Sunday; it was the second straight week Hall won a big game with a TD return. It was the most electrifying return I've seen in a long, time. He ran through, around and to the side of every Bronco, it seemed. Four touchdown returns in the last four weeks. Yesterday he had 208 total return yards -- and his hidden great move came when he lateraled to Marc Boerigter on a reverse on the first kickoff the day, and Boerigter ran for 41 yards. So even when Hall didn't run, he keyed a terrific great, great play. Can't beat that with a stick.

Coach of the Week

Carolina head coach John Fox. People can keep dogging this franchise, and they can say the Panthers don't have any offense, and they can say Carolina will never make any noise in the playoffs if it gets there. All I know is that Fox has infused this team with a tough mentality, and the Panthers are 8-1 in their last nine games, and no one in the locker room is doing handsprings about starting 4-0. Last year, this group got all self-satisfied after opening the season 3-0, and then the Panthers went out and got their heads handed to them, going on an eight-game skid. That won't happen this year. Fox has them believing that nothing is won in October.

Goat of the Week

The Raiders. Collective award. In this day and age, there is no excuse for losing to the Bears, even if the game is played in Dick Jauron's rec room. A disgrace, Men of Al.

Stat of the Week

Emmitt Smith's touches in Dallas yesterday -- Runs: -4, -1, 0, 0, 2 and 2 yards; Receptions: -4 and 6 yards; Totals: Eight touches, one yard.

No. 1: "I know I'm right. There's nothing to apologize for ... I'm very proud that I said it."

--Limbaugh, on his national radio show Friday, two days after his resignation from ESPN's Sunday NFL Countdown, commenting on his statement that the "media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well."

No. 2: "I told you so. I told you he might not know the difference between a screen pass and a screen porch."

--Denver tight end Shannon Sharpe, on Limbaugh.

No. 3: "All I will say is people need to stop being so sensitive."

--John Rocker, on Sporting News Radio.

... Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeff Lurie, who this week eloquently challenged ESPN for hiring Limbaugh and for its stereotypical and negative portrayal of football players in the show Playmakers.

MMQB: You've been very outspoken on the Limbaugh issue, and about ESPN in general, so much so that you went to see Paul Tagliabue this week to talk with him about your concerns. Why?

Lurie: I think sports, in many ways, unite America. They promote camaraderie and a sense of community that you don't get anywhere else. It's the ultimate level playing field. For someone to say this player or that player doesn't get a fair shake, or to say anything that undercuts the belief of fairness in sports cuts below the belt. I think we all felt we were way past that. We went through that with Doug Williams quite a while ago, and then even with Randall Cunningham more recently. But that was so long ago. The decision of who to play at quarterback, or any position, is so color-absent. Now, I place the onus of responsibility on ESPN for this hire. It wasn't an innocent hire. They got what they wanted. They got what they deserved. What disappoints me about Playmakers, and what disappoints the players I've talked to, is the absurdity of things like players doing cocaine at halftime of games. The untold story of these guys in the NFL, something I see every day, is how hard they work. There is clearly a problem at ESPN, and that problem doesn't go away with the dismissal of Rush Limbaugh.

MMQB: When the TV contract expires in 2005, could Playmakers and the Limbaugh incident have any effect on ESPN retaining the rights to broadcast NFL games?

Lurie: I think ESPN is one of the better-run organizations in sports. Every organization can take some missteps. And I think ESPN will take care of its internal issues before 2005 -- long before.

MMQB: This to me was more Limbaugh indicting the media than McNabb. How has McNabb been affected by this controversy, if at all?

Lurie: I had a conversation with Donovan out on the practice field. I told him how proud of him I was for how he handled this. He thanked me. He said: "I thought this kind of discussion was behind us."

In the midst of Donovan McNabb's post-Limbaugh press conference (which was televised on the news channels after the story exploded last week), a woman from Texas called the Eagles' front office and reached administrative assistant Chris Sharkoski on the line. The woman said she doesn't follow football and had no idea who Donovan McNabb was, but she'd heard of him because of the Limbaugh controversy. Now she was watching on CNN. "I had to call," she told Sharkoski, "to say I wish more athletes had the grace that Donovan displayed in confronting such a delicate subject like that. Philadelphia, and the game of football for that matter, is very lucky to have a person like that representing them."

A man, 28ish, enters elevator at Westin Copley Place in Boston Saturday. Sees me. Stares.

Man: You like Miami tomorrow? e: Yeah. an: By how much? e: Uh ... six. an: Should I go? e: Yes. an: I mean, to the game. Should I go to the game? e: It's going to be a nice day. I think you should go to the game. an: OK. Thanks.

OK, this more like it. Some anger! Some niceness too, but a good dose of rage from people who think I've lost my cranium.

YOU HAVE VASTLY OVERRATED THE IGGLES. From Todd of Nashville, Tenn.: "You're an idiot! The Eagles get one win against a decent Bills team and you put Philly above the Skins and Giants? Did you forget the fact that the Eagles sucked it up the first two weeks of the season?"

Todd, the reason I put the Eagles above New York and Washington is that I thought last Monday if Philadelphia played either of those teams on a neutral field, the Eagles would win. No conspiracy theories here. I might be wrong. But that's what I think.

HOW DARE YOU QUESTION THE GREAT AND POWERFUL BALL COACH! From Bruce of Washington, D.C.: "When are you writers going to stop blasting the Redskins for letting go of Stephen Davis? Have you forgotten how much it would have cost the Skins to keep him on the team? Look at the stats through four weeks. Davis has 565 yards. The two guys who replaced him in Washington, Ladell Betts and Trung Candidate, have 474. Not a huge differnce. And Betts and Candidate cost a lot less money than Stephen Davis."

In each of his first three games as a Panther, Davis rushed for more than 100 yards, and I wrote, "See what you're missing in Stephen Davis, Steve Spurrier?" That's "blasting"? I have covered the NFL for 20 years, and I've found there are few fan bases as sensitive as Washington's. One other thing: You point out that two players who have each played five games have essentially the same yardage as one player has amassed in four games. Not a fair fight, is it?

WILL YOU STOP THIS CRAZY LOVE AFFAIR WITH THE BUCS? From John of Southern Pines, N.C.: "How can you rank Tampa Bay No. 1 when there are four undefeated teams? Any of those clubs could beat the Bucs -- and the Panthers have! The Chiefs beat a solid Ravens defense, the Vikes beat a solid 49ers defense, Peyton Manning threw six TDs, and all the Bucs did was have a bye and release a book!"

Uh, John, the Bucs have been my top team since the beginning of the season. I don't particularly care what their record is. I go by which team I think is best, not by which team has the fewest losses. If I went strictly by records, why would I rate the teams? Wouldn't I just run the standings in the column?

GEE, I DIDN'T KNOW PEYTON MANNING WAS A WORTHLESS BUM. From James Wooten of Pullman, Wash.: "You write, 'Be proud Archie Manning.' Be proud of what, the gutless son who wouldn't wear black shoes to honor Johnny Unitas, or the selfish quarterback who ran up the score against the Saints just so he could put his name in the record books? Yep, something to be real proud of. And secondly, the Saints' defense is missing six starters. It's funny how the media will make excuses when somebody like the Eagles are playing badly because they have a lot of injuries but they refuse to give the Saints a break."

I think, James, that there are better weeks than one in which he throws six TDs to rip Manning. As far as running up the score, Manning had a 41-13 lead and the ball deep in Saints' territory with a minute left in the third quarter. He threw touchdown pass, then was pulled from the game. I hardly call throwing the ball late in the third quarter with a 28-point lead running it up. If it happened midway through the fourth quarter, then you'd have an argument. Late in the third, I don't think you do.

ARE YOU SURE YOUR NAME ISN'T JIM BEAM? From Jerry Haas of Syracuse, N.Y.: "Two trips to Orchard Park this year and both times you wrote about the apparent drunkenness of the fans. Did somebody puke on your shoes or something?"

No. I'm jealous I can't join them.

1. I think this is my last word -- I promise -- on Limbaugh. I listened to his fairly defiant radio show Friday, and he made mention of a supportive column on Slate.com by Allen Barra. So I found it and read it. Barra wrote about how, in his opinion, the media very much wants a black quarterback to be the pre-eminent quarterback in football.

"To pretend that many of us [in the media] didn't want McNabb to be the best quarterback in the NFL because he's black is absurd,'' Barra wrote. "To say that we shouldn't root for a quarterback to win because he's black is every bit as nonsensical as to say that we shouldn't have rooted for Jackie Robinson to succeed because he was black. (Please, I don't need to be reminded that McNabb's situation is not so difficult or important as Robinson's -- I'm talking about a principle.) Consequently, it is equally absurd to say that the sports media haven't overrated Donovan McNabb because he's black ... But the truth is that I and a great many other sportswriters have chosen for the past few years to see McNabb as a better player than he has been because we want him to be."

Three points:

a. Who are these "great many other sportswriters" who have chosen to view McNabb in a brighter light because he is black? I haven't met one. I took a mini-poll of writers in the Patriots' press box before Tennessee-New England Sunday. Maybe everyone I spoke with is lying. But none of them, not a soul, said he even privately, quietly roots for McNabb or any black quarterback because of the player's color.

b. Jackie Robinson? James Harris or Marlin Briscoe more than a quarter-century ago might be trailblazer types. McNabb is a lot closer to Dave Winfield in relative sports history than he is to Jackie Robinson.

c. I don't understand this weight-of-the-world-is-on-the-media's-shoulders-to-raise-black-players'-profiles angle. I need to have that one explained to me by a greater mind than mine.

2. I think the funniest thing I've seen at a football stadium in a long time happened with 4:12 left in the second quarter of Titans-Pats. Troy Brown returned a punt for an 89-yard touchdown, but wait. New England cornerback Matt Chatham was called for an illegal block in the back, nullifying the score. Just as the play was being walked back by the officials, a replay of Johnny Damon's two-run homer in the third inning of the Red Sox-A's American League Division Series game was shown on the pair of big screens in each end zone. And the crowd went wild. As near as I can figure, this was the first leaping, howling standing ovation ever given when a home team's punt return for touchdown was called back.

3. I think I hear, pretty reliably, that Tom Jackson would not have been on the set of ESPN's pregame show Sunday if Limbaugh was there.

4. I think these are my quick-hit football thoughts of the week:

a. Kordell Stewart made a few nice improvisational plays in the upset of the Raiders. He actually looked like he might be making some progress.

b. What tremendous downfield blocking by Randy McMichael, the Dolphins tight end, in the Miami's 23-10 win over the Giants. He can play for my team anytime.

c. What hands on Jimmy Smith. I mean, did you see that one-handed catch on the sidelines?

d. Maybe David Boston (14 catches for 181 yards) should be suspended more often.

e. Randy Moss is not just a great athlete who happens to play football. He is a great football player who makes some of the best catches, in some of the tightest sideline spaces, that I've ever seen.

f. A week after the AFC East was embarrassed in losses by the Jets, Pats and Bills, the division went 3-0 yesterday.

g. Stephen Davis had 30 carries for 159 yards against the Saints Sunday. He is running like John Riggins, Rob Carpenter and a younger Jerome Bettis all rolled into one.

h. The next Falcon who covers Randy Moss or Nate Burleson will be, I think, the first.

i. Here's the thing I can't figure out about the Steelers: Why is Tommy Maddox throwing into heavy coverage so often? Did you see that last night?

5. I think I really liked what I saw three weeks ago in Seahawks rookie free safety Ken Hamlin. But what he did yesterday, shoving Brett Favre in a trash-talking episode gone bad, was pathetic. Mouthing off to legends is OK, Ken. Shoving them at Lambeau is going to get you lots of NFL hate.

6. I think I saw something yesterday I never thought I would see at any level of football: two safeties in four minutes. But let's remember that this happened to the Cardinals. The Cardinals allow these sorts of things to happen. Incredible, though, that a smart veteran like Jeff Blake would get caught, stupidly, taking deep drops in the end zone on successive drives. Incredible -- and dumb.

7. I think I continue to marvel at Craig Hentrich, Tennessee's punter/kickoff man/long field-goal man, who continues to be as versatile a kicker/punter as the league has had in recent years. He's normally just a punter. Remember his three-field-goal game in the opener against Oakland after Joe Nedney got hurt? Now Hentrich only kicks long field goals because the Titans signed Gary Anderson to fill in for the injured Nedney. Yesterday, at New England, Hentrich got the Titans started with a 48-yard field goal on their first drive, and punted three times for a 44.7-yard average.

8. I think this is what worries me most about the Eagles, based on the defense's final drive in the team's 27-25 win over Washington: On the Patrick Ramsey touchdown pass to Darnerien McCants that brought the 'Skins to within two points with 11 seconds left, no corner covered McCants. A linebacker did. Huh? Then the safety was so late in coming over when McCants got open deep that Washington's wideout waltzed into the end zone and caught the ball uncovered. Amazing! How does that happen? On the two-point conversion attempt, Laveranues Coles came free and had two steps on the Eagles corner; I wish I saw the replay close enough to see the number of the guy who let him go free. HOW DO YOU NOT COVER LAVERANUES COLES ON THE TWO-POINT CONVERSION? IT MIGHT COMES AS A SHOCK TO YOU, EAGLES, BUT COLES IS GOOD! REALLY GOOD! YOU HAVE TO COVER HIM, PROBABLY WITH TWO BODIES, ON THE TWO-POINT CONVERSION. Lucky for them Ramsey made an awful throw, missed Coles, and Philly hung on, 27-25.

9. I think, knowing the capriciousness of New Orleans owner Tom Benson, that Jim Haslett had better not go 1-4 in the team's next five games -- the way the Saints did in their first five -- if the coach wants to stay employed.

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

a. The name "Grady Little" and the word "proactive" will never be used in the same sentence.

b. But I have to simmer down about questioning the Bosox skipper, because David Ortiz got the biggest hit of his life and the Little Men (not to be confused with Little Women) now are ensconced in a Bay Area hotel, hopefully getting the kind of rest they'll need to support Pedro tonight.

c. Of course the Red Sox are flawed. Terminally, perhaps. But they're a fun group of guys to root for. I think that's why, of all the big games I've been to at Fenway Park, the only one that remotely matches the passion and the glee that I saw Saturday night at midnight was the 1999 American League Championship Series matchup between Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez. Jose Offerman and John Valentin led off that game with a triple and home run, respectively, and Clemens was driven from the eventual13-1 Red Sox win in the third inning, and some fan held up a sign reading: ROGER, THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES, ESPECIALLY THIS ONE. Worst Yankees postseason loss ever.

d. Now this is eerie: If the Red Sox win tonight, the likely pitching matchup for Game 3 of the ALCS, at 4:20 on Saturday afternoon, Oct. 11, at Fenway Park will be the same as the pitching matchup for Game 3 of the 1999 ALCS, which also started at 4:20 on Saturday afternoon (Oct. 16) at Fenway. Clemens at Pedro.

e. Final point about that '99 game. It's stunning to see how much the Yankees lineup has changed since then. That day, they went with Chuck Knoblauch, Derek Jeter, Paul O'Neill, Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez, Chili Davis, Ricky Ledee, Scott Brosius, Joe Girardi. Only two guys left.

f. Al Neuharth, the founder of USA Today, wrote a column in that paper about Joe Torre, in which Neuharth said the Yankees groundskeeper could have managed better in the last three postseasons and that Torre might be fired if the Yankees don't win the World Series. All I can say as a Red Sox fan, Al, is I wish George Steinbrenner was stupid enough to listen to you.

g. Coffeenerdness: Sunday night, 9:55, Back Bay, trendy and happening Newbury Street near Copley Square. The three coffee bars are closed for the night. Hello? Where am I, Kankakee? Open up, people! I have to write MMQB!

h. Have you ever had a flagel? It's the invention of Bagel Mentch owner Justin Solotoff -- the store is in Great Neck, N.Y. -- and it's a flat bagel. I like bagels. I never heard of the flagel, but I like the dimensions, and the compact taste can't be beat. See? You even get bizarre food reviews here.

i. Montclair (N.J.) High School Field Hockey Note of the Week: Two great games over the weekend. Have you ever seen an overtime in field hockey? The sides are paired down from 11 to seven apiece, and the game gets faster and a lot more fun. We were at surprisingly strong River Dell Friday afternoon, and it was 1-1 after regulation; their goalie stood on her head all game long; if any other girl was in goal, we would've won 5-1. But it's overtime, and our coach, Mary Pat Mercuro, decides to put speedy and feisty and never-say-die reserve junior back Molly McAlvanah. I didn't ask Mercuro why, but I really didn't have to. Brilliant move. Molly is fast, and to her, field hockey is breathing. She would do anything for this team. Take a stick to the shin, a ball to the thigh, whatever. Just because she never played left wing before, and now the team's state ranking (16th in New Jersey by the Newark Star-Ledger) might be on the line ... that was no reason for her to get tight. Ninety seconds into the overtime, charging upfield toward the River Dell goal, right midfielder Mary Beth King passed up the right wing to Adair Landy, who crossed the ball into the goal circle, just off the stick of midfielder Chelsea Mullarney, over to the waiting McAlvanah just to the side of the left post. She may have never played the position, but she was precisely where she should have been. She flicked the perfect pass into the left corner of the cage. Montclair 2, River Dell 1. "I don't remember the last time I scored," McAlvanah said. "This is unbelievable! I am so happy!" On Saturday, a strong west-central Jersey team, Hillsborough, came to Montclair, and, with our field still maddeningly under construction, we played at the local private school's field hockey practice field. This was a physical, chippy game. Two of their players got carded. This was Mary Beth's kind of game. She loves the contact. Four minutes in, we set up for a penalty corner. On a corner, the offensive team puts five or six girls around the semi-circular goal circle, and the defensive team has four girls at the goal line, rushing at the ball when it is fed from the end line by one of the offensive team members. Mary Beth plays the point for Montclair. Jacqueline Connor is the end-line feeder. There are all kinds of plays on penalty corners, and the ball goes to different players to set up different plays. On this corner, Jacq sticked a low pass to Mary Beth, who wound up and Paul Kariyaed a slapshot low off the goalie's pad into the corner of the goal. Montclair, 1-0. The two girls reprised the play midway through the second half. Clang! That was the sound of Mary Beth's second goal hitting the back of the cage, a low line drive that hit nothing but metal. Montclair 4, Hillsborough 1. Get the ice and BenGay, people. That was a rough one. Mary Beth took a welt to the knee, courtesy of a second-half line drive. "I never think we're going to lose," Mary Beth said. "I think I get that from coach. She always tells us we're going to win, and why. I go into every game thinking: 'There's no way we're going to lose.'" Well, the team is 7-0 now, and 25-2 over the last two years. I guess she knows what she's talking about. Hey, one more thing: We had a celebrity fan at the game Saturday. Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber, whose daughter Maddie starts for the JV (Mary Beth thinks she has quite a future), was in the house. Good to have you on the Mountie Express, Don.

1. Tampa Bay (2-1): I need to have two TVs going tonight. You know I won't miss Red Sox-A's. But there is no way on this earth that I'll miss Sapp-Manning, either.

2. Kansas City (5-0): Dante Hall for Mayor. Governor. President. King of the World.

3. Carolina (4-0): How many of you -- be honest -- thought they'd sweep the division in the first month of the season?

4. (tie) Indianapolis (4-0): Right now, Manning is thinking: Be quick. Be quick. Footwork.

Minnesota (5-0): Has anyone noticed what a swell guy Randy Moss has been this year? I mean, we haven't heard a peep out of the guy. It's like he's trying to be Citizen of the Week, not Player of the Week.

6. Denver (4-1). The crazy thing is that on Dante Hall's game-winning punt return Sunday, the Chiefs set up to block the punt, meaning Hall, if he were human, should have fair-caught the ball, or let it hop into the end zone.

7. Tennessee (3-2). Line me up against the wall, Patriot Nation, and take your best shot at this rating. I still really like the Titans You can have an off day, defensively.

8. Green Bay (3-2). You know, maybe I'm guilty of liking what I just saw too much. But that was a really, really good 60 minutes they played against Seattle Sunday.

9. Miami (3-1). Nothing against the Giants, who are a better defensive team than they showed in September, but I am mystified that Ricky Williams gainined just 39 yards on 22 carries at the Meadowlands. Aren't you?

10. Seattle (3-1). They're entitled to a mulligan.

11. Philadelphia (2-2). I have my doubts about all those no-names in the secondary. They could lose at Dallas this week.

12. Buffalo (3-2). OK, Drew. I know you're playing possum. Drew? Buddy? Drew? You hear me?

13. St. Louis (2-2). I still have absolutely no idea from one week to the next whether this team is Tampa Bay or Washington.

14. Dallas (3-1). Who can believe in the Cowboys at this point? But this team is at least more than a speed bump for a good opponent.

15. New England (3-2). The Patriots really showed me something yesterday. What a gut-check game that was, with the bottom of the roster beating one of the best teams in football. By the way, I've always wanted to say this: Hey, hey, you, you, get off a Mike Cloud.

I was talking to Packers director of college scouting John Dorsey the other day, and he agreed with me: Tampa Bay-Indianapolis is one of the great games of any season. Peyton Manning can shed a lot of the can't-win-the-big-one stuff tonight with a win, but it'll be incredibly hard against that Bucs defense, which is rested after a bye week. "I'm curious to see how Tony Dungy will attack Tampa defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, because obviously Dungy knows him and knows whatever weaknesses the Tampa defense would have," Dorsey told me. "This is a classic matchup, as good as it gets in our game. Peyton has to handle the pressure that will come at him for four quarters. He has to keep churning away and churning away, because there will be some setbacks. There always are for an offense against them.''

I really like Manning a lot. If I trusted the Colts defense a tiny bit more, I'd like the Men of Dungy tonight. But I like his former men more.

Bucs 20, Colts 17.

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