Monday December 3rd, 2007

NEW YORK -- We'll have time later to dissect the Cowboys taking over the NFC, the Colts icing their fifth straight AFC South title, the once (LaDainian Tomlinson) and future (Adrian Peterson) rushing kings and Eli Manning saving himself from another week of the New York tabloid gallows. But we'd be doing the game, and Sean Taylor's memory, a disservice by not focusing on the late Washington safety first this week.

I didn't know Taylor. Never met him. Like most people, I read some of the negative things involving Taylor on and off the field -- spitting at a Tampa Bay player in the heat of battle two years ago, the 2005 fight involving guns over stolen ATVs, his unwillingness to play ball with Joe Gibbs and attend the offseason program early in his career, his media freeze-out. When he was shot, I immediately thought -- though I didn't write it -- that it was probably a revenge killing from a sordid affair in his past. I was proven wrong when four kids with no real relationship to Taylor were arrested for his murder on Friday.

Some coaches have an ethos about injuries that reminds me of how the NFL is approaching this situation. Bill Parcells used to say if a player was hurt and unavailable, the able-bodied players shouldn't see him. I thought it was sad that in the Giants' Super Bowl win over Buffalo in January 1991, the man who'd quarterbacked them for 80 percent of that season, Phil Simms, left Tampa Stadium at halftime and went back to the hotel. He didn't feel like he was a part of it all. That's the way a lot of coaches are with players who aren't available. The league has a similar approach to dealing with death. The Redskins played a game Sunday. They play another one Thursday. The league's not postponing their games because their best player -- arguably -- was gunned down in cold blood. The show must go on. But not in this space ... not for a few paragraphs, anyway.

I thought that in fairness to Taylor's memory, I'd let three people who knew him tell you a story about their relationship with him.

***

This is what I know about Chris Samuels, the person: In 2000, the year he was drafted No. 3 overall by Washington, I followed him for several months to do a Sports Illustrated profile. The day before the draft, Samuels was in his Times Square hotel room. There was a knock at the door. "Housekeeping,'' the woman said. Samuels said no thanks, and she asked when she could clean the room. He said, "You don't have to.'' She insisted, he said no again, and she went away. Samuels made the bed himself, hung his towel on the rack in the bathroom and tidied the bathroom before going out.

Samuels was raised correctly. Always polite, always a gentleman and now the respected leader of the Redskins. We spoke on Thursday and Saturday about Taylor, his death and its meaning.

"I'm really frustrated how everyone is focusing on Sean's past,'' Samuels said. "What does his past have to do with what happened here? Sean was in bed by 8 o'clock that night with his family, knowing he had to get up the next day to get treatment on his [injured] knee. I am telling you Sean was not a thug. Sean was one of the best guys I knew. And he was a victim of a shooting in his house. They came in to his bedroom and shot him in cold blood. What was he doing wrong? Sleeping, in his own bed?

"How, in this great country, can a man be asleep in his own bedroom, get shot, and in the media it's like he did something wrong to deserve this? It's just wrong. I understand the media has a job to do. But before people jump to conclusions, just please let the police do their job. When we find out what really happened, then everyone can say what they want. But right now, let the family mourn in peace. Let us mourn in peace.''

"When's the last conversation you had with him?'' I asked.

"Last week,'' Samuels said. "He'd missed a couple of games with his knee injury, and I saw him in the locker room, and I said, 'Sean, we miss you. We need you.' He said, 'Chris, just hold it together a little while longer. I'll be back. I can't wait to get back.' That was him. He loved the game. Never wanted to feel he was letting his teammates down. He was the happiest guy on the team every day. He loved football, loved being around the guys. He had the best attitude. And he laid it on the line every week, in practice and in games. While the rest of the team was taking a break during practice, he'd jump out there on the scout team. As a player and as a leader, he was on the level of a Ronnie Lott.''

Saturday night, Samuels was still down. But he said the team was at least relieved the cops solved the case, apparently.

"We didn't want Sean to die without knowing why,'' he said. "We're feeling good that the guys were caught. But still, it's a senseless, terrible tragedy. A good man is dead, for no reason.''

***

Linebacker London Fletcher was signed to be a leader on the veteran Washington defense. As I wrote the other day, soon after he arrived, he started asking people why they needed a leader when they had Sean Taylor in the huddle.

"We're playing the Jets a couple of weeks ago [Nov. 4], and we're in overtime. Our offense has the ball, and we're driving. Sean's going up and down the bench, telling us to get ready, we've got to make sure we shut them down out there. I look at him and I'm like, 'We're driving. We're probably gonna score and win the game. What are you talking about?' And I say, 'Wait a minute -- you don't want us to score! You want to go out and play some more!' And he looks at me and he's like, 'I want to go back out there. I want to shut them down.' Then we kicked a field goal to win. But that said it all about him.''

Washington 23, New York Jets 20. Taylor's last NFL victory. Seven solo tackles, no assists, seven total tackles.

"It was an honor to play with him,'' said Fletcher, who also had seven solo tackles in that game. "We're getting beat bad in New England [in October] and he's saying in the huddle, 'I don't care what the score is. Keep playing, keep playing.'"

***

Chris Helein, the Redskins' vice president of public relations, sat on a couch in the front of the team's facility in Ashburn, Va., one Saturday last year with his 5-year-old son, Cameron, watching the players leave for the day. One by one they left, including Taylor, nodding to the Heleins or saying hey, then heading to their cars.

Taylor nodded, left the building, and was nearly all the way to his car when he turned back to head into the building. Must have forgotten something, Helein thought. Taylor headed over to Helein and his son, and said to the boy: "What's your name?''

"Cameron,'' he said.

"How old are you?''

"Five,'' Cameron said.

"How you doing?''

"Good,'' Cameron said.

"Well, take care of yourself, Cameron. Nice meeting you.''

And he was gone.

"This summer, I was in a mall buying my wife a birthday gift,'' said Helein. "And I saw Sean. He didn't see me, but I saw him, in the play area at the mall with his daughter, Jackie. They were just playing. He was having a great time; you could just tell. And no one was bothering him. I didn't say anything, because I didn't want to disturb him. It was just a nice moment, Sean playing with his daughter. That's what I'll remember.''

***

A sad part of the story, of course, is a child growing up fatherless, for no good reason. But another sad part, and one that will make good people across the NFL cringe, is that Samuels, a gentlemen among gentleman, will be applying for a permit to own a gun this week.

"I was always scared of guns growing up,'' Samuels said. "But this situation has told me I need one. I'd rather be prepared than to be like Sean was, and not have a gun in his house when he really needed it. I'm going to go through all the proper procedures, get a license, get training for it, and have it in my house, where I lay my head at night.

"I wish a lot of people thought like I did, that violence is bad. But unfortunately that's not the way the world is. Sometimes the world is not a nice place. It's sad I have to get a gun.''

And that's yet another tragedy of Sean Taylor's death.

****

Sunday's game was supposed to bring blessed relief.

In the end, it only added to the gloom around the Redskins.

You have probably heard Washington's two big headlines from Sunday by now. In an attempt to fire up his unit, assistant head coach in charge of defense Gregg Williams told his players on Saturday night they would play the Bills' first offensive snap with 10 players, as a tribute to the absent Taylor.

"When coach told us that," Fletcher told me Sunday night, "I can't tell you how excited we were. We thought it was a perfect tribute to Sean." One problem: Williams neglected to tell Joe Gibbs, who, from all indications, did not know about it until the game began.

It wasn't a happy surprise for Gibbs, who watched Buffalo running back Fred Jackson rip off a 22-yard run on the first snap. Then, of course, there was the matter of Gibbs calling two consecutive timeouts to ice Rian Lindell with four seconds to go. Problem is, that's against the rules. One timeout is OK. Two is illegal. A 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct ensued. Instead of a 51-yard attempt with the Bills down 16-14, Lindell could now try from 36. Lindell had hit 16 straight field goals, and the shorter kick was a breeze. Buffalo won, 17-16.

Gibbs took the blame for the huge gaffe, as he should, but it's likely only the emotion of the night and the team flying en masse to Taylor's funeral Monday morning at 6:45 a.m. will take the heat off him for now.

"I can't even imagine what tomorrow will be like," a downcast Fletcher said. "To bury Sean, it's ... "

Nothing else needed to be said.

1. New England (11-0). Very big week for the Pats. They enter a hornet's-nest tonight in downtown Baltimore. I know it should be easy, but there's something about playing the Ravens in prime time with a pumped crowd readying for their last meaningful game of the season.

Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Kelly Gregg will not allow a rout. I think New England will win, but this is the kind of game that could land a couple more Patriots in sick bay. Then, the Pats get home at 4 a.m. Tuesday to prepare for the Steelers.

2. Indianapolis (10-2). The shortest touchdown pass of Peyton Manning's life won it. The thing was shoveled about 24 inches from Manning's hand to the arms of fullback Luke Lawton (who's he?), and Lawton scored the only points of the second half for the Colts in their 28-25 win over the Jags.

3. Dallas (11-1). What you have to like if you're a Cowboys fan is the Packers knew Tony Romo was going to look for Terrell Owens all night Thursday, and by halftime Owens had six catches for 147 yards. And Dallas might be two weeks away from getting a pretty good weapon, Terry Glenn, back to make Romo and Owens even more dangerous. I might be a week away from jumping Dallas over Indy.

4. Green Bay (10-2). Go back to the pre-Dallas game offensive attack, Mike McCarthy. Lots of intermediate crosses, and airing it out only when the play's there.

5. Pittsburgh (9-3). This from my NBC information honcho, Joe Gesue, via the Elias Sports Bureau: Of all the quarterbacks drafted since the AFL-NFL merger 37 years ago, Dan Marino is the only one with a higher passer rating than Ben Roethlisberger. Marino through 50 games: 94.3. Roethlisberger: 92.1.

6. Jacksonville (8-4). So tough. A loss is a loss, but Fred Taylor runs 14 times for 104 yards, and they outscore the Colts 18-7 in the second half. The Jags are just never out of it. If the first-round playoff matchup is Jacksonville at San Diego, that'll be the best game of wild-card weekend.

7. San Diego (7-5). "We're finally playing like we played last year,'' LaDainian Tomlinson said via cell phone after the game. "Not only like last year, but like the best we've played the last few years; and it's happening at just the right time.''

8. Tampa Bay (8-4). Tampa Bay is allowing 15.5 points per game. The Bucs have won four in a row. That shudder you hear is from the Packers, who will not have an easy afternoon at Lambeau on the second weekend of January -- if that's the divisional matchup.

9. Seattle (8-4). Speaking of optimistic winners speaking via cell phone after the early games Sunday, linebacker Lofa Tatupu said before boarding his flight back to Seattle: "We had a couple of games this year [Pittsburgh 21, Seattle 0 and New Orleans 28, Seattle 17] we didn't play well, but we've been pretty consistent other than that. We're going to be a tough team for people to play down the stretch.''

10. Minnesota (6-6). Yo, Adrian: At 1:16 p.m. ET, Adrian Peterson faked a Lion out of his jock and ran 28 yards, leading to the first touchdown in the Vikes' conquest of Detroit. Add an improved Tarvaris Jackson, and you've got a dangerous playoff contender, suddenly.

11. New York Giants (8-4). The mark of a good quarterback is one who plays poorly for three quarters -- and Eli Manning had played poorly for seven in a row -- and then comes back when all hope appears lost. Manning led New York on two late drives to keep it in the driver's seat for one of the two NFC wild-card slots.

12. Tennessee (7-5). This Albert Haynesworth streak thing is freaky. The Titans lose all three games he misses, and they win when he plays.

13. Cleveland (7-5). Cris Collinsworth is certain Kellen Winslow would have come down in bounds with the winning touchdown catch.

14. Arizona (6-6). Don't ask me how they keep doing it. I just know Kurt Warner is having the best year he's had since he was a Ram, and we all thought that was impossible.

15. Buffalo (6-6). Since Sept. 30, Buffalo is 6-3 -- and those losses have come to Dallas, New England and Jacksonville. Combined record: 30-5.

Offensive Players of the Week

Tampa Bay QB Luke McCown, who rose from third to second on the Bucs' quarterback depth chart just in time to complete his first 15 passes on the road against the Saints and 29-of-37 overall, for 322 yards and two touchdowns with one interception.

Huge win for the Bucs, who essentially captured the NFC South with this game. They have a three-game lead over the 5-7 Saints and Panthers with four games left.

Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger. Another muddy night, another heroic performance. After an insane 18-of-21 passing effort in the bizarre-world 3-0 win over Miami last week, Roethlisberger played a virtuoso quarterback tune in another bog Sunday night. His second-quarter touchdown leap -- after which Cincinnati linebacker Landon Johnson landed on him in a painful way -- started the Steelers on their way to a ninth win in 12 games ... and a commanding two-game lead in the AFC North with four games to play. For the game, Roethlisberger was 21 of 32 for 184 yards with two touchdowns.

San Diego RB LaDainian Tomlinson. He is 28. He has 111 rushing touchdowns, including two Sunday in a vintage 177-yard rushing day that lifted the Chargers to a 24-10 win at Kansas City. The legendary Walter Payton was 33 when he scored his 110th rushing touchdown in his last season. Tomlinson is 54 rushing touchdowns shy of Emmitt Smith's all-time record, and no smart football person would think the mark is out of LT's reach.

Defensive Players of the Week

Seattle LB Lofa Tatupu, who had the best game of a starry three-year career in the Seahawks' hard-fought 28-24 win at Philly. He intercepted two A.J. Feeley passes (talk about the quarterback who fell back to earth) in the first seven minutes of the game, then clinched the game with a third pick of Feeley in the final seconds as the Eagles went for the win. He added 12 tackles. This just in: Tatupu's darn good.

Cleveland DT Robaire Smith, who made two goal-line stops near the two-minute warning of the fourth quarter, forcing Arizona to kick a field goal and take a 27-21 lead instead of scoring a touchdown to go up 31-21 and clinch it. It's not his fault the Browns didn't win the game. Smith's two huge stops are examples of what veteran leaders do when games are on the line. There are players who had better statistical days, but none who made more of a clutch impact.

Kansas City DE Jared Allen. Another awardee on a non-winner. But two sacks of Philip Rivers and a diving 2-yard touchdown catch that kept the Chiefs in the game? This guy's really, really good. And if I might say, a whole lot better since he stopped being Kansas City's leading party animal.

Special Teams Player of the Week

Buffalo K Rian Lindell. Buffalo led this game for four seconds. Those were the ones that counted, because they were the final four seconds of the day. The Bills had seven second-half possessions, and Lindell ended five with field goals from 38, 43, 24, 33 and 36 yards. A brilliant performance in an emotionally charged stadium.

Coach of the Week

Tampa Bay's Jon Gruden. You know how we all laugh behind Gruden's back about his fascination with quarterbacks, and how he wished he could have seven on his roster instead of three, and how he still goes to bed at night dreaming of Jake Plummer. (Which, by the way, I have no doubt he does.) The Bucs are 8-4, and the decidedly non-Super Bowlish trio of Jeff Garcia, Luke McCown and Bruce Gradkowski have combined to win eight of 12 games, complete 65 percent of their passes, throw for 13 touchdowns and five interceptions, with a rating of 93.7. For a frame of reference, Peyton Manning has a 92.5 rating. Gruden and his staff have done one heck of a job with other teams' roster marginalia.

Goat of the Week

Philadelphia QB A.J. Feeley. After his splendid game in Foxboro, Feeley returned home to a quasi-hero's welcome, then proceeded to hand Seattle the game with four interceptions, including one deep in Seahawks territory on the drive that would have won the game.

"We realized you can't call that second timeout right away. Not a lot surprises me in this league. But I do have empathy for Joe. He is one of the giants in our game, one of the great coaches of all time. It's unfortunate.''

-- Buffalo coach Dick Jauron, on the extra timeout called by Gibbs, which reduced the distance of the game-deciding field goal by Lindell from 51 to 36 yards.

"I think the thing that everybody keeps missing is that walking away is not the hard part. The hard part is that they've got you in this fish bowl, so no matter what you do, your contract is in the paper, everything is always publicized. You're in a fish bowl.

"Is it hard to walk away from your past? I just think a lot of things that this business creates keeps your past around. Your business isn't your business. I don't walk around the locker room and show off my paycheck stub with everybody because that's my business... You realize it isn't you that keeps up with your past. It's everybody else that wants to keep your past going.''

-- Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis.

"I thought he could have been the best safety in the history of pro football. He was 6-foot-3, fierce, a hard-hitter, a great cover guy, great speed for a guy his size, great ball skills, incredibly instinctive and had a great passion for the game. Teams didn't challenge him deep. It's no secret why we've given up so many explosive plays in the middle of the field the last two weeks -- it's because Sean wasn't there.''

-- Washington linebacker London Fletcher, on Sean Taylor.

"You can't be scared of death. When that time comes, it comes.''

-- Sean Taylor, in the last known interview before he died, with radio station WTEM in Washington in September.

Those of us who vote on the Pro Football Hall of Fame had an interesting list to pare down this week. Bylaws prevent me from disclosing my ballot of the final 15, but I did spend quite a bit of time thinking about the candidacy of Terrell Davis, who played four full seasons before knee injuries forced him to play 20 games in his last three years. Comparing Davis' career to another back whose career was cut short by a knee injury, Hall of Famer Gale Sayers:

The big difference between the two: Davis wasn't a return specialist in his career, while Sayers, an electrifying return man the likes of whom the league has never seen, is the all-time NFL kickoff-return leader (30.6 yards per return) and averaged a remarkable 14.5 yards per punt return.

It'll be interesting to see if Davis makes it to the finals, which would mean he'd be a candidate for this year's class during the Feb. 2 selection meeting.

1. Tom Brady, QB, New England. Nine percent more accurate than Peyton Manning so far, 1.4 yards better per pass attempt.

2. Tony Romo, QB, Dallas. In the six Cowboys games since the loss to New England, Romo has six 100-plus rating games, has completed 73 percent of his throws and has 18 touchdowns and five interceptions.

3. Brett Favre, QB, Green Bay. I understand the downfield throws early on Thursday night were meant to loosen up a secondary cheating toward the line of scrimmage. But the Pack tried to execute the wrong game plan, and Favre tried to force two or three balls deep when the plays weren't there.

4. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis. Manning ran the Colts' record to 2-0 against the best team in his division, Jacksonville, with Sunday's win. He's put up 54 points against the rock-ribbed Jags defense this year and threw four touchdown passes Sunday.

5. Randy Moss, WR, New England. Good for Ron Jaworski. You've got to call 'em the way you see 'em, and Jaws saw Moss loafing against the Eagles. What's he supposed to do? Say nothing? Lots of analysts would -- we all know that -- but not Jaworski.

I was in Cleveland last Monday night, researching a story for SI, waiting for my ride to be brought around at a parking lot next to the House of Blues downtown. Derek Anderson, the Cleveland quarterback, happened to be eating at the same restaurant and was leaving at the same time. He drives off in his SUV, but right away he pulls over at the behest of a fan, who opens his trunk and asks Anderson to sign some autographs. This Anderson is just too nice. My last memory of him that night is motoring past him while he stands there signing a couple of balls for a guy out of the back of his trunk.

Greatest Team Ever: The Dallas Cowboys Dynasty of the 1990s, by Norm Hitzges, with photo by Ron St. Angelo (Thomas Nelson Books).

A coffee table book that's more than a coffee table book. It's actually got some interesting nuggets. Like this one: Late on the night when the sale of the team to Jerry Jones was complete in 1989, Jones went to Texas Stadium. "I had them turn on all the lights and walked out to the 50-yard line and laid down on my back in the middle of the blue star.'' The photos are insiderish, with a couple shots of Troy Aikman looking 17 and Jerry Jones looking 44. You'd think that Dallas fan in your life would already have every Cowboy thing he'd ever want, and you're probably right. But if that person insists on a nice tome, he'll be able to spend a couple of informative hours with this book.

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

a. Why'd the Packers go away from what they did well on offense for the first 11 games of the year?

b. One comment on those throwback jerseys, Jets, with apologies to Denzel Washington: Forget the Titans.

c. Injury of the Day: Reggie Hayward (22.5 sacks in his last 29 starts), apparently popping a groin or suffering a painful hip injury on the first defensive series of the big game at Indy. That could be a season-ender right there. And as a good two-way run/pass defender, Hayward will not be easy to replace. Jerome Bettis popped a groin on the exact same day -- Dec. 2 -- in 2001. Bettis said yesterday in the NBC viewing room it didn't heal right for him until the next summer. "I thought I was going to have to retire,'' Bettis said.

d. Leon Washington. Joe Washington. Same guy. If you're 45 or older, you see that.

e. Since the Vikes got shut out by Green Bay, they've scored 82 points in eight quarters.

f. Good A.J. Feeley: He directed the Eagles to 52 points against the Pats and 'Hawks the last two weeks. Bad Feeley: He threw seven interceptions in those two games.

g. Miami's going winless.

h. Denver's finishing below .500.

i. JaMarcus Russell throws a beautiful football.

j. Good thing Eli Manning doesn't listen to his critics. If he did, he wouldn't get out of bed in the morning.

2. I think if you're looking for an update on Randy Moss' contract status for 2008, you won't get a solid one anywhere, because he and the Patriots aren't going to talk turkey until after the season, from all accounts. But I spoke to a close acquaintance of Moss' the other day, and here's his feeling on what the reborn receiver will do in free agency:

"Randy is as happy now as I've seen him, ever. He's finally in a place where everything on a football team is done right -- front office, coaching, the offense they run. He loves the team, loves the organization. My gut feeling is if they're competitive within the market, he'll stay and not want to go anywhere else. If the Pats step out right away, like it did with Adalius Thomas last year, and offers him a market deal -- even if it's not every last penny he could get somewhere else -- my gut feeling is he'd definitely want to stay. But if he thinks New England is low-balling him, then I don't know.''

Tough call for the Patriots. Moss will be 31 next year, his 11th NFL season. He's had injury and loafing issues in the last three years, and he hasn't always been a great offseason workout guy. How much the Patriots will want to pay him up front, with a salary cap that has to account for so many standout players, will be an interesting story in February, regardless of whether New England wins the Super Bowl.

One last thought: If Moss is so serious about winning and being with a great team for the rest of his career, he'll do what Brady did three years ago. After Peyton Manning signed for $16 million a year and Michael Vick $14 million a year -- on average -- Brady did a six-year deal for $60 million, knowing he could make a boatload of money off the field and knowing the Patriots would use the savings on his deal to sign players like Thomas and Moss. If Moss is serious about being with a winner long term, he'll do the same thing.

3. I think I have no problem whatsoever with the Redskins playing 10 men on the field for one play. In fact, I love it. Of course Gregg Williams should have told Joe Gibbs about it, but if you can't pay tribute to your best player by doing something very special on one of 1,000 defensive plays of the season, then we all need to get a life. "We needed that,'' London Fletcher said. "You may not have seen the 11th player out there for us, but he was there. Sean was there.''

4. I think the LaDainian Tomlinson I spoke with after the Chargers game Sunday was the most emotional I've heard Tomlinson since I've known him. "I am emotional,'' he said, "because when I was 5 years old, I watched Walter Payton play against the Dallas Cowboys on TV, and I thought, 'That's the kind of player I want to be when I grow up.' Walter Payton got me into football. I always wanted to tell him how much an influence he was in my life.''

Tomlinson, of course, passed Payton on the all-time rushing touchdown list with two scores at Kansas City. More importantly for his team, Tomlinson is running the ball like a dude possessed, and he tells me his linemen have that look in their eyes. What look? "The look that says we're not going to be stopped,'' he said.

5. I think the only quarterbacks, long-term, I'd take over Romo right now are Brady and Peyton Manning. Romo doesn't have the deep arm of Carson Palmer or Roethlisberger, but he has the improvisational ability equal to, or better than, anyone beyond the top two.

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

a. LaDainian Tomlinson is looking a lot like LaDainian Tomlinson again.

b. Jared Allen (11.5 sacks) reminds me of Michael Strahan five years ago -- great rush moves, plus the strength to bull-rush when necessary.

c. Joey Porter, in the span of six days, is looking like the Joey Porter he was in Pittsburgh. Active, opportunistic, fierce.

d. Tarvaris Jackson spent his second straight game looking like a first-string quarterback.

e. Buffalo defensive tackle Larry Tripplett made one of the prettiest diving interceptions of the year at Washington ... and he weighs 308 pounds.

f. When I watch the Bills, I feel like I'm watching a bunch of guys who would play football for free.

g. Joey Galloway is the best player in the league this season that no one's talking about. Seven more catches for 159 yards in New Orleans. His 18.2-yards-per-catch average is almost three yards more than Randy Moss' average, his 891 receiving yards is more than T.J. Houshmandzadeh's, and his six TDs are as many as Chad Johnson has.

h. I wouldn't have been shocked if Scott Linehan got whacked this week had the Rams had blown a 21-0 lead at home in the last 25 minutes of their game.

i. Where did Roddy White come from? Ten more catches yesterday in St. Louis. Nice player.

j. And what got into Will Demps? He's a new man since the Texans picked him up off the NFL street to build better safety depth. He had 12 more tackles Sunday in Tennessee.

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

a. In case D'Brickashaw Ferguson didn't get the number of that truck that steamrolled him Sunday for an embarrassing, drive-ending sack in Miami, the number is 99. Jason Taylor. And D'Brick, you might want to learn leverage as part of your blocking bag of tricks.

b. This is the man the Jets picked No. 4 overall last year. The jury is, at best, still out on Ferguson. But he's been as leaky as dominant in his first year and three-quarters.

c. Damon Huard threw a bad ball into double-coverage for Antonio Cromartie's seventh interception of the year. I blame Huard far more than credit Cromartie.

d. What on God's green earth was that stupid shovel pass from Reggie Bush on a reverse with 3:36 left in a game the Saints led 23-20 over Tampa Bay, and why would Bush toss it when he saw the wideout was too far away to have a chance to catch it?

e. There is no defense of the indefensible Detroit running game. Sixteen of the first 17 playcalls in the lopsided loss to Minnesota were pass plays. That is one weird offense.

f. The Bengals, Broncos, Chiefs and Saints signed their playoff death warrants Sunday. Yes, the same Saints I picked to play in the Super Bowl.

g. The chants of "Joe must go,'' was shouted by some Redskins fans after the horrible loss to Buffalo. Not now, people. Not the time or place to whack a coach, or to talk about whacking a coach.

8. I think Aaron Rodgers is making Packer Nation sleep a little better in the wake of the drubbing Green Bay took in Dallas. I spoke to Rodgers two or three weeks ago on another matter and asked him how he was doing. He made an interesting point. He said as much as he didn't like sitting on the bench for most of three years, sitting and soaking in knowledge from Brett Favre and a good offensive staff like Mike McCarthy's has helped him smooth out the rough edges in his game. He now has total confidence running the system there.

"Now,'' he said, "when Donald Driver looks at me, he knows he can have confidence in me. That wouldn't have been the case in my rookie year. I'm just so much more comfortable.'' It showed Thursday night in Dallas.

Plus, the Rodgers-Favre relationship has improved dramatically -- to the point where now Rodgers has gone to Favre's house for dinner. Remember two seasons ago, when the relationship was chilly? "Chilly is the wrong word, I'd say,'' Rodgers told me. "Third wheel is better. Our relationship has gone from strictly business the first year to a little bit of a buddy role my second year to being really close friends now.''

9. I think if Tennessee catches the Browns for the sixth playoff spot, the Clevelanders will look back at the game in Arizona as the one that cost them the postseason. No question about it. I don't buy that it was clearly a bad official's call on the Kellen Winslow out-of-bounds catch on the last play of the game. To me, it was too close to call. I do buy that Derek Anderson gave the Cards too many freebies they didn't deserve.

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

a. The officiating crew in the Pittsburgh-West Virginia game robbed Pitt, and very nearly caused the wrong team to win the game. Absolutely robbed Pitt. That crew shouldn't sleep for a long, long time. The two fourth-quarter holding calls on Pitt were the biggest phantom calls I've seen in such a big spot in a long time.

b. Things worked out for the BCS. Ohio State-LSU is the game I want to see for the marbles.

c. Best BCS game of all: Hawaii and Georgia. Now we see what Colt Brennan's made of. What, you thought I was going to say USC and Ron Zook?

d. And unless you're going to scrap the bowl system, don't talk to me about a playoff for college football. I don't want one. It's silly to ask 19-year-old kids who, supposedly, are college students to have longer seasons than NFL players -- to start practice Aug. 1, playing 'til Jan. 15, and start spring practice on March 1. It's not NFL-like. It's a longer regimen than NFL teams have for their players.

e. Coffeenerdness: My daughter Mary Beth informs me that The Barge, the campus coffeehouse at Colgate University and her employer, has shipped out two pounds of Colgate Blend to a South Dakota man, based on my review of the black gold in a recent column. You won't regret it, sir. That's a strong, delicious cup of Green Mountain coffee.

f. Saw No Country For Old Men and liked it a lot. The ending is unexpected, and I won't be the spoiler, but there's a great lesson in it. Which -- how can I say this -- is that real-life endings are sometimes more interesting than movie endings. Love Tommy Lee Jones in this movie. Brilliant. As was the killer, played by Javier Bardem, who is the most cold-blooded murderer I've seen in a movie in a while. By the way, that's a terrific name for a movie. Perfectly apt.

g. Ever have a "Stubbs?'' No? Your life is not complete. Had one for lunch on Wednesday in Texas. It's a bacon, sausage and egg sandwich, on thick Texas toast, from the Coppell Deli, named after the former Dallas Cowboy Dan Stubbs. Well worth the $4.95, because once you've eaten this monster, you won't be hungry for three days.

h. Great example of how to do a blog: Jason LaCanfora of the Washington Post, in his Redskins Insider, consistently updating the Sean Taylor story with the timeliness of a good newsman and the sensitivity needed to cover a death from the front lines.

Baltimore's best ally tonight is the crowd. That M&T Bank faithful can be venomous, as I heard last January when the Colts came to town. There isn't the same reason for vengeance tonight, but the Ravens have to create a first-quarter turnover and let the defense be offensive to have a chance. Bill Belichick made a good point about the Baltimore defense and the impact of its defensive tackles, Kelly Gregg and Haloti Ngata, the other day when he said, "How many tackles does [Ray] Lewis have? He must have 150 tackles. You can give a lot of those, an assist or whatever you want to give, to Gregg.''

Still, these are the games -- hostile environment, the world watching, defensive pressure for four quarters -- that good quarterbacks love to play. Joe Montana loved to face the Reggie White/Jerome Brown Eagles. Johnny Unitas loved to play the Giants and their changeup pass-rush. Tom Brady loves games where everything is done on the silent snap-count, which might happen tonight. Just another challenge. New England 31, Baltimore 16.

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