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Championship Sunday: Saints, Colts go to Miami; Vikes, Jets left behind

NEW ORLEANS -- In the losers' locker room Sunday night, there was mostly silence for the first five, 10 minutes that reporters were allowed in. Silence among the players, but the noise on the outside -- the delirium, really -- seeped through the walls. The cries symbolized 43 years of frustration ending, and the wailing of repeated "Who Dat!'' chants, which young and old screamed through the weekend and into this morning in a raucous celebration in the French Quarter, finally got to someone in the room.

"[Bleep] Who Dat!'' came an angry voice from the cluster of the offensive linemen's stalls.

The Vikings will have to live with their bitterest loss in a generation for a long, long time. Thirty-one first downs, outgaining the Saints by 218 yards, rendering Reggie Bush (seven carries, eight yards) irrelevant except for one short touchdown catch, not allowing a Saints' wideout a 20-yard catch all day ... and losing. Throwing it away. Fumbling it away. Eight fumbles or interceptions in 13 possessions.

I'll get to the triumphs of the weekend, the Colts' second AFC title in four years and the Saints' first in forever, but I've got to touch on the Vikings first. Whoever lost the game here was going to feel it for a long time, but the fact that Minnesota may have lost on a 12-men-in the-huddle penalty, followed by a horrendous Brett Favre interception in the last pass of his season (career?) ... I don't know how the Vikings will sleep for a while.

Oh, and I'll have an opinion about the overtime rule too. And an interesting conversation with Tim Tebow about the first day of the rest of his life. But let's start with the beaten man at his locker in the bowels of the Superdome, and the odd end to this game.

***

The most compelling player of the era is broken.

"Poor Breleigh,'' Brett Favre said almost inaudibly, after hugging half of his organization and getting emotional with a few fellows, mostly Sidney Rice. Breleigh's the daughter who urged him so strongly to come back last summer, and now Favre was thinking how distraught she must be. "I'm sure her heart's broken.''

Pause.

"Of course, so is mine.''

No matter what you think of Favre -- and it's no secret I think he's the most charismatic and interesting player I've covered -- you have to admire how he bleeds in front of us. He goes out and gets the snot knocked out of him ("We were determined to hit him over and over and make him feel it,'' said none other than his old friend with the Packers, Saints safety Darren Sharper), somehow survives, then makes a throw he never should have made. And he stands there for the inquisition and answers the questions as honestly as I think a man can in these circumstances.

Before he went to his postgame press conference, he talked to me quietly for a couple of minutes, then to a couple of others in a growing group around his locker.

"I thought when I got hit [the high-low Saints sandwich late in the third quarter], my ankle was broken,'' he said. "I felt a lot of crunching in there.''

I told him I thought it was a late hit, with the lower hit a good example of why the Tom Brady rule was put in this year. Favre released the ball and was hit high by one rusher and low by another; the low hit looked like the kind of hit below the waist that deserved a flag, but the 'Dome was still ringing with boos from a roughing-the-passer call four plays earlier when New Orleans lineman Anthony Hargrove drove Favre into the ground (a textbook call for driving a quarterback from the air into the ground with the force the rusher's body). And it's human nature to wonder if a good referee, Peter Morelli, was inclined to let this hit pass because he'd just called the big one on the Saints. Whatever, Favre limped off. He'd been nailed by Sharper in the first half, then by Hargrove, and now this one.

"Tomorrow,'' he said, "the whole foot will be purple. My thigh, right there, will be purple. My wrist [with a chunk of skin missing] will be purple. Other than that, I'm OK.''

He said all the requisite stuff about his future, that he'll go home and think about it and talk to his family about it. (My feeling is he'll be back for another season because he feels at home in Minnesota, as Tim Layden wrote so well in Sports Illustrated this week, and because he likes his teammates so much, but I have no inside information on it. And as most of you know, my inside information on Favre playing or not has been as solid as vanilla pudding over the past three years.)

As for the question all of America is asking this morning -- how in the world could you have thrown that pass? -- this was his explanation: When the Vikings had third-and-10 at the New Orleans 33 with 19 seconds left in a 28-28 game, they planned to call a running play to get a couple of yards closer. Then Ryan Longwell would trot onto the field for a field goal of between 45 and 50 yards. But the Vikings got a five-yard penalty for 12 men in the huddle, which is illegal because an extra man or men would create unfair confusion to the defense. Incredible it would happen at such a big moment. "The communication was obviously lost [between the sideline and the field for the play that was called],'' Favre said.

Now, instead of running and forcing Longwell to try a field goal of up to 55 yards (he told the coaches he thought his range was about 53 yards), Favre had to throw. He rolled right with at least five yards of open field in front of him, and made the kind of decision that still haunts him from his last throw as a Packer. Against the Giants in the 2007 NFC Championship Game, he threw a careless pass that was intercepted by the Giants' Corey Webster, and the game-winning field goal followed. As did his divorce from the Packers. Here, he locked onto Sidney Rice and threw a pick right into the hands of cornerback Tracy Porter.

"I probably should have ran it,'' Favre said. "In hindsight, that's probably what I should have done. It was just late to Sidney.''

As Favre said to me: "You try to say it's just a game, and of course it is. You know that's the case. But it still hurts.''

This one will, for a long time.

***

No way you can blame Brad Childress for this loss, but he made a couple of odd playcalls and non-timeout calls in the fourth quarter that'll be debated for a while in the Great North.

A 28-28 game, 2:37 left, Vikings ball at their 21. Three timeouts left. Adrian Peterson skirts right end. No gain. Tick tick tick. No timeout. No hurry to the line. "Is Brad Childress playing for overtime?'' I asked seatmates Don Banks and Layden in the press box.

Maybe, I figured, he thinks Favre's hurt and he'd just rather drain the clock and take his chances with the coin flip. But what sense did that make? What if Minnesota lost the coin flip and never saw the ball in overtime? Here it had three timeouts, and on the previous two possessions, even with a battered Favre, the Vikings had gone 70 and 57 yards and found the cracks in the Saints' defense they needed to find.

Peterson burrowed behind right guard. Gain of two. Now a timeout by New Orleans. Now the Saints would take the Vikings' gift; they'd take the ball at their 30-yard line, 90 seconds or so left and no timeouts, and try to get into Garrett Hartley field goal position.

"It was all in line with the number of timeouts they had left,'' said Childress, which confused me. Then he said in cases like this he wants to either score or end the game with the ball in his hands, to prevent the other team from scoring. If that's the case, he had a strange play-calling way of showing it. He couldn't burn the clock plus the two remaining Saints' timeouts without trying to be somewhat aggressive. But without the Saints calling that timeout, the Vikes, presumably, would have called another clock-eating play, then punted it away.

Now Favre threw to Bernard Berrian for 10 yards. First down. And he found Rice up the right side on the next play for 20 more. First down at the Saints' 47. Chester Taylor for 14, and then two straight no-gain rushing plays.

Timeout, Vikings. Nineteen seconds left, ball at the Saint 33.

The crowd got jacked up for one final defensive stand -- so jacked up, evidently, that an extra back was in the Minnesota huddle, thinking it was a formation that required his presence on the field. Nope. Favre signaled timeout and an official promptly threw a flag. "You can't call back-to-back timeouts,'' said Childress.

After the penalty yardage was marched off, he called a roll pass for Favre, and the rest is history. As I said, I don't think the blame for this loss should be on Childress by any means, but he certainly did his part to muck it up in the last 2:37.

***

It is 4:10 a.m. Central Time as I write this, and there is still the noise of celebration outside my Canal Street hotel.

Player after player in the Saints' locker room talked about winning one for the city. And they did. "These people didn't want to leave,'' Superdome manager Doug Thornton said on the field almost an hour after the game. "They just wanted to stay and feel the moment and not let it end.''

The two keys to the victory, to me, were Sean Payton (for setting the tone that a coach who models himself after Bill Parcells and Jon Gruden can set) and Drew Brees (for being a good leader and a community leader and a franchise quarterback).

Think back about them. Payton interviewed for the Green Bay coaching job and the Saints' job in 2006. He preferred the Green Bay job, obviously, because of the quarterback stability (Favre and Aaron Rodgers were there) and because of the instability of the Saints after Hurricane Katrina. The Packers' job came down to him and Mike McCarthy. The Packers picked McCarthy. The Saints picked Payton.

Then it came down to two teams for Brees -- Miami and New Orleans. But when the Dolphins doctors told then-coach Nick Saban that Brees was an injury-risk coming off major shoulder surgery that they couldn't sign off on, Brees had to take the Saints. He may have anyway, but the Dolphins as a primary option weren't going to be there at the end, so the decision was easy.

Payton and Brees were orphans of the NFL, in a way, in a place where there were so many orphans of the storm. And here they are, the two men who propelled the Saints to the Super Bowl.

"What's great about doing it here,'' said Payton, "is that four years ago, there were holes in this roof. The fans in this city and this region deserve it.''

And they were partying pretty hard last night, and may still be as you read this.

***

I'll say only one thing about the overtime rule: It stinks.

I won't repeat every one of my objections to the rule that puts an inordinate amount of importance on the coin flip on overtime winners, but the NFC game was a classic case of why it's a bad idea to not give each team one possession in overtime:

The Vikings called heads, and it came up tails. New Orleans returned the kick to its 39-yard line. That meant if the Saints gained 28 yards, they'd be in field-goal range for Hartley. They got 17 yards in drive sustaining penalties, and 32 yards on their own, and Hartley's 40-yard field goal won it.

On the other sideline, Brett Favre stood waiting for his chance, the same way Peyton Manning waited for a chance that never came 55 weeks ago in San Diego. And I ask you two questions: Do you want the coin flip to have that much importance in determining the outcome of a playoff game? And if you think it doesn't matter, why have only seven teams that won the coin flip since overtime was reinstituted in 1974 chosen to kick off and play defense?

Your witness, counselor.

***

I am giving the Colts short-shrift this morning, and I apologize to all of you for that.

The one thing that impressed me when I went to Colts camp last summer was how advanced Pierre Garcon was. I heard great things about fourth-round rookie Austin Collie, but it was Garcon who lit up camp the day I was there for two practices. He was smooth, lithe and didn't shy away from contact. His maturation, and that of Collie, shows why we should fear the Colts not only in this Super Bowl but in the years ahead. Peyton Manning has found his replacement for Marvin Harrison. It may actually be two people, Garcon and Collie, who combined for 18 catches and 274 yards Sunday in the 30-17 win over the Jets.

Just watch Garcon. He may be a small-college kid (from Mount Union, Ohio), but he has the agility and toughness of a Division I player. Late this year, he began to show the kind of reliable hands a taskmaster like Manning requires. He's only 23. Collie's 24, mature beyond his years, and Manning seems to trust him as much as he does Garcon already, after only nine months of exposure to the Colts' encyclopedic offense.

I know it's very early to say this, but the Colts, with Anthony Gonzalez coming back presumably healthy next year, will have their best stable of receivers in years -- Reggie Wayne, and Garcon on the outside, Gonzalez, Collie and Clark in the slot. That's not only going to present problems for the Saints 13 days from now in the Super Bowl, but also it gives Manning the stable of receivers he needs for the last six or seven years of his career.

***

Tim Tebow preps for the first big week of his pro career.

Today it begins. Once the highlights and interviews from the championship games begin to fade and the reality of a Saints-Colts Super Bowl sets in, we'll turn our attention to the compelling story of the NFL offseason, and it begins at 2:30 p.m. Central Time in southern Alabama.

Florida quarterback Tim Tebow steps into the NFL crucible, onto a practice field ringed by coaches and scouts, at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., beginning a week of practice, meetings and face-to-face visits with prospective NFL employers. Tebow will play for the South Team, coached by the Miami Dolphins staff (Jim Schwartz's Lions staff has the North), with respected quarterback teacher and technician David Lee of the Dolphins handling his day-to-day regimen on the practice field.

Tebow worked out with CFL coach Marc Trestman for two days early this month, and then daily for the past two weeks in Nashville at the D1 Training Center, under the coaching of former NFL quarterback and coach Zeke Bratkowski. Tebow's thrown to tight end Jimmy Graham of Miami and wideout Jordan Shipley from Texas. He's dropped seven pounds (from 245 to 238).

We in the media business are going to spend the next three months writing the Tebow story into the ground, but there are good reasons for it. He's had unparalleled college success, he's a too-good-to-be-true kid by all accounts, and he's a polarizing football prospect because there's great debate whether his mechanics and arm will allow him to be an every-down NFL quarterback.

Also, he's an unabashed pro-life supporter; his mother, Pam, was advised by her doctor late in Tebow's pregnancy to abort the baby because it was a dangerous pregnancy. Her refusal led to Tebow's compelling life -- and also to a 30-second Super Bowl commercial by Tebow and Pam (sponsored by Focus on the Family) that will add to Tebow-mania.

On Friday I spoke to Tebow for the first time, mostly about football, but some about the commercial -- and, specifically, what impact it might have, if any, on his draft prospects. I told him most NFL teams like their rookies to be seen and not heard, and certainly not heard in any politically divisive way. And there isn't a subject in this country that touches more buttons than abortion.

What I heard from Tebow was the voice of a kid with convictions, who doesn't shrink from what he believes -- even if it might hurt his draft prospects.

"That's always going to be a part of who I am, and I won't try to hide it,'' Tebow told me from Nashville, where he was working out with Bratkowski, the former Packer quarterback and longtime NFL assistant coach. "A team that doesn't want that shouldn't take me. Pro-life is very important to me. My mother listened to God late in her pregnancy, and if she had listened to others and terminated me, obviously I wouldn't be here. If others don't have the same belief, it's OK. I understand. But I hope they respect that at least I have the courage to stand up for what I believe in.''

Tebow will wow everyone he meets one-on-one in Mobile and at the Scouting Combine next month with his poise, presence and humility. That you know, obviously. When I asked about one of the biggest faults NFL scouts find with him -- his elongated throwing motion -- he said it's something scouts also said about Brett Favre and Philip Rivers when they were prospects, and it hasn't seemed to hurt them. Then he said: "I've been training every day since the Sugar Bowl. Every day. And that's one of the things I've been working diligently on. I think the scouts and coaches will see it's something I've improved on.''

Tebow wants to open himself up totally, beginning this week. He wants to show every team in the league everything he can do physically and mentally, and he wants to begin to prove he's not a one-trick pony -- a triple-option quarterback who loves to bowl over linebackers and make weird jump passes and other counter-NFL-culture plays.

"I want to show, number one, that I'm a competitor and I'm not afraid for teams to see everything about me. My goal is to find just one team, one out of 32, to believe in me as a quarterback. I'm not just the guy who can play in the spread offense, or throw a jump pass or run the triple option. I'm a football junkie. I study it all the time. I've studied every type of offense -- pro style, West Coast. Just because I haven't played every kind of offense, why can't I? Why can't I run the West Coast? My coaches at Florida didn't just teach us a system. They taught us football. So I want the NFL people to put me through everything. Grind on me, test me. I feel I've worked my whole life to prepare for this.''

Tebow will excel when NFL teams (mostly at the combine in Indianapolis, but some in Mobile) get him up on the board and start talking specific plays with him. He'll need to prove he can be an accurate downfield passer and that he isn't totally reliant on running to be a good quarterback. I asked what he'd do if a team wanted him to be a versatile player instead of an every-down quarterback.

"It's a possibility,'' he said, "but I'm trying to get someone to believe in me as a quarterback.''

I expect he'll do that.

***

Invasion of the Juniors.

Last year, 15 underclassmen were first-round draft choices. This year, there should be at least that many, and it's conceivable that as many as 18 to 20 could go in the first round. I asked NFLDraftScout.com, a site I use and respect around draft day, to rank the top juniors --and where they rank in the first-round draft order. (The comments here belong to NFLDraftScout.com player analyst Rob Rang; the number indicates where the player's projected to be picked.)

2. DT Gerald McCoy, OklahomaWould have been top DT selected had he come out last year as a redshirt sophomore.

4. QB Sam Bradford, OklahomaWhen protected, he's shown Pro-Bowl accuracy. Lanky frame, surgery concerns scouts.

5. FS Eric Berry, TennesseeAn Ed Reed type. Superior instincts and tackling skills.

6. DE Derrick Morgan, Georgia TechACC Defensive Player of the Year, 21, has legitimate NFL size (6-foot-4, 265).

7. CB Joe Haden, FloridaNot an elite cover corner, but far and away the best in the 2010 draft.

8. DE Carlos Dunlap, FloridaRare size (6-6, 278) and a good first step. Still learning to play the position.

9. QB Jimmy Clausen, Notre DameMost pro-ready QB in the draft based on Charlie Weis' tutelage, but doesn't have a top NFL arm.

10. ILB Rolando McClain, AlabamaGreat instincts and size (6-4, 255), but has been protected a bit by Nick Saban's scheme.

11. WR Dez Bryant, Oklahoma StateSome scouts say he goes up and gets the ball like Randy Moss did in his prime.

13. OT Anthony Davis, RutgersRare size (6-6, 330) and legit left tackle athleticism. Could be draft's top tackle.

14. OT Bryan Bulaga, IowaShut down Georgia Tech DE Derrick Morgan in high-profile battle in bowl game.

20. RB Jonathan Dwyer, Georgia TechProduction inflated due to triple-option offense, but at 5-11, 235 is a quick punisher.

25. WR Golden Tate, Notre DameLacks preferred size at 5-11, 185, but has RB-like vision and competes for the jump ball.

27. OT Bruce Campbell, MarylandGreat athleticism and 6-foot-7 wingspan with room to grow. Raw. Only 17 career starts.

29. WR Damian Williams, USCFits West Coast offense with quickness and good hands. Also top returner.

"I think we did a great job of being the hunters and imposing our will today.'' --Indianapolis linebacker Gary Brackett. The Colts beat the Jets 30-17, advancing to their second Super Bowl appearance in four seasons.

"We really gave those guys the game. It's eating me up inside.'' --Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson, after the Vikings turned the ball over five times in their NFC Championship Game loss to the Saints.

"It's like being young and in love. You know the feeling -- like you're in an elevated state of bliss. That's how everyone in this town feels about the Saints.''-- Patrick Singley, the owner of Uptown New Orleans fine-dining establishment Gautreau's, on the feeling of the city toward the Saints in the days leading up to the NFC Championship Game.

"The other thing that you need to know about me ... is that my parents raised me correctly. I am a cheesehead. From a very young age, I was a kid that grew up in the country. My dad put me to work on Saturdays. I didn't go into town and necessarily do the things I always wanted to do as a kid, but when I got to this point professionally, I really look back and I just want him to know, and my mother, how important that is to me.''-- New Seattle general manager John Schneider, on the influence of his parents in his Wisconsin-bred life.

1. Indianapolis (16-2). The Colts ran the ball better than the Jets did Sunday, which is something no one figured would happen. In the Super Bowl, the better running team probably will be the winner.

2. New Orleans (15-3). The game was Creed-Balboa I, or at least Pryor-Arguello I. There will be a lot of players waking up from that game ridiculously sore this morning, and the sorest will be a 40-year-old quarterback in the Twin Cities, courtesy of the Saints.

3. Minnesota (13-5). The Vikings outgained New Orleans by more than 200 yards ... in the Superdome. At one point 10 minutes after the game, Adrian Peterson walked out of the locker room, in full uniform, and just stared at the celebration of Saints on the field. Like he couldn't believe what he was seeing.

4. New York Jets (11-8). They've got a pretty good base to build on. For their sake, it would be best if the offensive line came back intact -- and if Shonn Greene wins the starting running back job next fall. That big horse could be a 1,600-yard back.

5. San Diego (13-4). Not saying LaDainian Tomlinson can't come back in some role, but the Chargers need to find a running back with some burst this offseason. Priority one.

6. Dallas (12-6). Seems right, Wade Phillips extended through the end of the 2011 season. If there is one.

7. Arizona (11-7). As I said last week, my guess is Kurt Warner's retiring. Sure sounded like it in that Rick Reilly column the other day.

8. Baltimore (10-8).John Harbaugh's brother is not going anywhere -- at least not this year.

9. Green Bay (11-6). Pack lost a good young scout,John Schneider, a disciple of the Ron Wolf School of Scouting, to the Seahawks as GM. He deserved the promotion.

10. Philadelphia (11-6). Lot of buzz about whether the Eagles will go with Kevin Kolb or Donovan McNabb as the QB of the future. Only one man knows for sure. The Big Man. Andy Reid. He says McNabb, but why do I think that's a tepid endorsement?

11. New England (10-7). I don't think Pepper Johnson's going to be a happy man if he doesn't get the defensive coordinator gig.

12. Pittsburgh (9-7). The start of a quiet offseason is upon Steeler Nation ... just the way the Rooneys like it.

13. Carolina (8-8). Is there really someone out there willing to pay Julius Peppers $18 million a year -- and pay compensation to the Panthers, most likely? I doubt it.

14. Cincinnati (10-7). Every time I think of the Bengals, I think, "What in the world happened to Carson Palmer?''

15. Houston (9-7). Playoffs or bust in 2010, obviously. This could be one of the landing spots for one of the good coaches-in-waiting, like Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden or John Fox.

Offensive Player of the Week

Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis.

The Jets, the NFL's best defense in 2009, hadn't allowed a 320-yard passer all season. They hadn't allowed a 420-yard day by any offense. In Indianapolis, Manning threw for 377 -- and the Colts gained 461. Under the circumstances -- the pressure of not losing to a five seed at home, facing a pre-eminent defense -- the 26-of-39, three-touchdown, no-interception, 123.6-rating game was probably the best playoff game of Manning's 12-year career. (I don't consider the five-touchdown performance against the Broncos six years ago on a level with this because Denver had a sieve of a defense.) "If you can't disrupt Peyton Manning's rhythm, he'll kill you. And we didn't disrupt him enough,'' said Rex Ryan. Truer words were never spoken about Manning.

Defensive Player of the Week

Jonathan Vilma, linebacker, New Orleans.

The Saints did let the Vikings march up and down the field on them to be sure, but Vilma stopped two drives with an interception and fumble recovery, forced another fumble, had five tackles and two passes deflected ... and changed the defense on the crucial Brett Favre interception from man to zone, which cornerback Tracy Porter credited for giving him the chance to pick off Favre and save the game for New Orleans. Vilma's second year with Saints after his trade from New York is turning into a special one. He's the defensive signal-caller, and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams trusts him to change any play call at the line if he sees certain offensive tendencies.

Special Teams Player of the Week

Eric Frampton, S, Minnesota.

In a game that looked like it might end 49-48 early but then settled into a defensive slugfest, the third-year special-teamer and dime back made a play that should have turned a 14-14 tie into a 21-14 Minnesota lead just before the end of the first half. Frampton, one of the Vikes' peripheral gunners on the punt team, bore down on Reggie Bush on a punt near the two-minute warning. Bush should have signaled for a fair catch, but in his eagerness to make a play, he let the punt fall into his waiting hands -- and Frampton nailed him almost simultaneously. The Vikings recovered at the Saint 10 and should have turned it into seven, but Favre and Peterson missed connections on a handoff two plays later; the Saints recovered and ran out the clock.

Coach of the Week

Jim Caldwell, head coach, Indianapolis.

He may rock the sporting public to sleep with his words, but it's not his job to be Conan O'Brien. It's his job to win. And in his rookie year as a pro head coach, in the 16 games he's gone all-out to win this year, the Colts are 16-0. He's won in a lot of different ways. He's won 17- and 13-point playoff verdicts, and he won eight games in the regular season by single digits.

It's easy to sit there and say, "Well, he's got Peyton Manning, and anyone who has Peyton Manning just has to roll the ball out there at practice and the team will coach itself.'' Manning, obviously, is a tremendous advantage, and the Colts would be a mediocre team with a much lesser quarterback, but Caldwell has taken Tony Dungy's team, massaged the defensive coaching staff and structure of the defense, and lorded over some major changes on offense, particularly at receiver. He's a win away from a 17-2, Super Bowl-winning year.

Goat of the Week

The fumblers, Minnesota.

All five of them, for a total of six. In particular, Adrian Peterson, who lost his seventh fumble of the season, and scrambled to recover what would have been his eighth. In addition, Peterson and Brett Favre mishandled a handoff together. Favre was credited with the fumble, but it could have gone either way. Putting the ball on the ground six times in a championship game. Ludicrous.

The last significant pass of the last game of Brett Favre's last three seasons, all with different teams:

Is there another Scott Brown in the Republican Party? Jon Runyan flew home from San Diego last week (the longtime Titan and Eagle tackle played one half of a final NFL season as a Charger backup) to begin his campaign for New Jersey's 3rd Congressional District seat. He'll retire from football to take on Democrat John Adler, who was swept into office 14 months ago on a Democratic wave in a traditionally Republican district.

Two good things and one bad on my trip to the deep south:

Good: A late-afternoon trip to the Fairground Race Track in New Orleans. Nothing better on a sunny, warm afternoon than watching the horses get prepped in the paddock and go out for their races ... even if I didn't cash one winning ticket of any sort in six races.

Very good: Dinner at Gautreau's, a tony French spot built in a 1911 pharmacy in the Uptown District, and one of the truly hidden-gem restaurants in New Orleans. Hidden, because there's no sign for it. I've never been to a restaurant, or any legal business establishment for that matter, with no sign out front.

This place, tucked into a neighborhood street like many of the great restaurants here are, has a nice bench out front, and curtains visible through the big windows, but you'd never know it's an actual restaurant. Owner Patrick Singley bought the classy, signless restaurant in 1993, and when I said I couldn't get over a place of business not having a sign, he said, "It didn't have one to begin with, and I just figured, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' '' Archie and Olivia Manning must feel that way. On Thursday night, the night I ate there, they shared their 39th anniversary dinner.

Bad: Room service order-takers. If it's happened to me once this year, it's happened 10 times -- getting pushed to order things you don't want. Working in my room in New Orleans Sunday, I picked up the phone to order the following: three-egg omelet with onion and tomato, ice water, small pot of coffee, cream. The woman repeated back to me: "Three-egg omelet, onion, tomato, bottled water, coffee with cream.'' No, I said -- I want ice water. "You sure you don't want a bottle?'' was the reply. Quite sure. Thank you very much. I realize times are tough and you're trying to make extra sales, people. But stop forcing things on me that I never asked for.

"Love this: Tailgating Colts fans, trying to shut up the chanting Jets fans, respond with "Jer-sey Shore! Jer-sey Shore!''-- @NJ_Steve Politi, columnist Steve Politi of the (Newark) Star-Ledger, on what he witnessed on his walk to Lucas Oil Stadium Sunday at 12:07 p.m.

1. I think these are my quick-hit thoughts of championship weekend:

a. Very good showing by the NFL (Roger Goodell, Merton Hanks, scores of Bears and Bucs, NFLPA chief DeMaurice Smith) in making it to South Carolina to pay tribute to Gaines Adams at his funeral Thursday.

b. It's amazing how few people with existing jobs want to work under Lovie Smith in Chicago. That always says as much about how tenuous a head coach's job security is as anything else.

c. Remember eight months ago, when Jerry Angelo could have run for mayor in Chicago after the Jay Cutler trade? Seems like eight years ago.

d. I believe Adam Schefter. Welcome back for another year in paradise, Tom Cable.

e. Myron Rolle, the Florida State safety, is taking time off from his Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford to ply his wares at the Senior Bowl in Mobile.

f. Biggest play a player regrets of the day: New Orleans linebacker Scott Shanle staring an Adrian Peterson fumble right in front of him with a 21-14 lead, knowing that a recovery would be a gigantic momentum swing. Instead of diving on the ball, he tried to pick it up and run with it. And failed. The Vikings recovered and scored the tying touchdown a couple of minutes later.

g. I like what I saw in Mark Sanchez over the past 16 days. He finished the postseason 2-1, completing 41-of-68 throws for 539 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions for a 92.7 rating. If Braylon Edwards had caught the touchdown he dropped in Cincinnati, the rating would have been 101.4. Plenty to build on there.

h. Not a good day for Reggie Bush.

i. Not a particularly accurate day for Drew Brees. Too many overthrows.

j. The ref in New Orleans, Pete Morelli, had to make the call on Anthony Hargrove for driving Brett Favre into the ground. Had to. Driving the quarterback from off the ground into the ground is a no-brainer call.

2. I think Rex Ryan's mouth, and the zipped lips of the Colts, had nothing to do with Colts 30, Jets 17.

3. I think the Colts seem like a slight favorite over the Saints to me. Just seems the Indy offense is a tad more consistent, and I trust the Colt pass-rush more than New Orleans' right now.

4. I think Adrian Peterson has to go to the Tiki Barber School of Curing Fumbleitis. And soon. Like this week. How can you trust him right now, even after a three-touchdown game like the one he had in the Dome? If I'm Brad Childress, I'm keeping Chester Taylor around next year.

5. I think Jabari Greer is the poor man's Darrelle Revis. I will guarantee you that one of the first things Peyton Manning will do this week as he gathers video to watch to prep for the Super Bowl is study Greer, who he hasn't seen very much as a Buffalo corner before leaving for the Saints in free-agency.

6. I think this is what I liked about championship weekend:

a. Pierre Garcon. All seasons he's flashed signs of having a breakout game, and on the third Colts' series of the game, he had it. What a catch on the long fade, a limbo-like catch on his helmet.

b. Steve Tasker doing a nice job with the quick-question halftime interview of Jim Caldwell.

c. Thomas Morstead's kickoffs for the Saints. Weapons, all.

d. Len Pasquarelli on the road at a big game. The ESPN guru looks good, says he's feeling good and that's a sure sign (even though my bosses will frown on this) that you've got to read him every week.

e. Joseph Addai showing us all that there's life in his legs.

f. Jared Allen. If I were a quarterback, he'd scare me. Great moves, even when he's locked by one behemoth and chipped by another.

g. Sean Payton's advice to Garrett Hartley when he went on the field to kick the kick that sent the Saints to the Super Bowl: "There's a little fleur de lis between both uprights, and why don't you see if you can hit it dead center.''

7. I think this is what I didn't like about championship weekend:

a. Pet Peeve of the Week: I heard this a few times from media people and from fans in the past few days, alarmed at the number of people who were picking the Jets to upset the Colts in the AFC. "They're disrespecting the Colts!'' was the general theme. So silly. These are athletic contests. The Jets entered the weekend hot, charmed and with a very good running game facing an undersized front seven. It's not the stretch of the season to think the Jets could have beaten Indianapolis. It's not even one of the biggest upsets in recent history. In January, the hot teams always have a chance. It's no disrespect to say a hot team can beat a very good team.

b. Kickers. The infection has settled in on Jay Feely.

c. Never saw a return man field a punt at the one until I saw Darius Reynaud stupidly do it in the third quarter for the Vikes. The ball kept fading, and he should have known to let the thing roll into the end zone.

d. Not positive about the Ben Leber interference call on the game-winning overtime drive for the Saints, but it looked uncatchable to me.

e. Dwight Freeney limping off late in Jets-Colts. Trouble. Good thing there's the bye week. Peyton Manning said something interesting after the game, that he was so glad to have the bye week because he's mentally beat and needs the time to recover and study before the Super Bowl. "I don't know how they did the Super Bowl without the off week,'' he said.

f. Two domes for the conference championships. Give me weather.

8. I think, if you just saw David Harris explode in the first quarter Sunday for the first time, you should know this: In last April's draft, St. Louis had the second overall pick, Cleveland five and the Jets 17. When the Jets were looking to trade up high in the first round to pick Mark Sanchez, they spoke with the Rams, and one of the key elements for the Rams to make the deal was Harris, plus a slew of draft picks.

Rex Ryan wanted no part of trading Harris; he viewed Harris as the long-term centerpiece of his defense, like Ray Lewis was for him in Baltimore. If the Rams sat at two and picked Sanchez, which the Jets feared, then so be it. So the Jets put an if-Sanchez-is-there deal together with Cleveland that didn't involve Harris, and that ended up being the deal they made. There are times you need to be stubborn and say no, and this was a smart move by GM Mike Tannenbaum and Ryan, risking missing out on Sanchez because they didn't want to deal Harris.

9. I think you'd have enjoyed the dinner I shared with sportswriter pals and the girlfriend of one of them Saturday night at Emeril's Delmonico on St. Charles. As FOX Sports' Alex Marvez said, we never really get to do things like this much anymore. The sportswriting business has changed, particularly for national writers who no longer spend days in town before games. Budget cutbacks and restrictive media policies have diminished the importance of actually getting to a city two or three days before a big game and spending time with the important characters in the game.

Anyway, I rounded up a few writers (some I don't know well but should) and we had a nice meal ... and I proposed a pool for the nine people at the table. Throw $5 in the pool, and pick the team that drafts Tim Tebow. I proposed we do the order of the draft with those living farthest from Gainesville having the first pick, and here it went:

Mike Silver, Yahoo!Sports (Northern California) JacksonvilleSam Farmer, L.A. Times (Southern California) St. LouisAlbert Breer, Boston Globe (Boston) BuffaloPeter King, Sports Illustrated (Boston) San Francisco

Immediately upon hearing my pick, Silver sent the following text-message to San Francisco GM Scot McCloughan: "You can't pick Tebow. It has something to do with a pool, alcohol, and Peter King.'' A minute later, two letters came back from McCloughan: "ok.''

Come on! Stand up for your Tebow, Scot!

Jeff Duncan, New Orleans Times-Picayune (New Orleans) MiamiAngela Craig, girlfriend of Jeff (New Orleans) Denver

"You might be right,'' I said to Angela, who works for a technology company. "But why'd you pick Denver?''

"I'm from Denver!'' she said.

Alex Marvez, Foxsports.com (South Florida) ClevelandJeff Darlington, Miami Herald (South Florida) Tampa BayJason Cole, Yahoo!Sports (Gainesville, Fla.) New England

And the crowd went "Ooooooooh,'' on Cole's pick of the Pats.

So someone's going to win $45 ... or some New Orleans cause is going to get a free $45 if it's another team. That's what we'll do with this pot if Tebow goes to any of the other 23 teams in the league.

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

a. My very best wishes to one of the classic and classy men in the NFL business, longtime Packer PR man Lee Remmel, who is ailing in Green Bay. He was always one of Brett Favre's favorites. He called Favre in his deep voice, "Brett Lorenzo Favre,'' and Favre once played one of the great bus-to-the-stadium jokes on Remmel anyone has ever played.

Favre bought a remote-control fart machine (what a country!) and put it beneath Remmel's seat near the front of the bus for the ride from the Chicago hotel to Soldier Field before a game against the Bears. As the quiet bus made its way to the stadium, Favre kept pressing the button on the machine, and the fart sounds kept coming from under Remmel's seat, and Mike Holmgren shot a few dirty looks over his shoulder at whoever was doing this nonsense.

Remmel covered Don Hutson and later Vince Lombardi as a sportswriter, then went to work as the Packer PR man, one of the best ever to do the job. "Lee's been a great friend,'' Favre told me in a text-message over the weekend. "He truly loves his Packers. A walking stat book!''

b. Best wishes also to ailing John Minko of WFAN in New York, recovering from bypass surgery. Good guy, good Hoosier.

c. Asked Rick Gosselin, the hugely respected draft/NFL man for the Dallas Morning News who does the best mock draft in our business, for his over/under on the overall pick for Tebow. "Twenty-eight,'' he said.

d. Coffeenerdness: The great thing about P.J.'s Coffee in New Orleans? People go there to read, to have civil discussions (I heard a local politics discussion among five retirees in the P.J.'s on Maple Street near the Tulane campus Friday morning) and to work quietly. It's what coffee shops should be. And right across the street is a Starbucks. Both times I've been to P.J.'s, the stores have been more crowded than the nearby Starbucks.

e. Those of you who travel a lot will understand why the best news of the week for me was squeezing into the Conrad Hotel in Indianapolis for the upcoming NFL Scouting Combine. What a gem of a hotel.

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