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It's time for the NFL to get serious after weekend of vicious hits

NEW YORK -- "This is crazy!'' Rodney Harrison said as we tried to process the sixth or seventh vicious NFL hit of the day in the NBC viewing room Sunday afternoon.

Then, almost under his breath, Harrison said quietly, "Thank God I retired.''

The games we watched Sunday seemed as violent a collection as I've seen. Judging from the tweets and e-mails I got as the day went on, the public was astonished too. The Dunta Robinson collision with DeSean Jackson in Philadelphia, concussing both the Atlanta corner and Eagles receiver and probably kayoing the invaluable Jackson for Sunday's game at Tennessee. Several shots in Pittsburgh, two vicious ones by James Harrison of the Steelers; his helmet-to-helmet shot against Browns receiver Mohamed Massaquoi will certainly draw a heavy fine, and it's incredible to me no official flagged what could be the textbook definition of hitting a defenseless receiver. In New England, Brandon Meriweather lighting up Baltimore's Todd Heap with a hit to the head so vicious that either a mouthguard or something flew high into the air at the moment of impact. And so on -- six or eight shots where you wondered, "Is that guy getting up?''

So many thoughts. One: It's time to start ejecting and suspending players for flagrant hits, which I thought the Meriweather one was, and perhaps also the shot of Harrison on Massaquoi. Two: the league had better train its officials better considering there was no penalty on the Harrison hit on Massaquoi. The league had as a point of emphasis to officials this year that launching into a defenseless receiver would be a penalty and subject to discipline. So emphasize it.

Three: Eighteen games? Are you serious? Tell the six Eagles who've suffered concussions this year -- we're six weeks into the season -- that adding two games is no big hazard to your health. Right. And four: Don't tell me this is the culture we want. It might be the culture kids are used to in video games, but the NFL has to draw a line in the sand right here, right now, and insist that the forearm shivers and leading with the helmet and launching into unprotected receivers will be dealt with severely. Six-figure fines. Suspensions. Ejections.

I will hand it to Rodney Harrison. In the year-and-a-half I've worked with him, he's become more thoughtful about the game than I remember from his playing days, when his life was a seek-and-destroy mission. And Sunday, after watching a day of the viciousness, he laid it on the line on our Football Night in America show.

"You didn't get my attention when you fined me five grand, 10 grand, 15 grand,'' Harrison said. "You got my attention when I got suspended ... You have to suspend these guys. These guys are making millions of dollars. The NFL [has to say], 'We're going to really protect our players. We're going to suspend these guys, not one game, but possibly two or more games.' ''

If the NFL's serious about its rules, and is giving more than lip service about concussions, it's essential the league acts now to reinforce the rules on the books.

*******

Now for the other headlines on a typically unpredictable weekend in the life of the NFL:

Kevin Kolb, apparently, is really good.

• They love them some Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, and he repaid his fans and his team with a game he thought was a "B-minus, C-plus.''

• The Vikings are more than alive. They might be a Brett Favre/Green Bay melodrama-away from becoming the favorites in the NFC North.

• There's been a Tim Tebow sighting. Came in the end zone.

• In three hours, Deion Branch, still trying to get caught up on his sleep, gave the Patriots the production Randy Moss had in five weeks.

• Officials don't know how to call pass interference still ... and can we end the madness and please, please, please make pass interference a 15-yard penalty and not a spot foul?

• Dallas is 1-4. San Diego is 2-4. There's a new standard for despair, and those two teams are setting it.

*******

"The Eagle Quarterback Story.'' Coming to a theater near you.

In the last two weeks, Kolb, kicked somewhat ruthlessly to the curb by the Eagles a month ago, has played out of his mind. That is to say, exactly how Andy Reid thought he'd play when the Eagles traded Donovan McNabb on Easter Sunday. Kolb's passing line in the two starts while Mike Vick recuperates from his chest injury:

Right. We all saw this coming.

Kolb completed 79 percent of his throws in the surprisingly easy 31-17 win over the Falcons on Sunday, throwing two touchdown passes to Jeremy Maclin and another to DeSean Jackson before Jackson temporarily lost memory after the monster hit by Robinson. The eight-yard TD throw to Maclin midway through the second quarter was one of the beautiful throws of this season, I thought.

With a rush beginning to get in his face, Kolb lowered his arm slot to near-sidearm and pea-shot a perfect pass to a diving Maclin in the corner of the end zone, near the pylon. "You're not gonna be able to throw the ball from the arm slot you want to all the time,'' he told me later. "You see the same kind of throws from Mike [Vick]. It's just playing football. I'll see that on film and I'll say, 'Hmmm. I didn't even know I did that. But I didn't want to get it batted down, and I knew I had to put it where only Maclin could catch it.''

He got emotional after the game when Asante Samuel -- not a coach -- gave him the game ball in the locker room. "I'm tearing up just telling you about it,'' he said. "But that's what you play for -- the respect of the guys you share the locker room with.That meant a lot to me, obviously.''

I said this on NBC last night, but it bears repeating: Vick and Kolb like each other. When Vick hugged Kolb after the game, he said to him, "I'm proud of you.'' They're in a tough spot. Both want the starting job. Neither will submarine the other. "It helps that me and Michael are so close,'' he said. "There've been times I've had to rally myself a little bit. I won't lie. It's been tough. We've just said to each other, 'Whoever's in there, let's just keep playing our butts off.''

There's no change in the starting assignment, though. Reid said Vick's still his quarterback when healthy, which could be Sunday in Tennessee, or after the bye the following week.

But as Reid has shown, his quarterback assignment is written in pencil. Stay tuned.

*******

Sensitive Ben is back.

He's not crazy about the "Big Ben'' handle anymore. He got emotional pulling into the stadium parking lot Sunday morning, and even more emotional during the Star Spangled Banner when he looked up into the private box his father and stepmother were in, thinking of all the stuff he'd put them through in the past year or so. "That's when I got a little teary,'' Ben Roethlisberger told me last night. "I know it's been rough for them, and they've been there for me.''

Then the game. It all set up perfectly for Roethlisberger, coming back from his four-game league suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy. The Steelers had a bye last week, so Roethlisberger had a week to get prepared after being away for a month. The game was at home, against Cleveland and first-time Browns starter Colt McCoy at quarterback.

The natives forgot how ticked off they were at Roethlisberger for his off-field boorishness (and, allegedly, worse behavior) and showered him with cheers from the time he pulled into the Heinz Field parking lot at 10:30 Sunday morning. Then the game: 16 of 27, touchdowns to his three key targets (Mike Wallace, Hines Ward, Heath Miller), one bad pick, and 257 yards, almost double what the Steelers had been averaging through the air.

"It sounds funny, but it was great to get hit again,'' he said. "It was great to do everything -- but just to be out there playing.''

When he stepped into the huddle for the first time, Roethlisberger said nothing memorable but will remember the looks he saw around him. "Smily,'' he said. "Excited. I could tell. Nobody had to say anything.''

I thought his touchdown throw to Wallace, with linebacker Matt Roth bearing down on him, was his best moment. Roethlisberger had to slide the line over during his cadence to account for a Browns blitz. He hung in, knowing he was going to get hit. When I asked him to grade his game, he said, "B-minus, C-plus. I left a lot of throws out there.''

Now it gets harder for Roethlisberger. Sunday was the dry run for him. Now it'll get nastier, on the field and in the stands. Pittsburgh goes to Miami on Sunday, then plays three straight prime-time games -- at New Orleans on Halloween night, at Cincinnati the following Monday, Nov. 8, and at home against New England the following Sunday. Roethlisberger knows the road won't be as friendly, in all ways.

Deion Branch never should have gone anywhere.

Sometimes, the lure of moving should be ignored. Sometimes, the grass isn't greener on the other side. If Deion Branch were honest with himself, he'd look himself in the mirror and say, "I should never have left New England four years ago.'' And in the wake of his best game in the NFL since the day he won the Super Bowl MVP nearly six years ago, there was no way the bubbly Branch could avoid the topic of what might have been.

"I think about it a lot,'' he told me over the phone from the Patriots' locker room. "My brother and my father do too. They say, 'You'd be ready to put a gold [Hall of Fame] jacket on if you stayed.' ''

Probably not, but Branch, after catching nine balls for 98 yards and a touchdown Sunday in the Patriots' win over Baltimore, understands what he lost -- and what he may have to gain in the near future.

"It's easy to say that now versus back then, and I wish ... well ... but we can't go back on it. We could easily factor in what went wrong, but right now, but I'm very thankful and honored to be back where I belong, and I'm not looking back or anything,'' Branch said.

What a difference two weeks makes. In New England's last game, Randy Moss got one ball thrown to him and loudly protested being a very tall decoy. That helped prompt the Patriots to trade Moss to Minnesota. In his place came Branch and the speedy Brandon Tate, who, combined, got 17 passes thrown their way by Brady. Nine were completed, all to Branch.

Amazing, because Branch got off a redeye flight from Seattle to Boston last Tuesday at 7:30 a.m., took his physical at 10:30 and was at that afternoon's practice, re-learning the playbook that was largely similar to the one he left. With New England down 20-10 with 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Branch trolled the back of the end zone while Brady tried to find other targets from the Ravens' five-yard line.

"I'm the outlet when everything else breaks down,'' Branch said. "I've just got to find a spot to be open.'' After zigging in and zagging out, Branch was open -- and Brady hit him. Then the Pats tied it later in the quarter, forcing overtime. On the last series of OT, Brady found Branch open for 23, putting them near field-goal range. One more 10-yard throw to Branch moved them closer, and the Pats finally got to the Ravens' 17, close enough for the winning field goal 13 minutes into the extra period.

After the game, Belichick found Branch on the field. "Great job!'' he said.

"Thanks for the opportunity,'' Branch said. "Thanks for bringing me back.''

Branch played four years in New England, 2002-05. By the end, he'd become Brady's go-to receiver. In his two Super Bowls -- wins over Carolina and Philadelphia -- Branch caught 21 passes for 276 yards. Four of his eight Patriot playoff games were 100-yard receiving affairs.

In 2006, Branch held out from training camp with the Patriots. He forced a trade to Seattle, which gave up a first-round 2007 draft pick to New England to get him.

In Seattle, Branch was given a six-year, $39 million contract. In New England, the last offer to Branch was approximately six years, $36 million.

Last week, Branch was traded back to New England. To make the trade happen, Branch lowered his 2011 compensation by $3.65 million. That makes his original contract from 2006 now worth six years and $35.35 million. Now, there's no guarantee the Patriots wouldn't have tried to cut Branch's salary. But I ask you this: Where would Branch have had his best chance to be productive: with the team that drafted him, quarterbacked by an all-timer who had great chemistry with him, consistently in one of the best offenses in football ... or with a team with an oft-injured quarterback, adjusting to a new offensive system, and with three head coaches in five years?

In hindsight, it was an idiotic move, holding out and forcing the Patriots to trade him. The Seahawks traded for an impact receiver, and what they got was a pedestrian one. In 54 career games in Seattle, including the playoffs, Branch had three 100-yard games. In his last 34 games in Seattle, 24 times he was held to 50 receiving yards or fewer. Branch's impact with the Seahawks, basically, was nil.

Check out his last six playoff games in New England. That's how you can tell how much the Pats and Brady were beginning to lean on him, and what a great career he could have had if not for the forced deal to Seattle:

In his last six New England playoff games, including one when he was named the MVP of the Super Bowl, Branch had more 100-yard receiving games than he had in his 54-game career in Seattle. Now Branch is 31, trying to acclimate himself to his old team in his ninth year. He's in his twilight. The big move in 2006, in essence, was for no more money. It's sad, really. But Branch wasn't sad Sunday. He was feeling the love from a crowd that treated him like he never left. The quarterback treated him that way too.

"I'm not surprised he looked for me so much,'' Branch said of Brady. "I wish every receiver had the opportunity to play with this guy. You truly see a champion when you watch Tom play, and it rubs off on everybody.''

*****

Wrapping up the rest of the stories:

The Patriots don't like the Ravens. Or is it the other way around?

Tom Brady and Terrell Suggs got in each other's grills Sunday after Brady appeared to appeal to the umpire for a roughing-the-passer flag, which never came. And apparently the Ravens get under Brady's skin. On Boston's WEEI this morning, in his regular weekly spot, Brady said: "They talk a lot for only beating us once in nine years.'' That could be a very, very interesting playoff rematch.

The Rams are almost relevant.

The Chargers flew to the Midwest to right their season, and late in the first half found themselves in a 17-0 hole. St. Louis had seven sacks and held San Diego to 287 yards, and now we see the Steve Spagnuolo plan. Build a competent offense with a franchise quarterback. Backstop that with a defense with teeth.

"Everyone win their rush,'' Rams defensive end Chris Long said. "That was the plan. We have faith if one guy doesn't get there, we've got someone else on the line who will.'' What was interesting about Long, in a not-so-raucous Rams locker room, is that no one seemed particularly effervescent about winning a game that got St. Louis to 3-3. "It's early,'' he said. "Our eyes are on the prize 10 games from now. Believe me, we're not throwing a party for being 3-3. Our focus is more immediate. We need to win a road game.''

St. Louis at Tampa Bay next week. Looks winnable to me.

In one week, Minnesota got some life.

The Vikings rose to 2-3 with their 24-21 win over the Cowboys. They have to do some winning, obviously, and it'd help if Brett Favre stays out of Goodell Jail. But the Bears are a very shaky 4-2, Green Bay's a beat-up 3-3 with an offense nowhere near what we thought it'd be, and the NFC North could well be a three- and not a two-team race.

Minnesota travels to Green Bay and New England in the next two weeks, and the emotion the Vikings will expend -- first with the Favre investigation, then the rivalry game for Favre, then Randy Moss surely wanting to catch 37 footballs at the Patriots -- can't get in the way of two games that can define their season.

When I talked to coach Brad Childress on Saturday, I asked him about the status of wideout SidneyRice, out since the summer with hip surgery. "Might be about three weeks,'' he said. If the Vikings can tread water for the next three weeks, they'd enter the final eight games with Favre (one would assume) throwing to Moss, Rice and Percy Harvin. Their final eight isn't a killer slate. If the Vikings are, say, 4-4 when Rice returns, they'll have a good chance to win the division.

Tebow scores. Quietly.

I talked with Tebow last week to ask how he was coping with not playing; since the first game of the season (two carries, two yards, no passes), the former Florida do-everything quarterback hadn't played. It was easy to see why: Kyle Orton was playing like a top-10 quarterback, and as long as he was, Josh McDaniels wasn't going to screw with the chemistry of an offense playing well, until he saw a matchup that he liked.

"It's been a challenge,'' Tebow said, choosing his words carefully and politely. "But I'm OK with it. Kyle's been playing so well. All I can do is prepare every week for whatever my role is, continue to learn this offense, and wait for the time when the coaches think I can help the team.''

That time came against the Jets in Denver's 24-20 loss, when Tebow got under center and ran a version of the option in the first half, sometimes running, sometimes pitching. His five-yard sprint around right end with 11 minutes left in the first half tied the game at 7. Tebow still hasn't thrown a pass, and eventually, McDaniels has to let him do so, if only to show defenses he might throw so they can't load up against the run.

Some sanity to pass interference, please.

The Jets won fair and square in Denver. Safety Renaldo Hill interfered with Santonio Holmes, slightly grabbing his facemask accidentally and affecting Holmes' ability to follow the flight of a pass late in the fourth quarter. Denver led 20-17 at the time, trying to defend a fourth-and-six desperation throw from Mark Sanchez to Holmes at the goal line. What did Sanchez and the Jets have to lose? There aren't any gimme fourth-and-six conversion plays in the playbook, and the Jets clearly figured if they flooded the secondary and tried to get it to the athletic Holmes, maybe he'd have single-coverage and could win a battle for the ball ... or he'd get interfered with, and New York would get a gift. Either way was fine. And when Hill contacted Holmes and tugged at the facemask, that was interference. A 46-yard interference call. The Jets advanced from the 48 to the two on a wing and a prayer.

Stupid. Yes, it was interference. No, it was not worthy of a 46-yard gift. For years, this had been the dumbest rule in the NFL book. Sunday was exhibit A for making interference at most a 15-yard penalty from the line of scrimmage -- not placed at the spot of the foul.

*******

You make the call.

NFL Films' 10-episodes of the "Top 100: NFL's Greatest Players'' is terrific television (Thursday night, 9 Eastern, NFL Network), but what else would you expect from Films? There are a few nits to pick. The list is offensive-heavy (63 out of the 100 are offensive players), which is the same problem Hall of Fame voters have wrestled with over the years. And the list is not as respectful of history as it should be; between 10 and 12 of the 100 made their marks in the first 30 years of the NFL's 91-year life. But that's not Films' fault. That's on the shoulders of the 85 voters (coaches, GMs, scouts, former players, media folk) who cast ballots for the top 100 last spring.

The show itself is great. Each Thursday, 10 names are counted down. Last Thursday was 40 through 31 on the list, the seventh episode of the 10. And number 34 on the list, cornerback Deion Sanders, said he was angry at being rated so low. He called it "preposterous,'' said he was "appalled,'' and wondered how he would tell his children he's the 34th-best player of all time, and not in the top 10.

Oh, the indignity!

"How can you tell me with a straight face that 33 other players had a greater impact?'' Sanders said on NFL Network, where he serves as an analyst.

Sanders, properly, is regarded as the best cover cornerback in NFL history, a ball magnet when quarterbacks chose to throw at him -- which wasn't often in his prime. He was an elusive and instinctive return man. Five times he was voted a first-team Associated Press All-Pro corner, and once more as a kick returner, in his 14-year career.

No modern defensive back scored like he did. He had touchdowns on interception returns (nine), punt returns (six), kickoff returns (three), receptions (three) and fumble returns (one), and those 22 touchdowns are the most by a defensive back in the modern era. It's hard to compare today's players to those from the first 40 years of the game because so many men who threw, passed or ran with the ball then -- like Don Hutson and Sammy Baugh -- dominated on offense and in the secondary.

Forget the off-field showmanship, however you view that. Sanders wasn't a physical corner and too often shied away from form tackling -- or any tackling. Whereas 2008 Hall of Fame inductee Rod Woodson was a more complete corner and a more versatile defensive back in total, Sanders made his millions in covering and returning, not hitting.

So the question is: Did Deion get jobbed? Let me know what you think. I'll run a handful of opinions in my Tuesday mailbag column. For now, consider that Sanders was the 12th-rated defensive player in history and the second-rated cornerback in history by the measure of NFL Films. He was ranked ahead of Chuck Bednarik, Mel Blount, Gino Marchetti, Alan Page, Mike Singletary, Jack Ham and Ray Nitschke, among others.

The following 11 defenders are rated higher. I don't know the order they're in, so I've listed them by my best guess of how they'll fall.

• Linebacker Lawrence Taylor• Defensive end Reggie White• Linebacker Dick Butkus• Defensive end Deacon Jones• Safety Ronnie Lott• Defensive tackle Joe Greene• Linebacker Ray Lewis• Defensive tackle Bob Lilly• Linebacker Jack Lambert• Defensive tackle Merlin Olsen• Defensive end Bruce Smith

Lest you quickly look over those 11 and say, for instance, "Deion was better than the last couple of guys listed,'' consider this: Olsen made more Pro Bowls, 14, than any other defensive player in NFL history, and Smith is the alltime leader in sacks.

My opinion? Sanders is right where he should be. He's one of the most electric and important players I've seen in my 26 years covering the league, but I'd have him higher if he played more physically. Coincidentally, in my Monday Morning Quarterback book (the revised paperback, with my own list of the top 100 players of all times, is on newsstands now!), number 34 on my list is the one and only Deion Sanders. If he cared, I'm sure he'd be angry at that "slight'' too.

*******

Fall classics.

One more note on the Top 100 series: Each player is introduced by an admirer. Usually those admirers are from the football world, but this week's show, counting down from 30 to 21, will include a couple of baseball players. I was provided a preview of the two segments they're a part of. A couple snippets:

Alex Rodriguez, who chose to wear number 13 as a Yankee in honor of Dan Marino, on the Miami quarterback: "Since he retired, I've never really gone back or watched the Dolphins. It's hard. It's like having to watch the Orioles without Cal Ripken.''

Derek Jeter, who could get some tabloid guff for his affection for a Bostonian, on what he thinks of Tom Brady: "I think of a winner, a champion ... The [Super Bowl] that stands out the most is the first one he won [2001 versus St. Louis], leading the team down the field when time was running out. You could just see in his face that he remained calm. As a teammate, if you're looking at the leader and he's calm, it rubs off on everybody.'' Jeter said of Brady staying good: "The only way you can maintain a certain level of play is you can never be satisfied with what you've done. You have to look forward to the next challenge. That's what he's done.''

1. Pittsburgh (4-1). There were some rough moments, and Roethlisberger threw a very poor early interception, but the way he spread it around (TD throws to Mike Wallace, Heath Miller and Hines Ward) and kept the running game going are great long-term signs for the Steelers.

2. Baltimore (4-2). The Ravens have played six games, four on the road. Road results: Lost to 2-3 Cincinnati and 4-1 New England, both games either team could have won. Won at the Steelers and Jets by a total of four points. Most teams won't play four tougher road games in a full season, and the Ravens have played them by the middle of October.

3. New York Jets (5-1). Big road win at Denver, with some luck coming from a long pass-interference call on the Broncos in the final two minutes. What I like is how Mark Sanchez came back from his first two interceptions of the year to make enough plays to win at the end.

4. New England (4-1). This is the team getting jobbed at the top after the best win a team had all day Sunday. The reason I've got New England fourth instead of second is because of how I've always tried to do these rankings: If New England played Baltimore on a neutral field in Wichita tomorrow, I like the Ravens. Same with the Jets. For now.

5. Indianapolis (4-2). Everyone's right: The Colts aren't the same with so many injuries, and with guys like Brody Eldredge (you know Brody -- he was the backup tight end at Oklahoma last year) playing big roles. But they can still rush the passer, still force the Donovan McNabbs of the world into mistakes the way they did Sunday night, and they have a quarterback who's pretty good too.

6. New Orleans (4-2). Probably falling back in love with the Saints too quickly. But they were awfully good Sunday at Tampa, and finally they were able to run the ball -- really, for the first time all season.

7. Philadelphia (4-2). When's the last time one team had two of the top 12 quarterbacks in football? Or at least two quarterbacks who, this year, have played like top-12-in-the-game quarterbacks?

8. Tennessee (3-2). Ten days ago, I talked to Jeff Fisher with some concern about Chris Johnson's 3.8-yards-per-carry average. If I could quote a man giving me a dismissive sound over the phone, I would. It took all of one game for Johnson to be back at a respectable number -- 4.3 yards per rush -- and I expect it will keep climbing, starting tonight in Jacksonville.

9. New York Giants (4-2). It isn't always pretty, but the G-Men have three straight wins. In the NFC, a streak like that means it's time to throw a ticker-tape parade.

10. Miami (3-2). Not many teams can go to Minnesota and Green Bay in the span of 29 days and win. Dolphins did.

11. Atlanta (4-2). Falcons bit on too much play-action in Philly and didn't disrupt Kevin Kolb enough. Not a great team right now.

12. Green Bay (3-3). Favre vs. Aaron Rodgers Sunday night in Green Bay. Man on a wire versus team on a wire.

13. Kansas City (3-2). Sorry. An official decided that game at Houston. If the Chiefs and Texans play tomorrow in Wichita, I'm taking Kansas City.

14. Houston (4-2). Though the Texans were more lucky than good on the awful pass-interference call Sunday -- the call should have gone on Andre Johnson, not Brandon Flowers, as replays clearly show -- they did score 21 points in the last 13 minutes to win.

15. Washington (3-3). Credit where credit's due -- five of the Redskins' six games have hung in the balance on the last possession of the game. And that LaRon Landry continued his terrific play Sunday night against Indy with a huge pass breakup that -- followed by another by Phillip Buchanon -- forced the Colts to punt and nearly gave the Redskins a chance to win.

"When you're sitting here as a chubby head coach in the National Football League and you have two good quarterbacks, you're a happy guy.''-- Andy Reid, the aforementioned chubby head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, after his second quarterback who used to be his first quarterback, Kevin Kolb, played as well Sunday against Atlanta as Mike Vick did in his two wins.

"I was really happy we stole a win. We just got some breaks. Look at the Saints last year. They had plenty of breaks.'' -- New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez, who, as he said, got lucky with a fluky (but real) pass-interference call on the Broncos late in the fourth quarter at Denver Sunday, helping the Jets eke out a comeback win.

"No Moss. No problem.''-- ESPN's Ron Jaworski, on the "NFL Matchup'' show Sunday morning, saying he doesn't think the Patriots will be crippled by the loss of Randy Moss. When Sal Paolantonio, the host, pointed out that Moss "made Wes Welker'' by opening up the middle of the field for him, Jaworski looked like he immediately smelled a skunk.

Offensive Players of the Week

Chris Ivory, RB, New Orleans.

The Saints have been dying for a running back to take the heat off Drew Brees in the first six weeks of the season, and finally, in a 31-6 rout of the Bucs in Tampa Bay on Sunday, they got one. Ivory, an undrafted runner from tiny Tiffin (Ohio) College, rushed 15 times for 158 yards, running through and around the outmanned Bucs. That allowed the Saints to have some clean passing lanes for Brees, and they had their first dominant (476 total yards) offensive day of the year.

King Dunlap, T, Philadelphia.

Not many players had as much pressure on them entering Sunday's games as Dunlap, a seventh-round pick by the Eagles in 2008 who had been nothing but a giant (6-foot-8) roster afterthought -- but who had to block, alternately, strong pass-rushers John Abraham and Kroy Biermann of the Falcons. Stats for Abraham and Biermann: zero sacks, zero quarterback pressures. In fact, Kevin Kolb was sacked only once (by defensive tackle Peria Jerry) in his tour de force performance, and afterward he was fired up about Dunlap and the patchwork line. "He was great today. They all were great today. Amazing day for them, and I can't give them enough credit for keeping me clean in the pocket,'' Kolb said.

Defensive Player of the Week

Cameron Wake, LB, Miami

The two-time Canadian Football League defensive player of the year, who always knew he could play in the NFL, is finally proving it. He had three sacks Sunday in the Dolphins' overtime win at Green Bay, giving him six in five games. The combination of Wake and Koa Misi -- who has three sacks of his own in this rookie season -- was a risky one by Miami because of their inexperience. But they've played great together and look like Miami's pass-rush combination of the future.

Special Teams Player of the Week

Dan Carpenter, K, Miami.

In a tight game throughout, and playing for the special-teams-challenged Dolphins, Carpenter was three-for-three in field goals, from an average distance of 46 yards, in the hostile environment of Lambeau Field, complete with 11-mph winds Sunday. His 53-yarder in the second quarter tied the game at 10. His 41-yarder put the Dolphins up 13-10. And in overtime, he drilled a 44-yard strike down the middle of the plate to win it, 23-20.

Coach of the Week

Steve Spagnuolo, head coach, St. Louis.

The Rams, 6-42 in the past three seasons heading into this one, stunned the Chargers to get to 3-3, a half-game behind AFC West co-leaders Arizona and Seattle, after six weeks. Which is amazing enough. But more amazing is that Spagnuolo has taken a non-pressure defense and turned it into a feisty group bringing more pressure than any recent Rams D. On Sunday, the defense got to Philip Rivers seven times, two each by the famous Chris Long and unfamous James Hall and Larry Grant. Suddenly, the St. Louis front is looking a lot like the Giant front that Spagnuolo choreographed into a Tom Brady hounding in the Super Bowl three seasons ago.

Coaching Decision of the Week

Kansas City offensive coordinator Charlie Weis' Patriot redux, resulting in an early touchdown at Houston.

Weis, the former offensive coordinator of the Patriots, had a fourth-and-one from the Houston two midway through the first quarter at Houston. Mike Vrabel, the former moonlighting tight end of the Patriots, lined up as the tight end on the right side of the formation. Cassel, the former quarterback of the Patriots, got the play called into his helmet from Weis. Vrabel, as he did so often in New England with Brady, acted like he was in to block, slipped through two blockers at the line of scrimmage and stood alone in the end zone as an eligible receiver. Cassel tossed it to him. Easiest touchdown of the year.

Goat of the Week

Le'Ron McClain, FB, Baltimore.

McClain's smarter than the play he made in overtime that helped New England win. In a scrum after a no-gain on second-and-nine from the Baltimore 20 with 6:40 left, McClain got into a tiff with Patriot Jermaine Cunningham and shoved him. Flag. Ten yards, personal foul. Baltimore had to punt two plays later, backed up, and the Patriots took over at their 38. Seven plays later, Stephen Gostkowski's 35-yard field goal won it.

1. Tom Brady, QB, New England. No Randy Moss, and so Brady throws passes to Deion Branch instead, completing nine for 98 yards and a touchdown. No big deal.

2. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis. Yeah. He's really having trouble making all the throws, isn't he?

3. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans. Funny how much better Brees looks with a strong running game.

4. Chris Johnson, RB, Tennessee. I can feel a great run coming up for this great runner.

5. LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, New York Jets. Making his debut in the MVP Watch, replacing Troy Polamalu. Somehow, I'm not sure LT can stay in here, but he's been vital for the upstart Jets through six weeks.

Five strange ones, courtesy of the 2-4 San Diego (Underachieving Once Again) Chargers:

1. San Diego is 2-0 at home, 0-4 on the road ... winning by an average of 28, losing by an average of 6.3.

2. The Chargers lost twice in Missouri in the span of 34 days.

3. Philip Rivers is on pace to break Dan Marino's single-season passing-yardage record by 271 yards, whatever good that does.

4. The Chargers have outgained the opposition by 1,065 yards.

5. In six games, they've lost nine fumbles, had three punts blocked and had the opposition score touchdowns on returns of punts, kicks, interceptions and blocked punts.

It's the elephant in the room, but let's face it: Shawne Merriman, essentially cut last week by the Chargers, is going to have the scarlet letter "S'' on his chest unless he has at least one more very good year in the NFL.

In his first two San Diego seasons, Merriman had 27 sacks in 27 games, and missed none due to injury. In that second season, he was suspended four games for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy. In the third season, he was still good, with 12.5 sacks, but suffered a knee injury late in the season that plagued him into the next offseason, when he should have had surgery but went against the advice of the Chargers and tried to play the next season with no operation. He couldn't. So in the last three years, he has missed 18 games due to injury and had only four sacks.

Knee, calf, shoulder, Achilles. "He's had these muscle deals,'' coach Norv Turner said the other day.

Fair or unfair, one of the byproducts of some performance-enhancers, obviously, is muscle and soft-tissue injuries. Merriman will be shadowed by the steroid suspension until he puts another good season together.

Not a big fan of princesses, either in the real world or the travel world. Across the aisle from me Saturday morning on the Acela was one of them. Walked onto the train in Boston. Took one look at a four-seat table with the large card saying, "Reserved for parties of 3 or more,'' threw the card on the floor, and then sat there, alone but with a invisible force field around her, for the entire trip. Despite the announcement advising passengers to please keep your feet off the seats, she put her Uggs on the leather seat in front of her. She talked too loudly on the phone, with an annoying lilt to her voice.

I'm quite glad when we got to New York, I headed for the subway uptown and she headed for parts unknown.

"Did you notice jenn sterger's name backwards spells 'regrets'?''--@LATimesfarmer, Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times, Saturday at 9:56 a.m.

Evidently, Ms. Regrets, the former Jets sideline host, is having none of this NFL investigation. Roger Goodell told NBC's Alex Flanagan on Saturday that the league has been unable to get Sterger to cooperate in the league's investigation of allegedly inappropriate texts sent by Favre to Sterger.

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

a. Good for you, Houston Texans, having a week of activities celebrating your local veterans and the USO at practice and then at your game with the Chiefs Sunday. Can't do enough for them.

b. Thank you, Josh Cribbs, for agreeing to help distribute a semi full of food and household supplies in inner-city Cleveland for Feed the Children in the next month or so. We've got the Bills cooperating, too, and hope to have a player doing the same when another Feed the Children truck unloads in needy Buffalo soon.

c. Aaron Rodgers! You found Greg Jennings again!

d. Zoltan Mesko's 65-yard punt in overtime got the Patriots out of a huge hole. Punt of the day.

e. Mike Singletary sticking with Alex Smith. It wasn't a Rembrandt, there in the rain at Candlestick. But it was a two-touchdown, no-interception, passable performance in the first 49er win of the year.

f. Frank Gore finally busting one. His 64-yard run loosened up the Raiders when the Niners really needed a play.

g. Denver did enough to win. More than enough. Losing that game is going to hurt for more than a few days.

h. Antonio Cromartie. He played a terrific game covering and tackling in Denver, and he's been invaluable with Darrelle Revis' hamstring an ongoing problem.

i. The combination of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs, 28 carries for 168 yards and two touchdowns. Don't worry about how often you get it. Just dominate when you do.

j. Drew Stanton. A Matt Millen pick, folks. Not that you needed to be reminded of that.

k. Seattle taking the fight to the Bears, sacking Jay Cutler six times and coming away with a 23-20 road win.

l. Brad Childress' honesty. I like how he's had enough of Brett Favre as John Wayne. Asked about Favre's toughness after the Vikings win, Childress said: "We're paying him enough every game. He's going to get hit."

m. Osi Umenyiora. In his rebound year, he had two more sacks and showed why the Giants were smart to not entertain offers for him.

n. Ndamukong Suh. I like the defensive rookie of the year crop, but he's my man right now. He had 1.5 more sacks Sunday in the Meadowlands.

2. I think this is what I didn't like about Week 6:

a. The wholesale jumping to conclusions when Mike Vick didn't show up with the rest of the team Sunday morning in Philadelphia. Andy Reid knew Vick was going to be the third quarterback against Atlanta. He knew Vick, in fact, was only going to play in the event of injuries knocking out Kolb and backup-for-the-day Mike Kafka, and he was inclined to have Vick spend the day in the locker room anyway, so as to avoid any physical contact on the sidelines during the game. It was a large non-story.

b. California football. Yay! Niners win! Niners win! That lifts the state to 5-13 ... and 0-10 on the road.

c. The NFC North. The fact that the Vikings can be 1.5 games out of first after how shaky they've been is ... well, a tribute to Chicago losing two out of three and Green Bay dropping three out of four.

d. The interference call on Brandon Flowers to help seal Kansas City's defeat. Should have been offensive pass interference on Andre Johnson, obviously, but went against the Chiefs and capped their 21-point fourth-quarter meltdown. Worst interference call of the year.

e. Antonio Gates' left ankle. Things aren't bad enough for the Chargers, and now they may have to play New England Sunday without the best tight end in football. He left St. Louis in a walking boot late Sunday afternoon.

f. I like Charley Casserly --a lot -- and have great respect for his football knowledge. And I think he's doing a fine job at his new job with CBS as the info guy. But just after 4 p.m. Saturday, I reported on NBC that NFL VP of Security Milt Ahlerich would meet on Tuesday with Favre to discuss the Favre-Jenn Sterger controversy. I put the info out on Twitter immediately, and profootballtalk.com posted it within an hour. It was on several other blogs. Twenty hours after it was made public, Casserly said, "we have learned'' Ahlerich would debrief Favre on Tuesday.

g. I mean, just saying.

h. A lot of good seats empty in Tampa. Looked like entire rows in the upper deck at about the 10-yard line ... against the Super Bowl champs, by the way.

i. Late getting over on that second-quarterback Brees touchdown pass, Cody Grimm.

j. How does Dallas hold Minnesota to 188 yards, corral Adrian Peterson (25 touches, 71 yards) and not do enough to win?

k. Well, start with 11 more penalties, I guess. How in the world does Wade Phillips survive? I mean, how does he survive October, never mind the season.

l. HOW DO YOU NOT CALL A HIT ON THE DEFENSELESS RECEIVER, WALT ANDERSON AND CREW, IN THE CLEVELAND-PITTSBURGH GAME, WHEN JAMES HARRISON NEARLY BEHEADS MOHAMED MASSAQUOI? I mean, come on. That's a textbook hit where the receiver had no chance to protect himself coming across the middle, and Harrison went right to Massaquoi's head. For a league that talks about protecting exposed players from kill shots, this was an inexcusable non-call. Have I hit that note enough now?

m. I can't think of a coach under more pressure than Houston defensive coordinator Frank Bush, even after Sunday's Houdini of a Texan win in Houston.

n. Unless you start talking Wade Phillips.

o. Pittsburgh/New Orleans 69, Tampa Bay 19.

p. Cheap shot on Josh Freeman out of bounds, Malcolm Jenkins.

q. Hands, Ray Rice. Hands.

3. I think you can close up shop on the Comeback Player of the Year voting, because E.J. Henderson, the Minnesota middle linebacker, still just 10 months clear of one of the worst broken legs since Joe Theismann, continues to play at a Pro Bowl level. He had nine tackles and two interceptions in Minnesota's win over Dallas.

4. I think kudos are in order for Amani Toomer. He'll be running in the ING New York City Marathon on Nov. 7 to raise money for New York Road Runners Youth and Community Services, to promote fitness and running among kids, and he'll be doing it in an odd way: He's going to start the race last and see how many runners he can pass by the finish line. For every runner he passes, Timex will give $1 to the youth cause.

The 36-year-old, alltime leading receiver in Giants' history has never run a marathon. "I think I might be able to raise $20,000 if I can run the race in under four hours,'' Toomer said the other day. "I've already run 20 miles -- in about 2 hours and 40 minutes -- and I really hope I can break four hours.''

He said running a marathon is something he's always wanted to do, for many reasons. The challenge, for one, and to bust a few myths about football players. "People think football players don't translate to other sports,'' he said. "But football players can run. We can get in shape to run long distances.''

And, apparently, to run pretty fast. Running a sub-four-hour race would put Toomer on a pace of about 9:15 per mile. He's a (much) better man than I.

5. I think the word on the street is the two masseuses in the Favre case are getting lawyered up and may emerge to make some charges in the case this week.

6. I think the one thing I find odd about the NFL's investigation into the alleged text and phone messages sent by Favre to Sterger is that we're in Day 10 of this probe, and as of Sunday, no one from the league had contacted A.J. Daulerio of Deadspin.com, the site that bought the incriminating evidence and put it on display for all to see. I understand Daulerio might well not cooperate in any league investigation, but to not try to fact-find with him? Odd.

7. I think -- and this is nothing I know, just something I think -- that when the ESPN crew goes into Indianapolis on Halloween weekend to do its prep work for Texans-Colts on Nov. 1, they might not get much out of Peyton Manning. Ron Jaworski said Friday on ESPN Radio that in his video study of Manning this year, he's noticed "little signs now that the deep sideline throws are not as accurate as they used to be, there's not the zip on the ball that there used to be. Maybe Father Time might be catching up with Peyton Manning a little bit ... Maybe there does come a time when the skills start to diminish a little bit.'' I trust Jaworski implicitly on this stuff, because I've sat in the room at NFL Films with him and watched him with Greg Cosell and Merril Hoge and their staffers. But questioning whether Manning's slipping is going to drive Manning nuts.

8. I think the NFL Players Association is cooking up something. I bet you'll see them present a comprehensive proposal to the owners some time in the next two weeks to counter the league's proposal -- including the 18-game schedule -- the union didn't like a couple of weeks ago.

9. I think Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News touched the right nerve with me the other day when he wrote about the most maddening rule NOT in place in the NFL. Coaches shouldn't be able to call those ridiculous last-millisecond timeouts before kickers kick important field goals. Gosselin writes:

"I hate the timeouts designed to ice kickers. The idea is to call them at the last possible second -- late enough, in fact, that the kicker must kick the ball twice for one field goal. His first kick won't count because of the timeout but the second one will. The opposition is hoping that if a kicker has to kick the ball twice, his leg will be a tad less powerful the second time he has to swing it. If I were the commissioner, I'd incorporate a rule that the opposition cannot call a timeout on field goal attempts once the play clock winds down to five seconds.''

The players association should get in on this one. Aren't the players always saying they don't like an expansion of overtime because they don't want more plays added to the game -- plays that could result in more injuries? The field-goal block has all sorts of injury risks, with edge rushers flying around. Why just let an extra field-goal try stand? Plus, the whole concept is annoying as heck.

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

a. I don't know if the Yankees will win that series, because Cliff Lee pitches tonight trying to give Texas a 2-1 lead, but no everyday baseball player is hotter right now than Robinson Cano.

b. Run, do not walk, to see Waiting for Superman, the movie about the crisis in education, and teaching standards, in this country. Forget what side of the fence you are on regarding unions, even though this movie indicts the system that makes it virtually impossible to fire bad unionized teachers and to reward great unionized ones. As in any walk of life, there are good teachers and bad ones. Just watch the movie to discover how sick our public education system is, and how the lack of standards is setting back kids nationwide every year.

Watching kids fail to get one of the very few spots in proven charter schools, then having to trudge back to underperforming neighborhood public schools, is heartbreaking. The saddest part, to me, was seeing a school administrator with a solid plan to fix the Washington, D.C., academic standards, Michelle Rhee, get shouted down at every turn (she ended up resigning last week) and reach the unavoidable conclusion that in too many city school systems, it's more about adults keeping their jobs than it is about kids learning from them.

c. Oh, and don't make this a King-hates-unions or --teachers-unions issue. It's not. It's about doing right by the children we're supposed to be training to take our jobs, and about us needing to do a much better job.

d. Rest in peace, Barbara Billingsley. The best sitcom actress of my youth died Saturday at 94. She was June Cleaver on Leave It To Beaver, the show I cannot turn away from to this day. I see a Beaver rerun on TV, and I stop in my tracks like it's Animal House or North By Northwest. I took this from the eloquent New York Times obit on Saturday night:

"From 1957 to 1963 and in decades of reruns, the glamorous June, who wore pearls and high heels at home, could be counted on to help her husband, Ward (Hugh Beaumont), get their son Theodore, better known as Beaver (Jerry Mathers), and his older brother, Wally (Tony Dow), extricated from innumerable minor jams, from an alligator in the basement to a horse in the garage. While baking a steady supply of cookies, she would use motherly intuition to sound the alarm about incipient trouble ("Ward, I'm worried about the Beaver") in their immaculate, airy house in the fictional town of Mayfield. (The house appeared to have no master bedroom, just a big door from which Ward and June occasionally emerged, tying their bathrobes.) ... Ms. Billingsley's role became a cultural standard, one that may have been too good to be true but engendered fan mail and nostalgia for decades afterward, from the same generation whose counterculture derided the see-no-evil suburbia June's character represented.''

Perfect!!! In honor of June's death, I give you my three favorite Barbara Billingsley Quotes of Her Life:

e. June, with a worried expression, to her seething husband: "Oh Ward, you're being too hard on the Beaver.''

f. Billingsley, in the 1980 movie Airplane, trying to help the flight attendant speak the language of two inner-city passengers: "Oh, stewardess ... I speak jive.''

g. Billingsley, to one of the inner-city passengers, telling him the flight attendant was going to get medical help: "Jus' hang loose blood -- she gonna catch up onna rebound on the med side.''

h. Imagine how many takes it must have taken for a prim 64-year-old mom to get that right. Her accent -- perfect. Do I have a reader out there who, 30 years ago, worked on the set of Airplane, or who has inside knowledge from the making of that movie? Please write me today and tell me about the filming of that scene and how long it took Billingsley to get it right.

i. You know, it's not easy going from a mini-review of Waiting For Superman right into a tribute of June Cleaver.

j. Coffeenerdness: The one flaw of the Acela is the horribly watered-down coffee. I want to like Green Mountain coffee, and I've had some good blends of it. But the stuff they serve on the train is borderline useless. I keep giving it a chance because I'm usually desperate for it on a Saturday morning, but it continually disappoints.

k. Anybody No. 1 in college football? Not to parrot Tony Dungy or anything, but how is anyone better than Oregon? Except maybe Oklahoma or Boise State.

l. My thoughts are with Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand, who was paralyzed below the neck trying to make a tackle in a game against Army on Saturday. You can send Eric a get-well message here.

m. Not a good day for presumptive first-round QB Ryan Mallett of Arkansas, and I don't mean just because he exited Saturday with a ringing headache. Arkansas' backup looked as good as Mallett.

n. Anyone else creeped out by the Philly crowd whistling at Tim Lincecum like he's a cute girl?

o. Cody Ross Note That He Probably Won't Remember: I stood with my brothers Bob and Ken, and my brother-in-law Bob Whiteley, behind the batting cage in Jupiter, Fla., in March at Marlins camp. Ross was a Marlins outfielder at the time. He and Dan Uggla talked to us for 15 or 20 minutes, and Ross let my brother Bob hold his pine-tarred bat, which Bob, a former Enfield (Conn.) High baseball star, got a great kick out of.

Ross -- who hit two bombs off Roy Halladay on Saturday for the Giants in San Francisco's 4-3 playoff win, and another on Sunday in a 6-1 loss -- was as friendly as could be, as was Uggla. I hope he knows how happy he made Bob that day. Bob died suddenly in June, and the time we spent behind the Marlins cage with those ballplayers, on the last trip we took together as brothers, was something we'll never forget. Thanks, Cody. And congrats on a night you'll never forget.

Tennessee 26, Jacksonville 16. Two 3-2 teams that always seem to be on the cusp of playoff contention in October meet at the Nee Alltel Stadium You Cannot Name (EverBank Field) tonight in Jacksonville. (See? EverBank, a financial services company based in Jacksonville, just got the plug that makes its five-year, $16.6-million naming-rights deal with the Jags worth it. What a lucky bank.)

Get ready to see a Tennessee pass-rush with a bunch of guys you've never heard of getting all over David Garrard tonight. OK, you've heard of Will Witherspoon; he was an afterthought free-agent signing for the Titans in the preseason. But consider this: Witherspoon, Jason Babin, David Ball and Jason Jones have combined for 15 sacks in the Titans' first five games. Three castoffs and a Titans second-round draft pick (Jones). Student-of-the-pass-rush Jim Washburn, the Titans longtime defensive line coach, does not get enough credit for continually putting a top rush together. The Jags will need to max-protect more than usual, and Maurice Jones-Drew will have to be a 100-yard rusher for the Jags to be in this one late.

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