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Back-stabbing in Bronco-land; how NFL will handle Texans-Titans fight

NEW YORK -- Watch your back, Josh McDaniels. Get ready for January, Matt Ryan. What's gotten into you, Matt Cassel? The interim tag is a good thing, Leslie Frazier. You might be going on vacation for a week, Cortland Finnegan. Sleep much last night, Steve Johnson? The NFL wants your secrets, Ron Rivera. Yours too, Rod Marinelli. Believe in the Fine Fifteen jinx, Arthur Blank? Apparently you really don't wear a cape, Michael Vick. Way to make the Hall of Fame semifinal list, Ed Sabol. Way to run, Peyton Hillis. Way to Tweet, Ryan Clark. What a play, Alfred Malone.

Alfred Malone?

All of my secrets revealed in due time. We'll start at the odd beginning of the news of the week, the six minutes of tape that no one believes anyone could have been stupid enough to order, or to actually tape.

***

Josh, Lies and Videotape.

How ironic will it be if Steve Scarnecchia ends up being the final straw in what gets Josh McDaniels fired after the season? The one question no one is asking in the wake of the six-minute tape that got video director and McDaniels friend Steve Scarnecchia fired is who ratted him out? And who spilled information from a private meeting McDaniels had with his coaches Friday to Fox's Jay Glazer -- information that the Patriots' taping practices, in Glazer's words, quoting McDaniels at his meeting, "that was practiced, that was coached, that was worked on.'' Some would view that as throwing the Patriots under the bus. Some would view it as a simple admission of the facts of the league's well-publicized findings against the Patriots.

What you need to know about Spygate II going forward:

McDaniels is adamant that he didn't trash the Patriots in his staff meeting Friday. What Glazer reported is essentially true -- McDaniels did say what the Broncos did was one individual act, and not a systemic, practiced series of videotapings over several years, which the league found the Patriots guilty of in 2007. The meeting was called to share with staffers what they were about to hear concerning the league's fining of McDaniels of $50,000 and the team of $50,000 for Scarnecchia's videotaping of a 49er practice in London the day before the two teams met Oct. 31.

"There were questions at the meeting I had with the staff on Friday in a private staff meeting,'' McDaniels told me last night for a report I aired on NBC's Football Night in America show. "I was asked by someone in the meeting how this compared to the Patriots situation. I didn't try to minimize the seriousness of what we did [in the Denver incident]. I feel bad that it's being represented that I had some inside information about what happened with the Patriots, because I don't.'' Instead, McDaniels told me, he was speaking of the New England case.

Nothing McDaniels said or did will re-open the league's investigation. The league doesn't see the connection between McDaniels' statement and any new information. I was told by one league official Sunday that I was way off base, and there was nothing in Glazer's report to suggest the league has a reason to re-open the case. In the same vein, the Patriots declined comment Sunday, saying, in essence, there was nothing there -- no new news.

Videotaping a walk-through, usually, would be a far more educational piece of tape for a coach to watch than viewing the defensive signals and matching them to individual plays, which is what got Belichick in trouble in 2007. I say usually because the 49ers didn't show anything worth seeing in their walk-through the day before playing Denver in London, when the videotaping was done by Scarnecchia. "We purposely didn't show them anything, because we'd been warned about [Scarnecchia],'' said a source close to the 49ers coaching staff. "We didn't run any of the plays we were going to run in the game.'' Normally, though, a Saturday walkthrough might be a team's first X number of offensive plays -- so such a scouting report would be invaluable. "Far more valuable than anything like taping coaches signaling in plays,'' said one official of a different team. "That's why most people will look at this and say the Broncos got off light. If you succeeded in taping a team's walkthrough, you could wreck every one of its first 15 plays or so.''

McDaniels seems to know he's got a traitor in his midst. Leaking what was said in a private meeting -- and leaking it with the possible intent of slanting it to make McDaniels looks bad -- is a sign that a coaching staff and organization could be fracturing from within. I'm pretty sure McDaniels will try to find out who's got the loose lips, though if it's the same person who turned him and Scarnecchia in to Bronco brass he might be hard to find, because of the league's protection of the whistleblower in this case. Said league counsel Jeff Pash on Saturday: "One of the things about our policy and the duty to report is we do make a pledge, and this is not unusual in these settings, we do make a pledge of confidentiality as part of a way of encouraging people to come forward and also protecting people against possible retaliation.'' But McDaniels still has to be troubled that he's got a leak.

None of this will matter if the Broncos keep losing, like they did Sunday to St. Louis. The Broncos leave on a three-game roadie this weekend (at Kansas City, Arizona and Oakland in 15 days), and the road is probably the best place for him to be right now. Less booing there, probably. If the Broncos lose out, McDaniels is probably done. It's a results business, and the Broncos are 5-16 in McDaniels' last 21 games, and the fans have turned on him viciously.

I find all of this sad. I know McDaniels fairly well, and my gut feeling is he neither watched the videotape nor ordered the taping. He's a smart kid with a very strong family background who's made some terrible personnel decisions; Peyton Hillis for Brady Quinn, trading a 2010 first-rounder to choose Alphonso Smith in 2009 -- and then dealing him for next-to-nothing a year later. But he's a smart offensive strategist. The Broncos did him no favors by giving him an inexperienced GM, Brian Xanders, who clearly hasn't been strong enough to save him from making some bad personnel calls. The team should have invested in a savvy, veteran GM to help McDaniels navigate his way early.

But in the end, it'll be sad because half of Broncos Nation decided when Jay Cutler got traded and later when Brandon Marshall started acting 11 that it was all McDaniels' fault, and he had to go. It was not all his fault. Cutler never gave McDaniels a fair chance to build a relationship, and then an angry owner, Pat Bowlen -- not McDaniels -- directed that he be traded. Marshall wanted a new contract, thought he had been promised it by Bowlen, didn't get it, and then acted up. I don't see how either of those departures constitutes being run off by McDaniels, but legions of Bronco fans do. If he goes, Denver will have to start over with another coach, and that coach may well have no belief in Tim Tebow as a quarterback of the future, and there would go another prime piece, wasted. And so it goes.

Finally, I've been asked scores of times this weekend why the league went so light on the Broncos -- and I'd agree, because of the potential competitive advantage that could have been gained by taping a Saturday practice. I thought Pash explained it well on Saturday. "Here [in Denver] you had, as best we can conclude, a single incident as opposed to, in New England, years of activity. You had an incident that, as best we could identify, was carried out by a single employee without direction from the coaching staff or anyone else at the club. That's obviously different from what we saw in New England, where the head coach was actively supervising the activity. And ... from the Commissioner's standpoint, the most important point [with Denver] was that as soon as senior management and ownership was aware of it, they came forward and reported it to our office and cooperated fully in the investigation.''

***

Don't ask Matt Ryan about the home cooking thing. He doesn't have an answer.

"If I knew,'' he told me after beating the Packers on Sunday at the Georgia Dome, "we'd bottle it and take it on the road with us, believe me.''

The significance of Ryan leading a last-minute comeback for the second time in three weeks -- and in beating their fourth straight playoff contender -- cannot be overstated. "It means we can play with the best teams in the league,'' Ryan said. It's more than that. Atlanta is 19-1 at home with Ryan starting at quarterback, and the Falcons now control the top seed in the NFC playoffs. Six teams are breathing down their neck at either 7-4 or 8-3, but the 9-2 Falcons are in pretty good shape. In the last five weeks, they do play three road games and two at home, but they also play the worst team in football, 1-10 Carolina, twice in the last five weeks. Atlanta likely could go 4-1 down the stretch and still win home-field through the playoffs; its most dangerous game, a rematch with New Orleans Dec. 27, is in the Georgia Dome.

"I just know we feel confident in the building, whatever that means,'' Ryan said. "We've been in tight situations all year, especially at home, and we just feel when we're in those situations, we've got enough confidence in the guys around us that we can win, because we've done it before.''

Against Green Bay, Ryan completed his first 14 passes in the second half -- he finished a marksmanlike 24 of 28 -- and drove the Falcons to the winning field goal after a stupid Green Bay facemask penalty on a kickoff after the Packers had tied it. "I didn't even know that 'til you said it,'' Ryan said about the 14 straight. "When you look back on it, and think about it, obviously in a game this big, it's a pretty good thing.''

Atlanta now has a quarterback it can trust in very big moments. January moments? We'll see. But Matty Ice, in year three, has shown no signs of freezing in the big moments yet. Why should the playoffs be different?

By the way, let's give some credit where it's due to a man who gets very little credit in Atlanta -- in large part because he's fairly invisible and likes it that way.

The Falcons clinched their third straight winning season Sunday, and until last year, the franchise had never had back-to-back winning seasons. General manager Thomas Dimitroff hired Mike Smith to coach the team when Smith was an anonymous Jacksonville assistant no one was interested in hiring as a head coach. Dimitroff signed Michael Turner as a free-agent running back even though he'd never been a full-time back in San Diego. Dimitroff drafted Matt Ryan with his first draft choice. Dimitroff signed Roddy White to a long-term contract before he was a superstar. So while we're coronating those who are out front the most --Smith, Ryan, Turner, White, and all deservedly so -- let's remember the man who put them in position to be a very strong team.

***

The Interim Thing Works.

Myth of the Year: No good can come from firing a coach in-season. Interim coaches are a waste, and owners should let the incumbent coach and his assistants dig themselves out of the holes they dug.

It's a little early (one game) to completely judge Leslie Frazier's impact on the Minnesota Vikings, seeing as today is his seventh day on the job after taking over for Brad Childress. But counting him, there have been seven interim coaches since the start of the 2007 season, and every one of them has had a better winning percentage than the coach he replaced in that season. (And if Frazier wins one of the Vikings' last five games to go with Sunday's over the Redskins, he'll be assured of a better winning percentage than Childress in 2010.) That includes Jason Garrett with the Cowboys; he was assured of bettering Wade Phillips' 2010 winning rate by winning his first two games.

How the last seven teams to make in-season coaching changes have fared with the new man:

The surprising thing to me is that some owners have an I-hate-interim-coaches ethos. Look at the record. Interim coaches, mostly, bring fresh air and new approaches. Look at what Jason Garrett and Mike Singletary did with discipline and rules, for instance. It works.

Frazier did the right things when he came aboard in Minnesota. He basically forbade the players from talking about all the distractions that had been enveloping their team. "He removed anything other than what he felt could help us beat the Washington Redskins,'' middle linebacker E.J. Henderson told me after the Vikings broke a nine-game road losing streak with their 17-13 victory over Washington at FedEx Field. "If we weren't focusing on that, we were wasting our energy. The thing I really like about coach Frazier is he shoots you straight and there's no negative energy around him -- ever. I think a majority of the guys are happy the decision [to change coaches] was still done fairly early so we'd have enough time to right the ship. Now we can focus on football instead of the distractions, like whether coach Childress was going to get fired.''

Frazier told me the other day he was disturbed that he heard lots of talk about distractions at the team meeting the night before the Vikings got waxed by Green Bay last week. The night before the game, he thought, should be spent solely on thoughts of the game the next day. So the night before the Washington game, he harped on what he'd harped on all week: no turnovers, force turnovers, get the running game going, stop the run, don't put so much pressure on the passing game to win. The results: Minnesota outrushed Washington 137-29, even after losing Adrian Peterson for the game (ankle) in the second quarter ... Minnesota didn't fumble or throw an interception ... Washington turned it over once ... And the Vikings didn't need a great Brett Favre day (15 of 23, 172 yards, no touchdown or picks) to win.

After the game, Favre gave Frazier the game ball on the field. "You deserve it,'' Favre told him.

"You guys are much more deserving,'' Frazier said, and as if to prove it, he told the players they'd all be getting a game ball from this one.

What's this? Harmonious sounds around the Vikings? Another interim coach changing the culture on a fractured team.

***

Cortland Finnegan just made it very hot for the NFL.

The NFL is going to have a tough call on its hands today when league vice president of football operations Ray Anderson sits down to examine the brawl between Tennessee cornerback Cortland Finnegan, who started it, and Houston wideout Andre Johnson, who finished it.

(Editor's note: The NFL ruled on the Johnson-Finnegan fight on Monday afternoon.)

It's rare that you see a fight in football when both players' helmets have been yanked off, allowing players to land punches on unprotected heads. But that's what happened in this one. With Houston protecting a 17-0 lead in the fourth quarter, Houston quarterback Matt Schaub took the snap and Finnegan immediately bolted across the line and shoved Johnson's facemask into his face. That lit the fuse. After each had his helmet yanked off by the other, Johnson landed two roundhouse right-handed punches to Finnegan's head; then the officials separated them. "I just lost my cool,'' Johnson said. "I wish I could take back what happened, but I can't.''

"You know Andre,'' one of his teammates told me Sunday night. "Nicest guy in the world. This is the one guy in the league who gets under his skin. And Finnegan was 100 percent the instigator in this fight.''

The combatants' history will play a part in the discipline, and Finnegan's fine history is more extensive than Johnson's. But as of Sunday night, the case hadn't been opened yet, because Anderson, who handles discipline, was at the Giants-Jags game and wasn't going to start his investigation until this morning.

"I hope the league takes the same action as they did with Richard Seymour,'' Johnson's teammate said.

The NFL chose to fine but not suspend Oakland defensive lineman Seymour for slugging Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and knocking him to the ground Nov. 21. But if the league doesn't suspend anyone for a brawl like this one, when would a suspension be apropos?

Speaking of Seymour, you didn't hear him howling about the fine. Why would he? It was a classic wrist-slap.

Seymour's 2010 salary: $12,398,000. The fine: $25,000. Percentage of salary Seymour was fined: 0.2 percent

A month ago, Anderson told me he was convinced that to get players' attention with fines the league needed to ratchet up their levels. Seymour, twice fined for over-the-top hits in the past two years, drops a marquee quarterback and gets fined the flyspeck amount of one-fifth of 1 percent of his salary. If I'm Seymour, I'm laughing all the way to the bank.

I was surprised Seymour didn't get a game off. Sunday's fight between Finnegan and Johnson was worse. If the league's serious about stopping fighting, both should get hit with a one-game ban.

***

Ron Rivera has a secret.

Anytime a man beats Peyton Manning, and beats him handily, we in the media question him like he's got the truth about the Kennedy assassination or somesuch.

One of the things I found about the approach of San Diego defensive coordinator Ron Rivera early this morning is more a human-nature factor than football one. The Chargers had just defeated Manning and the Colts in Indianapolis Sunday night, 36-14. Manning losing by 22 or more? Ridiculous. Yet when I spoke with Rivera, he was very Manningish about it. Instead of crowing about what the Chargers had done well, he said the Chargers blew opportunities on both of the Colts' first-half scoring drives to make plays that would have stopped Indianapolis from scoring.

"Hey,'' I said, "you held Manning to 14 points in 12 possessions. Let's not be beating yourself up over that.''

Rivera joined the Chargers staff in 2007, and since arriving, his defenses are 4-1 against Manning. Noteworthy considering that he coached the 4-3 in Chicago, and the Chargers play a 3-4, and Rivera adjusted to that scheme and has coached it well.

Nothing he said about playing Manning was particularly noteworthy -- disguise fronts, don't show coverage when Manning gets to the line, show different pressures on each pass-rush -- except for one thing. Rivera's defense uses a play clock in practice (no surprise there) but the scout-team offense tries to simulate Manning, running two or three plays in a row from the "sugar'' huddle, where offensive players mill around the line without huddling. So they simulate the tempo of the Colts, too, for three practices before they play. Nothing Manning will do to Rivera is a surprise then.

Oh, and one other thing: Never let Reggie Wayne get behind the defense. Rivera thinks -- surprise! -- this is the key to sure death with Manning at the controls.

On Sunday night, the Chargers intercepted Manning four times, held him to a pedestrian 5.9 yards per attempt, and returned two picks for touchdowns. Manning had a funereal look on his face through much of the fourth quarter. He just never got in a rhythm. On the first interception, linebacker Kevin Burnett baited him, threatening to rush over the right tackle and then pulling back at the last second into coverage. His leaping pick ought to be in linebacker textbooks.

We all know what a great year Philip Rivers is having. But this defense is a legit top-five group, and the Chargers (6-5), December's team (Rivers is 19-0 as a regular-season quarterback after Dec. 1), are going to be a tough out for someone if they can sneak into the playoffs. "We're getting close to where we want to be,'' he said. I'd say they're already there.

1. Atlanta (9-2). The Falcons are 4-0 in the last 22 days against teams with a combined record of 27-17. Matt Ryan and his teammates deserve this lofty perch -- especially with him playing like a latter-day Peyton Manning.

2. New England (9-2). Still a bit worried about its defense holding down a top offense, but less so after seeing the magnificent Devin McCourty besting Calvin Johnson Thursday in Detroit.

3. New York Jets (9-2). Rex Ryan's right. Marquee game of the year a week from tonight in Foxboro. The Jets won the first meeting, 28-14, back on Sept. 19.

4. Green Bay (7-4). Outgained Atlanta 418-294 in the Stats Are For Losers Dept. There's something about the Packers, though. I think they've got a heck of a shot to be back at the Georgia Dome for the NFC title game.

5. Chicago (8-3). I have no idea how that offensive line is going to hold up in December and January, but give Rod Marinelli and that D some credit for holding Mike Vick in check for 60 minutes better than anyone has this season.

6. New Orleans (8-3). This is going to be a very good week if you're a fan of the Saints. Trust me on that one.

7. Baltimore (8-3). Somehow, I think we're going to see one of the all-time slobberknockers Sunday night in the Inner Harbor when the Steelers come knocking for control of the AFC North.

8. Philadelphia (7-4). Wouldn't make a big deal out of a road loss to a strong team, except for the part about allowing 31 points to an average, at best, offense.

9. San Diego (6-5). If you send me a bunch of e-mail and tweets with your slings, arrows and Molotov cocktails, blasting me for putting a 6-5 team so high, then you didn't watch the game Sunday night. It might be criminal putting the Chargers so low.

10. Pittsburgh (8-3). Saved by the Johnson.

11. New York Giants (7-4). As shaky a home win to stay in the pennant race as there's ever been. Bright side: Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, 23 carries for 136 yards (5.9 per rush) against a decent front like Jacksonville's is a good combo platter.

12. Tampa Bay (7-4). I like the Bucs -- Aqib Talib, in particular, was impressive with an interception of Joe Flacco Sunday at Baltimore -- but facts are facts: Tampa Bay is 0-4 against teams with winning records.

13. Kansas City (7-4). This Dwayne Bowe's amazing. Three more touchdown catches in Seattle Sunday, giving him 14 in 11 games. He couldn't get 10 in the next five weeks, could he?

14. Indianapolis (6-5). The Sunday night game was as poor a performance by the Colts (the Colt varsity, mind you, not the Colt JV we sometimes get in the last game or two of the year) as I've seen since the home playoff debacle to the Chargers three years ago. It might be time to worry, Colts' fans. Indy's looking very much like an AFC fourth seed, having to beat the Jets or Patriots in the Wild Card game just for the privilege of then having to try to win two road games in the playoffs.

15. Jacksonville (6-5). Another week that Maurice Jones-Drew did everything he could for his team: 21 carries, 113 yards. It's still conceivable that the Jags could play a meaningful game at Indy three weeks from now.

1. Tom Brady, QB, New England. Masterful in carving up the Lions Thursday, presumably before carving some fowl Thursday night in his Back Bay home.

2. Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego. I cannot argue with you one scintilla if you put Rivers over Brady. Numerically, it's a push, I'd say. Rivers has a 659-yard edge in passing yards. Brady is plus-19 in TD-to-INT ratio, Rivers plus-14. Brady's passer rating is 0.9 points higher, 105.8-104.9. Rivers has a big edge in the important yards-per-attempt stat, 8.94 to 7.59. Wins? Brady's three up.

3. Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta. Five straight wins, all with a rating of over 94.

4. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay. Pushes his teammate, Clay Matthews, out of the competition -- for now. Rodgers made some spectacularly cool plays in tense moment Sunday at Atlanta.

5. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans. He's not higher for one reason: the 15 interceptions. That's just weird. But he has time to rally.

"I'll never get over it. Never. The Buffalo Bills will get over it. I'll never get over it.''-- Buffalo wide receiver Steve Johnson, whose stunning drop of the potential winning touchdown pass -- a perfectly thrown ball by Ryan Fitzpatrick in the end zone in overtime -- allowed Pittsburgh to rebound and beat the Bills 19-16 in overtime in Orchard Park.

"For us to collectively mess this up would be criminal.''-- New England owner Robert Kraft, to Greg Bedard of the Boston Globe, on the pressure on players and owners to get a new collective bargaining agreement before the 2011 season is affected.

"I lost the ballgame. I let my teammates down. That was the nail in the coffin. That was a W.''-- Dallas wide receiver Roy Williams, after being stripped of the ball on the potential game-icing drive late in the fourth quarter by Saints defensive back Malcolm Jenkins. The Saints recovered the stripped ball and rallied from a 27-23 deficit by driving 89 yards for the winning touchdown at Dallas on Thursday.

Offensive Players of the Week

Jay Cutler, QB, Chicago

Under the circumstances, this might have been the best win of Cutler's young career, and he completed but 14 balls. Under duress for most of the game (and sacked four times), Cutler went 14 of 21 for four touchdowns and no interceptions in the Bears' victory over Philadelphia. Cutler has had to get used to never having a steady pocket and to the new offense of coordinator Mike Martz. What was impressive about Cutler's game Sunday was how he battled through the kind of adversity that would have frustrated him early in the season, when he seemed resigned to sacks. Not Sunday.

Rashard Mendenhall, RB, Pittsburgh

This was the kind of game the old Steelers won -- not playing well offensively, smothering the other guys on defense, and surviving because of a grinding running game. Mendenhall's 36-carry, 151-yard day (plus some significant help from the Bills in overtime) beat Buffalo on a blustery day in Orchard Park. Remember early in his career when the book on Mendenhall was that he wasn't a tough inside runner. Those days are gone.

Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta.

Completed 86 percent in one of the biggest games of his professional life. Completed his first 14 throws of the second half in one of the biggest games of his professional life. Though a 197-yard passing day isn't going to go down in anyone's top stat days, there's something about making plays when plays needed to be made, and about dueling one of the best quarterbacks in football when Aaron Rodgers is on, and coming out on top. Ryan's a quarterback to be reckoned with on the top shelf of NFL quarterbacks.

Defensive Players of the Week

Kevin Burnett, LB, San Diego

The Chargers play Peyton Manning better than any other team (4-1 in the last five meetings entering Sunday night's duel), and Burnett showed why in this game. He baited Manning into a first-quarter interception in front of Reggie Wayne, returning it for a touchdown to give the Chargers a 10-7 lead, and San Diego never trailed again in a 36-14 rout. In games of this magnitude, that's the kind of play that turns a season around.

Chris Long, DE, St. Louis.

Repeat after me: The Rams enter December in first place in the NFC West. The Rams enter December in first place in the NFC West. And as much as the team deserves credit, and as much as Sam Bradford has been incredibly important to getting the Rams to 5-6, this 36-33 win over Denver on the road had one Mariano Rivera: Long.

With 60 seconds to play, and Denver down by three with the ball at its 34, Long sacked Kyle Orton for a six-yard loss on first down. Then, on fourth-and-16, he rattled Orton and changed the direction of a last, desperate, incomplete pass. He keeps playing like that and he won't be known as Howie Long's kid much longer. Howie will be Chris Long's father.

Special Teams Player of the Week

Alfred Malone, DT, Las Vegas Locos (UFL).

The backup defensive lineman burst through a soft Florida middle on the final snap of the second season of the United Football League, blocking Florida kicker Nick Novak's 45-yard field-goal attempt as time expired, ensuring the second consecutive title for the Locos, 23-20. "We just crushed the middle of their field-goal team,'' coach Jim Fassel told me. "Crushed 'em. What a way to win.''

Coaches of the Week

Mike Heimerdinger, offensive coordinator, Tennessee.

Heimerdinger found out he had cancer Wednesday morning, and immediately decided to help coach his latest quarterback project, sixth-round rookie Rusty Smith of Florida Atlantic, in his first NFL start instead of starting his chemotherapy regimen. (He'll begin his treatments this morning in Nashville.) He was with Smith on the bench often, trying to help him navigate his way through, but Smith threw three interceptions and the Texans won 20-0. To me, that doesn't lessen the significance of what Heimerdinger did, wanting to make sure he did his job in a high-pressure week.

Jim Fassel, head coach, Las Vegas Locos (UFL)

Got Fassel on the phone a couple of hours after he won his second straight UFL title, and he was as emotional as if he'd just beaten the Vikings 41-0 in the NFC Championship game. "I have such an appreciation for the work these guys put in, and what good guys they've been to coach,'' he said. "It's been a tremendously rewarding experience.''

When Fassel got passed over for Jim Zorn as Redskins coach in 2008, he could have been a quarterback coach somewhere in the NFL, or an offensive coordinator somewhere in college football, or maybe a head coach somewhere in college. But he chose the UFL, the tenuous second pro league that gives NFL wannabes another chance to play and coach the game they love. And now he's won the only two titles in league history.

Goat of the Week

Steve Johnson, WR, Buffalo

Edged Roy Williams of the Cowboys for this prestigious award. Johnson had one of the big upsets of the year in his grasp, and it was like he had oil on his hands when it happened. With 10 minutes left in overtime against Pittsburgh, Ryan Fitzpatrick dropped one of the most beautiful throws you'll ever see into Johnson's hands. It slid right through his hands. "I am devastated,'' said Johnson. As, I'm sure, was all of Western New York, being one excruciating drop from beating the big, bad Steelers.

St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford may be on his way to being voted the unanimous NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, a rarity when fractious sportswriters vote for awards. That's because he's been one of the best quarterbacks in football -- not just one of the best rookie quarterbacks -- since the middle of October. Reprising his terrific six-game stretch:

Stolen from reader Jim Connolly of Reading, Mass., and one I could not refuse: Tom Brady wasn't the only Patriots quarterback to have a good week. Drew Bledsoe's new winery, Doubleback, had its Cabernet Sauvignon place 53rd overall in Wine Spectator's Top 100 wines.

Jim, I couldn't have come up with a better factoid myself. Unless it's this one ...

Buffalo safety Bryan Scott rides his bike 2.5 miles to work each day. In Buffalo. Still did it all last week, even as the temperatures dipped into the low 30s. "I guess I'm spearheading the 'green' initiative for the Bills,'' he said. "I'll be riding 'til the first snowfall. There's been some mornings where it's been 34, 35 degrees, but I enjoy the scenery, and it makes me feel like I'm doing a little good. There's only one Planet Earth. We've got to take care of it.''

Good for him, especially since his car is a Cadillac Escalade (in-town gas mileage: 12 mpg).

Saturday morning, 11:45, No. 1 train headed downtown, New York City Subway:

On my way to a lower east-side lunch, I boarded a train at Penn Station and immediately smelled a powerful combination of man-stink, B.O., and a portopot. The doors closed, and I looked over, and there, in the back of the car, stretched out over the equivalent of four hard bench seats, was a 40ish man, maybe 375 pounds, with half of his distended gut pushing out of a worn T-shirt and above the belt of filthy sweatpants. The man was snoring like a steam locomotive. I was on the train for seven or eight minutes and he never stirred. You could hear him snoring in Pennsylvania. I never talk on the subway, but I did make eye contact with a man across from me who, too, was incredulous. "I've never seen anything like that in my life -- how can you sleep that soundly on a moving subway?'' I said. The stranger said: "That's better than I've slept in 10 years.''

I got off the train to transfer to the L train. Waiting for the Brooklyn-bound L, I saw a seven-inch rat scurry along the tracks and look up as if to say, "Got any Jujubes up there for me?''

Gotta love New York. I think with this story and the JFK Airport story of a couple weeks ago, I could be doing quite a bit to slow the Manhattan population explosion.

"To T.O. calling Ben soft all I can say is "That's my teammate, that's my quarterback" As i cry and my lips quiver. Wait that was him. Lol''--@ryanclark25, Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark, on Wednesday, in response to Terrell Owens questioning the toughness of Ben Roethlisberger for being knocked down by Richard Seymour, and referring to the time when Owens, then with Dallas, defended his quarterback, Tony Romo, emotionally from what he perceived to be attacks from the media.

It was a good tweet week for Clark, who also tweeted this after Cam Newton's remarkable performance in Auburn's 28-27 comeback win over Alabama on Friday: "I tell you what. Auburn's #2 is a grown man. You can judge him, criticize him, but you have to respect his God given ability and will to win.'' Newton wears number two.

1. I think this is what I liked about Week 12:

a. A great, touching story on "The NFL Today'' on CBS on Thanksgiving Day, produced by Charlie Bloom, on organ donation, centered around the late Chris Henry's donation of four of his organs ... and the emotional meeting on Nov. 5 between four of the recipients and Henry's mother, Carolyn Glaspy. Great television, and a great example -- as with Ed Werder's story on Brad Childress and his soldier son in Afghanistan a month ago and Tony's Dungy's piece with the very generous Ryan Clark in New Orleans -- of how there can be superb work done on network TV pregame shows.

b. Darrelle Revis, holding that slouch Terrell Owens to three catches for 17 yards in the 26-10 win over Cincinnati.

c. Ndamukong Suh. Tom Brady will remember that sack for a few days. I'm sure he still feels something from it this morning.

d. Mike Heimerdinger, the Tennessee offensive coordinator, coaching despite his appointment this morning to start chemotherapy treatments in Nashville. "I don't know how long I have with the fight ahead of me,'' he told Jim Wyatt of the Tennessean. "I don't know if I'll be able to come back to the office sometime or not. I don't know if I'll be able to call another game. I don't know how many more I'll get to do.''

e. The Broncos have found a punter. Britton Colquitt's 50.3-yard gross average against St. Louis was his fourth 50-plus-average day of the season.

f. Curtis Lofton's forced Aaron Rodgers fumble in the end zone. Falcons wouldn't have won without it.

g. Buffalo's effort, every week. It's a little-engine-that-could team. "We feel fortunate to come away with a win,'' said Steeler coach Mike Tomlin. Feel? Try we definitely are fortunate .

h. Buffalo defensive tackle Kyle Williams, with 10 tackles and two sacks of Ben Roethlisberger ... and four holding calls against the man blocking him, Chris Kemoeatu.

i. Chicago defensive end Israel Idonije, whose 6.5 sacks are .5 more than Julius Peppers, who is playing very well.

j. Peyton Hillis, 131 yards and three rushing touchdowns.

k. Peyton Hillis, 11th in the league in rushing, ahead of Darren McFadden, Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy, Matt Forte, Shonn Greene and Cedric Benson. Their fame dwarfs his, obviously.

l. Peyton Hillis, for whom the Browns will still get two sixth-round picks from Denver, the last two pieces of what's looking like a fantastic trade for Cleveland. Denver got the invisible Brady Quinn in return.

m. Looking frisky, Ricky Williams.

n. Looking great, Jacoby Ford. Oakland's found a Devin Hester wannabe.

o. What an interception, Aqib Talib.

p. The game-securing run by Brett "Walter Brennan'' Favre.

q. Congrats on your 100th NFL victory, Norv "December's Coach'' Turner.

2. I think this is what I didn't like about Week 12:

a. Baltimore fullback Le'Ron McClain, who would be invaluable against Pittsburgh next Sunday, leaving the stadium in a walking boot Sunday after spraining an ankle against the Bucs.

b. Speaking of Raven injuries, left tackle Michael Oher sprained a knee. Uh-oh. Status unknown.

c. The Bengals bypassing a 47-yard field goal Thursday night because of no faith in kicker Aaron Pettrey. Why have him on the roster if he's not good enough to make a 47-yarder?

d. Stunned to see how off-kilter Peyton Manning looks. Seven of the last eight games with a passer rating under 100. Nine interceptions in his past four games, seven in his past two. He's taking chances and thinking his receivers will be where they're supposed to be, and they're often not there. And as Cris Collinsworth deftly pointed out Sunday night (and NBC's Fred Gaudelli must have found with a very cool close-up somehow), you can see how uneasy Manning is in the pocket -- he's wincing when he throws, anticipating getting hit whether it's coming or not. Telling TV ... even though he's been sacked only once in 101 pass-drops over the past eight quarters.

e. Manning's yards per attempt, 2009: 7.88. Manning's yards per attempt, 2010: 6.88.

f. Officials in Detroit-New England. Nailing the Lions with three personal fouls in the waning moments and New England none ... guys, the Lions aren't fighting with each other.

g. Tennessee running back Chris Johnson getting zero carries in the second quarter of a game in the balance. You'd rather give the ball to Rusty Smith every snap, I take it?

h. The first shaky (4 of 15 in one stretch) period in some time by Josh Freeman. Playing Baltimore, in Baltimore, can do that to a quarterback.

i. DeSean Jackson being moody and diffident.

j. You could take an ugly brawl that gives the game a black eye a little more seriously, Gary Kubiak.

3. I think, summing up the weekend's coaching news: I see Mike Singletary having a very hard time keeping his job in San Francisco barring a 5-1 or maybe 4-2 finish, and I see Jon Gruden and Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh being among the leading candidates for the gig. The Niners are desperate for a quarterback of the future, and the next coach could be the man who finds and trains him ...

Jeff Fisher might have to quit the Titans to not coach them next year, because owner Bud Adams is not going to fire Fisher and pay him $6.5-million to not coach. There's a major disconnect between the 87-year-old Adams and the team he owns, and he shows it by backing Vince Young for the long term, though Young and the coaching staff are at loggerheads and one or both should go before 2011. That's not what Adams wants. He wants Fisher and Young to get along and work together ...

Very big day for Gary Kubiak, getting a shutout with that bad defense ... Just because Jon Gruden is not going to Miami doesn't mean he won't get involved with one of these NFL openings. By the way, how do such rumors as the Jon Gruden-to-the-University-of-Miami get such legs? Right down to the $3.4-million average salary, it never made sense. And there it was, all over the media at 9 Sunday night, just waiting to be knocked down. ... There will be significant interest in Harbaugh if he doesn't get the Michigan job -- and I'm not even sure the Michigan job will open ... Ditto Leslie Frazier if the Vikings let him get away. Frazier's the best man for the Minnesota job. The players want to see him get it, and they'll play for him.

4. I think, breaking down the announcement of the Hall of Fame's 26 semifinalists, I see some logjams and some possibilities. Enumerating them, from the point of view of one of the 44 voters (me):

a. Remember the process. These 26 aren't all going to make it in front of the Hall's 44 selectors for election into Canton. Only 15 of the 26 will, along with the two Senior Committee candidates, Les Richter and Chris Hanburger. So 11 will be trimmed from the list of 26 before the committee meets by a secret ballot. Those who could fall by the wayside before the Feb. 5 meeting in Texas: Giants GM George Young, safety Aeneas Williams, owner Art Modell, linebacker Kevin Greene, tackle Willie Roaf ... and maybe bigger names like Terrell Davis and Paul Tagliabue.

b. Sad to see the best special-teamer of all time, Steve Tasker, eliminated in the semifinal cut.

c. Ditto Ron Wolf, a deserving GM and architect.

d. Thrilled to see NFL Films founder Ed Sabol in the mix. Whether he makes the Hall in 2011, Sabol, at least once, deserves to have his case heard by the election committee. Young, Modell, Tagliabue, Terrell Davis ... they've already head their cases heard (some more than once) in the room and been turned down for entry. Sabol never has.

I realize how tough it is to make it. Just think: Only five of the 26 names on the semifinal list, at the most, will make it through the filtering process and be elected in two months. So many of these men are deserving. I think Sabol is one who needs to make it now. Seems to me the longer Sabol waits, the harder it'll be for him to get in. He's not a player, first of all, which makes entry so tough. There's no guarantee future voters, as the selectors get younger and younger, will appreciate the role of NFL Films in making the game so popular.

I thought of Sabol's value while watching the top-100 players series on NFL Network this fall. How would generations -- quite literally-- who follow us be able to know how good Otto Graham, Don Hutson and Sammy Baugh were, and how memorable the '50s Colts and '60s Packers were (not to mention all the great teams and players who followed) without the work of Sabol and the film-gatherers and -makers of NFL Films? Take NFL Films away from the football landscape and we wouldn't have the teaching moments of Vince Lombardi ("a seal here, a seal there'') and the grimy realness of the game.

More than anything, I fear Sabol becoming one of those names who the voters look at every fall and say, "Yeah, he should be in, but we've got to get Deion Sanders and Marshall Faulk in this year, and we've got to address the wide receivers and the backlog of defensive players -- we'll have to put ol' Ed off 'til next year.'' And next year, and next year. That's the problem. Sabol's easy to put off until next year. My question: Why not acknowledge the man, who, more than any single person, is responsible for the game growing at the intergalactic pace that it's grown?

e. At running back, Marshall Faulk looks like the favorite to filter through the deep class -- first-timers Faulk, Jerome Bettis and Curtis Martin, along with Roger Craig and Terrell Davis. The problem with looking at two or three making it, even if they're deserving, is that there are too many other strong players and deep position groups. Does Martin deserve it over Cris Carter? Bettis over Shannon Sharpe. Craig over Charles Haley? Those are the kinds of decisions that have to be made once in the room, where the list will be cut from 15 down to 10, and then from 10 to five, before voting yea or nay on the final five for election.

f. The receiver class having only three returnees -- Carter, Tim Brown, Andre Reed -- may sharpen the focus on them instead of diluting the group. My sense is Carter is the leader of the three. But if the group continues to fracture and divide, we may continue to elect none of them.

g. From here, the 44 voters pick their 15 in the next three weeks, and the Hall will tabulate the votes and announce its final 15 -- plus Richter and Hanburger -- in January.

5. I think it's been fashionable, on TV and in print and in 'net space, to belittle Matt Cassel. You can still do that, but only if you'd like to be wrong. Last seven games: 18 touchdowns, one interception. Rookie Chiefs offensive coordinator Charlie Weis must be making life more comfortable for Cassel. Last year's touchdowns and interceptions for Cassel: 16-16. This year: 22-4.

6. I think, other than the Rams being in first place in the NFC West, the most amazing standings note as the calendar turns to December is this: Jacksonville, 6-5, is first in the AFC South -- with a tiebreaker edge over the feeble Colts.

7. I think Shawne Merriman's has to be one of the weirdest careers in the history of the Buffalo Bills. After Merriman landed on IR Saturday, another season lost to injury, my one question is this: Why would any team pay him a dime of guaranteed money in 2011?

8. I think, speaking of the Bills, I've got to give props to owner Ralph Wilson this morning. When Wilson heard last week that I'd raised money from you readers running a half-marathon -- money that, in part, was going to fund a semi trailer full of food and household items sent by Oklahoma City-based Feed the Children to serve 400 needy Buffalo families -- he said he wanted to match that $7,500 going to Buffalo families and send another chock-full trailer. And so he did; the money will go to the Food Bank of Western New York. Feed the Children trailers will be in Buffalo and Cleveland disbursing their goods on Tuesday, with the Browns and Bills there helping. Thanks to all of you for making it happen. I'll have a couple of photos in the column next week, showing you how your donated money is helping those who need it most.

9. I think Colt Brennan, released from a Hawaii hospital Saturday after a harrowing car crash 10 days ago, sounds like he's going to do whatever it takes to be in some team's training camp in 2011. "I am determined to make a complete recovery, and my desire to continue playing football burns stronger than ever," Brennan said in a statement released by his agent. He suffered clavicle, lung and rib injuries, and a broken left eye socket.

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

a. Thanks to Saranac area manager Matt Bronson and area rep Jean Marc Aubuchon for giving me a lifeline of Saranac Pumpkin Ale. Can't thank you guys enough -- and thanks, too, for introducing me to Saranac Caramel Porter. I've had milkshakes that were thinner, but not as good.

b. Several of you have asked me for beer recommendations, which I'll provide as I come across them. This week's: Rapscallion Premier, which is an American Blonde ale. Different taste. A little bit of honey, a little lemony. Very interesting.

c. A good time was had by all at the 74th annual Manchester (Conn.) Road Race in central Connecticut Thanksgiving morning. What a slice of Americana. Ran in memory of my late brother Bob with his widow, Caroline; visiting daughters Laura and Mary Beth; nephew Evan and niece Laila, Bob and Caroline's children; along with their teammates from the South Windsor (Conn.) High cross-country team ... all in bright green "Bob's Team'' T-shirts designed by Laila. A great morning, though it was 29 degrees at the start of the race.

This was one of those leisure 4.8-milers, even with a mile-long winding hill early in the race, with 15 bands playing by the side of the Manchester roadways, and some of the most incredible costumes. Eight guys streamed past at one point in little loincloths and native-American feathers around their heads, wearing nothing else but running shoes. As one of the rock bands played "Fortunate Son'' on a lawn 1.5 miles into it, a guy dressed as one of the Hanson brothers from "Slapshot'' danced on the lawn with a woman dressed from head to toe as a bright red lobster. And so it went. Never had more fun running a race, even though I finished around 11,000th out of 15,000. At least I edged out 90-year-old Betty Hutchinson. Now that would have been embarrassing.

d. Department of Redundancy Department: Please, please, please, NCAA commentators, stop calling the Mid-American Conference the MAC Conference, and the Western Athletic Conference the WAC Conference. It's not the Mid-American Conference Conference, but that's what you're calling it when you say "MAC Conference.''

e. Just can't get into "The Office.'' Sorry. I think it's over for the show. Fun while it lasted, though.

f. Now, "Family Guy.'' That's another story. Just saw the one with the mentally challenged horse house pet, devouring a sugar cube in a painstakingly licking way off Stewie's head. Had to pick myself off the floor after that one.

g. Coffeenerdness: Thanks for your many, many recommendations of a Sunday morning New York coffeehouse for me to write and drink. May have found one -- Grounded, in the West Village. Quiet. Studious. Arty lattes.

h. That Auburn-Alabama game was one of the best football games I've seen in years.

i. Imagine you're Tommy Rees. You're 18 years old -- don't even turn 19 until May -- a true freshman at Notre Dame, walked into the place as the third or fourth quarterback maybe, and now, in the span of 15 days, you've won college football games at Notre Dame Stadium (over Utah), at Yankee Stadium (over Army) and at the L.A. Coliseum (over USC). I mean, you could play 20 years of football and play well enough to make the college and pro football halls of fame, and never have 15 days like that. Ever.

j. Leslie Nielsen, dead at 84. He was one of the funniest men of our lives. I've never laughed harder at an actor, unless maybe it's John Candy. Thanks for the memories.

Arizona 23, San Francisco 20. I declare tonight National Be Nice To Your Better Half Night. You've got lots of big prime-time games to steal the TV in the coming weeks. Steelers-Ravens next Sunday, Jets-Pats next Monday, Packers-Pats in a couple of Sundays, Saints-Falcons on the Monday of Christmas weekend and so on. My alternative television recommendation for spousal harmony: "My Cousin Vinny,'' at 9, on TV Land.

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