With 4 weeks left, Steelers in great shape in AFC; reeling Colts are not
NEW YORK -- Four weeks to go in the regular season ... 29 days left, 37 division games to play (including tonight's Armageddon Bowl in Foxboro) ... three divisions tied at the top ... four divisions with a one-game lead at the top ... and, as we all predicted, the Kansas City Chiefs are the lone division leader with breathing room.
Headlines from Week 13 in the league where they play for pay:
• Steelers 13, Ravens 10. Game of the Year, no doubt. Four consecutive three-point games now between the teams. If we ask real nicely, commissioner, could we see this game eight times a year instead of two?
• Colts coach Jim Caldwell should begin his press conference today saying, "
• Brett Favre's not getting suspended, unless I've got the football acumen of Cosmo Kramer. And he might not be sanctioned at all for Sterger-gate.
• Interim coaches in the NFL this year: 5-1. And they'd be 6-0 if Roy Williams hadn't been stripped by Malcolm Jenkins on Thanksgiving.
• Maurice Jones-Drew might not be good enough to make the Pro Bowl (he's behind Arian Foster, Chris Johnson, LaDainian Tomlinson, Fred Jackson and Peyton Hillis in the AFC voting), but he is good enough to push the Jags into the driver's seat in the AFC South.
• Drew Brees is very good at the No-Brainer Freeze. Pat Sims is not.
• I can't imagine what you're thinking if you're a Redskins fan today. Maybe this: Is it really possible that we traded Cerrato, Zorn and Campbell for Allen, Shanahan and McNabb ... and got worse?
• The Rams were 6-42 the last three years. They are 6-6 this year, tied for first in the NFC West. Their first-round pick deserves much of the credit, but let's not forget his roommate.
• Inside the NBC Studios Sunday, we watched game after game, slack jaw after slack jaw. Bengals up on the Saints by three with four minutes to go; Saints win. Lions up on the Bears by three with nine minutes to play; Bears win. Darkness falls. The Bucs lead Atlanta by three with five minutes left; Falcons win. Indianapolis comes all the way back from 17 down to lead Dallas by a point with five minutes left; Cowboys win. Now midnight approaches in Bludgeonville. The Ravens lead Pittsburgh by four with five minutes to go; Steelers win by three.
Fourteen games Sunday. Seven decided by four points or fewer. Just another pleasant valley Sunday. On with the news of the day:
Troy Polamalu was the last Steeler left in the shower early this morning, and Mike Tomlin was feeling frisky. "Hey, Troy!" Tomlin yelled into the shower, according to Sam Farmer of the
Polamalu's strip-sack of Joe Flacco with less than four minutes to play was -- is -- the play of the season for Pittsburgh. It led to the Steelers' only touchdown of the game, with three minutes left at Baltimore. It was no Mazeroski beating the Yankees with a homer in the ninth inning of a Game 7, but it was big because of the spoils.
The win left the Steelers in terrific shape to grab one of the two AFC byes in the playoffs -- and to be at home for their first playoff game. Pittsburgh (9-3) now leads the Ravens (8-4) with a decided advantage in the schedule. Comparing the Ravens and the Steelers down the stretch:
Hard to imagine the Steelers blowing it. Winning at Cleveland won't be easy -- for either team. But the Steelers have two relatively easy ones to Baltimore's one, and the Steelers have three of four at home while Baltimore is two home and two there.
Two points about Baltimore: You cannot, if you're Joe Flacco, be strip-sacked at that time of the game, at that spot on the field. This is not Flacco's first strip-sack, and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's has to drill it into him to have better field awareness against an attacking team like Pittsburgh at such a vitally important time of the game. To me, with a blitzing team like the Steelers on the other side of the ball, you have to assume you're only going to have two to three seconds, max, to get the ball out, and throw it away if something doesn't come open immediately. What's the worst thing that can happen? Punt? For the Ravens, that's a good thing.
Two: Don't second-guess John Harbaugh's decision to forego the 48- or 49-yard field goal attempt that could have sent the game to overtime in the final minute. There was a 17- to 31-mph wind in the kicker's face to contend with, and even the strong-legged Billy Cundiff (he leads the NFL in touchbacks) would have been very hard-pressed to make a long kick. "A very low-percentage kick,'' Harbaugh said. In pregame warmups, the Ravens staff put the outer limit of Cundiff's range at the Steeler 30; if any ball was outside the 30, the Ravens wouldn't try a field goal. This was close, but Harbaugh thought he had a better shot at converting a fourth-and-two than making the field goal.
Three or four times in the last three games, I've seen Peyton Manning walk off the field after an interception or a bad bit of communication with a receiver, moving his hands as if to show where the receiver really should have been, with the kind of frown that seems immovable. Manning bummed out is noticeable enough. Manning without good-enough weapons ... that's the reason Indianapolis is in the mess it's in at 6-6, a game behind first-place Jacksonville, with the worst record it has had this late in a season since 2001.
Ah, but what could have been. In 2006, the Colts picked Joseph Addai in the first round of the draft, and he's had a nice career in Indianapolis. Nice, but not starry. As the second round of that draft progressed, even though they'd chosen Addai number one, the Colts gave serious consideration to picking Maurice Jones-Drew 62nd overall. And they very well might have -- if the Jaguars, picking 60th, hadn't chosen Jones-Drew in their spot.
GM Bill Polian wouldn't have thought twice about taking another running back there, especially since he'd just jettisoned Edgerrin James. And if the Jags hadn't jumped on Jones-Drew, I have a very strong feeling the Colts would have, and their world would have been shaped a lot differently today.
The Colts' rushing attack, again, is feeble, in part because of a neck and shoulder injury that has sidelined Addai much of the year. Imagine how un-feeble the running game would be with Jones-Drew, the league's second-leading rusher, with 100-yard games each of the last five weeks, running on the carpet of Lucas Oil Stadium. Manning and Jones-Drew. Scary thought. I bet Manning wouldn't be in the slump he's in right now.
But as big a blow as the loss in the running game is, the loss of Dallas Clark is worse. He was lost with a wrist injury after six games; Indy is 2-4 since. Manning always talked of Clark as if he were a security blanket. In fact, he used those words with me about Clark on a couple of occasions. I remember asking Polian about Clark's value last season. "He's our MVP,'' Polian said.
Marvin Harrison and later Reggie Wayne were Manning's most explosive downfield threats. But near the line of scrimmage and on intermediate routes, Clark had become his most reliable weapon since losing slot receiver Brandon Stokley to free agency after the 2006 season. In the 22 games since the start of the 2009 season until he got hurt, Clark caught 137 passes. He'd line up in the slot, he'd flex out wide, he'd line up tight to the formation.
Without him, and without wideouts Anthony Gonzalez and Austin Collie for much of this year, Manning has struggled to blend in a bunch of new receivers. But the biggest loss is Clark, and if the Colts are going to salvage their season in the next four weeks (they can still win the AFC South by going 4-0 down the stretch, as unlikely as that seems), Manning has to make sure Blair White and Jacob Tamme know to be dangerous. They're not going to know what Clark knew, but they'd better be close, or the Colts, stunningly, will be going home for the winter.
If I'm right, what seems logical to me is the league was not able to connect the sordid cell-phone photos from Favre to Sterger beyond the shadow of a doubt. If that's the case, my interpretation is that barring absolute proof those photos came from Favre, the league would probably not discipline Favre much (if at all) for the awkward phone messages he allegedly left for Sterger while both were in the Jets' employ.
Frazier, obviously, was very happy with Tarvaris Jackson's performance in relief. He has a head coach's next-man-up philosophy about players on his 53-man roster and said, "If Tarvaris is our quarterback against the Giants, we'll be confident.''
Rushing from the inside of the formation early in the fourth quarter with the Redskins trying to rebound from a 28-7 deficit, Thomas jousted with Washington safety Kareem Moore and made a left-handed deflection of a Hunter Smith punt near the goal line, and the wounded duck ended up feebly making it to the Washington 13. It had to be the sweetest play of the star-crossed Thomas' short career. And one of the ugliest of the Redskins' season.
Washington, 5-7 with four teams playing well on the end-of-season schedule, is done, and Mike Shanahan now has to make the decision that will define his coaching tenure, in my opinion. He has to decide whether to keep Donovan McNabb for the long-term and build the team around him. It's a tough call because McNabb looks mostly old and ineffective.
"There's no way we're snapping the ball,'' New Orleans coach Sean Payton told me from the Saints' lead bus in Cincinnati after the game. "We work on it. You try to bark it out and hope you can get them to jump. Against the Jets last year, it worked; we got their big tackle to jump. But usually teams know what you're doing. In this case, we were going to take the delay and then just try to kick the field goal to tie it and send it to overtime.''
But as Brees got to a particularly loud part of his snap-count, Sims took one false step across the line, drawing a Saints lineman across, and flags flew, and the Bengals got penalized, and Brees, on the ensuing first down, hit Marques Colston for the winning touchdown. "We work on that every week,'' Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis said. "We worked on it Wednesday. We told them the Saints did this and to watch for it.''
It's the kind of mistake bad teams make. It's the kind of incredibly miniscule, boring piece of practice that every player dreads. But on Sunday in Cincinnati, it won the Saints a game, and kept them within one game of the NFC South-leading Falcons. That's what draws me to plays like this. I love the minutiae that win and lose games. After 59 minutes, the Super Bowl champs were trailing a 2-9 team, and the crowd was whipped into a frenzy, and it was fourth down, and it looked like the Saints were going for it to win it right here, and here was the cool Brees drawing a lesser player offside to win the game. That's some great stuff right there.
Last week, it was Saints defensive back Malcolm Jenkins chasing after and stripping Dallas wide receiver Roy Williams that led to the Saints' 30-27 victory in Dallas. This week, it was Brees drawing a gullible lineman offside that led to the Saints' 34-30 victory in Cincinnati. That's how good teams play, and win.
The guy's been really good, and the Rams are glad they didn't take the bait to look to trade the pick back on draft day. "If you remember back then,'' coach Steve Spagnuolo said, "there was a lot of talk about how we could get a lot for the pick because teams would have a long time to think about it and make us offers. But once we saw Rodger was there, we never thought very seriously about a trade. He was the guy we wanted, and we couldn't be happier we picked him. He's stepped right in and done a really good job.''
I asked Spagnuolo about the second overall pick in the 2009 draft, Jason Smith of Baylor, now playing right tackle, and Saffold, the lesser pick, the left side. That goes contrary to what football wisdom says. You pay big money to the left tackle if you have a right-handed quarterback, to protect his blind side. And you pay moderate money to the right tackle. "The difference here,'' said Spagnuolo, "is that Jason played mostly right tackle at Baylor and Rodger played left at Indiana. So they're playing the spots they're more comfortable in.'' It's not broke, and the division-leading Rams don't plan to fix it.
Finnegan met Towns on a visit to Children's Hospital in Nashville in the offseason, and they kept in touch during her subsequent chemotherapy treatments. "Every day I visit her during chemo,'' Finnegan said. "It's great for me, really. She is just the most positive person, no matter what's going on in her life. When she told me about the race and how much she wanted to do it, I asked, 'Can I push you?' And it wasn't difficult, not at all. Especially because it meant so much to her. She'd run it since kindergarten. I really enjoyed it. It was sort of heartwarming.''
I'll have a little more about Finnegan next Monday as the Titans head into the rematch with Houston the following week. I'm not trying to convince you he's saintly. Just trying to show you a side of a player you might not know.
I've been asked a few times in the last couple of weeks: How high will Cam Newton be drafted? I've tried to give my guess -- which is that he'll go somewhere in the top 10 if he chooses to come out, barring damaging information being found when NFL teams dig into him over the next five months, before the April 28 first round.
Believe me -- the off-the-field stuff is the key right now. First: Newton has eligibility left at Auburn. NFL teams were warned again last week to not discuss underclassmen with the press, so you're not going to get much truth out of teams right now. But from talking conceptually with four scouts or GMs, I can tell you at least two teams with interest in quarterbacks going forward will seriously look at Newton in the first round if he chooses to come out, which I hear is likely.
Second: How can any GM or scout tell you right now a reliable spot where Newton will be drafted? They've done none of the kind of work they need to do to have any idea where they'd pick Newton. One team that would be interested in Newton has as its bedrock belief that you have to build with solid guys. If that team, for instance, gives Newton a passing grade, he could be a very high pick. If that team, and others, find that the Florida cheating allegations and the payment allegations are true, he could slip down a round or two. My point: You don't know what those investigations by teams will find, so it's impossible to place him anywhere in the draft right now -- without a very big asterisk.
I watched the Thursday-nighter, and I didn't see an obvious late hit after he'd released the ball. A couple of borderline ones, yes, but nothing to make me sit back and say Vick's getting a raw deal.
Very hard, and probably wrong, to keep Philip Rivers off the list this week. He's a close six to Drew Brees, and sure to be on this list sometime this month, but not after a bad day for the Chargers against Oakland.
Sorry. I know I said I'd keep the numbers down in this section, but there were too many great individual performances Sunday to ignore.
Playing with a broken bone in his plant foot against Baltimore, Roethlisberger got the big paw of Haloti Ngata raked across his face in the first quarter and suffered a broken nose, which bled for most of the night. He completed 22 of 38 for 253 yards, with the winning touchdown pass (to Isaac Redman) late in the fourth quarter of the 13-10 Steelers win.
A tour de force performance by the most important running back in the league right now: 31 carries, 186 yards, leading to a ridiculous time of possession by Jacksonville -- 39 minutes, 54 seconds. The Jags never let Kerry Collins breathe, and it happened in part because Jones-Drew had so many drive-stretching runs.
For years, they'll play this blitz around left tackle over and over in Pittsburgh, because it might be the one that got the Steelers a first-round playoff bye and a shot at their seventh Super Bowl victory. Late in the fourth quarter, with the Steelers trailing 10-6, Polamalu ran around left tackle as Joe Flacco was setting to complete a pass. The Steeler safety steamed in from his blind side (yes, he beat Michael Oher around The Blind Side of Flacco) to strip-sack Flacco and force a fumble that LaMarr Woodley recovered. For the day, Polamalu added two quarterback hits and passes defensed.
How can anyone play better in defeat? Suggs took advantage of offensive-line backups and was The Man Sunday night. One and a half sacks. Five quarterback hits. Three tackles for loss. He was unblockable, and it's a shame he had to go home a loser early this morning in frigid Baltimore.
The hottest single player entering Week 13 in the NFL was Kansas City receiver Dwayne Bowe, who'd had 49 catches and an astounding 13 touchdowns in the previous seven weeks. On Sunday, in a contentious 10-6 Chiefs win, Bailey put Bowe out of commission for four quarters. Matt Cassel attempted three passes to Bowe and completed none. Of all the outstanding defensive days of 2010 by any player, this has to be in the top handful, regardless of the final score -- Kansas City 10, Denver 6.
Signed this week off the practice squad as a special-teamer with the ability to provide wideout depth, Smith paid dividends after just three active quarters. Early in the fourth quarter, with the Colts trailing a game they had to have, Smith burst through a seam in the Dallas protection, cleanly blocked a Mat McBriar punt at about the Dallas 15, and recovered the ball at the two, lunging in for the score to give Indy a 28-27 lead with 13 minutes left in the fourth quarter.
With injuries disabling the entire left side of the offensive line, Flaherty's patch job has been phenomenal. The Giants have allowed zero sacks in the past five games, and on Sunday against Washington, the makeshift line paved the way for a 200-yard rushing day by Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs. William Beatty has subbed for David Diehl at left tackle, Kevin Boothe for Rich Seubert at left guard, and Seubert for Shaun O'Hara at center. This is Flaherty's seventh year working the line under Tom Coughlin with the Giants, and there's no question this is his best coaching job, particularly in holding all three division foes sackless in the five-game stretch.
You could have told me a lot of things before the season. Lions win the Super Bowl. Patriots go 0-16. Giselle divorces Tom, marries Rex Ryan. But Manning throwing 11 interceptions in three weeks? Manning throwing four picks in back-to-back games? Manning throwing four pick-sixes in an eight-day span? All very, very weird. But his last of four interceptions against Dallas led to the Cowboys' winning field goal in overtime. Dallas 38, Indy 35.
What's the one thing drilled into the head of every defensive lineman in every fourth-down-and-less-than-5 situation? Don't jump offside. The quarterback's going to try to make you jump offside. Make sure you wait for the snap. On fourth-and-two from the Bengal 7 with 34 seconds left, New Orleans down by three, Drew Brees hard-counted and Sims, a third-year man from Auburn, jumped. Dumb, dumb play, obviously. And Brees threw the winning touchdown pass on the next snap.
"I'll keep throwing. I just hope I throw it to our guys.''
"To be quite frank, I'm tired of talking about it. We're talking about three or four plays for a guy that's played over 850 plays so far this year. The shame of it all for me is this guy is having an MVP-type year, he's making plays all over the field for us, he's been a catalyst for what we're doing not only defensively but as a team, and we're talking about three out of 850 plays."
"Looks like they're the best team in football. That's what all the experts say. Except me.''
"I'm done. I'm done. I don't know how the remaining games will unfold, but that's it.''
We shall see.
Baltimore and Pittsburgh have played four times in the past two years.
Baltimore 2 wins, Pittsburgh 2.
Baltimore 67 points, Pittsburgh 67.
Baltimore 7 touchdowns and 6 field goals, Pittsburgh 7 touchdowns and 6 field goals.
With four regular-season weeks left in the 2010 season, we may be about to see the rich get quite a bit richer. The Carolina Panthers, 1-11, have a one-game edge over Detroit, Cincinnati and Buffalo for the top pick in the draft, and for the top pick in each of the subsequent six rounds. This year, for the second time, the NFL Draft will be held over three days, with the first round on a Thursday (April 28), the second and third rounds the next day, and rounds four through seven on Saturday. That means the 33rd pick in the draft, the first pick of the second round, will hold inordinate value -- because teams will have most of the day Friday to haggle with the team holding that pick to try to deal for it.
Carolina's second-round pick in 2011 belongs to New England.
That could give New England, in essence, three first-round picks to use as currency next April. The Patriots always wheel and deal on draft weekend -- they made eight trades on draft weekend 2009 and seven on the three-day draftathon in 2010. New England already has Oakland's first-round pick from the 2009 Richard Seymour deal and its own. If Carolina picks first overall, that would give New England three in the top 33, and the most desirable, tradable pick after day one.
Last April, the St. Louis Rams had the first pick of the second round, and with 19 hours between the end of the first round and the start of round two, entertained offers for the pick. But once they saw the player they longed for still available, Indiana tackle Rodger Saffold, they refused to deal the pick and chose Saffold. Wise move. Saffold (as noted above) has been the starter at left tackle from day one and allowed only two sacks in 12 starts.
No doubt Carolina has regrets over trading its 2011 second-rounder to New England for a third-rounder last April, the 89th pick overall. They used that pick to select mostly benchwarmer Armenti Edwards from Appalachian State. Maybe Edwards will eventually make the switch from college quarterback to NFL wide receiver, but it was a slow process this year, and in 2011 Edwards will have to do it with his second head coach. The Panthers surely will miss this valuable pick while trying to rebuild this offseason. Instead, a team that needs another valuable draft piece as much as the Carolinas need another barbecue restaurant will get another chess piece to play.
I've been asked by quite a few of you for book suggestions for the holiday -- other than the paperback version of my monstrously successful and insightful Monday Morning Quarterback wonderbook, of course -- and I would give you three that are very good reads, and very educational about the game:
I write on the Jaws/Cosell/Plaut book today because of the Jets-Patriots game tonight, and the two chapters they write that tell such a good story about what is coming tonight. There's a chapter on Buddy Ryan and the rise of the 46 defense, and another on Bill Belichick and his game plan that beat the 14-point-favorite Rams in the Super Bowl nine years ago. And if you read those two chapters, you'll have a good idea what we're about to see tonight. Which is to say a bunch of weird pressures from the Jets (with Buddy's son Rex as head coach) and from the Patriots, anything goes. I say anything because as the book so deftly points out, Belichick can have an attacking style one game, a sit-back-and-cover style the next, or anything in between.
Jaworski on Rex Ryan, from the Buddy chapter: "I think Rex has expanded the scope of the 46 in ways his father could not have envisioned. Rex will take a linebacker from one side of the field and move him to cover a wide receiver [note from me -- we have seen this dating back to Adalius Thomas covering the then-Chad Johnson when Ryan was the Ravens' defensive coordinator], and rotated his down linemen in unconventional ways, with coverage concepts I've never seen before. Rex is vigorously responding to the many new looks he sees from offenses, figuring that he needs to be aggressive in order to stay ahead. In that respect, he's a chip off the old block. Mike Singletary has noticed the resemblance, saying, 'It's obvious Rex is carrying on his father's legacy. He's so much like Buddy, it's frightening.' ''
As Jaworski concludes, Buddy Ryan, and now his son, so well understood how the game was headed toward an aerial showcase. Buddy was ahead of everyone in creating schemes to stay ahead of the smart offensive guys. And now Rex, tonight, will show us a couple of things we hadn't expected.
Now for Belichick. Sunday morning's important NFL Matchup show on ESPN revealed an oddity that hadn't been uncovered yet -- Belichick has sneaked cornerback Kyle Arrington onto the line as a down, hand-in-the-dirt defensive end 20 times in the past three weeks. Anything, it seems, to help a mediocre rush get better. As Jaworski and Co. wrote: "He drew up schemes that had never been tried in an NFL game and had his players ignore long-accepted defensive concepts.''
Enjoy the game tonight. Enjoy this smart book.
Good MMQB Samaritan of the Year: Chris Bierly, Newton, Mass.
I stood in Penn Station in Manhattan Wednesday at 11:50 a.m. with a friend, Alex Stern of the Elias Sports Bureau. He was going south on the Amtrak Acela for the Thursday night game in Philadelphia. I was going north, home to Boston, after the
"Want a ride?'' a complete stranger to my right said.
I looked at him, wondering if I should know him. "I recognized you and heard you on the phone, trying to get a car,'' Chris Bierly, a businessman from suburban Boston, said. "I just got one. I'm going home to Boston. You can come if you'd like.''
"Wow,'' I said. "Thanks. I'm in.''
So we sat in the back of a Town Car, Chris on the left, me on the right, and we chatted for a few minutes, then settled in to work/call/write, thanks to the wireless DSL devices we both had. Ryan Clark of the Steelers called, and I made a couple of calls on a story I'm working on for the magazine. I napped for 20 minutes. All in all, a great trip. When we were close to his home in Newton, I asked him if I could pay the driver to take me the final 15 minutes home to downtown Boston. "It's all taken care of,'' he said. "He'll take you there.''
That, ladies and gentlemen, is one class guy. Just when you think they don't exist anymore, here comes a gem of one.
One other Acela note, from a Friday afternoon trip back to New York. As critical as I've been of their awful coffee, I've got to hand it to Amtrak for adding Dogfish Head 90 Minute Imperial IPA to the beverage list. I asked my Twitter followers Friday afternoon if it was too early to sample one of the Dogfish Heads, and the answer was about 269-0 in favor. Very good decision.
"This game has just turned into a classic.''
1. I think this is what I liked about Week 13:
a. Thank you, Sterling Sharpe, for saying Andre Johnson should have been suspended for landing three punches to the head and face of Cortland Finnegan. Not that it's the right opinion -- but that it's not the popular opinion for someone who works for the NFL Network.
b. Merril Hoge on the NFL Matchup show: "Israel Idonije has been the most consistent defensive player on the Bears defense.'' Point is, Julius Peppers and Brian Urlacher have been very good all season. That's how good and how much of an impact Idonije has made this season.
c. Great CBS graphic about Tennessee having 12 straight touchdown-less quarters entering the fourth quarter against Jacksonville, a franchise record.
d. I highly recommend taking a look at Chicago Trib NFL ace Dan Pompei's
e. Love the Redskins road unis with the gold pants.
f. Great catch by Sidney Rice, going up with two Buffalo defenders, with all three of them having some sort of possession
g. Clint Stitser! You're in the Pro Football Encyclopedia now!
h. Stitser. Bengal kicker. Managed a line-drive 29-yard field goal against the Saints, just a few days after being signed away from the Nevada high school team he was coaching. Don't get comfy, Clint, considering that you missed a conversion kick.
i. Smart play-call by Jacksonville offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, and good execution, on the quarterback-keep touchdown run by David Garrard, when everyone in Nashville was expecting another grind-it-out run by Maurice Jones-Drew.
j. Drew Stanton, ladies and gentlemen. How many times was Matt Millen cursed for wasting a second-round pick on him? How many times was he hallelujah-ed at Ford Field Sunday? Two plays, 91 yards to go ahead of the Bears just before halftime, including the long TD to Calvin Johnson.
k. Nickname of the Week, by profootballtalk.com's Mike Florio: "Bitter-Beer Face.'' For Peyton Manning.
l. Julius Peppers. As critical as I've been of him for his lack of production over the years, I have to hand it to him now. He's playing as well as any run/pass-defending defensive end in football, and he stoned the Lions on two big run-stops Sunday.
m. Chad Ochocinco, with one of the prettiest boundary receptions you'll ever see, barely tapping both feet on the final blade of fake grass before momentum pushed his body down over the sideline against the Saints.
n. Jonathan Vilma, with the fourth-down stop of the day against Cedric Benson.
o. Lions defensive end Cliff Avril. Overshadowed much of the year by Ndamukong Suh and Kyle VandenBosch, Avril broke out with a dominating performance in the Lions' near upset of the division-leading Bears. He had three sacks (actually two full sacks, and two half-sacks), the first that stopped Chicago's first drive of the day, and the second two contributing to stunted Bear drives in the third quarter as the Lions hung onto a narrow lead.
p. Don't know whether to laud Leon Washington for the long kickoff return or to knock him for semi-celebrating early, allowing the kicker to trip him up at the 1 to prevent a Seattle touchdown.
q. Eric Weems, save that kickoff return in some time capsule. A great return at a vital time for your Falcons.
r. Raiders rushers. Against the top-ranked D in the NFL, Oakland ran for 251 yards and swept the Chargers.
a. I'm not telling networks what to do or anything, but the tell-all, gut-wrenching Mike Vick interviews are over. I love the story, and it is well worth telling. But he's said the same thing 63 times now. Enough.
b. Where'd you get those uniforms, Packers? Costco? And the helmets that looked like round FTD fall-bouquet vases? Without a question, those are the worst throwbacks I've seen, and there have been a lot of bad ones.
c. Albert Haynesworth, for missing his fifth game of the year with an illness. Talk about a guy not giving his team its $100-million's worth.
d. Leodis McKelvin, for having the worst five-play span of any player in this season ... and whose errors led to 14 Vikings points. First, he lost the wrestling match for a touchdown with Sidney Rice. On the ensuing kickoff, he smashed his own man on the return, fumbled and gave the ball up to Minnesota. Three plays later, McKelvin was called for interference, leading to the Vikings' second touchdown.
e. Giants: 31 turnovers this year, most in the league. That's got to be driving Tom Coughlin nuts.
f. Ref Walt Coleman, during 'Skins-Giants, after a failed challenge by Washington coach Mike Shanahan: "Denver will be charged with a timeout.'' Old habits die hard.
g. At halftime of Jags-Titans, these negative Tennessee numbers dominated: Over the past six quarters, Tennessee had been outscored 37-0, and Chris Johnson had been held to 14 yards on 13 carries. Those two stats were related.
h. Mike Sellers. Bo Scaife. Your teams (Washington, Tennessee) are stinking up the joint, and you both have huge drops of absolutely simple catches.
i. Ed Hochuli's crew for a ridiculous call ruling that Ndamukong Suh unnecessarily roughed Jay Cutler.
j. Hey, Marvin Lewis: You score a touchdown with 13:42 left in the game to make it 20-18, and you go for one? Terrible decision, particularly with a kicker who'd already missed one PAT.
k. Can't miss the call busting Ben Roethlisberger's nose, nor the one busting Heath Miller in the head, Terry McAulay and crew.
a. We've had enough of the gecko, Geico. I think I speak for all of America when I say that, the same as it was once over for Spuds McKenzie.
b. Coffeenerdness: Starbucks finally has the egg nog latte right. In the past, they've had so many varieties of egg nog, some of it actually metallic-tasting. But I've had the egg nog latte in four markets now, and they've figured some way to get it right. And they have it right.
c. I'm no Fran Leibowitz expert, but I saw a terrific documentary on her the other day on HBO called
d. Classic New York Scene of the Week: Walking west on 51st Street Friday around 5 p.m., I saw a Santa Claus with his hat and beard off, standing just off Rockefeller Center with the bustle of the holiday season. He had all his belongings in a brown bag between his legs, and as I passed, he lifted a one-shot bottle of liquor (Stoli vodka, I think) and downed it in a flash. Aaaah, the holidays.
e. Thank you, Jimmy Roberts and Brad Faxon, for the recommendation of La Masseria, the Italian place in Manhattan's Theater District. You can tell a good Italian restaurant by the quality of its sauce, and that sauce with the rigatoni was a gem.
f. Re the Adrian Gonzalez trade: I'm usually in favor of a deal of a big star in his prime (particular one with a very good glove) for four prospects, and this is no exception. Once I found out Gonzalez hits well the other way -- 18 homers to the left of dead-center last year -- it got the King seal of approval.
g. If anyone can
h. And thank you, thank you, thank you to you readers of this column and you who follow me on Twitter, and to you, the Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns, for helping 800 needy families in western New York and northeast Ohio get food and kits of home supplies from Feed The Children on Tuesday. Players from both teams helped offload big semi trailers on a frigid day that is the players' day off, so I'm highly appreciative of their efforts. For 10 Bills, COO Russ Brandon and Laurie (wife of Chan) Gailey to give most of a day, and for similarly giving Browns to do the same, I pass along thanks. And to all of you reading this, thank you. You're the ones who raised the money to make the two Feed the Children distributions happen.
McCourty played the Lions like he was a five-year vet, which was no surprise to the centerpiece of the Pats' D, linebacker Jerod Mayo. "The way he came through the door told me he'd be a good player,'' Mayo told me the other day. "He's kind of an old soul. The way a lot of first-rounders come in to teams is almost like you should respect them. Devin earned it from the first day.'' He showed that savvy against Detroit by out-wrestling Calvin Johnson for an interception. "Veteran play,'' said Mayo, "especially coming against a good receiver like Johnson.''
He'll need a few of those tonight, and I say his play, and Bill Belichick's head, will be enough for New England.