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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, "Playoffs? PLAYOFFS?''

• 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:

***

You don't want to bet against the Steelers.

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 Los Angeles Times. "You in there washing your hair? Take your time! I ain't leaving you, baby!"

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.

***

MJD a Colt once upon a time?

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.

Quick hits while we kill time (and I know you're doing that in your cubicle right now; admit it) waiting for Jets-Pats tonight:

Favre may skate. Nothing's certain yet. But I'm hearing, as I said on NBC Sunday night, that it's likely Brett Favre won't be suspended for his alleged contact with former Jets sideline host Jenn Sterger, and he may not get sanctioned for it at all. The league is expected to announce a decision on Favre either this week or next -- I hear commissioner Roger Goodell wants to have the case adjudicated internally before the end of the season, so any discipline the league wants to impose could be doled out before the likely end of Favre's career.

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.

Favre may play. Talked to Vikings coach Leslie Frazier Sunday after the Vikings' rout of the Bills, and he said if team medics tell him Favre is ready to go this week -- after bruising a shoulder bone and joint and his sternum on a hard Buffalo hit early in the game -- he'll play against the Giants. "I expect him to be back this week because I'm like you and everybody else over the past 18, 20 years,'' Frazier told me. "He gets hurt, but he always seems like he rebounds and is ready to go the next game. But we'll see.''

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.''

Interim Coach "I Told You So'' Note of the Week. Jason Garrett is 3-1, a Roy Williams fumble from 4-0. Frazier is 2-0. We might be about to hit uncharted territory for interim coaches. Is it possible that 49ers owner John York, or maybe Carolina owner Jerry Richardson, would request permission after the season to interview one or both coaches? And unless they've been signed to head-coaching contracts after the Cowboys' and Vikings' seasons, would they consider interviewing for the gigs? Why not? Both coaches have been superb in taking the focus away from the off-field mayhem and putting it on the field.

The Redskins are awful. Four sacks of Donovan McNabb, and seven pressures, in Washington's embarrassing 31-7 loss to the Giants. Two interceptions of McNabb. Three drops by McNabb's receivers. Six fumbles. Six! And this ultimate indignity: How beautifully fitting that Devin Thomas -- a second-round pick of the 'Skins in 2008, a high-profile example of their draft failings, cut by the Redskins earlier this season and picked up by the receiver-needy Giants -- would make the special-teams play of the game.

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.

How did Pat Sims fall for No-Brainer Freeze? It'll be a long time before Cincinnati defensive tackle Sims lives this one down. Fourth-and-two, 34 seconds left, Bengals up 30-27, Drew Brees at the line of scrimmage, barking out signals for the Saints in a rising and falling cadence. The play is called "No-Brainer Freeze,'' simply, because every one of the 10 players aside from the quarterback is not supposed to use his brain, and every one is supposed to freeze. No movement is required because there's not going to be a snap, and the play is designed to have the play clock run out or the quarterback call a timeout just before it does. The Saints practice Brees' cadence -- sharp, then lower, then rising, then barking, then slower, then fast.

"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 Rams are not a one-rookie show. Sam Bradford has led the Rams to a tie atop the NFC West at 6-6 with four games to play. He's been particularly strong in his past five games, completing 65 percent of his throws with just two interceptions. But almost as impressive at his position has been Bradford's road-trip roommate Rodger Saffold of Indiana, who was chosen with the first pick of the second round -- the first pick of the second day of the draft -- and who, entering Sunday's victory at Arizona, had allowed only two sacks in 11 games. "I thought it was one,'' Saffold said the other day. "I'm pretty sure it's one. Stylez White of Tampa. That's it.'' The Rams have him down for a second, but let's not quibble.

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.

Cortland Finnegan has another side. Three days before his brawl with Andre Johnson, Finnegan asked coach Jeff Fisher if, on Thanksgiving, he could report to work a little bit late. Fisher wondered why. Finnegan told him he needed to run in a five-mile Thanksgiving morning race in Nashville, the Boulevard Bolt. Actually, it wasn't Finnegan running on his own. He'd be pushing a cancer patient, local high school athlete Kelsey Towns, who, not long after treatment to battle sarcoma, was determined to run in the race she'd competed in for 11 years.

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.

***

Some clarification on Cam Newton.

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.

1. Atlanta (10-2). Falcons have 1-11 Carolina twice in the final four weeks. Can't imagine them losing the South or the top seed in the NFC -- the Saints would have to sweep a tough last four games to have a good shot to win the division. Beating the Bucs sure helped Matty ice home-field.

2. New England (9-2). Hate to be so bottom-line here, but what a break the Patriots got when the Jets lost Jim Leonhard to a broken leg in practice Friday for tonight's veritable AFC East title game. Leonhard was the kind of smart safety who wouldn't buy what Tom Brady will be selling with his pre-snap reads, and he was also the kind of safety to be able to knock heads with the three-headed tight-end monster (Hernandez-Gronkowski-Crumpler) the Pats will throw at the Jets all night.

3. New York Jets (9-2). Not that I don't like a team unafraid of talking a little bit before a big game. I actually love a team that talks. (This just in: Woody Johnson is on Twitter and he commented on practice Saturday; can you imagine Bob Kraft tweeting about practice -- and Bill Belichick not going nuts?) But the Jets had 261 hours between the end of the last game (beating Cincinnati on Thanksgiving) and the start of this one, and I think Rex Ryan was talking for about 259 of them. Let's play this thing.

4. Green Bay (8-4). I don't care how close Niners-Pack was for a half or so. No way Green Bay was losing to San Francisco in the icehouse Sunday.

5. Pittsburgh (9-3). I don't know how you ...6. Baltimore (8-4). ... separate these two teams.

7. Chicago (9-3). Jay Cutler is now officially dangerous. Last three games, even under attack behind a line that can't protect him, Cutler's a 77-percent passer with six touchdowns and no picks. Playing smart, choreographed by a smart offensive coordinator who's not being too greedy.

8. New Orleans (9-3). Saints have gotten back in the race while feasting on the pudgy middle of the schedule (Carolina, Seattle, Dallas, Cincinnati). Now comes the tough last four weeks, and the very difficult task of making up ground on the hottest team in the NFC, Atlanta. Saints close with this playoff-contender slate: St. Louis, at Baltimore, at Atlanta, Tampa Bay.

9. Philadelphia (8-4). Michael Vick on the succession of hits he's taken (which, by the way, I don't see the same way he does), to WIP radio: "I'm getting hit after I throw the ball, repeatedly. I'm getting my facemask pulled, I'm getting hit in the head. The calls are not being made. I see other quarterbacks standing in the pocket, and the minute they get touched, there's a flag on the field. This has been happening [to me] the last four or five weeks. I haven't complained, but it's getting to the point where I'm tired of getting off the canvas.''

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.

10. New York Giants (8-4). First half in a cold, windy Meadowlands: Giants, 20 carries, 140 yards. That's how these Giants have to win down the stretch, with a depleted receiver corps. Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw combined for 33 rushes, 200 yards and four touchdowns on the day.

11. Kansas City (8-4). Many thoughts. The Chiefs are two games up with four to play, but with K.C. playing San Diego and St. Louis on the road in the next two weeks, this division's not over ... Tamba Hali is the real deal ... As is Jamaal Charles ... What a bush-league play by tackle Barry Richardson, shoving special-teams coach Steve Hoffman on the sidelines after getting yanked for committing a key penalty.

12. Tampa Bay (7-5). I don't care that they're 0-5 against winning teams now. This Tampa team is feisty, well-drilled, on the verge of being very good, and totally unafraid. I like the Bucs.

13. Oakland (6-6). Versus San Diego: 2-0. Versus the AFC West: 4-0. Versus foes out of division: 2-6.

14. Jacksonville (7-5). Strange but true: If the Colts win out, they'd overtake the Jags and win the AFC South on a tiebreaker.

15. San Diego (6-6). Hey: I thought Philip Rivers didn't lose in December.

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.

1. Tom Brady, QB, New England. Tonight's a big game in the Rivers-Brady MVP battle. In Brady's three games against the Jets since Rex Ryan took over, the changing schemes of Ryan have obviously had the desired effect of neutralizing Brady. In those three games, he's a 57-percent passer, with three touchdown passes and three interceptions.

2. Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta. His team's on a six-game winning streak, staying ahead of the defending Super Bowl champs week after week in the NFC South, and Ryan is strafing defenses. He had thrown 185 passes without an interception until Tampa Bay broke the streak. Can't ask much more out of your quarterback than that.

3. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay. Another three-TD, no-interception game in one the Pack had to have against San Francisco.

4. Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jacksonville. The Jags have taken the AFC South lead by going 4-1 in the last five weeks, and no one's more responsible than this remarkable back. Here's the five-game tote board for Jones-Drew: 27 carries for 135 yards, 24 for 100, 23 for 133, 21 for 113 and 31 for 186 ... with 136 receiving yards in those five games as well. He made a run against Tennessee that just embarrassed the Titans, stiff-arming Pro Bowl safety Michael Griffin and leaving other Titans in his wake on a 37-yard jaunt.

5. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans. Hard to imagine a man with 16 interceptions being in play for the MVP. But Brees, if he stays healthy, should end up with something like 4,500 yards and 35 touchdown passes. Last year, in his Super season, he was 4,388 and 34.

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.

Offensive Players of the Week

Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh.

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.

Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jacksonville.

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.

Defensive Players of the Week

Troy Polamalu, SS, Pittsburgh.

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.

Terrell Suggs, OLB, Baltimore.

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.

Champ Bailey, CB, Denver.

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.

Special Teams Player of the Week

Taj Smith, WR, Indianapolis.

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.

Coach of the Week

Pat Flaherty, offensive line coach, New York Giants.

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.

Goats of the Week

Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis.

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.

Pat Sims, DT, Cincinnati.

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.''-- Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning, after his second straight four-interception game led the Colts to their third straight loss.

"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."-- Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin, to Rich Eisen of NFL Network, on the preoccupation with James Harrison's recent penalty and fine history with the NFL.

"Looks like they're the best team in football. That's what all the experts say. Except me.''-- Jets coach Rex Ryan, on the Patriots, before tonight's matchup between the 9-2 Jets and 9-2 New England in Foxboro.

"I'm done. I'm done. I don't know how the remaining games will unfold, but that's it.''-- Brett Favre, Wednesday, saying he will not play in 2011.

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.

The Games That Changed The Game, by Ron Jaworski, with Greg Cosell and David Plaut of NFL Films.

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: Blood, Sweat and Chalk, by my friend Tim Layden, a great one about the roots of football and why today's game is so sophisticated; The One Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, the Cowboys, the '70s and the Fight For America's Soul, by Chad Millman and Shaun Coyne, which, though overtitled, is a fascinating look at football and life in the seventies, with my favorite parts those concerning the connection between the Steelers and their city; and the Jaws book about the seven most important games and football schemes of the last 50 years.

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 Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year event Tuesday night. And we discovered trains were frozen in the northeast in a heavy rainstorm due to a downed wire in Newark. So we waited. And waited. Finally, around 1:45, in a packed train station, with no end to the delay in sight, I got on the phone to my travel agent and asked her to look for a car-rental place anywhere near Penn Station. Much to my chagrin, because I wanted to work on the way home, now I'd have to slog five or six hours through the nor'easter to get home.

"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.''--@ChrisHarrisNFL, Bears safety Chris Harris, at the two-minute warning of the Steelers-Ravens instant classic in the Inner Harbor Sunday night.

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 National Football Post Sunday column. His best gem from this column: NFL's on pace for 462 offensive-holding penalties, or 89 more than last year. Obvious cause: The umpire being in the backfield for 53 minutes per game, with a better view of offensive line play, instead of being shielded by the defensive line when he used to line up in the linebacker area. Good work, Dan.

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.

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

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.

3. I think, in the ranks of embarrassing performances in the 2010 season, you'd have to go a long way to top Washington's lay-down job against the Giants.

4. I think all you had to do to realize how much the Jets will miss safety Jim Leonhard -- placed on injured-reserve with a broken leg suffered Friday -- was to listen to defensive coordinator Mike Pettine talk about Leonhard and his value to the team after practice: "We were all crushed ... I think everybody was just a little stunned ... It's just -- it was really stunning ... It's a crushing thing ... I don't think people realize what a vital part of our room Jim Leonhard is, so that makes it more difficult ... He really did quarterback the back end. He was a big part of helping guys get lined up and he was usually a guy that was in the right place at the right time doing his job. That's something that we are really going to miss.'' You rarely hear coaches get so ratcheted up about the loss of a player.

5. I think the best thing Carolina owner Jerry Richardson and GM Marty Hurney can do -- assuming the Panthers lose out and get the first overall pick -- is hire Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh to be their head coach and draft Andrew Luck with the first overall pick. I know the Panthers don't want to break the bank paying their coach, particularly in a year when it's going to be an owners' market for coaches (because I don't think there will be many jobs open). But continuing the great relationship between coach and franchise quarterback at the next level, in my opinion, would make Harbaugh well worth the $3.5-million or so per year it would cost to get him. Still think there's a good chance the Panthers would have to fight the 49ers for Harbaugh if the Niners continue on their uneven path the rest of the season and fire Mike Singletary.

6. I think, speaking of coaching jobs, it's hard to envision Josh McDaniels surviving now in Denver. After Spygate II, there was no question both in terms of public opinion and the opinion of the owner and front office that McDaniels had to have an impressive finish to keep the job. Well, Denver has since lost to St. Louis at home and scored six points in a loss to Kansas City on Sunday. Even with injuries on defense, you've got to wonder whether the D is tuning the coaching staff out; Denver has allowed 32 points a game, on average, over the past six games.

7. I think there's a long list of those who passed away last week we need to acknowledge: Ron Santo, for being a great third baseman and the classic local voice of the fan; Chicagoland is still in mourning this morning, even though it's been a few days since he died... Phil Jasner, the great NBA writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, who died Friday of cancer. One of the most knowledgeable and enthusiastic sports journalists of our time... Jim Kelley, Mr. Hockey in Western New York as a columnist for the Buffalo News, and a contributor to SI.com, was as knowledgeable a hockey guy as the lower 48 contained. I didn't know Jim well, but I loved reading him because he wrote with such authority; if he wrote about a trade being close, you knew it was on the verge of happening. And he respected the game so much. I loved reading him.

8. I think you should check out this map of FOX coverage for the late game Sunday. Look at it. Tell me if anything really surprises you. Look at how much of the country bypassed 9-2 Atlanta versus 7-4 Tampa Bay, with huge playoff implications, in favor of 3-8 Dallas against 6-5 Indy. What surprises me the most is not just the mass of the country -- probably 85 percent -- taking Colts-Cowboys, because I totally get the Peyton Manning/Lure of the Cowboys' ratings power. But how about some of the places that chose it over a huge NFC South game: Jackson, Miss., Meridian, Miss., Lake Charles, La., Miami, Fort Lauderdale. Odd, to me. But I would like to praise station directors in Fargo and Duluth, of all places, for going Bucs-Falcons.

9. I think Ken Whisenhunt needs to play Fordham rookie John Skelton Sunday, and maybe for the last four games. Really, what does he have to lose? And he has to know Derek Anderson won't be back, so why prolong the agony by playing Anderson?

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

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 Public Speaking. Man, can she talk. And is she interesting. Strongly recommended. Great tale of an interesting New York life.

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 help a Marine in need, cancer-stricken Jessica Shepherd, please find it in your heart to do so.

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.

Patriots 27, Jets 20. You've read quite a bit about this game, even if you're in Nome. My view, in short, is that a very big key to this game is Patriots rookie cornerback Devin McCourty has to come up very big, particularly when he's covering Santonio Holmes, for the Patriots to win, because the New England nickel will struggle to hold down the Jets' passing game.

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.

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