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With all attention on Eagles-Giants, playoff picture begins to clear up

NEW YORK -- We yell a lot in the fifth-floor Rockefeller Center viewing room of NBC's Football Night in America. Up to nine games in high-def on a big wall, and the 12 to 15 people in the room putting together the Sunday night show get a little excited from time to time. Oh, Rodney Harrison yells, often at big hits. Tony Dungy even yells a time or two per Sunday. I yell more than I ever did in a press box, where yelling is verboten. But I don't recall the sound coming out of the viewing room ever sounding like it did at 4:18 p.m. Sunday. It was something like:

"NOOOOO! OhwhatareyouDOINGYOUIDIOT!'' That's when Giants punter Matt Dodge, with 14 seconds left in a 31-31 game, chose to not do what his coach told him and actually punted the ball to the most dangerous punt-return man in football for no apparent reason.

"Noooooo! AHHHHHHHHH! OHHHHHHHH!'' That's when DeSean Jackson fumbled the punt, picked it up at about his 35-yard line and began frantically searching for daylight to run toward.

And "AHHHHHHHHHHHH! NOOOOOOOOOOO! Yougottabekiddingme! AHHHHHHH! LOOKATCOUGHLIN! AHHHHHHHHHHH!''

So this was the first wee-hours-of-Monday-morning writing session that I had a sore throat.

Back to Giants-Eagles, a game for the ages, in a moment. But let's see where we are with two weeks left in the regular season. Some weird happenings; it wouldn't be an NFL season without the weirdness.

The AFC, remarkably, is set -- almost. Upsets will happen (duh), but there's a good chance the AFC playoff bracket will look like this:

1. New England (12-2), East winner.2. Pittsburgh (10-4), North winner. Steelers win a tiebreaker with Baltimore if they finish tied atop the division.3. Kansas City (9-5) or San Diego (8-6), West winner. Chargers are at three-win Bengals and three-win Broncos, while K.C. hosts Tennessee and plucky Oakland. San Diego wins the division if there's a tie with the Chiefs.4. Indianapolis (8-6) or Jacksonville (8-6), South winner. Colts, at Oakland and home with Tennessee, win the division if they win out.5. Baltimore (10-4). Tiebreaker edge over Jets because of opening-week win.6. New York Jets (10-4).

That sets up, then, as a Jets-at-AFC West in one wild-card game and Baltimore at Indianapolis in the other ... the same matches in the first round as last year's divisional round if the Chargers make it. This could be followed by a Colts-Pats divisional round game. Never boring in the AFC.

The 49ers (5-9) could actually win the NFC West, and if they do, let us pray we finally see the league make a sensible rule of not guaranteeing a division winner a home playoff game. It's possible a 12-4 Saints team could travel to play a seven-win NFC West winner. Bah humbug. Here's how the NFC West shapes up:

If San Francisco sweeps to finish 7-9 and Seattle doesn't also sweep to go 8-8, the Niners would win the division tiebreaker in either of two possible scenarios. Crazy stuff.

Atlanta needs one win (home with Saints, home with Panthers) to clinch NFC home-field. The NFC's going through Atlanta, folks. A Michael Vick NFC title game appearance at the Georgia Dome, perhaps? Quite possible.

Game of this weekend: Giants at Packers. It's a playoff game before the playoffs, basically. New Orleans looks pretty solid as the fifth seed. If the Packers win out (Giants, Bears at home), they're in. If the Giants win out (at Packers, at Redskins), they're in. But Green Bay likely has to win two to make it, because beating the Giants and losing to Chicago can be trumped by the Giants simply splitting.

Got that?

***

A game that will live in infamy, or euphoria.

I have to say I've never seen eight minutes of football the way the Giants and Eagles played Sunday. Think of it: The Giants held the explosive Eagles to 198 yards and one touchdown in the first 52 minutes of the NFC East showdown game. They allowed 220 yards, plus a 65-yard punt-return and four touchdowns in the final eight minutes.

It started at 31-10, Giants, then the strange 65-yard touchdown to tight end Brent Celek when Giants safety Kenny Phillips whiffed on a tackle ... 31-17, 7:28 left ... On the ensuing kickoff, I wondered if Philly would try an onside kick. But I thought not, because they'd probably have time for two possessions, so why not just play defense for a series?

The Giants didn't put their hands team on the field -- the kick-return unit made up of backs, receivers and tight ends -- to give them the best chance to catch and down an onside kick. That's not where the mistake was made. Tom Coughlin and tight ends coach Tom Quinn stressed to the six men on the front line of the return team to watch out for the onside kick. Yet when David Akers approached the ball to kick off, the front players on the return team all took a couple of steps back, anticipating a regular, long kickoff. Why did they retreat? Just foolish and undisciplined, that's why.

Eagle ball on the Philly 43. On the second play, Vick sprinted upfield for 35 yards, running through the secondary for his longest run of the year. "It wasn't by design," Vick told me later. "It was all feel. The defense they were playing allowed me to do that.'' The over-pursuit, he meant. Three plays later, he ran it in from the four ... 31-24, 5:28 left ... The Giants punted it back to them with 3:01 left in the game and the Eagles took over at their 12.

Incomplete. Incomplete. Then Vick sped and cut for 33, and a minute later for 22 more. The Giants were gassed. So should Vick have been.

"Looked like you sprained an ankle or something and you were saving a little something on those runs,'' I said.

"No,'' he said. "My knee got bent up when I got sacked earlier, but then I started running again and I actually felt fine.''

Think about how much Vick got hit -- maybe six or seven really good shots, including once when he knocked hard into a FOX cameraman on the sidelines and he went sprawling to the turf. And here Vick was, running 35, 33 and 22 yards in the span of five minutes. That's 90 rushing yards in two series.

This drive ended with a sharp, short 13-yard TD strike to Jeremy Maclin ... 31-31, 1:16 left ... Giants stalled again. Fourth-and-17 at the Giant 29. Fourteen seconds to go. They'd have to punt. Back went Jackson. Coughlin told his rookie punter, Matt Dodge, that the kick had to go out of bounds. The most Philadelphia should be able to do, Coughlin thought, was run one final play. A huge longshot.

Someone on the Giant sidelines told me about the coaches' warning to the special teams and to Dodge: "They were warned. The warnings fell on deaf ears.''

Dodge had to jump a little for the center snap, but he wasn't pressured. He had the normal time to punt. Instead of angling the ball to the sideline, which might have given the Eagles a last-gasp desperation play from their 40 with, say, seven seconds to go, he booted a line drive.

"I picked a bad time to punt a straight line drive,'' Dodge said.

"I was like, 'What are they doing?' '' Said Vick. "Why'd they kick it to him?''

Jackson bobbled it, then regained the handle and squirted through a couple of good-sized holes. Ballgame.

"Their entire team ran off the field without shaking hands, which I felt was unsportsmanlike,'' Vick said. "But I know that's a tough way to lose.''

Two other points: I immediately wondered about Coughlin's job status if the Giants continue to slide. I think the current ownership and management likes Coughlin a lot, and even if New York doesn't make the playoffs, I believe Coughlin will stay. But if there's another debacle on the level of this game in the next two weeks, who knows?

And hiring Bill Cowher. I don't see it. Not really the Giants' style to break the bank for a coach most in the organization don't see as being altogether different from Coughlin.

But that was one hell of a loss for New York, the kind that could carry over to the next Biggest Game of the Year, Sunday at Green Bay.

Speaking of Cowher ...

We all know John Fox and his $6 million salary will be gone from Carolina at the end of the season. And the Panthers will look elsewhere for a coach. But it'll be a much less expensive coach. So scratch Cowher, who now splits his time between Raleigh and New York, because he won't be involved. Owner Jerry Richardson doesn't believe coaches are worth that much money.

Richardson and GM Marty Hurney are likely to look at the models of Mike Smith (Atlanta), Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh) and John Harbaugh (Baltimore) for their next man. I expect them to hire a defensive-minded head coach, with a smart young offensive assistant or coordinator brought in to coach the quarterbacks -- which could be either Jimmy Clausen or, seeing that the Panthers will likely have the first pick in the draft, Stanford's Andrew Luck, if he chooses to forgo his final two years of college eligibility to turn pro.

Matt Cassel wouldn't let the Chiefs lose.

On Sunday morning, Cassel, the Chiefs quarterback, was 11 days removed from an emergency appendectomy. But he went out on the field at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, "and I told coach [Todd Haley] I'd be honest with him, and I was able to do everything without reservation. We didn't have to hold anything out of the game plan because of my situation. We did sprint out throws, boots, play-action. No problem.''

Cassel missed the Chiefs' 31-0 loss at San Diego last week that seemed to underscore the team's need for him. They got nothing going on offense, didn't convert a third down all day, and seemed vulnerable heading into their final three games of the year with only a half-game lead in the AFC West. And the slump continued early in St. Louis, when the Rams kicked two first-quarter field goals and picked off Cassel, riling up the crowd.

"I told the guys, 'Don't get overwhelmed,' '' Cassel told me. " 'Withstand the storm. We'll be fine.' ''

It was the Kansas City run game that carried the Chiefs Sunday -- Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones combined for 188 rushing yards, and Jones became the 25th back ever to surpass 10,000 career rushing yards. Cassel's got a good grip on this team now, and the Chiefs won't be an easy out in the playoffs if they hold off San Diego for the West title.

***

Tebow: "It was fun to play football again.''

Tim Tebow knew he'd be a little nervous -- well, maybe a lot nervous -- Saturday night after going over his playsheet twice with Denver quarterback coach Ben (Brother of Josh) McDaniels. So he took an Ambien. "Slept great,'' he said. Then he got up Sunday in Oakland and met with McDaniels again to go over what they'd try to do against the Raiders.

I watched the Tebow highlights -- and a couple of lowlights -- in the 39-23 loss against Oakland, and this is what I saw in his performance (8 of 16, 138 yards, one touchdown, no picks; eight rushes for 78 yards and a touchdown):

• Evidence of his new mechanics. Through the offseason, Josh and Ben McDaniels worked significantly on quickening the lefty's delivery and keeping his right arm from flying out. That showed Sunday, particularly on a quick crossing pattern to Jabar Gaffney and a sideline throw to Brandon Lloyd. He seems confident in his delivery.

• Throwing the ball harder. He had a couple of good line-drive throws, including one that was dropped in the end zone by running back Lance Ball.

• He still needs to work on surveying the field and seeing all his receivers. A couple of times he appeared rushed and mechanical trying to see his targets. It's got to become more fluid.

• Hard to tell much about his accuracy in the nine or 10 throws I saw. Too small a sample to draw any conclusions.

• His touchdown run -- from 40 yards out -- was odd. "A play was called that I hadn't repped,'' he said. (Strange that the Broncos would call a play, even on a long down-and-distance, that Tebow had never practiced.) The play was supposed to be a draw to Correll Buckhalter, but Tebow thought it was a quarterback draw. So he ran it -- and Buckhalter put a nice block on safety Tyvon Branch downfield, helping Tebow score.

Before the game, Tebow exchanged text-messages with Josh McDaniels, who wished him well. "It's bittersweet, playing without him,'' Tebow said. "He believed in me, he chose me, he worked with me, he had confidence in me. I wanted to much to prove him right. But I'm a positive person, and I believe it'll work out well for me and the team here.''

It'll be interesting to see who the Broncos hire, and whether it'll be a coach who believes Tebow can be a good NFL quarterback. I've heard John Elway, likely to take a management role with the team sometime after the season, is intrigued by Tebow and would like to be influential with him. But without McDaniels, and assuming Ben McDaniels is gone after the season when a new staff takes over, Tebow may have to adapt to a new style. He's still very much a work in progress.

***

Tumbling down the depth chart with Donovan.

"I gotta do what I think is right, even though it'll get me second-guessed to death,'' Mike Shanahan said from Dallas after the Donovan McNabb-benched Redskins lost 33-30 to the Cowboys. And that means giving the reins to Rex Grossman for most of the final three games, much to the chagrin of McNabb fans.

But Grossman went 25 of 43 for 322 yards, with four touchdowns and two interceptions as Washington tied the game at 30 after trailing 27-7. A crazy game, sort of like the craziness that has enveloped the team since Shanahan made his call Thursday to sit McNabb. The Redskins, as it turns out, will likely end up getting only 13 games out of him in exchange for second- and fourth-round picks, because there's little chance they'll be able to keep McNabb after burying him this way.

Shanahan told me McNabb, who was the number two quarterback Sunday, will be third in the final two games while he gives Grossman and -- he hopes -- John Beck a chance to show themselves. "Nothing Rex did today surprises me,'' Shanahan said. "And I think John Beck's got an excellent future. I'm looking at the long-term. I've got to look out for what's best for this team for the long-term, so I want to see what we have with Rex and John Beck. I feel like I know where I am with Donovan.''

Here's where they are with Grossman: In the previous four meetings with Dallas, Washington totaled 20 points. On Sunday, they scored 30. Progress, perhaps, but with a lot of pain.

No one respects the Hall of Fame voting process more than I do, but something needs to be done about admitting the men who didn't play.

SI's Jim Trotter did a good job writing about this, and I'll echo him here. Currently, the Hall has a maximum of five modern-era candidates who can be enshrined each year, plus two nominees from the pool of Seniors candidates. So that's a max of seven per year. Currently, players, owners, coaches and other contributors to the game (scouts, commissioners) are all considered in one category. If you're a Hall of Famer, you're a Hall of Famer, regardless of whether you played or owned or coached or managed or lorded over the game. But the reality in the voting room -- I am one of the 44 selectors -- is that the process is weighted heavily toward players. As it should be, probably. But let's look at the last 10 years and the pattern of who's made it and who hasn't:

Players: 50.Coaches: 5.Owners, scouts, GMs, club officials, game officials, commissioners: 1.

The one was Buffalo owner Ralph Wilson, in 2009.

I think averaging five players per year, including seniors, is fair. I think five head coaches in 10 years is probably fair. But one person, among all the architects and owners and miners for talent and the others who have made the game what it is? That's totally unsatisfactory.

What really got my goat this year was when the list of 26 that we've got to whittle down to 15 finalists was disclosed, Ron Wolf's name wasn't on the list. That's ridiculous.

He's one of the best personnel evaluators ever, with the moxie to make some of the biggest decisions in recent NFL history. He landed in moribund Green Bay in 1991, hired Mike Holmgren as head coach, traded for Brett Favre, signed Reggie White in free agency when no one thought any player of consequence would come to a bad team in a tiny city, and piloted the team to two Super Bowl appearances in the '90s. He's personally responsible for making the Packers relevant again, and one of his former minions, Ted Thompson, lords over the team today -- and, taught guts by Wolf, had the stones to choose Aaron Rodgers over a waffling Favre in 2008.

I'll get off my Wolf soapbox now, but I make that point to illustrate that there are too many superb people being shunted to the side by the Hall's voting process.

I'm of three minds how to fix it. Before I give you the three thoughts, know that I'm not a fan of a "Contributors' Wing,'' or some separate category in the Hall for those who didn't play or coach. Not fair. I think Ron Wolf deserves a bust between Wilson (Ralph) and Woodson (Rod) in the main hall of the Hall. The three options to fix the contributor dilemma:

1. Take one of the two Seniors slots and give it annually to a non-head coaching contributor to the game, which wouldn't mean a contributor wouldn't get in every year, but rather that one contributor's case would be heard every year.

2. Take one of the two Seniors slots every other year and give it annually to a contributor.

3. Take the two non-modern-era-candidate slots and make them fit for all other candidates -- seniors, scouts, etc.

I don't say this to dilute the Senior pool. There are still a load of candidates who deserve to have their cases heard -- linebacker Maxie Baughan (nine Pro Bowls in the '60s to Ray Nitschke's one) and safeties Johnny Robinson (only man to lead the AFL and then NFL in interceptions in a season, both times with 10) Ken Riley (the third-leading interceptor of all time). But I do think something has to be done to push along the contributors, and make them distinguishable from the strong pool of player candidates.

Ron Wolf, Ed Sabol, Steve Sabol, Bobby Beathard, Dick Steinberg, Gil Brandt, Bucko Kilroy, Jack Butler, C.O. Brocato (I use the longtime Houston/Tennessee scout to represent all scouts), Red Cashion or Jerry Markbreit (representing officials), Paul Tagliabue and Ernie Zampese or Jim Johnson or Joe Bugel (representing assistant coaches) all deserve better.

***

While we're on the subject of Ed Sabol ...

I've been an outspoken proponent of Sabol for enshrinement in the Hall. I'm just hoping when the list of 2011 finalists is pared from 26 to 15 this week by the selectors that Sabol's name is on it. I want to see him get a full and fair airing when we gather for the Hall vote Feb. 5 in Dallas, the day before the Super Bowl.

The other day, the ubiquitous Steve Sabol forwarded me a letter his dad got upon his 1995 retirement from NFL Films, which he founded. It was co-signed by former commissioner Pete Rozelle and the commissioner at the time, Paul Tagliabue. The part I'll share with you: "Dear Ed, The league has had its share of special people -- owners such as Mara, Marshall and Rooney, coaches such as Halas and Lombardi, and players such as Staubach and Motley. But there was only one founder and chairman of NFL Films, the organization that has done as much to give NFL Football a special dimension and extraordinary mystique for fans as any group ever association with the league.''

"If it were not for Ed Sabol,'' Vikings president Max Winter said in 1975, the National Football League Films may yet be portrayed as a Mack Sennett Comedy Classic.''

Even at the expense of a very deserving player, it's long past time that Ed Sabol gets in.

1. New England (12-2). One win -- either at Buffalo or home with Miami -- stands in the way of the Patriots clinching home-field through the AFC playoffs and not playing a meaningful game until Jan. 15-16.

2. Atlanta (12-2). Ditto ... except there's one slightly more difficult game in the final two for the Falcons -- at home with New Orleans next Monday, followed by Carolina at home.

3. Philadelphia (10-4). There is no question whatsoever that Sunday's win was the biggest, the most dramatic, in Philadelphia since the Phillies won the World Series.

4. Baltimore (10-4). Even though the Saints went up and down the field more than Ray Lewis and his friends would have liked, beating New Orleans and frustrating Drew Brees on key fourth-quarter plays show this D isn't dead yet.

5. Pittsburgh (10-4). Well, look on the bright side. The Panthers are coming to town Thursday. And the Steelers have clinched at least a wild-card spot because of the strength-of-victory tiebreaker.

6. New Orleans (10-4). Speaking of looking on the bright side: the Saints are now on course to be the fifth seed in the NFC playoffs. If that happens, they play the worst division winner, arguably, in NFL history, because the NFC West winner (which could be a 7-9 team) will be the fourth seed.

7. New York Jets (10-4). Disaster. Disaster. Euphoria.

8. San Diego (8-6). After San Diego's 34-7 annihilation of the Niners on Thursday, I can tell you what one very strong AFC team that plays in Massachusetts must be thinking, "That could be the toughest team we'd have to play in January.'' Here come the Chargers. Problem is, they're more likely than not to be sitting out the playoffs in January. That's what the Jets' upset of the Steelers and K.C.'s win did to the Chargers' chances.

9. Chicago (9-4). Great job on the NFL Matchup show Sunday morning, detailing how offensive coordinator Mike Martz is building solid pockets and quick throws for Jay Cutler to prosper in. He'll have to do that tonight, with wind-chill temps around zero, to beat the Vikes.

10. Kansas City (9-5). Wins over 6-8 Tennessee and 7-7 Oakland, both at home, and the Chiefs will win the AFC West for the first time since 2003.

11. Green Bay (8-6). Should have Aaron Rodgers back for essentially a playoff game Sunday at Lambeau against the crestfallen Giants.

12. Indianapolis (8-6). When they really needed it, the Colts had it -- thanks to Donald Brown.

13. Jacksonville (8-6). Amazing that the team that won five of six going into Sunday's game at Indy now has to have a ton of things go its way to make the playoffs.

14. New York Giants (9-5). Yeah, they're better than 14th in the NFL. But any team that gives up 28 points in eight minutes in what was essentially an NFC East title game ... sorry. That team falls way down the ladder in the Fine Fifteen and makes its head coach roll ball-bearings around in his hands 'til all hours, Queeg-like.

15. Tampa Bay (8-6). It was fun while it lasted. It might not be over, but the Bucs will need some help from the Giants and Packers to keep the playoff dream alive.

1. Tom Brady, QB, New England. He's had better games than his pedestrian win over the Packers, but with two weeks to go, riding a 21-touchdown, no-interception streak, I don't see how he can lose the MVP.

2. Michael Vick, QB, Philadelphia. Though he's missed 17 of 52 Eagle quarters, his fourth quarter Sunday convinced me he belongs on this list, and second only to Brady. Leading his adopted offense to three touchdowns in the final eight minutes of the most important game of the year ... simply phenomenal.

3. Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta. The Falcons' eight-game winning streak is the longest in football, and even though Ryan doesn't have the numbers of other quarterbacks, he's played intelligently, turned it over only five times in the winning streak and played well in the fourth quarter. He just wins.

4. Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego. Last seven games: San Diego's 6-1, Rivers has six 100-plus-rating games and five 70-percent passing games. Playing great when it matters most.

5. Matt Cassel, QB, Kansas City. This is value: Cassel-less Chiefs go to playoff-contending Chargers, lose by 31; Cassel plays with Chiefs at playoff-contending Rams and win by 14.

"That's about as empty a feeling as you get to have in this business.''-- Giants coach Tom Coughlin, after an unspeakable loss.

"I don't mind getting beat. But I hate being robbed.''-- Green Bay cornerback Charles Woodson, to Bob Costas on NBC's Football Night in America show, referring to the playoff game nine years ago when, as a member of the Raiders, he stripped New England quarterback Tom Brady of the ball and the Raiders recovered it. But the officials ruled Brady actually threw an incomplete pass on the play.

"It's a gut punch, but not a death blow.''-- Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris, on the Bucs' stunning home loss to Detroit, and the effect it had on the playoff race in the NFC.

"Disrespectful is probably not strong enough of a word. Donovan has handled himself with nothing but class, not just in Washington but as an ambassador for the league. To treat him this way ... it's beyond disrespectful."-- Fletcher Smith, the agent for Washington quarterback Donovan McNabb, to Jason Reid of the Washington Post, after McNabb was benched for the remainder of the season by coach Mike Shanahan.

Offensive Players of the Week

Michael Vick, QB, Philadelphia.

It's almost a guilty pleasure watching Vick play because you keep saying, He'll never last taking this abuse, and in the next breath you say, Run! Run!

Vick could play a long time in the NFL, but he'll never have a fourth quarter and a finish like he had Sunday, bringing the Eagles back from a 31-10 deficit with eight minutes to go. For the game, he ran for 130, threw for 242 and accounted for four touchdowns.

Ray Rice, RB, Baltimore.

One of Rice's best games as a storied collegian or pro led the Ravens to a vital victory that tied them for the AFC North lead. He rushed 31 times for 153 yards and a touchdown, and caught five balls for 80 more yards and a second touchdown. The 233 yards wore down the New Orleans defense and his performance was one of the most important elements in beating a team on a six-game winning streak.

Defensive Player of the Week

Jason Taylor, LB, New York Jets.

With the Jets holding a 20-17 lead late in the fourth quarter at Pittsburgh, Taylor made the kind of play Rex Ryan's been waiting for since the team signed him last spring. With the ball at the Steelers' two after a nicely executed Steve Weatherford punt, Taylor burst through the line, grabbed running back Mewelde Moore inches shy of the goal line and flung him to the ground for a safety. The play made the Steelers have to score a touchdown on their last drive of the game instead of a field goal -- and Ben Roethlisberger was unable to get the ball in from the Jets' 10. Huge assist to Taylor on the Jets' biggest win of the year.

Special Teams Players of the Week

DeSean Jackson, WR/PR, Philadelphia.

For the 65-yard punt return heard 'round the world.

Brad Smith, KR, New York Jets.

With the Jets under tremendous pressure to produce points -- any way possible -- Smith took the opening kickoff and ran 97 yards for the first New York TD in three games. When you play the stingy Steelers, the breathing room is negligible, and Smith gave the Jets a 7-0 lead ... when Pittsburgh was expecting to get a strong start to the game by kicking off to the sputtering New York offense.

Dan Connolly, KR/G, New England.

On a gee-whiz day, of course a guard would return a kickoff 71 yards. That's what Connolly did, lumbering down the left side and setting up a vital touchdown in a four-point New England win.

Coach of the Week

Brian Schottenheimer, offensive coordinator, New York Jets.

Schottenheimer called a smart, redemptive game and put struggling quarterback Mark Sanchez in position to make enough plays to win. The best: With New York down 17-10 late in the third quarter, and the crowd jacked up with the Jets having a fourth-and-one at the Steeler seven-yard line, Schottenheimer called a play-action-fake-turned-naked-bootleg left, sucking in the hard-charging James Harrison, and Sanchez ran in untouched to tie the game.

Goat of the Week

Matt Dodge, P, New York Giants.

On the dumbest play of a mind-bending loss, Dodge, with 14 seconds left in a 31-31 tie, punted the ball to the best return man in the game (sorry, Devin Hester, but DeSean Jackson's taken over) instead of angling the ball out of bounds. Jackson ran it back for that touchdown. Now, instead of being in the driver's seat for a first-round bye and playing the divisional round game at home, the Giants will have to struggle to be the sixth seed, which will necessitate an all-road journey to the Super Bowl ... if they even make the playoffs. An inexcusable mistake by the rookie punter.

In the first 1,322 days of quarterback Drew Stanton's Lions career, he won zero games.

In the past eight days, he has won two.

NFL Draft, 2000, 199th overall pick: Tom Brady, QB, Michigan.

NFL Draft, 2010, 199th overall pick: Joe Webb, QB, Alabama-Birmingham.

I talked to Webb the other day, and to do my exhaustive pre-interview research, I looked up Webb's Wikipedia page and saw the 199th-pick thing in the bio. When I got him on the phone, I said, "Hey, Joe. I've got a Joe Webb Trivia Question for you. Who was picked in exactly the same spot as you exactly 10 years earlier in the draft?''

"Tom Brady,'' said Webb. "Yeah, somebody told me that the other day. It'd be nice if I could have a career like that, wouldn't it?''

For more on the young lad preparing to get hit about the head and neck by Brian Urlacher tonight in the coldest game (by 30 degrees) he's ever played in, please go to the end of the column, to my game prediction.

There are those who travel in our business, and then there is Bob Papa.

Papa has three jobs at this time of year -- NFL Network play-by-play man, New York Giants radio play-by-play man, Sirius Radio "Opening Drive'' host. Last week, there was the Giants-to-Minnesota debacle, which had Papa flying with the team from Newark to Kansas City on Saturday, sleeping in Kansas City on Saturday night, flying from Kansas City to Detroit on Sunday, sleeping in Detroit on Sunday night, doing his Sirius Radio show Monday from 7-11 a.m. ET from the Lions' facility in suburban Allen Park, broadcasting the relocated game Monday night, arriving home in New Jersey at 3:45 a.m. Tuesday, sleeping for 90 minutes, driving to the Giants' facility in East Rutherford to do the Sirius radio show from 7-11 a.m. ET, taping a couple of Giants TV shows between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., driving back to the airport in Newark, flying to San Diego for the Thursday NFL Network game, sleeping in San Diego on Tuesday night, interviewing Chargers and 49ers during the day on Wednesday, sleeping in San Diego on Wednesday night, having a TV production meeting Thursday morning, doing the Chargers' 37-7 rout of the Niners Thursday night, boarding a redeye flight from San Diego to JFK Airport on Thursday night, landing at JFK at 6:15 a.m., driving home to New Jersey, being 40 minutes late for his Sirius NFL Radio show (Ross Tucker subbed for him in the first hour) in his in-home studio, doing the Sirius show from 8-11 a.m., and then driving to the Giants' facility in East Rutherford to tape the Tom Coughlin coach's show for the pregame radio show Sunday.

"It's unbelievable,'' special teams coach Tom Quinn told Papa on Friday when he saw him at the team offices. "I go to bed and I see you on the West Coast, and I get up and come to work, and I see you here.''

This week's going to be just as fun. After the Panthers-Steelers game in Pittsburgh on Thursday night for NFL Network, Papa and the studio and game crew will take a charter from Pittsburgh to Phoenix, arriving around 6:30 a.m., on Christmas Eve. They'll go directly to the Cards' facility and interview Arizona players and coaches, then Dallas players and coaches, in advance of the Christmas night (Saturday night) game in Arizona. Papa will take a redeye from Phoenix to Atlanta, connect with a flight from Atlanta to Milwaukee, then get a car to drive him the two hours from the airport in Milwaukee to Lambeau Field, where he hopes to arrive by 11:30 a.m. -- and maybe even have time to take a short pregame nap. Then he'll do the late-afternoon Giants-Packers game on the radio, fly home with the team, and ... "Christmas at the Papas on Dec. 27!'' he said.

I get tired just reading that.

"Other walls Rex likely never knew existed: The Great Wall of China; The Wailing Wall; the Berlin Wall; John Wall.''

-- @NYPost_Serby, the needles-out columnist of the New York Post, Steve Serby, on Rex Ryan's presumptive lack of knowledge about the Jets building a wall on the sidelines to make it tougher for punt-team players to get back in bounds after being shoved out of bounds.

1. I think this is what I liked about Week 15:

a. Vincent Jackson. He's back, baby.

b. The Lakers, getting in the spirit of the NFL season on a road trip on the East Coast last week. In Washington, they heard Donovan McNabb booed. In Philadelphia, they heard Mike Vick cheered.

c. London Fletcher, for a flying tackle of Tashard Choice on the goal line on a vital fourth-and-goal early for Washington.

d. Marvin Lewis giving some of his younger receivers playing time, at the expense of Chad Ochocinco. Why not?

e. Josh Freeman. What a smart, precocious, heads-up young quarterback. Did you see the poor center snap late in the first quarter that Freeman lunged to catch and, pressured, threw a quick toss to Cadillac Williams for a first down? Tremendous.

f. Great, athletic interception by Quentin Mikell off Eli Manning.

g. Marcedes Lewis. What hands!

h. Lance Moore! What feet!

i. From the fertile mind of profootballtalk.com's Mike Florio: The Steelers have more wins in Miami (two) than the Dolphins have (one) in this calendar year.

j. Terrell Owens finishes the season with a torn meniscus, 73 catches and hopes that he can play two more years. For which team is another matter.

k. Jacoby Ford, six touches, 118 yards from scrimmage. Might be a perfect Al Davis player, full of speed and quickness.

l. Donald Brown, with his first 100-yard day after a middling two-year career. His 14-carry, 129-yard day was a huge reason why the Colts control their fate in the AFC South this morning.

m. Really impressed with Atlanta going on the road for four out of five, winning all five, and not just by a little -- but by an average of 12 points per game.

n. Good for Cedric Benson, though it's too little/too late. His 150-yard rushing day in the win over Cleveland boosted him over 1,000 yards for the second straight year in Cincinnati.

o. The Jets breaking the Pittsburgh schneid. They'd been 0-7 in the 'burgh since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.

p. Great ability to catch one-handed by tight end Jimmy Graham of the Saints. Sean Payton's got a keeper there.

q. What incredible hands and sideline acumen by Calvin Johnson of the Lions.

r. Jason Garrett's offensive acumen since taking the head coaching job. There's a sense of urgency there. Points scored in his six games with the top job: 33, 35, 27, 38, 27, 33.

2. I think this is what I didn't like about Week 15:

a. One thing at a time, Mike Vick. Not a very good idea to be bringing up the idea of dog ownership right now.

b. Andy Reid for not challenging a ball that appeared to be a clear non-catch but ruled a catch in the first quarter against Hakeem Nicks and the Giants.

c. Nicks, for dropping a 30-yard easy catch from Eli Manning two plays later.

d. Rex, Rex, Rex.

e. The empty seats at playoff-contending Tampa Bay when the cameras showed the wide shots.

f. How is the DeSean Jackson flop in the end zone last week a penalty, and the Mike Thomas flop in the end zone for Jags not?

g. Imagine you're Jim Schwartz. You're watching the game in Tampa Sunday, and you look skyward, shake your head and say, "My professional career is in the hands of Drew Stanton.''

h. Really disliked the non-reversal in the first half of the Giants-Eagles. With 22 seconds left and the Giants up 17-3, Jeremy Maclin was contacted immediately after a Mike Vick pass hit him in the gut. The ball appeared to be coming loose almost immediately, and Giants safety Kenny Phillips picked it up and ran to the Eagle 8. Parry went under the hood and ruled the play on the field stood. On the next play, Eli Manning threw his third touchdown pass of the half, and the Giants went in with a 24-3 lead. Problem: Maclin never had clear possession of the ball -- it should have been ruled incomplete.

i. Armenti Edwards, inactive. Good thing the Panthers traded the 33rd pick in the 2011 draft for that guy.

j. Austin Collie, concussed again. This is turning into a very sad story.

k. I'd have given MJD more than 17 touches for the Jags in the AFC South title game.

l. Matt Hasselbeck. Grim day capped by getting yanked for Charlie Whitehurst.

m. Maybe it wasn't Randy Moss on the phone call to the Nashville talk show that sounded very much like Randy Moss. But it's interesting that, again, he was not targeted by Kerry Collins in the Titans win over the Texans.

3. I think I have one hope for the postseason -- that a 12-win wild card team in the NFC plays its first playoff game at a seven-win NFC West champion. Maybe then we'll realize the absurdity of guaranteeing a division winner a home playoff game. A division winner deserves a playoff spot for sure. But the playoff seedings should be based solely on record.

At the league meetings in Fort Worth the other day, Giants president John Mara, a member of the Competition Committee, said a proposal to seed the playoffs on record only would likely be considered in the offseason, "but I don't hold out much hope it'll change.'' I applaud Mara for swimming against the tide and saying: "If you win 10 or 11, you shouldn't go on the road to face a team that wins seven or eight.''

4. I think I am all for skepticism regarding who knew what and when did they know it regarding the Sal Alosi sideline fiasco in New Jersey eight days ago. But I'm not for declaring Rex Ryan or Mike Westhoff guilty without any evidence.

5. I think more ominous clouds over the future of Jeff Fisher in Tennessee formed the other day when I spoke with recently retired Titans center Kevin Mawae on Sirius NFL Radio. He said he thinks, as I do, that the Fisher/Vince Young relationship "is headed for a divorce,'' with Fisher likely the one who will be leaving. "If I'm a player in that locker room,'' Mawae said, "I know how much [owner] Bud Adams loves Vince Young. I hate to say it, but I think Bud Adams would side with Vince Young.''

6. I think there will be a record number of Super Bowl coaches on the market, with a weak pool of teams with coaching vacancies. And that pool could be even weaker because, as I wrote recently, teams won't be aggressively seeking coaches the same way as usual because new coaches may have to go a long way into 2011 -- August? September? -- without putting an imprint on a new team because of the potential job action. Imagine six coaches who've worked Super Bowls being out there: Bill Cowher, Jon Gruden, Brian Billick, Jeff Fisher, Jim Fassel, John Fox. And all would want to coach in 2011. My guess is unless there's an opening in Houston, Cowher's going to stay in TV for one more year, at least.

7. I think it must have been really, really odd for Josh McDaniels to sit at home in Denver Sunday and watch Tim Tebow make his first career start in Oakland. Watching the player he brought to Denver, when so few people in the league thought Tebow was a first-round-caliber player. That just had to be ... weird.

8. I think the upshot of Mike Shanahan doing what he's wanted to do for a couple of weeks now, benching Donovan McNabb, gives Shanahan the chance to see if Rex Grossman can become his Redskins version of what Jake Plummer was in Denver -- the quarterback of the short-term in Washington while he searches for a long-term replacement. Plummer was more than that until Shanahan discovered his limitations.

To make this move with three games left showed the depth of Shanahan's distaste for McNabb's play, and also shows that Shanahan and GM Bruce Allen are sure to move McNabb in the offseason. Now the question is: What can Washington get for McNabb, or will the Redskins simply have to release him? I'd say his trade value is now perhaps a fourth- or fifth-round conditional pick.

Two quarterback coaches, Andy Reid and Shanahan, have given up on McNabb in the span of nine months, and those two men are respected coaches in the league. So if San Francisco (which I bet will have interest) or Minnesota wants McNabb, neither will have to give away the farm. But just remember the clause in the contract that any acquiring team will have to think hard about: McNabb is due a $10-million bonus no later than the day after the first game of 2011. So unless McNabb re-does the deal, that's going to be an anchor on whoever trades for him -- and have much to do with the compensation Washington can get.

One last thing: The Redskins owe Philadelphia a fourth-round pick to complete the McNabb trade from last April. You can bet Washington will bluster about not taking anything less than that when the market for McNabb opens. Actually, I'm sure Allen will begin by asking for a lot more than that, but he's not going to get it.

9. I think I sensed zero optimism about the CBA negotiations with the players when I was at the NFL meeting Wednesday in Fort Worth. And to infer anything out of what Roger Goodell said to the press afterward (which I heard) about being optimistic for a settlement by the Super Bowl is silly. He didn't do it.

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

a. What is it about the human brain that allows you to hear a song for the first time in, oh, 20 years, and after five or six seconds, know every word to the song? Or is it just my brain that does this? Had the car radio on Sirius 60s on 6, and the first few bars of a song I used to love in sixth grade, "Spooky,'' comes on. And right away, I blurt out with the music, "In the cool of the evening when everything is getting' kinda groovy, I call you up and ask you if you'd like to go with me and see a movie ... '' I wish some smart brain student could tell me how that happens -- and then how I cannot remember a factoid from last week's NFL games.

b. Hey Newsweek, whoever did your graphics makeover must have worked in advertising before coming to magazines, because all your stories look like ads. And vice versa.

c. The Fighter is my movie of the year. Loved it. Loved the characters (especially Christian Bale as the druggie trainer), loved the fight scenes, loved the family element (sisters were a little over the top), and loved the fight scenes. As realistic as any fight scenes I've seen. Mark Wahlberg's so good, particularly at playing the wounded guy you root for.

d. Congrats, Bruce Cornblatt and Bob Costas and the MLB Network for that great Pirates-Yankees Game 7 of the World Series rebroadcast, with the players on hand to see something they hadn't seen in years. Maybe ever. Two amazing things about the telecast: So surprised at seeing Roberto Clemente step in the bucket so noticeably on every pitch from a right-hander. And Casey Stengel managed that game like a nut job. Talk about knee-jerk. He showed no faith in any of his pitchers that day, then warmed up Whitey Ford and never used him in a 10-9 loss. Terrible job that day by Stengel.

e. I am tired of the Gecko, but not of the Falcons on the bus in the Play 60 commercial.

f. OK, I will admit in the midst of a disinterested season that the Christmas episode of The Office was a keeper, from the snowball fight to Kelly's office Christmas gift of the Hello Kitty laptop sleeve to Holly's return.

g. Many of you have asked my opinion, as a Red Sox follower and season-ticket holder, of their Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford moves, supplemented by the bullpen-beefing signings of Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler. It's easy: Happy for me, sad for baseball. Wish there were a cap in baseball, and wish Pittsburgh and Kansas City had the same chance to win every year in baseball as the Steelers and Chiefs do in football. There's nothing I love better in my leisure time than a warm day at a ballpark with a weird beer, but I don't know if I'd have that same feeling if I lived in Overland Park, Kan. Joe Posnanski, how do you do it?

h. So proud of my niece, South Windsor (Conn.) High violinist Laila King, after seeing her in the school's 2010 Winter Orchestra Concert Thursday night. What beautiful music. Laila's the daughter of my brother who died last summer, and as the family sat with Caroline during the concert, all I could think of was how proud her dad would have been to see her on stage, as a sophomore with mostly older kids, playing such sweet music. Great job, Laila.

i. As if Laila King reads "Monday Morning Quarterback.''

j. How many different ways can Auburn coach Gene Chizik find to dance around all the Cam Newton/investigation questions? He's very good at it.

k. And Newton, to me, has done a very good job of showing his human side in the wake of his Heisman victory. It'll still be very interesting to see how he gets dissected in the next five months, before, I assume, he enters the 2011 draft.

l. The Ohio Bobcats must be allergic to bowl games.

m. Congrats to the UConn women's basketball team, on the occasion of the Huskies' 88th straight win, tying the UCLA men's team for the longest winning streak in the history of college basketball. Don't know which streak for sure was tougher to achieve -- my guess is men's teams two generations ago were more competitive than many of the teams this UConn dynasty has faced -- but that's being picky. It's a terrific achievement.

n. Coffeenerdness: Back to the nine espresso shots between 6:30 a.m. Sunday and 3 a.m. Monday routine. That can't be good.

o. Beernerdness: Debuting the new category today, by popular demand. I won't use it every week, because there will be some weeks when I have either no beer or boring beer and won't waste your time. This week was a good week for beer variety, because I had the weirdest-named beer of my life (Clown Shoes Brewery Eagle Claw Fish Imperial Amber Ale, from Massachusetts -- a little yeasty for me) and, at an airport bar in Dallas, had my first Lone Star longneck in 20 or so years. I'm not a beer snob. When I'm writing, as I was at the airport, a light, simple beer like Lone Star is perfect. But the beer of the week goes to Ommegang Witte wheat ale, with a lemon, from a brewery in Cooperstown, N.Y. Took me back to summer for a few sips. Very good.

Vikings 13, Bears 10.

So here's more on the legend of Joe Webb, the aforementioned 199th pick in the 2010 draft, who gets his first NFL start tonight, against the Bears, on the Monday Night Football stage. Born and raised in Birmingham, he went to Alabama-Birmingham, strafing Central Florida for 426 yards as a redshirt frosh in his second career start, and he became the only player in NCAA history to pass for more than 2,000 yards and rush for more than 1,000 in successive seasons. He had plenty of arm, but wasn't invited to the Scouting Combine, and the Vikings took the 6-3, 226-pound Webb as a receiver prospect in April.

"At the first minicamp after the draft,'' Webb recalled, "I threw the ball back after one of the pass routes, and I guess coach [Brad] Childress liked what he saw.'' In fact, Childress watched Webb throw a few balls, knew his history, was skeptical whether Brett Favre would return for the season, and at the end of the minicamp told Webb that when he came back for the full-squad minicamp in a couple of weeks, he'd be coming back as a quarterback.

He showed a surprisingly strong arm in training camp, and good mobility. After some success in the preseason -- Webb had a 48-yard touchdown run, and three touchdown passes -- he became a darling of the fans. And now, even though the Vikings are playing for nothing the last three weeks of the season except for individual jobs, the Minnesota fans seem excited to see whether a cult-hero kind of player (the fans feel about Danny Woodhead in New England the way they feel about Webb in the Twin Cities) can take a step toward being in the mix for a quarterback roster spot in Minnesota in 2011.

Webb didn't sound at all intimidated when we spoke Friday. "Not at all,'' he said. "I grew up watching Monday Night Football and it's an honor to play in the game. I respect the Bears a lot. But I am not afraid of them. They put their shoulder pads on just like I do.''

He said the best advice he got about tonight was the simplest, from Brett Favre. Just be you. Just play the way you play. The odds are against Webb and the Vikings, obviously, but on an emotional night -- the last outdoor NFL game in the state was exactly 29 years ago today -- with the 50 greatest Vikings of all time being honored, something about Webb's game tells me he's going to be able to handle it.

Clues on how he might do? Well, with a 10 ¾-inch hand -- very big by quarterback standards -- he should have no trouble gripping the ball on an ice-cold night in the north country. But he's never played a game, at any level of football, when the temperature's been below the mid-thirties.

By the way, this is the 100th meeting in the history of the series. Minnesota leads 52-45-2.

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