Friday December 24th, 2010

The more I learn about Atlanta coach Mike Smith, the more impressed with him I am. When he first got to Atlanta in 2008, Smith saw he had a strong pass-rusher in John Abraham who tailed off late in games and late in seasons. So he instituted a sort of pitch-count plan for Abraham, playing him, at most, about two-thirds of the plays instead of his customary full games. The result: Abraham, in his thirties, has been better than Abraham in his twenties. Now 32, Abraham is finishing his best three-year stretch of a good career, with 34 sacks in three seasons entering Monday night's crucial NFC South match with New Orleans.

"We try to play John about 38 to 45 plays a game,'' Smith said. "It's not so much how many plays you play, it's how fresh you are, so they can all be quality plays.''

"I don't need as many plays to make the impact I need to make,'' Abraham told me Thursday. "What's great about how I'm being used is I'm fresh now. Week 15, 16, normally, you're so tired as a player. But I feel as good right now as I felt in week one or two.''

On Monday, look for Abraham, as is his custom, to switch between right and left ends, and to drop in coverage five or so snaps -- just to keep the Saints in a "Where's Waldo'' mode with him. What's also helped his production is the continued development of Kroy Biermann at the other end, with the brute force of Jonathan Babineaux in the middle. Smith and defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder don't have many Drew Brees-specific plans of attack, other than making him feel pressure in the pocket to get him off his comfortable spot. But they'd better do something a little different this time. In Brees' last three games against the Falcons (two wins, one loss), he's completed 79, 78 and 76 percent of his throws. Unless Atlanta wants to get into a scoring contest Monday night -- never wise against Brees -- Abraham better make his 38 snaps count.

The Steelers' magic number is one to a division title and a much-needed week off.

It's all good with the Steelers today. They've got the mini-bye that comes along with a Thursday night game late in the season, their players will get Christmas Eve and Christmas off, and they didn't suffer any more injuries of note in a walkover 27-3 win over the meekest team in the NFL by far, Carolina. If the Steelers beat Cleveland in Cleveland next week, or if Baltimore loses either of its final two games (at Browns, Bengals), Pittsburgh wins the division -- and has one more off week to try to get Troy Polamalu -- and maybe defensive end Aaron Smith -- healed for the stretch run.

Bryan Bulaga, T, Green Bay.

Last week in New England, Bulaga protected first-time starter Matt Flynn very well, until a major gaffe helped kill the Packers' chances to pull an upset. Trailing by four with a minute left and one timeout remaining, Flynn went back to pass and Bulaga failed to pick up outside blitzer Dane Fletcher. Flynn was sacked, and the Packers had to use their last timeout to regroup. That timeout was desperately needed at the end of the game as the clock ran out with the Packers trying, and failing, to rally. So now Justin Tuck and the Giants' ever-changing defensive front come to Green Bay Sunday, and Green Bay has a twice-concussed-this-year quarterback playing in Aaron Rodgers. Bulaga can't afford to make those mental errors again.

Jared Veldheer, left tackle, Oakland (number 68).

The rookie from tiny Hillsdale (Mich.) College has a fairly easy job this weekend: stop Dwight Freeney from laying the wood to quarterback Jason Campbell when the Raiders, still mathematically alive in the AFC West, play the Colts in the Black Hole. Veldheer was a steal in the third round last April, and he's made the early-season transition from center to tackle pretty smoothly. This will be his biggest test, obviously. "I'm sure they're going to scheme and not just leave him by himself,'' said Freeney. "That wouldn't be smart.''

1. Devin Hester being invisible. The Vikings meant to kick away from Hester all night Monday, and were successful till the second half. Look for the Jets to do the same, and expect Steve Weatherford to sacrifice 10 to 15 yards per punt in distance just to make sure Hester doesn't touch it. "You can write that down,'' Rex Ryan said about playing keepaway from Hester.

2. Speaking of the Jets and Bears, some imaginative chants and a weird sign or two, for Ryan to deal with. About you-know-what.

3. Roddy White's trash talk, which bores me but might be a factor Monday night. All I could think of when I read his Twitter stream of anger toward the Saints was this: Was he drinking heavily when he did it? Wouldn't be surprised to see an extra bit of what-for from a Saint defender at the bottom of a pile when Atlanta and New Orleans play.

4. Whether the Giants have an Eagle hangover. Playing the Packers is tough enough. Playing the Packers at Lambeau is tougher. Playing the Packers at Lambeau with the biggest collapse in recent team history fresh in their minds should make it even worse.

5. More tension between the Redskins and their third-string quarterback. Glad to see Fletcher Smith, Donovan McNabb's agent, taking the high road.

6. Tebowmania, sort of. Denver fans get their first starting look at Tim Tebow, picked by a coach they hate who has since been fired. Strange situation. But from all indications, the locals like their Timmy and are curious about whether he's the real thing. Playing the Houston secondary, I'd be shocked if Tebow doesn't throw for 300.

7. Prime-Time Vick. The matchup's a dud in a weekend full of bad possibilities for NBC. But Mike Vick's always appointment viewing, and he's got a couple of personal milestones to hit: He needs one touchdown pass to set his personal best (21) for TD throws in a season, and 182 passing yards to set a personal record (2,937) for a single season. Isn't it amazing that Vick's never thrown for 3,000 yards?

8. The wild, wild Wests. The weirdness out west is this simple: The two Missouri franchises are in prime position. If the Chiefs (Tennessee, Oakland at home) and Rams (Niners home, Seattle away) win their final two games, the two Wests will have unlikely Midwestern champs.

9. The job status of Tony Sparano and Gary Kubiak. In midseason, I thought both were safe. But Miami's 1-8 in its last nine home games, and a home loss to the playing-out-the-string Lions and Shaun Hill could put Sparano in major trouble. Houston's in the AFC South cellar, and a loss to woebegone Denver would be the Texans' 10th and be very tough for the ever-sunny Bob McNair to take.

10. Family Affair in St. Louis. Rams safety O.J. Atogwe is marrying Jill Singletary, daughter of Mike, next May. That's got to be weird.

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